by Sara Michelle Fetters -
SGN A&E Writer
THE FABULOUS ALLAN CARR
SIFF CINEMA EGYPTIAN
May 19 @ 7pm
May 20 @ 11am
May 18-June 11
Kicking off its 43rd party, the Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF) began yesterday with a gala screening of Michael Showalter's superb The Big Sick. Written by star Kumail Nanjiani and his wife Emily V. Gordon, the movie is a reasonably straightforward depiction of the early days of their relationship, hitting a number of familiar romantic comedy beats but in a way that feels vital, fresh and emotionally alive. It's the perfect kickoff to this 25-day festival, SIFF once again practically taking over the city and many surrounding communities as it brings forth narrative features, documentaries and shorts from all over the globe.
One of the films making its World Premiere at this year's festival is acclaimed writer/director Jeffrey Schwarz's latest Hollywood documentary The Fabulous Allan Carr. Chronicling the life and times of the eccentric Hollywood producer known for bringing Grease to the big screen and La Cage Aux Folles to the Broadway stage (and who also had Rob Lowe and Snow White sing and dance at the Academy Awards in 1989), the movie is a hugely entertaining spectacle that does its large-than-life subject proud.
To kick off this year's SIFF, I had the privilege to share a long, 30-minute conversation with Schwarz where we were able to dive into a number of different topics circling around his latest documentary's premiere. Here are some of the highlights from our conversation:
Sara Michelle Fetters: How did this come to you? How did this story catch your eye and how did you know you wanted to dive in and choose Allan Carr's life as your next project? It really fits in with many of your previous documentaries, an almost perfect companion piece to films like Vito, I am Divine and Tab Hunter Confidential.
Jeffrey Schwarz: I'm so glad you noticed that, because I feel the same way. It's like each film is a progression, all of them feeding one into the other. As far as Allan Carr is concerned, I think I'm just drawn to larger than life characters, people who take such exciting chances in their lives in pursuit of something greater than themselves.
[The Fabulous Allan Carr] is almost a gay version of Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story, which was my first movie and was about William Castle, who also happened to be a movie producer who had ambitions of greatness. You know, the same way that Allan Carr did, but much like him never really got the respect that he felt he was due as a producer and director.
Allan Carr, I knew the name because obviously I grew up with his movies, and Grease was like a major touchstone, a cultural touchstone for me and so many other people. But while I knew the name I didn't know the person. I knew he was the guy who always wore a caftan, I knew he had disco in the basement, I knew he was gay but could never say so out loud, I knew he was flamboyant, but I didn't know his story until I read a biography of him by Robert Hofler.
I remember reading that book at a deli counter. I was having breakfast during the week that Vito premiered in New York City and I was reading this book and it just hit me I had to make a movie about this man. This was about five and a half years ago and it was sort of a light bulb moment that this needed to happen. I just felt like this guy needed to be talked about again, because I think memories of him have sort of faded. I don't think a ton of people know who he is even if they definitely know his work. I mean, [Allan] left behind a huge cultural legacy. From Grease to the Broadway adaptation of La Cage aux Folles, to things like the '89 Oscars that are perceived as failures, to mind-blowing pieces of insanity like Can't Stop the Music, his life was quite the rollercoaster ride. I knew it would make a great movie.
Sara Michelle Fetters: I probably shouldn't admit this, but as close to perfect as I think both Vito and I am Divine are, both just wonderful documentaries, the one film of yours that I've watched the most, and I swear I've likely watched it six or seven times, is that William Castle documentary.
Jeffrey Schwarz: Thank you so much! I think there's definitely a link between these two films because they're both about showmen. And Allan Carr was coming up at a time when Hollywood was not necessarily embracing those values, that level of crazy imaginative showmanship that Castle typified. You know, this was New Hollywood in the early 1970s. This was a time where some of the younger generation were taking charge and movies were not necessarily glamorous. These movie stars were the Robert De Niros and the Al Pacinos, who were great, without a doubt, but they did not come with all that glamour, beauty and spectacle Hollywood used to be known for. [Allan] was going back in time to the movies that he grew up with. He exuded that type of showmanship and loved surrounding himself in glamour.
