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Something Wild asks the eternal question “What makes us happy?” But the answer it proposes is far from easily arrived at. It’s a boy meets girl story, certainly, but one that goes much deeper with that narrative than most films do, and plays fast and loose with the classic oppositions of dramatic conflict. Good and bad are never black and white. The conformist could turn out to be more daring than the rebel. The sophistication of Manhattan may be the thinnest of veneers, while provincial life proves to be anything but dull or conventional. Something Wild (1986) keeps the audience guessing at every turn, as carefree, comic scenes can shift suddenly into menace and violence. Demme has said that, on first reading the script, “I had no idea where the story was going . . . but I wanted to go along with it. And every time I thought I had figured it out, it veered off in another direction.”
Less “boy meets girl” than “law-abiding boy meets wild girl who has already met far wilder boy,” then. A successful, self-satisfied businessman, who has just become a vice president at his tax consulting firm, is literally taken for a ride by the devil in a slinky black dress. Like Alice following the rabbit down the hole, he enters a challenging, perilous world where the normal rules definitely do not apply. Released during the “greed is good” eighties, Something Wild was neatly positioned by many critics as belonging to that nouveau genre the yuppie nightmare. Cited companion pieces included David Lynch’s small-town surrealist masterpiece Blue Velvet (1986) and Martin Scorsese’s lost-in-the-big-city comedy After Hours (1985). But what distinguishes Demme’s film is that his hero’s journey is not just a matter of surviving all the dangers and torments that are thrown at him. He undergoes a profound exposure to the different classes, backgrounds, and ethnicities that make up America, and ultimately questions what he does and just who he is.
The film begins in a Manhattan diner, where Charles Driggs, played by the engagingly straight Jeff Daniels, blithely pockets his check without paying. He’s caught in the act by a fellow customer, wild thing Lulu Hankel, played by a mercurial, trippy Melanie Griffith. The name Lulu evokes the amoral, man-devouring heroine of G. W. Pabst’s classic silent film Pandora’s Box (1929), indelibly incarnated by Louise Brooks. Griffith adopts Brooks’s distinctive black bob as well, along with more contemporary African jewelry, giving her an irresistibly exotic appeal. A late twentieth-century version of the opening of the mythical jar containing the evils of the world, her offer of a lift to the office turns into an excursion to New Jersey and wild sex with manacles in a seedy motel. She even obliges Charles—whom she’s transformed into the much looser “Charlie”—to phone his excuses not only to his boss but also to his perfect wife and kids. “You’re a really good liar when you want to be,” she says, as yet unaware just how true this is.
Demme delivers these opening scenes with immense energy and comic edge, and then deftly slows the pace to suggest that Lulu’s casual indulgence in petty crime may be part of an act. When the newly minted couple visits her sweet but knowing mother in Pennsylvania, Lulu transforms herself into a girl-next-door blonde in a simple dress, and confesses that her real name is Audrey. Just when an intimacy is beginning to develop between the two of them, with Charles (and the viewer) believing that this new incarnation reveals Audrey’s true nature, a visit to her high school reunion brings him up against another culture shock—her husband, Ray Sinclair, fresh out of prison. Ray is as much of a revelation to the bewildered Charles as he was to audiences on the film’s release; Ray Liotta, in his first major role, fires up the screen with slippery sadism and dangerous charm.
Though he appears in the plot (as script gurus would say) like a second act crisis figure, Ray is not simply the id to Charles’s ego but occupies his own space as a focus of attraction for both Audrey and Charles. Demme’s early stint in the Roger Corman school of filmmaking serves him well in this respect. As he once explained to Time Out London, “One of [Corman’s] fundamental instructions was, make the audience like the characters or they won’t like the film . . . I applied all that very often with the Ray character . . . Though he was so violent, I’d go up to Ray Liotta and whisper, ‘Nicest guy in the world.’ Because sure enough, to that character, he is—he’s the hero!”
Since Quentin Tarantino began bringing us his postmodern conflation of comedy and violence in the nineties, audiences have grown accustomed to sudden eruptions of tough stuff on-screen. But in 1986, there were viewers who found Something Wild’s darker and more brutal second half difficult to take. For Demme, this shift in tone was integral to the film: “There was this theme of the flip side of putting on your neat suits and committing a certain kind of financial violence as a successful yuppie in a corporation, and the dark side of that is a guy like Ray, who resorts to a more fundamental kind of violence to solve his problems and to get ahead.” In London in 2004, I chaired a master class with Demme and his regular cameraman, Tak Fujimoto, in which we discussed clips they had chosen to illustrate their long collaboration. One of these was the final, brutal showdown between the male protagonists in Something Wild. In it, Demme uses individual close-ups of each of them looking into the camera lens, the direct cut from one to the other underlining their psychic connection. As they stare into each other’s eyes—and we stare with them—the world is reduced to their conflict, one that will lead to either death or understanding. It is a device Demme would go on to use frequently in his films, most famously in the encounters between Hannibal Lecter and Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs (1991).
