We’re all sad that Bruce Willis has retired, and more than that to have confirmation of his long rumored cognitive issues. He’s still there, and unable to say goodbye. It’s crushing.
The upside is how nice it’s been to have everyone on the same page again and celebrating his great career and all the happiness he’s brought us over the years. That made me want to watch something of his I’d never seen before – thanks for the recommendations, everyone. I decided to check out Blake Edwards’ SUNSET (1988), since it’s from that period when Moonlighting was still on the air, and I truly believed Bruce represented the maximum coolness potential for a human being. The earlier Edwards/Willis joint BLIND DATE has a terrible reputation, but I liked it, so SUNSET seemed worth a try.
It’s not great, but kinda hit the spot for what I was looking for – just a laid back charismatic performance by young, cool Bruce. I knew so little about it that the opening actually tricked me for a second – oh, this is a western? – before I realized from the overenthusiasm of the cowboy stunts and Henry Mancini’s score that it would turn out to be a movie-within-a-movie. Bruce plays the real life early western star Tom Mix, who’s told by fictional studio boss and former Chaplin-esque silent star Alfie Alperin (Malcolm McDowell, TANK GIRL) that he has to star in a movie about Wyatt Earp, with the real Earp working as a consultant.
Mix says he won’t do it, but next thing you know he’s dressed up in a flashy white suit and hat with a giant smile, sitting on Tony the Wonder Horse (that really was the name of Tom Mix’s horse) waiting to welcome the famous Wyatt Earp (James Garner, MARLOWE) when his train arrives in town. It’s kind of funny to see all the passengers getting off and presumably thinking, “Oh shit, that’s Tom Mix!” One time at the Burbank airport I walked past a guy giving me a “don’t approach me” look and realized it was Anthony Anderson (EXIT WOUNDS). And then in the security line I saw a guy who I thought looked like George Lopez (THE TAX COLLECTOR). And then when I got on the plane and passed through first class I realized that they were sitting together and that it must’ve really been George Lopez and they must’ve been friends. So that was pretty cool, and I can only imagine that if they were wearing all-white outfits with flowers embroidered on the front and riding Tony the Wonder Horse it would’ve been even cooler.
Earp doesn’t like all this attention, so he quietly debarks at the rear. Mix notices, because he gets it, I think. It’s interesting because this is all about Tom Mix being a big famous movie star who’s still a very regular, unpretentious man of the people. I guess Bruce understood that character because he’d gotten so famous from TV, but he wasn’t quite a movie star yet – DIE HARD came out about three months after SUNSET.
The interesting thing about SUNSET is that it’s a buddy movie where the buddies get along the entire time. When Earp gets in the car and the studio people start babbling about the photo shoots he needs to go to and the more western outfit he should get, you might assume he’ll associate Mix with this type of Hollywood bullshit and reject him at first. But they seem to have an instant bond. The moment Earp makes a dry comment about the fancy hotel they set him up in, Mix drives him to a small house he still owns from his pre-fame days.
It’s also easy to imagine the joke being that the movie star is full of himself, thinks he’s his movie persona, makes a fool of himself in front of the real thing. To the contrary, he’s very self-effacing. When Earp praises his shooting in a scene Mix says, “You’ve got to hit what you’re shootin at. All I gotta do is look good.”
Earp, by the way, is very easy to work with as far as filmmaking. He seems okay with just taking a paycheck, hanging around the set and not complaining. I love when the director seems nervous to ask if the scene they just filmed was accurate, and he pretends like it was.
He never has any complaints, but there’s a cool gimmick that shows us how different it was in real life. He watches Mix filming a scene – with his makeup doesn’t he kind of look like Geoffrey Lewis?
– but we see flashes of the real gunfight at the O.K. Corral in Earp’s memories. Much more violent and shot more like one of the great westerns. I like the drastically different look of those flashbacks. More like THE WILD BUNCH or something. (Cinematographer: Anthony B. Richmond, LET IT BE, THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH, CANDYMAN.)
Occasionally Earp will namedrop a famous outlaw like Doc Holliday or Calamity Jane, who he says “looked like an unmade bed.” But mostly he doesn’t like to show off. At the same time, he absolutely won’t put up with people he thinks are full of shit.