But he also came into Hollywood wanting to be a promoter and a producer. He didn't come in wanting to be a director or a movie star like so many people who come to Hollywood, he wanted to be a producer. That's very specific. It's even more rare. Even Castle was a director. Not a lot of little kids growing up in the suburbs are wanting to be a producer. He knew exactly what he wanted to do, which I think is wild.
Sara Michelle Fetters: Or, as he would often say in interviews, 'a kid from the slums of Chicago&'
Jeffrey Schwarz: [laughs] Correct! I actually went to visit where he grew up, Lake Forest, Chicago, which is just outside of the city. It's a very suburban and wealthy neighborhood. But [Allan] was able to go into Chicago to go see shows. He would often find ways into town to go see shows, movies and musicals. Once in a while he'd even get to New York.
His mother, and unfortunately it's not something we covered in the movie, but his mother was very encouraging of him, and his parents actually took him to a few of these shows. But I talked to friends of his who would go into Chicago and go see different shows with him, and they would go see Carol Channing in a play and Allan would barge his way backstage in an attempt try and meet the star, which he actually did. Even more amazingly, they would later become good friends, Channing a frequent guest at a number of his wild Hollywood parties.
Sara Michelle Fetters: That's the crazy thing about Allan's life, isn't it? I mean, you easily could have made a seven-hour documentary chronicling Hollywood in the 1970s and '80s with Allan Carr at the center of it all, couldn't you?
Jeffrey Schwarz: I could have made my own O.J.: Made in America, only about Allan Carr. [laughs]
Honestly, it's a good point. [Allan's] story lends itself well to documentary because it's so colorful and visual. But, additionally, every step along the way is its own little unique mini story. There's a mini story about how Allan came to Hollywood and became a manager, how he ingratiated himself into the community. There's a little mini movie about how he turned Survive, the Mexican movie about the soccer team that crashed in the mountains, and who had to eat one another to survive, and instantly became a millionaire when he released it in the United States. Each one of these moments is its own little mini movie, and it's just so fun to watch.
But, yeah, if I'm being honest, I think our first cut was probably close to seven hours. But I like ninety-minute movies, so that's what we ultimately cut the film down to.
Sara Michelle Fetters: Were there portions, though, where you did feel like you wish you could've spent more time, that you could've lingered on some of those mini stories a little longer? For me, I'm watching it and I'm getting near the end and the AIDS crisis hits, and I honestly didn't know that Allan would hold those parties for those who had just died. I found that stuff fascinating and really moving, and it just gave an extra layer to him that I just emotionally responded to.
Jeffrey Schwarz: I can appreciate that sentiment. I mean, I think the movie is Allan's story, but what also attracted me to doing this is the social history. And it's really about gay life in Hollywood from the sort of closeted days where little gay boys would grow up, and girls, too, but in [Allan's] case boys, they would grow up loving glamour, loving Hollywood. That was sort of their escape. It wasn't necessarily an expression of their gay identity, but it was something a lot of people had in common.
And so the movie really talks about this through the new openness in Hollywood at that time, where you could be visible, but at the same time you couldn't really be that specific, you couldn't be 'out.' I mean, I don't think Alan ever came out officially. He never talked about being gay in any of the press that I've seen. It was always very coded.
So there was new freedom, but there were also restrictions. You couldn't really go too far. I mean, there was a certain point where Allan got rid of the caftan and started wearing his suit in order to be taken more seriously as a producer and a Hollywood player. And then, of course, into the story comes AIDS. That was the moment where the party ended. AIDS came along and ruined the party for everybody. It was important to make sure that we acknowledge that as well as explored how Allan reacted to what was happening in his own idiosyncratic way.
Sara Michelle Fetters: Did you ever wish you'd spent more time on that aspect of Allan's story?
Jeffrey Schwarz: I don't know. There's only so much time available when you're talking about a 90-minute feature. You have to make some tough decisions.
Allan was certainly not an activist. I'm sure that many openly gay people who were activists at the time wanted him to do more. But he did his, held these parties and gatherings for those they'd lost to the disease. He did what he could do in his own way, and I think that was very helpful and cathartic to the people in his circle.
