Friday, July 3, 2009

'A Sad Wreck of a Woman' and One Hell of a Great Lost Performance

Alexander Main has been dangling from the end of a spiritual rope since turning fifty a few years ago. A Bail-Bondsman with nothing much going for him and even less to lose, Alex can’t remember the last time he faced a day without feeling at least a little bit of dread. He can’t really pinpoint where it all went wrong, but he knows the majority of his trouble can be traced back to the thieving and unreliable gypsy Maritza he spent three feverish months with around that fiftieth birthday. Every time Alex feels like he might be getting one step away from getting over this young woman that is haunting his every waking moment she turns back up, always with trouble tracing her every step. Their most recent time together has been the worst as Alex has layed 30,000 dollars down, and everything on the line, to spring a sure to flee Maritza from jail for four days before she goes to trial for trying to kill one of the men she inhabited after Alex.

Jack Lemmon had a lot of hope in Alex and the Gypsy and months before the film’s release in the fall of 1976 he told family and friends that he felt like it was going to be one of his big ones. Lemmon needed a solid hit to get him back on track in 1976. In the three years since his savage and wrenching Oscar winning turn in Save The Tiger Lemmon had only managed one hit, 1975’s awesome The Prisoner of 2nd Avenue, and he was hungry. Even a re teaming with Matthau and Wilder on The Front Page had proved disappointing, and the film following Alex and The Gypsy, Airport ’77, didn’t instill much confidence with Lemmon or anyone else. Alex and the Gypsy had to hit…it just had to.

The strange saga of Alex and the Gypsy got its start in a short novel from the pen of Stanley Elkins entitled The Bailbondsman which 20th Century Fox had bought the rights to in the mid-seventies. Less than prolific but Oscar nominated screenwriter Lawrence B. Marcus, the man behind both Petulia and The Stunt Man, drafted up a screenplay that was both odd and poetic and Fox brought director John Korty on board to deliver it. Future Oscar winner Korty had an interesting track record with films, television shows and documentaries under his belt. Alex and the Gypsy would mark what seemed to promise Korty’s highest profile film up to that point, although no one could have guessed during the making of it that so few would end up seeing it.

Looking over the talent behind Alex and the Gypsy it is hard to believe it has fallen into such obscurity. In front of the camera joining Lemmon is the always fascinating Genevieve Bujold, and a young but already excellent James Woods among others. Behind the scenes names like composer Henry Mancini and cinematographer Bill Butler will immediately alert film fans that Alex and the Gyspy was not a cheap fly by night production, and that Lemmon wasn’t the only one who thought they had a winner on their hands.

Shot in and around Sonora, California in the early part of 1976, Alex and the Gypsy seemed to have everything going for it until an early critical screening of the film that Jack Lemmon attended with Walter Matthau sealed the film’s fate permanently. Liked by only a few and critically pounded by most, Fox cut their losses and dumped the film in just a few spots before pulling the plug shortly after. A brief European run followed where the film fared just as poorly and then it was all but gone, save for the occasionally television airing. Alex and the Gypsy has still yet to appear on any home video format, and it remains one of the hardest to see films Jack Lemmon ever made, which is a real tragedy because it contains one of his best performances.

Alex and the Gypsy is indeed a flawed film that is a mixed bag at best, but when it works it works big time and Lemmon’s spiritually injured portrayal of bail bondsman Alex Main is extraordinary stuff, and the much missed actor was correct in how initially proud he was of it. The biggest complaint lodged against the film was in regards to the casting of Bujold as the Gypsy and it’s a legitimate one, but it really isn’t that Bujold is bad in the role (as she is really quite good as the 'Sad Wreck of a Woman' Alex describes her as) but it is more a problem with the scripts laziness concerning her character and culture. Honestly though the problems in Alex and the Gypsy bothered me very little and I found myself quite taken with the film, specifically in the powerful scenes between Lemmon and Bujold, which are simultaneously touching, erotic and sweet. I also found the idea of this character willing to risk everything for a girl he will lose either way to be quite moving, and Lemmon’s work as Alex is mesmerizing. Nobody could touch Jack Lemmon at the top of his game…nobody…and, problems with the picture aside, Lemmon knocks it out of the park in every scene of Alex and the Gypsy.

Jack Lemmon would take a break after the disappointing reception that greeted both Alex and the Gypsy and Airport 77. He would return locked and loaded in 1979 and would do some of the best dramatic work of his career in a terrific 4 year run that would begin with The China Syndrome (1979) and end with Missing (1984). Alex and the Gypsy would probably only gather a paragraph or two in a serious biography of the man, but I think that’s unfortunate as there’s some really fine stuff in the film. Much like its title characters, Alex and the Gypsy deserves another chance.


Keith said...

I hope you've had a nice weekend. I've given you an award over at my Dino Lounge blog.

Jeremy Richey said...

Thanks so much Keith...I really appreciate it and am getting ready to post on it. Sorry about the delay.