The Kanbar Award for excellence in screenwriting acknowledges the crucial role that strong screenwriting plays in the creation of great films.
An Afternoon with James Toback
Saturday, May 2
4:00 pm Sundance Kabuki Cinemas
1881 Post Street (at Fillmore)
The Film Society proudly presents this year's Kanbar Award for excellence in screenwriting to the inimitable James Toback. The brilliantly scandalous pen behind such films as Fingers and The Gambler, Toback will discuss and show clips from his work during the course of an onstage interview. A screening will follow of Toback's latest project, a fascinating portrait simply titled Tyson, capping this very special evening with a fearless writer.
Out There, Dangerous and Essential
By David Thomson
This coming November, James Toback will be 65, and entitled to social security benefits. I mention that because in our lengthy friendship, he used to promise me that he was not going to get past 40. In 1978, when we first met-the moment of the opening of his first picture, Fingers-there were reasons for thinking his prediction would come true. To be blunt, he was living at every extreme he could get his hands on. There were women, there were gambling debts (and the occasional win), there was a lot of alcohol and there was Jim's constant and ferocious humor about everything being doomed, so let's get on with it.
He was a wild and dangerous character, and Fingers was a debut film that horrified and alarmed many people. It was visceral in its sense of psychic nakedness-remember Harvey Keitel crouching in the corner like a feral creature on the run. It was greedily sexual-recollect Tanya Roberts and Tisa Farrow. And it was a menacing portrait of blackness-just consider the presence of Jim Brown, the great running back, who had taken Toback into his home and his inner circle as Toback attempted to map out the parameters of risk. (This actually led to a book by Toback-called Jim.)
At that time, Toback looked like a vagrant force in mainstream cinema: He had written The Gambler for Karel Reisz; he was attached to Warren Beatty as friend, adviser and role model; he had other scripts out with
major directors-George Cukor, for one, who was about to direct Faye Dunaway in Jim's script on the life of Victoria Woodhull.
But times changed, the movie landscape shifted and Jim survived. There are projects that defy belief (and do not always earn it on screen)-like Exposed, with Rudolph Nureyev and Nastassja Kinski, fabulous creatures but hardly existing in the same world or in exchanged dreams.
Jim was a director or a filmmaker, yet he was always writing scripts, sometimes three at a time, a ploy that assisted his reluctance to actually finish or deliver anything. But life was giddy then when Jim was likely to call and read you a passage from a script over the phone (a pay phone at the same Manhattan intersection)-so long as you could accommodate the interlude in which he chatted up a woman passing by (that interruption was probably going to be embraced in the next draft of the script). Jim was a Harvard man, who loved the melodrama of public phones. He was a musical fanatic, so long as you knew that Mahler and the Chiffons were equally valid.
His career has been unpredictable-he has a self-destructive streak, no matter how many people felt urged to help his jazzy voice. He is not just "independent," in that now rather composed sense-he is out there, dangerous and essential. As you can judge, I cannot write an objective or impartial tribute to Toback. We're much too close as friends. But he is as funny, generous and warm as anyone you will find, even if he has had to put up with a critic who feels bound to confess that not all his films are great.
But over the years Toback has done such astonishing things-not just The Gambler and Fingers (this is still a model film on how the concert pianist and the hoodlum may be brothers), but the pioneering The Big Bang, a breakthrough in free form and rhapsodic talk; Two Girls and a Guy, the film that established the genius of Robert Downey, Jr (and don't forget that Downey was doing Jim); and Bugsy, the Warren Beatty picture at last, the amazing story of Las Vegas (a city that Jim himself might have invented and which he has surely helped finance) and, of course, Tyson.
Toback loves sports and sporting arenas. Most of his films refer to athletic events and he has always kept company with the real demons of the game. Mike Tyson may be his dream subject: a Caliban figure who turns out to have some of the song of Ariel and the sadness of Prospero. But it is typical of Toback that he should take such an outsider figure and reveal his pathos. Bugsy Siegel was a famous monster, too, but Toback knew that he also possessed the distracted charm and the whimsical notions of a Warren Beatty.
So the Festival presents James Toback with its award for screenwriting. That's fair enough. No one has done better dialogue in the last 30 years. No one is more prone to see events in life as the ghosts of coming scenario. For there's the truth: Toback is a filmmaker, a film-dreamer, a film-fabulist. To be with him, to talk to him on the phone, is to enter into that film. He is quite simply a remarkable, hellacious fellow-a devoted father now, just as he was a loving son; a man who has won and lost many women and bets. And a friend who has survived, and shows every sign of planning to be a garrulous and hair-raising old man.
David Thomson is the author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, "Have You Seen. . .?": A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films, and the memoir, Try to Tell the Story. The last person he interviewed on stage for the Festival was screenwriter Peter Morgan.
James Toback Selected Filmography
2004 When Will I Be Loved
2001 Harvard Man
1999 Black and White
1997 Two Girls and a Guy
1989 The Big Bang
1987 The Pick-up Artist
1982 Love and Money
1974 The Gambler
2008 Peter Morgan
2007 Robert Towne
2006 Jean-Claude Carrière
2005 Paul Haggis