There was a story about this guy, Roger LeClaire, and you see him in the AIDS sequence even if we didn't have time to talk about him. But he was somebody who Allan adored. He was a bartender at Studio 1 in West Hollywood. He was a friend of Allan who was sort of in the entourage and a really sweet guy. He's in Can't Stop the Music, you see him very briefly as a photographer. Roger was somebody who got sick and Allan, well he was somebody who Allan took care of. He attended to him, paid for his care. It's something Allan never advertised, but it happened.
I wanted to make sure to acknowledge stuff like that and sort of show that, although he could be difficult, Allan could be an incredibly difficult person, he also had a huge heart. Somebody in the movie said he was sort of like a Jekyll and Hyde, and I mean that's really true. He had some people who loved him, adored him, and then there were some people who wanted to stay as far away from him as they could. We wanted to acknowledge that in the movie, wanted to show both sides of him.
Sara Michelle Fetters: Another thing I found fascinating, while I knew he managed Ann-Margret in her career, I had no idea he was so instrumental in resurrecting her, making the talented actress and singer a bona fide superstar.
Jeffrey Schwarz: Oh, absolutely! He was a star-maker. He knew how to take somebody who was either on the way up and guide them, show them how to craft a career. But he could also find those who were stuck in a rut or on the way down, in the middle of those career peaks and valleys. He knew how to help them engineer a comeback, too.
With Ann-Margret, she was somebody who was so incredible and so talented, and Allan knew that she was really in trouble career-wise. He was able to take what people loved about her and get her back out in front of people in a way that they fell in love with her all over again, like they did back in the beginning of her career. She had been cast in all these terrible things. Ann-Margret was really in trouble. Allan put her back on TV, he put her in Vegas, and he and Roger Smith, her husband, helped her revive her acting career, getting her in Carnal Knowledge where she received her Oscar nomination. It's just incredible. She wasn't taken seriously anymore and Allan knew that there was so much more to her than met the eye. And then Mike Nichols cast her in Carnal Knowledge, she got her Oscar nomination and it suddenly changed everything. Allan facilitated all of that.
Personally, I love Ann-Margret and I'm glad we get to showcase her. I think she's somebody that I want younger people to know because she had such a huge influence on a lot of today's stars. Madonna certainly looked like she was modeling a lot of her career on Ann-Margret, and a lot of people, like artists like Katy Perry, who model themselves on her might not even know that they're doing it.
Sara Michelle Fetters: The other thing I didn't know the first thing about (but I'm sure brothers Harvey and Bob Weinstein did because did they ever steal some of Allan's ideas as far as Academy Awards campaigning and release scheduling are concerned) was just how instrumental he was in helping The Deer Hunter become a commercial, critical and Oscar-winning sensation. And this was a movie he had nothing to do with as far as the making of it was concerned!
Jeffrey Schwarz: Exactly. He understood the business so well, and people would turn to him for advice. And when Universal was going to release The Deer Hunter they didn't know how to sell it. The subject matter was just so difficult. Even though it wasn't a movie that Allan would necessarily enjoy, because he definitely was far more drawn to more glamorous types of movies, he was still affected deeply by this one. More, he knew how to sell it. He came up with the idea of opening the movie in New York and L.A. in December for Academy Awards eligibility and then targeting Oscar voters and cinephiles in these centers of sophistication. He wanted people with influence to see it. In L.A., in particular, he got the studio to go directly to Academy members and urge them to see the film.
He kind of came up with this whole new way of releasing a prestige movie for award consideration. I mean, that's what you do now. It's how it is done. But it wasn't something that had been done until Allan pioneered the concept.
I think it's easy to look at [Allan] as a caricature because of how he dressed or how acted in interviews, but he was a very, very shrewd businessman and he understood the business. The man lived and breathed show business. The Deer Hunter wouldn't have gotten the attention that it did and end up winning so many Oscars if it wasn't for Allan out there positioning it as an awards favorite right from the start.
Sara Michelle Fetters: And then you bookend things with the '89 Academy Awards telecast.
