Week 34 – New York (Part 2)
Buffalo ’66 (1998), directed by Vincent Gallo, written by Vincent Gallo (story and screenplay) and Alison Bagnall (screenplay), with Vincent Gallo, Christina Ricci, Angelica Houston, Ben Gazzara, Mickey Rourke and Rosanna Arquette
Remember when Vincent Gallo threatened to take over the Buffalo Wing as upstate New York’s most cherished export? No? Then you probably weren’t paying much attention to what was going on in the 1990s. So let me fill you in.
There was a time when this guy Gallo was the next big thing. Model, singer, actor, artist — you couldn’t turn your head or pick up a magazine without seeing this creepy-looking man glaring at you from a Calvin Klein ad or reading about how he’d been partying it up in the trendiest New York City nightspots with other 90s pop icons like maybe Skeet Ulrich or Gavin Rossdale or Juliette Lewis. Gallo made the media swoon. Not only was he handsome and a spiffy dresser, he was a virtual quote machine. One moment he was deriding his on-screen girlfriend and ingenue, little Wednesday Addams herself Christina Ricci. The next, he was calling Roger Ebert a fat pig and wishing colon cancer on the beloved critic — which I kind of understand, because who hasn’t wanted to put a hex on critical masses? Don’t answer that. The point is that everyone wanted Vincent Gallo.
It was probably the war with Ebert when Gallo’s notoriety was at its peak. The animosity between the critic/Beyond the Valley of the Dolls screenwriter and the renaissance man Gallo was based on a scathing review that Ebert had written up on the 2003 road film, The Brown Bunny, written by and starring Gallo. The Brown Bunny, which received boos and catcalls at its Cannes Film Festival premiere, is best known for a scene in which Gallo’s co-star Chloe Sevigny gives him a blow job. Ebert later gave The Brown Bunny a thumbs up after Gallo trimmed almost half an hour from its 118-minute running time, but by that time Gallo had pretty much been written off as yesterday’s attention whore.
Gallo continues to act and perform music today — in 2010, he won a Best Actor award at the 67th Venice International Film festival for his silent performance in the 2010 political thriller Essential Killing (although some have claimed that nepotism may have influenced the vote). He keeps a much lower profile. No more cancer hexes, at least none of which the public is aware. Perhaps Gallo is a really a different person today than he was a decade ago, but let’s forget about that for a moment and turn back time before his rise and fall. For most people, their introduction to Gallo was his directorial debut, a little indie film called Buffalo ’66, co-starring 19-year-old Christina Ricci and featuring additional performances by Angelica Houston, Ben Gazzara, and Mickey Rourke.
Buffalo ’66 tells us the story of Billy Brown – played by Gallo — a 30-something-year-old sociopathic loser man-child from Buffalo, New York. At the start of the film, Billy is being released from prison for an unknown crime. It turns out that Billy has spent the last several years in jail and now, he just wants to use the bathroom. He asks one of the jail guards if he can come back in and pee, but is refused. He tries to piss behind a car but is interrupted when a woman and her children come by. His quest to find a toilet is interrupted when he stops in a building that turns out to be an amateur dance studio to use their phone and call his parents. There, a wild-eyed Gallo – looking every bit a rapist with his “freshly-released-from-prison” half-shaven look – is bizarrely out-of-place next to a class of young ballerinas.
We learn from the phone call with Billy’s parents that they were unaware he’s been in prison. He concocts a story about having gotten married and agrees to stop by his parents house with his new bride. Since Billy doesn’t really have a spouse, he abducts a girl – played by Ricci – from the dance class to play the part. Ricci’s character tells Billy that her name is Layla, but Billy renames her Wendy Balsam, which we learn later is a neighborhood girl that Billy had a crush on growing up. Billy threatens to kill Wendy – er … Layla – “right in front of mommy and daddy” and “never, ever talk to her again” if she makes a fool out of him.
