04 February 2012

My Favorite Movies - Road House

    As noted in the news links below, Ben Gazzara has passed away, so this seems a fitting moment to look at one of my favorite movies, Road House...

There actually are gayer scenes in Road House than
this, if such a thing is conceivable...

 An awesome 80's mullet...

    There's a lot to like about Road House. The male lead is Patrick Swayze, one of my all-time favorite actors and a longtime man-crush of mine, ever since I first saw him in Red Dawn. In addition to Swayze, the film also stars yet another of my all-time man-crushes: Sam Elliot. To add to the enjoyment, it also stars one of my favorite female actors. No, not the ever-so-photogenic Kelly Lynch. I'm talking about Kathleen Wilhoite, a versatile actor, musician, and singer who plays the Road House waitress, Carrie. It's the kinda guy I am that I like the cute and perky Carrie way, way, way more than the tall, blonde patrician doctor (listed in the Road House credits only as 'Doc', BTW) played by Kelly Lynch. I've had a thang for Kathleen ever since I saw her as cute Gothy witch Zarabeth in the otherwise crap flick, Witchboard.

Kathleen Wilhoite as Carrie in Road House

    So, what's to like about the flick, Road House? Let's get a preview from the trailer:

  First and foremost, Roadhouse has a great bad guy, played with low-key psychosis by Ben Gazzara. (And maybe this is a bit of type-casting. I've always thought Gazzara was most effective playing creeps. Even in quasi-heroic roles, like the author in QBVII, he's borderline unlikeable. In that TV movie, Anthony Hopkin's reformed Nazi doctor is more likeable than Ben Gazzara's 'hero'. What's up with that?) In Roadhouse, Gazzara plays a charmingly malign character who dominates a small town with the aid of a lot of money and a few brutal, but not-too-bright goons. I always imagined that this was the same character from Anatomy of a Murder, moved out West and settled down (after burying Lee Remick in a field somewhere during the trip out there). It's interesting that some of the exposition of the film mentions that he came to the town after the Korean War, which fits the time frame of Anatomy of a Murder rather neatly as well.

  Second, it's a got a fantastic supporting cast. Sam Elliot plays Wade Garrett, the mentor and father-figure to Patrick Swayze's Dalton character. While Swayze's martial arts moves have all the supple grace of his dancer background, Elliot's crusty bar bouncer delivers his blows with slouchy, casual directness. There's something positively endearing about the way he delivers a kick that atomizes a barroom rowdy's knee joint and then quips as he lies clutching his knee in agony, 'Boy, that sure hurts, don't it?' He's a countrified biker, totally badass in that awesome way that Same Elliot pretty much has patented and can effortlessly deliver on demand in Westerns and genre flicks like Ghost Rider.

He wants to body-rub you, Stereotype 80s Big-Boobed Blonde!!

  Third, Roadhouse exerts an inexplicable fascination with its rather grotty collection of small supporting characters. These are actors one step ahead (or maybe behind) a casting call for Deliverance 3: The Final Rapid. There are few things in life more entertaining than some sweaty, paunchy, mongoloid hillbilly slurring through buck teeth 'Let's get nipple to nipple' to a lissome young blonde who practically gags at the thought. (And, please, let's refrain from jokes about 'blondes' and 'gagging'.)

   The pumping heart of Road House is the music. The late, much missed Jeff Healey, a Canadian born blues-jazz guitarist and vocalist, jams hard and plays a long-time friend of Swayze's mysterious Dalton. He also provides one of the choicest lines in the movie, referring to the Dalton character: 'The word is, If you f*ck with him, he'll seal your fate'.

  There's also a bit of a quasi-gay subtext that runs through the whole film. When Kathleen Wilhoite's character gasps at a glimpse of Patrick Swayze's perfectly toned buns, is she gasping for the all-male section of the film's audience? The thread of homoeroticism is also supported by the lingering camera shots of Patrick Swayze's tai chi workout. And, as one critic noted in a review, the film had a distinctly 80s turn when Swayze's nemesis, a pretty boy tough guy who looks like Freddie Mercury on steroids, snarled that he 'used to f*ck guys like you in prison'.

  Still, a lot of things make you wonder in this movie. Guys who work in bars are not exactly top of the income brackets. Yet Patrick Swayze seems to not be hurting for money. It's understood in the film that he's a living legend, a renowned 'cooler',  the guy who trains and organizes the bouncers, as well as overseeing the rest of the bar staff. He's not a mere bouncer; and he dictates all the terms, financial and otherwise, of the gigs he takes on. When he catches a bartender skimming from the register, he fires him - or compels the bar owner to fire him, despite the certain knowledge that the oily scumbag is related to Ben Gazzara's character - by marriage, at any rate - and will make trouble for the owner. Yet, the owner goes right along. You also have to wonder why Ben Gazzara would even allow such a lowlife to marry into his family in any event.

  His medical bills are always included as part of the deal, too. Despite being hurt frequently enough to require him to travel with his medical records, his face and body are remarkably pristine. I imagine that barroom toughs would make disfiguring Swayze's character a gilt-edged priority. Sure, they might lose the fight, but they'd go along happily to the emergency room knowing they'd defaced the famous Dalton.

  Two aspects of the film's climax are somewhat puzzling. Kelly Lynch seems pretty aghast at how Patrick Swayze dispatches the Gazzara's chief enforcer.  It's a gory scene that would give a veteran member of the Mongol hordes post-traumatic stress. Yet she still comes back to him, eventually. Also I think, had I been Dalton, I would have been a bit perturbed that, after the climactic battle where he's almost shot and forced to kill the other dude, that Kelly Lynch's Doc character runs to tend to the obviously dead baddie, leaving the battered and bloody Dalton to fend for himself.

  Also, this flick is set firmly in the middle of gun country. It's hard to see how and why such folks would let themselves be abused this long by a relatively small number of dim-witted foes who engage in hand-to-hand bullying. Hadn't anyone in the production staff of the movie ever heard 'A Country Boy Can Survive' by Hank Williams, Jr.? Surely, at least one of the producers saw Southern Comfort... I mean, really.

This would have been the last thing Ben Gazzara saw... if the local chapter of the NRA hadn't arrived just in the nick of time.

  The only thing that could have made Road House better would have been if Swayze dumped Kelly Lynch for Kathleen Wilhoite, lol.

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