An old friend, Christina (Patricia Hodge, “Screaming Mum,” THE ELEPHANT MAN) contacts him saying she needs his help with something. Since she’s Alfie Alperin’s wife, various lackeys start getting in his business. Studio police chief Dibner (M. Emmet Walsh, RED SCORPION) calls him into his office and asks a bunch of prodding questions, so Earp pretty much tells him to fuck off. And when he gets to Christina’s place, the ex-con working as Alperin’s driver, Arthur (Andreas Katsulas, TRUE IDENTITY) starts asking him questions too, so Earp grabs him by the nuts. I don’t know the old west stuff that well so I didn’t know it but apparently the main thing about Wyatt Earp is just grabbing nuts all the time, that’s why it’s such a famous name I guess.
Christina explains that she received a letter saying that her goofball alcoholic son Michael (introducing Dermot Mulroney, THE GREY) hurt one of the prostitutes at a brothel called The Candy Store. Earp agrees to check into it for her.
The Candy Store is populated by movie star lookalike escorts, and Mix comes here enough that they know what he drinks. It’s run by Cheryl King (Mariel Hemingway, BAD MOON), who seems coded lesbian – she has short hair and wears a tux. But later (spoiler) she sleeps with Earp (who says she’s 26 and “I could’ve done myself permanent injury”) and confesses that Candy of The Candy Store was her mom and dressed her that way so people would assume she was gay and she could work there without having to do tricks. (Okay, that’s nice, but also it would be nice if Hemingway could just play a cool lesbian. I feel like she’s got the skills.)
Before that Earp and Mix go to Candy’s private residence and find her dead with a knife in her back while Michael is in the house, drunk. Earp either senses that it’s a set up or wants to help Christina anyway, so he punches out Michael and hides him out and tries to find out what’s really going on.
So that’s the gimmick: it’s a detective movie with the legendary western lawman in the unfamiliar territory of late ‘20s Hollywood, and the movie star having to cowboy up to help him. He even gets involved in a shootout and notes that he would be less nervous if there were cameras there. But he does fine.
In the course of this caper Mix has a fist fight with an “Australian Houseman” who once sparred with Jack Dempsey, played by none other than Vernon Wells (THE ROAD WARRIOR, WEIRD SCIENCE, COMMANDO, FORTRESS). They also have to contend with a gangster named Dutch Kieffer played by Paul Morrisey’s favorite leading man Joe Dallesandro. Unsurprisingly the main villain is McDowell’s character. Earp and Alfie circle each other and make veiled threats and Alfie gets his sister (Jennifer Edwards) to make a false rape accusation against Mix. Not cool.
Earp drives a car for the first time and Mix flies a plane for the first time. Both are sloppy, but adequate. When Mix crash lands in the middle of a field two ranchers are starstruck to see Tom Mix and Wyatt Earp, and are amenable to loaning them horses. (I don’t own any animals or vehicles so I can’t really say if I’d loan them to Anthony Anderson and George Lopez. I guess I might loan them sweatshirts or something if that helped for some reason.)
There’s something pretty strange about this movie, but I have to give away a big plot point to explain it. SPOILER FOR THE 1988 BLAKE EDWARDS MOVIE SUNSET. It’s eventually revealed that all of this stems from Candy having witnessed Alfie killing his first wife by pushing her off a boat. I couldn’t help but think of a real life Hollywood tragedy: Natalie Wood’s mysterious death falling off a boat after a fight with her husband, Robert Wagner. I’m pretty sure Edwards would’ve heard about it, having directed Wagner in two PINK PANTHER movies, one well before the accident and one just a few years after. So you gotta wonder whether he was trying to say something or, if not, if he ever thought, “Oh shit, I hope Robert doesn’t see this.”
The climax takes place at the first Oscars ceremony. After making a speech, Alfie leaves and he, his sister, Earp, police captain Blackworth (Richard Bradford, DR. GIGGLES) and Bidner get in a big confrontation/gun standoff in the lobby and three people get shot. So I don’t see what the big deal is about this year’s Oscars. It used to be way worse.
(At the 61st Oscar ceremony in March of 1989, SUNSET was nominated for best costume design, losing to DANGEROUS LIAISONS. Meanwhile, at the fucking Razzies, Edwards tied with Stewart Raffill [MAC AND ME] for worst director, and Hemingway was nominated for worst supporting actress, losing to Kristy McNichol in TWO MOON JUNCTION. As always, fuck those pricks, they’re joyless assholes with terrible taste, and I hope they slip on a puddle of their own smarm and fracture their assbones.)