Something Wild came at a pivotal point in Demme’s career. After his distinctively quirky contributions to Roger Corman’s catalog of sex-and-violence exploiters (Caged Heat, 1974; Crazy Mama, 1975; Fighting Mad, 1976), he moved into a phase of pre-Sundance independent filmmaking, and suffered commercially for the lack of a supportive distribution system. However, Citizens Band (a.k.a. Handle with Care, 1977) and especially Melvin and Howard (1980) established him critically as an American Renoir, a director with a gift for putting characters on the screen who are far from conventional movie constructs and, without any sentimental overlay, making us feel warmth toward them. Demme’s subsequent experience in the big(ger) time was less fortuitous. His Hitchcockian thriller Last Embrace (1979) was too subtle for its hyped-up times, and Swing Shift (1984) was taken away from him and transformed from an honest depiction of working women during World War II into an unconvincing Goldie Hawn romance. Like Scorsese, who in the mideighties was also facing important career decisions, after the failure of The King of Comedy (1982), Demme benefited from finding a script by a fresh talent for a smaller-scale project over which he could retain control. (The recent New York University graduate E. Max Frye went on to write the screenplays for 1998’s Palmetto and 2000’s Where the Money Is, undeniably solid pieces of work but with nothing as surprising as Something Wild.) Backed by the enterprising Orion Pictures, the film went into production with unusual swiftness.
Demme himself has modestly characterized Something Wild as “an exciting attempt to marry screwball comedy with film noir,” declaring that he wanted to “show people a real colorful time.” Colorful indeed, for what distinguishes Demme’s moviemaking is an openness to life in all its diversity, and Something Wild, with its playful generosity, is as fine an example as anything in his career. He has a fond eye for the textures of Americana: the boasting billboards, the friendly signs, the even friendlier storekeepers, the name tags sported by waitresses, the gospel chapels. Each character, however small, is invested with telling details to make his or her appearance memorable. Lulu’s mother is a mean harpsichordist, and a potentially menacing biker carries a helmet-wearing dog. There are sly cameos for fellow directors John Sayles (as a cop) and John Waters (as a car salesman), and—as in almost every Demme movie—an appearance by the filmmaker’s “lucky charm,” Russ Meyer star Charles Napier (here playing a demonic chef). He also casts musician friends in key roles, and even, to no one’s embarrassment, his mother.
As for the central couple, Demme’s actors are highly adept at playing the different shades of their characters. Melanie Griffith had previously demonstrated her derring-do in Brian De Palma’s Body Double (1984) and would go on to win approval for Working Girl (1988), but as Lulu/Audrey she is at her most spontaneous and beguiling, utterly convincing in her personality switch, her little-girl voice perfectly pitched for the role. Jeff Daniels (replacing first thought Kevin Kline) confidently strikes just the right balance as Charles, superficially smug but harboring a deeper vulnerability as well as a capacity to let go and embrace his feral side.
By the eighties, Demme was wisely surrounding himself with faithful collaborators, most notably Fujimoto, producer Ed Saxon, and editor Craig McKay. He’d also made his mark as a master of the source music soundtrack (in his premoviemaking days, he served time as a rock journalist in London). In Something Wild, he uses sundry versions of the Troggs’ classic “Wild Thing,” Jimmy Cliff, and the British bands Fine Young Cannibals, UB40, and New Order. But this is no fanboy indulgence, for the justification lies in the proliferation of scenes set in cars, where the radio is always tuned to the hippest stations. The incidental score is by New York cult figures John Cale (who can be heard grinding away on his viola in Demme’s first feature, Caged Heat) and Laurie Anderson. While the band performing at the high school reunion may seem appropriately hometown, they are none other than the Feelies, key players in the underground rock scene of the late seventies and early eighties (recently, Olivier Assayas used their music brilliantly for the soundtrack of Carlos). And as a last-minute piece of on-set inspiration, reggae singer Sister Carol plays a waitress who performs to the camera while the film’s closing credits roll—a winning touch.
Demme had of course already shown his immense sympathy for popular music by diversifying into documentaries on musicians (in Stop Making Sense, 1984, his subject was Talking Heads, whose front man, David Byrne, contributed a song to Something Wild and the soundtrack to Demme’s next narrative feature, Married to the Mob). But his nonfiction work has also taken on social and political subjects, including the situation in Haiti after the fall of the Duvalier regime, the impact of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans, and a book tour by former president Jimmy Carter. Tellingly, the reunion in Something Wild is for the class of 1976, suggesting that in the cultural threads woven throughout the film, in its comfortable integration of characters from different backgrounds, we can find something of Demme’s own vision of what American independence should mean.
In the nineties, following the astonishing success of The Silence of the Lambs, Demme used his clout with the studios to foreground these feelings and make big-budget films about “issues” (AIDS in Philadelphia, 1993; slavery in Beloved, 1998), with mixed results. But more recently, with Rachel Getting Married (2008), he combined the unrestrained techniques of his documentary work with the character-based subject matter of his earlier cinema. The freshness and energy of that project is arguably a return to form, a reminder of just how pleasurable and loose-limbed his best work of the eighties was. More than twenty years on, Something Wild remains something special indeed.
David Thompson writes on film, coedited the book Scorsese on Scorsese, and directs arts documentaries, often on filmmakers, including Jean Renoir, Milos Forman, and Robert Altman.