Like its subject Abbie Hoffman, almost everything about the independently financed “Steal This Movie!” is unorthodox, both in terms of what ended up on the screen and how it got there.
The film offers a quasi-documentary look at the complex Hoffman--mixed with historical footage of key events from the 1960s and a protest-era soundtrack--that filmmakers freely admit “compresses” time, events and people. Testimony of an FBI informant during scenes about the famous Chicago 7 trial, for example, combines portions of testimony from several informants, according to producer-director Robert Greenwald. Likewise, a fictional journalist, attempting to write a magazine article on Hoffman’s years underground evading arrest on a drug charge, is based on what Greenwald calls “bits of several journalists” Hoffman encountered over the years.
But such “compressions” not only don’t bother many of the people portrayed in the film who were close to Hoffman, they have their full support. Those individuals include California State Sen. Tom Hayden (portrayed by his real-life son, Troy Garity), Portland activists Stu and Judy Albert, Hoffman’s longtime attorney and close friend Jerry Lefcourt (all consultants on the project, with Lefcourt also receiving an associate producer’s credit), and former Black Panther Bobby Seale, among others.
They have all said on the film’s Web site (https://www.stealthismovie.com) and elsewhere in recent months that Hoffman, a ‘60s political activist who committed suicide in 1989 at the age of 53, would have appreciated the movie, even if he is portrayed by an actor (Vincent D’Onofrio) almost a foot taller than he, with a nose that is “completely wrong,” according to Greenwald.
“Vincent is great in the role, according to many people who knew Abbie,” says Greenwald. “But the nose situation was heartbreaking to me at first. Abbie had a distinctive nose that had been broken and eventually reshaped by plastic surgery over the years. We built a prosthetic nose, we tested it, but we couldn’t get it right with the limited time and money available to us. With all the issues surrounding the making of this movie--letting the nose go was one of my hardest decisions.”
Greenwald had the full cooperation from Anita Hoffman, Abbie’s wife and partner in the radical movement, who is portrayed by Janeane Garofalo. Anita submitted to hours of interviews, repeatedly gave notes on the script, visited the set, and viewed dailies until just weeks before her December 1998 death from breast cancer.
An Indie Approach
Greenwald says one of Anita’s conditions for cooperation was that “Steal This Movie!” be financed independently, outside the studio system. He agreed to that condition and eventually raised what he calls “medium-budget money” to make the piece, shooting in New York and Toronto in 1998 and cutting a distribution deal with Lions Gate to release the film only after it was finished. The film opened Friday in Los Angeles; a wider national release is planned for September.
That promise, combined with the fact that Greenwald had known Anita and Abbie several years earlier, and his track record of making issue-oriented television films (“Burning Bed,” “Daddy,” “Forgotten Prisoners,” “Driving While Black”), persuaded Anita to participate, even though she had previously felt it would be almost impossible to make an accurate and responsible Abbie Hoffman film. (Johanna Lawrenson, portrayed by Jeanne Tripplehorn, was Hoffman’s companion during his time underground. Greenwald claims Lawrenson declined to participate in making the film but didn’t object to the project.)
“A couple of studios had tried projects in the past and owned rights to [Hoffman’s books] ‘Steal This Book’ and ‘Soon to Be a Major Motion Picture,’ but Anita just didn’t see how it could be done in a way that would be true to the spirit of Abbie Hoffman, while still portraying how complicated he was,” says Greenwald. “I proposed the idea of basing the film on her book with Abbie, ‘To America With Love: Letters From the Underground,’ which are essentially love letters between the two, written while he was running from the drug charge, along with Marty Jezer’s book about Abbie, ‘Abbie Hoffman: American Rebel.’
“Anita never wanted Abbie to be portrayed as some kind of flawless hero, and she liked my proposal to tell the story from the perspective of his years underground, and the tremendous toll those years took on their relationship and Abbie’s relationship with their son. She never saw the finished film because of her illness, but she was on the set a few months before she died and told me Abbie would have been pleased.”
During the film’s research phase, Greenwald consulted with Anita Hoffman, the Alberts, Lefcourt, Tom Hayden and others about how to craft the story in order to condense people and events to “accurately symbolize” the things Hoffman encountered during his colorful life. One scene, for instance, shows a private moment when Hoffman, battling depression, is advised by a psychiatrist to start taking Lithium. In the movie, he is accompanied by Anita and Johanna Lawrenson. In reality, Lefcourt was also present, but the actor portraying Lefcourt--Kevin Pollak--was unavailable the day the scene was shot, so Greenwald proceeded without the character.
Lefcourt says such omissions do nothing to dilute “Steal This Movie!” because they are “details, not crucial stuff.”
“How can you get 53 years of a man’s life into less than two hours?” Lefcourt asks. “The point is, the movie captures the essence, the spirit, of Abbie’s life and the things that happened to him. I was executor of his will, so I knew him pretty well, and I think he would have been pleased, even though it is not all flattering--it shows Abbie as complicated, which he really was.”
‘Useful Myths’ OK
Stu Albert, a friend and fellow member of Hoffman’s Yippie Party during his ‘60s heyday (portrayed in the film by Donal Logue), suggests that the topic of what exactly constitutes a good biopic depends almost entirely on who the film is about. In the case of Abbie Hoffman, says Albert, certain liberties are “totally cool.”
“There is no doubt that Abbie did want a movie made about his life,” says Albert. “Everyone who knew him knew that. I also know firsthand that he loved mythology and wouldn’t have been concerned in the least about little details. That’s what the Yippies were all about anyway--creating politically useful myths to help spur change. He would have been fine with the film creating a mythical Abbie, as long as doing so was politically useful. . . To be more accurate, knowing how mercurial Abbie was, he probably would have loved the film on Monday, hated it on Tuesday and had mixed feelings on Wednesday.”
As Greenwald points out, “Every story, fiction or nonfiction, is ‘Rashomon’ anyway, so all you can do [in making a biopic] is stay true to the spirit of the topic and spare no effort to research it and understand the sensibilities of your subject and those who knew him best. I’m satisfied we accomplished that here.”