I like that Alfie does a bunch of gratuitous handsprings in the fight at the end (something that was established as part of his comedy persona, “The Happy Hobo.”) For his part, Mix gets to do some movie-style heroics, like jumping into the water to save a drowning Arthur, hitting him over the head with a tire iron so he’ll stop panicking and splashing around.
Mix has a line where he says he can be trusted because “I’m the hero, Arthur. I always mean what I say.” I thought that was interesting that both of his 1988 movies reference the mythology of western heroes. I guess it was in the air back then. We had some shit to work out. Also it’s cool that in DIE HARD Bruce jokes he “was always partial to Roy Rogers” because he “really dug those sequined shirts,” and here he gets to wear something like that! In fact, I think that’s my favorite thing about his performance here: he’s able to strut around being awesome in these embroidered Cowboy Curtis type outfits. It would be easy to feel self conscious in those, but he doesn’t seem to be at all.
I would say Garner is the real lead. Bruce is more like the co-lead. But it’s a good multi-generational team up – the movie rides on their charisma and friendship. I imagine there were complaints at the time that there should’ve been some conflict between the characters to give us more drama and/or comedy. It’s true that the movie could use more of one or the other. But I think the novelty of it just being a hang out is more what I like about the movie than the mystery story.
Though SUNSET was made before HUDSON HAWK, it’s a production of Hudson Hawk Films Ltd., a company whose only other credit is THE RETURN OF BRUNO (1987). I like to imagine that the credit means the actual guy Hudson Hawk produced this movie. Blowing all his stolen jewel money on a vanity credit, maybe.
The screenplay is credited to Edwards, with a story credit for Rod Amateau, because it’s based on his unpublished novel. I knew Amateau’s name because just one year before this he wrote and directed a little film called THE GARBAGE PAIL KIDS MOVIE. If you’re not familiar, that’s the movie that’s about the Garbage Pail Kids. Check it out. He also directed alot of Dukes of Hazzard episodes. It’s hard for me to wrap my head around that Edwards and Amateau were both alive (though very young) when this story takes place, and probly idolized the real Tom Mix growing up. He might’ve been their Bruce!
The premise of SUNSET is inspired by the fact that Tom Mix and Wyatt Earp really did become friends late in Earp’s life when he lived in Hollywood and consulted on movies for John Ford and others. Mix had been in the army, but not combat, was taught to ride by his stable master dad, got his start in touring wild west shows and roping contests. Also, like Bruce, he worked as a bartender. As far as we know Mix and Earp never got involved in any murder mysteries or shootouts together, but they were close enough that Mix was a pallbearer at Earp’s funeral, as was William S. Hart, another cowboy actor who Earp had actually tried to get to play him in a movie, and who had tried to help him get his authorized biography published, with no luck because allegedly the writing was horrible. Anyway, newspapers reported that Mix cried at the funeral. I’m not sure if Hart did.
It seems I’m not the only one who never paid attention to the existence of SUNSET. It opened in sixth place, behind COLORS, BEETLEJUICE, CASUAL SEX?, ABOVE THE LAW and BILOXI BLUES, none of which were new that week. It was just a little above BLOODSPORT, which was in its tenth week. It did at least do better than the other big debut, CRITTERS 2: THE MAIN COURSE, which was playing on more screens, but that was a less expensive movie. SUNSET ultimately made back about a quarter of its budget at the box office.
Had it done better, I know what the sequel could’ve been. According to a 1957 newspaper article, two thieves dug two feet into Earp’s tomb in Colma, California, gave up on finding his urn (bummer), and instead stole the 300-pound granite headstone. It was eventually recovered either at a fleamarket or in some bushes on the side of a road, depending on which source you read. (The bushes sounds more plausible, the fleamarket more interesting.) ANOTHER SUNSET could’ve been a ‘50s period adventure movie with Bruce as Tom Mix Jr. stepping out of his father’s shadow and battling grave robbers. Since this was the second time Earp’s marker was stolen (the first time was shortly after his widow died in 1944), there could be a whole complicated international and/or supernatural conspiracy behind it. Garner would play Hugh O’Brian, the actor who portrayed Earp on TV and offered a reward (never claimed) for the return of the tombstone. Junior & Hugh would’ve proven themselves real cowboys and had a hell of an adventure, with occasional mild laughs.