Layla doesn’t seem to buy into Billy’s threats – judging from the look on her face when Billy threatens her with violence – but cooperates with his ruse nonetheless. In a series of scenes we meet Billy’s emotionally vapid mother (played by Ricci’s Addams Family co-star Angelica Huston) and emotionally abusive father (played by Ben Gazzara of Happiness and many other award-winning TV and film roles). During a painfully awkward visit we get a fairly good idea what may have contributed to Billy becoming the lunatic he has turned into, having been raised by a mother who cares more for her beloved Buffalo Bills than her own son and a father whose emotionally scarring actions included killing Billy’s cherished pet dog with his own bare hands as a 9- or 10-year-old Billy watched in horror.
After the visit, Billy criticizes Layla for some of the things she said to his parents – like claiming that Billy worked for the CIA – but overall is pleased with how things went and expects to part ways with his abducted. Layla, however, chooses to stick with Billy as he makes a phone call to his friend Goon. Billy tells Goon, played – in an uncredited role for some reason – by character actor Kevin Corrigan, about his plans to murder former Buffalo Bills kicker Scott Woods. Woods is based on Scott Norwood, the real-life former Bills player best known for missing a game-winning kick in Superbowl XXV against the New York Giants. Billy blames Woods – whose name was changed probably for legal reasons — for being sent to prison. In a flashback, we learn that Billy bet $10,000 that the Bills would win the fateful 1991 NFL championship game and when he lost and was unable to pay his bookie (played by Mickey Rourke), he fulfilled his losing end of the bet instead by taking the rap for an unknown crime of which one of the bookie’s friends has been accused. As a result, Billy is sentenced to five years in prison.
The last half of the film revolves around whether Billy decides to go through his his plan to kill Woods, now the owner of a local strip club. In addition, Billy and Layla grow closer despite his tendency to push her away.
Paul Thomas Anderson told a similar story in 2001 with Punch-Drunk Love about a social misfit who finds happiness and meaning through a patient, understanding saint of a woman, with Adam Sandler and Emily Watson standing in for Gallo and Ricci. However, in spite of the hidden rage in Sandler’s character which threatened to blow up at any moment in Anderson’s film, there’s a charm in Sandler’s character that is impossible to hide and makes it easier for us to understand why Watson’s character falls for him. Buffalo ’66 is a much tougher story to follow. There is nothing really charming about Billy Brown. He’s verbally abusive to Layla and his mentally-handicapped friend Goon. More than once he threatens a complete stranger with violence. He’s irresponsible – as Mickey Rourke’s character points out, what kind of an idiot would bet $10,000 on the Bills? He’s bitter and spiteful. He blames everyone for his problems but himself – from his parents to some kicker he doesn’t even know personally. In spite of all this, Layla follows him around like a puppy dog. Is it Stockholm Syndrome or does she really see something in Billy that we, as viewers, fail to see? Or is she more a representative figure of sorts – the mother that Billy never had? The latter I find plausible since, even by the end of the movie, Billy and Layla’s relationship does not venture into sexual territory, allowing a surrogate mother theory to be free of any Freudian connotations. At any rate, this is the best-case scenario. The worst case is that Gallo is trying to say that the quickest way into a woman’s heart is to treat her like shit.
It’s possible you may have to suspend your sense of disbelief in order to thoroughly enjoy Buffalo ’66. If you can manage that, the movie is well worth it. Gallo and Ricci each put on an amazing performance. I don’t know how much is Gallo just being himself, but regardless, his Billy Brown is captivating. Everything about Billy is restless, from his movements to his speech, sometimes to the point that his actions come across as laugh-out-loud hilarious. Witness one scene in which Billy starts ranting and raving about how he can’t drive Layla’s car because it’s a “shifter car.”
“Would you like to know why I can’t drive this kinda car? I’ll tell you why, I’m used to luxury cars. Have you ever heard of a luxury car? You know what luxury means? Ever heard of Cadillac, Cadillac Eldorado? That’s what I drive. I drive cars that shift themselves,” Billy says.
Ricci, meanwhile, puts on a brilliant, subtle performance in one of her first adult roles. I’ve always found her to be a severely underrated actress.
