Saturday, April 05, 2014

Art Imitates Life

I have admired Goldie Hawn and Steven Spielberg for so long that I can't recall a time when I did not admire them.

My admiration for Spielberg probably began 40 years ago shortly after he released his first theatrical feature, "The Sugarland Express," which starred Hawn and was based on a true story. It made its theatrical debut on this day in 1974.

It was perhaps a year later when I saw it — not long before "Jaws" premiered.

As Roger Ebert wrote, though, "[L]ike so many things in Texas, it seems like a fantasy anyway."

That's true enough. I've lived in Texas for the last 18 years, nearly 22 years of the last 26, and I visited here for a long time before that. Both sets of grandparents lived here so my family spent many holidays here.

Even though I did not grow up here, I feel I have a pretty good understanding of how things are here. And there is a surreal quality to some things that happen here, like the case of the woman in Houston who was charged with trying to hire someone to kill the mother of her daughter's cheerleading rival.

Or the time the Texas Seven escaped from prison and remained on the loose during the Christmas holidays.

Whenever something like that happens in Texas, you can't help but shake your head and wonder what they were thinking. How in the world did they think they could get away with what they were trying to do?

Many years ago, I recall, there was a television commercial that sought to boost Texas tourism. Its catchphrase was "The rules are different here."

Sometimes you've got to wonder if there are any rules.

I guess that is how it was for the original couple in the story.

I've heard nothing that indicates the atmosphere in the police car occupied by the couple and the patrolman was genial. I don't know if everything in the movie was literally what happened — I do happen to know that some liberties were taken; more on that later — but I get the feeling that it wasn't all that far from the truth.

"The actual event took place in 1969," wrote Ebert, "and the young couple involved got a lot of sympathy from the folks along their route. Spielberg uses the story to comment on the ways Americans have of turning events into happenings."

That much certainly hasn't changed.

Remember when O.J. Simpson was the prime suspect in his wife's murder but had not been charged yet? Remember the low–speed car chase involving the Bronco in which Simpson was a passenger and perhaps two dozen police cars that were following it?

I thought of "The Sugarland Express" when I saw that — because "The Sugarland Express" has an ongoing chase that is very similar. As in the movie, folks lined the highway to see Simpson go by. I don't remember exactly, but there were probably some people who held up signs encouraging him — just like in the movie.

But I'm quite sure that the movie chase involved more than two dozen police cars.

The chase wound through all sorts of small towns along the way, and the hijacked police car went through slowly, giving the couple a chance to bond with the locals and even get a few creature comforts.

At one point, the option of bypassing a community was discussed, but Hawn wouldn't hear of it. She wanted to see the people, and she wanted the people to see her.

(I mentioned earlier my admiration for Hawn. I must confess that I wasn't so much an admirer of her acting as I was an admirer of her anatomy. What can I say? I was a young boy when I first saw her on Laugh–In, and I've always had something of a crush on her, I suppose. I don't think she is a great actress, but her performance in "The Sugarland Express" was exceptionally good.)

The line of police cars was led by a captain played by Ben Johnson. His character claimed never to have killed anyone in 18 years of service, and he wanted to keep that record intact. He was a straight shooter in his dealings with the fugitive couple, and I can only hope the real–life couple had someone like him with whom to negotiate.

In the movie, Hawn's character helps her husband (William Atherton) break out of pre–release prison farm so they can go retrieve their 2–year–old son from the foster home where he has been placed. Her husband only had four months left on his sentence, but Hawn's sense of urgency and threat to leave him convinced him to go along with her plan.

They hijacked a police car (and the patrolman in it), and they were off on their trek across south Texas.

Before that, they also hijacked an elderly couple's car in one of the best scenes in the movie.

But they ended up in that police car after they crashed the old folks' vehicle. I don't know if that really happened or not.

But back to the liberties that I know were taken ...

Probably the greatest one was the fact that the wife in the real story didn't spring her husband from jail the way Hawn did in the movie. He was already out.

But that part of the story wouldn't have made "The Sugarland Express" what it was.

Actually, "The Sugarland Express" wasn't very successful financially. It made a profit of less than $10 million over its budget. I'm guessing that came as a surprise to Spielberg, given the fact that movie audiences who flocked to see "Bonnie and Clyde" and "Easy Rider" only a few years earlier no longer seemed to have much of a taste for movies with sad endings.

Seldom has Spielberg been accused of misreading the popular mood, but, when he has, he usually comes back even stronger the next time out.

Perhaps that image got its start 40 years ago. Spielberg's next project (for the same producers) was "Jaws," which made more than $470 million.