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BOOKS AND THE CULTURE ASTRONG JAZZ beat pulses over the Orion logo, driving us back to the Twenties. A shaft of smoky lights angles in on the brownblack background as credits, clean white 3-D letters angling off toward the light, begin to appear. Suddenly, the screen is full of gorgeous, light-skinned black women half-dressed in Busby Berkeley plumage, jiggling their way around the Cotton Club stage. After several cuts from the dance back to the credits and back again, both disappear. A pair of feet appear on a street of the same rich chocolate color bathed in the same smoky light. The camera watches a golden beer bottle break on a curb, then climbs up to see the bustling entrance to a club. It heads inside. We’re hooked. Over the cheerful bedlam, brothers Maurice and Gregory Hines grab partners and dance to a hot little combo. A tableful of white men nod their approval of the disheveled cornet player. The number ends, they call him over, he jitterbugs up and takes off his glasses and it’s Richard Gere? Welcome to The Cotton Club, another fascinating failure from Francis Ford Coppola. Even by Coppola’s standards, this movie was a headache. Squabbles over creative control and cost overruns \(the $25 million budget ballooned to $58 According to American Film magazine, arguments were so heated a Hollywood agent offered $500,000 for screen rights to the courtroom files. And, despite numerous rewrites, the script was still full of holes when production began. That looseness left room for the improvisation Coppola likes to allow his actors, but it also made for a lot of lastminute confusion. It shows. Part highpowered musical, part period piece, part gangster movie, and part love story, The Cotton Club is a pastiche of flimsily Elise Nakhnikian, an Austin writer, will be reviewing movies for the Observer. connected and often flimsily concocted sketches. Some are brilliant. As Dutch Schultz’s bodyguard, Julian Beck, founder of the Living Theatre in New York, delivers lines like, “I din’t have a mothah. Dey found me inna gahbage pail” with a deadpan, reptilian ruthlessness that makes his cadaverous killer both believable and comic. Larry Fishburne’s square, tight-skinned face, ominous dignity and measured speech provide a glimpse of the black underworld, while British actor Bob Hoskins, a little fire hydrant of a Cockney who can play anything from comedy to Shakespeare, is wonderful as Cotton Club owner Owney Madden. The Cotton Club’s black performers play for the moviegoer’s entertainment then slide out the side door as white protagonists take center stage. Then there are the Cotton Club performers. Larry Marshall resurrects Cab Calloway right down to his jointless glide. Lushly costumed and photographed, the Cotton Club Girls are shot not only from the audience’s perspective but from close up onstage as they shake, rattle, and roll. Backstage and behind the scenes, we see an elegant Duke Ellington and get some ecstatic tap dancing from such legends as Honi Coles and Sandman Sims, although the camera has an annoying habit of cutting away to audience reactions or to dancers’ faces and torsos in mid-step. And, as tap-dancing brothers Delbert and Clayton Williams, the Hines brothers draw on their own history as a team. One of the few times this glossy movie learns Delbert plans to abandon their act to go solo. The scene is Coppola’s improvisational method at its best; the pain was more remembered than acted, and Maurice’s tears were real. But ultimately The Cotton Club is a tease. It salts its script with intriguing characters only to serve up a white cornet player and the hard-as-nails teenage gold digger he falls for. As played by Richard Gere and Diane Lane, Lord have mercy. The down side of leaving much of your script and character development to improvisation is that it assumes your actors have deep reserves to draw on. Unfortunately, Lane, who was 18 when the movie was shot, was too busy trying to act grown-up and sexy to do much else. As for Gere, the surly, snake-eyed narcissism that looked like inspired acting in “An Officer and a Gentleman” and “Breathless” is beginning to look uncomfortably like second nature. Gere and Lane’s characters come off as no more than clunky plot contrivances to get us behind the scenes with gangsters and Cotton Club performers. So who needs ’em? It’s hard to care about a frigid little creep like Lane’s Vera, and having Gere play “the first white musician ever to sit in with a Cotton Club orchestra” when there was no such animal is an insult to the performers who did play the club. Enormously talented, these privileged/underprivileged artists earned fame in apartheid New York in a Harlem club they had to enter by the side door. There’s something horrible about seeing genuine talents like Gregory Hines or Marshall’s Calloway exchange delighted greetings and handslaps with a cardboard cutout like Gere in the middle of their acts onstage. What’s the difference between that and the scene, early in the movie, when Delbert, learning the Williams brothers have just been hired to play the Cotton Club, puts on his best obsequious smile and gushes to the manager, “You white folks sure are smart!”? Aside from a few glimpses past the curtain, The Cotton Club perpetuates the same view of its black performers as the Cotton Club did. They shimmy, mug, and play for the moviegoer’s entertainment, then slide out the side door as white protagonists take center stage. I can’t help but wonder: did screenwriters Coppola and William Kennedy assume white audiences would stay away from a movie focusing on black characters? Were they right? El The Cotton Club Reviewed Fascinating Failure By Elise Nakhnikian THE TEXAS OBSERVER 19