The supporting cast is great as well. In addition to Angelica Huston, Ben Gazzara, and Mickey Rourke, Roseanne Arquette – who I could have easily included my list of 90s icons — shows up at one point playing a person from Billy’s past.
The story itself is quirky but in a strangely organic way, progressing naturally so that even when Billy reveals his intention to kill Woods it actually kind of makes sense based on what kind of a person Billy is and how believable Gallo is in the role. At least part of the film is semi-autobiographical, according to Gallo. More than likely, Gallo styled Billy’s parents and childhood after his own – according to IMDb’s Trivia section on the movie, the house used in the film as Billy’s parents’ home was Gallo’s real-life childhood home. Additionally, for a scene where Billy’s dad sings, Gallo had Gazzara lip synch to a recording of his real-life father singing.
During his wild years culminating in The Brown Bunny, in addition to describing himself as a George W. Bush loyalist, he would remark to the New York Post that Ricci was nothing more than “a puppet” during the filming of Buffalo ’66 and making snarky remarks about Ricci’s weight. It’s hard to tell when Gallo is serious or putting on an act. If he’s serious, it’s too bad he feels that way, because in Buffalo ’66, Gallo and Ricci make quite the pair. Buffalo ’66 is quite the filmmaking debut. If anything, it proves that being a dickhead and making good movies are not necessarily incompatible.
Next week: North Carolina or Where The Refugees Will Flee When Armageddon Comes To New Jersey
Matt D.’s Top Five Sociopaths, Perverts and Weirdos Who Also Happen To Be Talented Filmmakers
5. Quentin Tarantino (Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Inglourious Basterds) – Signs of mental instability include abuse of the press not limited to spitting on reporters and threatening cameramen with violence. Also a cause for concern are his repeated impersonations of an actor on both television, film, and Broadway – temporary delusions, perhaps? — as well as theft (victims include Jean-Luc Godard, Martin Scorsese and Roger Avary).
4. David O. Russell – (Spanking the Monkey, Three Kings, I Heart Huckabees, The Fighter) – Reports of alleged verbal abuse of his cast and crew on the set of Three Kings resulting in a near fistfight with leading actor George Clooney. (Russell reportedly grabbed Clooney by the neck!) Also, screaming matches with Lily Tomlin on the set of I Heart Huckabees including calling her the “C word.” (These incidents, not so alleged. Actually, pretty well documented.)
3. Woody Allen – (Annie Hall, Manhattan, Hannah and Her Sisters, Match Point) – Wandering penis syndrome. The inevitable conclusion is Allen’s relationship with Soon-Yi Previn, the adopted daughter of his long-time girlfriend, Mia Farrow. Allen, who was in his 50s when he began his relationship with 20-year-old Soon-Yi, was never the girl’s father, adopted or otherwise – but that doesn’t make things any less scandalous and creepy. But, give old Woody a break. At least he’s not…
2. Roman Polanski – (Rosemary’s Baby, Chinatown, The Pianist) – Do I even need to explain this one? Charges (no, seriously … actual criminal charges) include rape stemming from a sexual encounter in a hot tub with a 13-year-old girl … when he was 43 … which occurred after plying the young lady with a mixture of champagne and quaaludes.
1. Dennis Hopper – (Easy Rider, The Last Movie, Out of the Blue, Colors, Chasers) – You may question why I rank the now-deceased Mr. Hopper ahead of Polanski, but hear me out. People like Allen and Polanski made a mistake or two in their lives (in Polanski’s case, one really fucking big mistake). Hopper made an entire career out of being complete and utterly out of control. There was his drug- and violence-filled marriages to Brooke Hayward and Michelle Phillips in the early 70s. (He was married to Phillips just over a week!) By the time he filmed his role in Apocalypse Now he was up to three grams of cocaine a day. Then there was his staged suicide attempt using 17 sticks of dynamite followed by him disappearing into the Mexican desert in 1983. By the mid- to late 1980s he had cleaned up his act, or so it seemed. His behavior up until that point, however, was legendary. Even after all the drugs, the booze, the sex, and the violence, he still lived until the ripe old age of 74. God bless him.