Jeffrey Schwarz: It was wild. And the Academy, you know, they still don't like to talk about 1989. I think that's a shame because regular people still talk about that. I mean, how many opening numbers do you really remember? Snow White singing with Rob Lowe, you can't help but remember that. It's unforgettable.
That thing, you know, that thing is notorious. And you watch it now and I think it's so unfair, and I really hate when people who are taking shortcuts, calling it 'the worst Oscars ever,' you just know they're not looking at the telecast objectively. It's so unfair, because what they're really talking about is that opening number. They're talking about an opening number, which is a camp aesthetic, it's a San Francisco camp aesthetic that Allan embraced and put into the show.
Is it over the top? Is it insane? Is it ridiculous? Is it mind-boggling? Yes. It's all those things. But it also comes from a place of genuine love for Hollywood and for its movie stars. The backlash against Allan was so strong and so harsh. A lot of the older members of the Academy just didn't get it and they unfortunately took out their disappointment publicly.
I thought that actually was very tragic. Allan loved the Oscars so much. All he wanted to do was contribute to the Oscars and celebrate the movies and he got personally blamed for that perceived failure.
But it wasn't a failure. So many Oscar ceremony traditions we now take for granted were first introduced in that '89 telecast. He was the one who changed, 'And the winner is&,' to, 'And the Oscar goes to&,' and that's something that has stuck is a far more major change than I think most realize.
We have a clip of him at a press conference saying, 'This is what we've done and we hope it stays this way forever.' Well it has. It's still this way. So, I don't know, I hope that after this comes out, there will be sort of a reevaluation, that maybe people will take another look at 1989 in a new way and appreciate what Allan did. I wonder if that will happen. I hope it does.
Sara Michelle Fetters: Speaking of his love for the movies and for movie stars, the sections covering the making of Grease likely speak for themselves. But the section on Can't Stop the Music? I bet you could make an entire film just about that musical's making.
Jeffrey Schwarz: Indeed! You know, I probably shouldn't admit this but to be honest that movie is probably the main reason I wanted to make this documentary. I'm obsessed with Can't Stop the Music. The first time I ever saw it was in a midnight show at the Castro Theater when I was living in San Francisco there in the early '90s. The guy who was running the Frameline Film Festival at the time, Mark Fish, he somehow tracked down the last remaining print of Can't Stop the Music and he screened it. I remember him introducing it and saying, 'This is a gem.'
So I've always sort of been obsessed with the movie. It's got the Village People who are, of course, the Village People, and you knew they were gay even if no one was allowed to be gay back then. They were gay but not gay. But they're in the gayest movie ever made! There's nothing specifically or explicitly gay in the movie, of course, but it's all there. You look at it now and it illustrates what I was talking about earlier, about the limits placed on visibility at that time. The movie took all of these gay tropes and utilized them in a multitude of ways, making the movie one gigantic inside joke for people who are hip enough to realize just how queer the whole thing was. But at the same time, it's still a family PG rated feel-good movie for kids. With Baskin-Robbins Ice Cream tie-ins, no less!
Sara Michelle Fetters: One can't help but wonder what Caitlyn Jenner though thinks about the film when she looks at it now.
Jeffrey Schwarz: I'm so curious about that! She has this new book, and I haven't read it yet, but there's a section in the book where she mentions Can't Stop the Music, but I don't know what she has to say about it. She's one person that we wanted to talk to but unfortunately were not able to. I'd love to hear what Caitlyn thinks about that experience.
When Caitlyn was Bruce, Bruce and Allan were very close. Bruce was one of those people that Allan was helping to guide their career. He saw something in Bruce that other people didn't. He saw a movie star there. It didn't quite work out the way he had hoped, but they were still close. Bruce married his, I believe it was his second wife, at Allan's home. So there was definitely a closeness between them there for a long period of time.
Sara Michelle Fetters: And then he rebounded with La Cage aux Folles on Broadway, throwing a number of hugely creative people together in a room and allowed them to work without any interference.
Jeffrey Schwarz: That's a sign of a great producer. I think that was a more mature Allan because he knew he needed to let the creative people work. Something like Can't Stop the Music, he had his fingerprints all over that. You can tell. I mean, that's part of what makes it glorious, but it's also part of why it failed so spectacularly. There's no story there. He was obviously a control freak who didn't know how to stop himself from letting the film cascade into unimaginable excess. With La Cage, he hired the best people and let them do their job. He helped to guide them and empower them, and he darn sure knew how to sell it, but creatively he left them alone with little interference.
You gotta remember, this is the early '80s. Gay themes were only associated in times of sickness and death. So the fact that he was able to do this feel-good musical with Drag Queens and celebrate life and family, positioning the gay people in the movie as a family, this was really radical. And he did it in the most old fashioned and square of genres, the Broadway musical. It was something new.
Everyone involved really protected it, they were really brave about the show. I think that needs to be appreciated. Especially for the time that it came out. This was the first time that a gay marriage was celebrated, and it was so positive and loving at a time where that type of thing was in really short supply. I just love the idea of Allan masterminding all of this, for sticking with it for many, many years. If it wasn't for Allan the musical version of La Cage wouldn't exist. We have to thank him for that.
Sara Michelle Fetters: As a Generation X viewer, I get why something like La Cage aux Folles is so important, why it was so groundbreaking. For younger viewers, for Millennials, do you think they understand just how hard it was for Allan to get this made? Do they get how ground breaking something like La Cage was?
Jeffrey Schwarz: I don't know if they understand or not, but that's why I think these movies are important. There is a fun motivation in trying to put these events in the context of the modern time. I hope that younger people come away with an appreciation of what the limits of those visibilities were, just how groundbreaking something like La Cage was. I've lived through a lot of this stuff, too, and I've seen these changes. I think young people are now sort of born into a world where they can just be who they are and they don't necessarily think about how we got from there to here. I don't know, but I like to think my movies definitely are an attempt to combat that cultural amnesia, to show how far we've come. Every single movie I've made is an attempt to do just that.
Sara Michelle Fetters: I like that you bring this up because, especially right now, it certainly feels like we're in some ways under a massive political assault, that certain powers that be want to take our society backwards into that closet. It can feel good to have reminders like this, films that show how hard the fight was but also how subtle and coy you sometimes had to be in the fighting of it.
Jeffrey Schwarz: That's so true. Someone like Liberace, who even though he never officially came out, he also didn't really have to. He showed that it was okay to be outrageous and be who you were. He didn't have to say it. In all honesty he couldn't say it and hope to continue his career. It was just a completely different mindset.
You have somebody like Allan Carr showing up on TV wearing these incredible, wonderful outfits, being outrageous, and even though he didn't say it, I'm sure it was probably empowering for a lot of people just to see him on TV. It might have scared a lot of people, too, but he didn't give a shit what people thought of him. I think that's just great. But he also knew the limits, I mean he would never have dreamt of actually talking about his gay life; it's just not something that was done. But I think just by being who he was, by being so visible, that certainly moved the conversation forward.
Sara Michelle Fetters: Considering all of that, define 'flamboyant' as it relates to the time period Allan Carr was at his most famous and influential.
Jeffrey Schwarz: Flamboyant was sort of the code word for 'gay.' When Allan Carr was described in the press as flamboyant, everyone knew what flamboyant was. And while he lived it, he was also playing a character. Allan was very outgoing and fun, the life of the party, it was who he was, but it was also a character and a persona that he created.
At a certain point, like I said before, he switched from a caftan to a three-piece suit. He wanted to show Hollywood that he wasn't just this cartoon character, that he was shrewd and that he understood the business. He just kept persevering. I think that's really something.
Sara Michelle Fetters: How important is it to you to have your film have its world premiere at a festival like SIFF?
Jeffrey Schwarz: It's really a huge thrill for me because my movies are meant to be entertaining as well as edifying. But then, I love documentaries. I love all kinds of documentaries. I love vérité, I love political documentaries. I love movies about climate. I love them all.
My movies are really meant to be seen on a big screen with an audience. I kind of have a very similar feeling about my work that Allan did about his. I want people to be entertained, but I also want them to learn something, especially now, as we need to be engaged, need to be hyper-aware of what's going on politically. But we also need to have a good time. That, too, is so very important.
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