Week 45 – Texas
Talk Radio (1989), produced by Cineplex-Odeon Films and Ten-Four Productions, directed by Oliver Stone, written by Stephen Singular (book “Talked To Death: The Life and Murder of Alan Berg), Tad Savinar (play creator) Eric Bogosian (play creator, play and screenplay) and Oliver Stone (screenplay), with Eric Bogosian, Ellen Greene, Leslie Hope, John C. McGinley, Alec Baldwin, John Pankow and Michael Wincott, cinematography by Robert Richardson, original music by Stewart Copeland
Wow. Those are some credits, huh?
I’ve always been a fan of Oliver Stone. His films are over-the-top – dare I say – socialist propaganda. That’s no problem for myself, an ardent left-winger – but even if you totally disagree with Stone’s politics, you have to admit that his movies are entertaining.
While Stone’s fans are many and as diverse as they come, ranging in background from movie critic Roger Ebert to any rapper who has ever hung up a poster of Scarface in their living room (Stone wrote the screenplay to the 1983 Brian De Palma-directed gangster film), it’s usually his critics that tend to make the most noise. Most recently Stone pissed off his critics with the 2009 documentary South of the Border, not a movie about the popular East Coast Mexican-themed tourist trap, but rather what some described as a love letter to several leftist South American leaders including Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez. The main criticism of the film was that it failed to present a balanced view of its subjects – which coincidentally is my same complaint about Gone With The Wind.
Love him or hate him, you have to admit that Stone is a sweetheart in real life – er … uhm … no … that’s not right. In fact, some actors, like Joe Pesci, have said on the record that they refuse to ever work with Stone again because of his surly demeanor. “[Oliver Stone is] too demanding,” Pesci told a reporter for The Daily Bruin, UCLA’s student newspaper, in 1997. “The fun is out of it, you know. You can’t collaborate with someone who’s trying to dominate all the time. He should put on puppet shows or something because it’s not all one man.”
If it’s true that the typical Oliver Stone production is a “puppet show”, Talk Radio is unusual for an Oliver Stone film. The movie is as much an Oliver Stone production as it is a collaboration with New York City actor and author Eric Bogosian. Talk Radio is based on Bogosian’s Pulitzer-prize nominated play.
Bogosian starred in both the original off-Broadway stage production as well as the film, in which he plays the role of Barry Champlain, a caustic left-wing radio host with a nighttime call-in show based out of Dallas, Texas. The play is set during on the eve of the Barry’s radio show going national over the span of one radio broadcast, during which time Barry participates in a series of confrontations with callers, station executives, past and present lovers. During this single radio show, Barry nearly suffers total mental and emotional breakdown and the play ends with Barry, who is Jewish, being shot to death by a white supremacist who previously had called in to the show and threatened his life.
That ending isn’t a spoiler. Bogosian’s play was based on the real-life murder of Denver, Colorado radio host Alan Berg. In bringing the play to the screen, Bogosian and director Oliver Stone incorporated elements of Stephen Singular’s book “Talk To Death: The Life and Murder of Alan Berg.”
In case you haven’t figured it out, this one’s a character study. There’s not a lot of plot. Although the film expands on the play by having a few scenes that take place outside of the radio studio, most of the movie still occurs during Barry’s radio broadcast. Most of the movie is Barry and a microphone, which could be a terrible movie if Bogosian didn’t have the character of Barry nailed down to a tee.
For starters, Bogosian looks the part of a “radio guy.” (Oliver Stone regular John C. McGinley of TV’s Scrubs, as Barry’s sound engineer, and Alec Baldwin, as the station’s manager, are also picture perfect in their roles.) There’s this not-entirely-untrue perception that most people who work in radio are unattractive – Don Imus, Howard Stern … the list goes on and on. While Bogosian or Barry is not necessarily a bad-looking dude, he’s probably not attractive enough to be a television host where it really does matter if you’re teeth aren’t 100 percent white or your hair isn’t perfectly combed. Barry is middle-aged and a little out-of-shape. He looks like he hasn’t slept a good night’s sleep in years. He’s constantly puffing on a cigarette.
None of that matters on radio. The important thing is that what Barry lacks in looks he makes up for in personality and charisma. His voice is commanding. He’s a quick wit, always able to shut down an unruly caller with a well-timed put-down and – if that doesn’t work – there’s always the “dump” button.
When Barry unravels, it’s done well. It’s not over-the-top. It’s a gradual sinking into madness. While the film never comes right out and says it, but it’s probably a number of things.
Most obvious is the death threats, the hate directed at him. One particularly unnerving scene takes place outside of the radio station at a basketball game where Barry has been invited to be the special guest – unnerving in a sense that most people going into this movie know how it’s going to end. As Barry gets into a tense discussion with his girlfriend, he’s approached by a number of fans – all of whom look just a little bit off. The last is a woman who asks for his autograph then proceeds to tell him that she thinks he’s disgusting. She ends the conversation by throwing a cup of some unidentified liquid in his face. When Barry is introduced to the crowd at the ball game, he’s booed – meanwhile, you’re just waiting for the gunshot to ring out.
The other part driving Barry mad is the realization that the people Barry considers his allies aren’t getting his message – whatever that message may be. In one scene he invites a caller down to the studio who has been prank calling him pretending that his girlfriend was unconscious as a result of a drug overdose. When Barry meets the caller, a long-haired stoner, he questions why this person listens to his show.
“It’s all one big rock video, Kent,” Barry comments.
“Yeah!” Kent replies, convulsing into laughter.
Barry stares at Kent like he’s about to rip out his throat with his teeth.
Is there a message to get from Barry’s show? Barry tells people that the country is “in deep trouble” and that it’s “rotten to the core.” But what does that mean? Is it just angry rhetoric without any real meaning behind it?
Perhaps it’s not the words that Barry says as much as the purpose behind them – to shake things up, to wake people up. Talk Radio is a product of the 1980s, an era in which there wasn’t a whole lot of dialogue going on. The middle class was happy. People were content to just cruise by. It was flashiness and cocaine and Ronald Reagan. It was summer blockbuster and Saturday Morning Cartoons and hair metal. Was punk really dead or had it just worked it’s way from music into other forms of media? Was Howard Stern the Richard Hell of the 1980s? Certainly Stern has more in common with rock-and-roll in its rawest form than Wolfman Jack or his radio contemporaries.
Although the fictional Barry is more political than Stern, there’s no way that Stone didn’t intend for their to be a comparison between Bogosian’s character and The Kind of All Media. Although Bogosian has said that Tom Leykis, a Los Angeles DJ, inspired his characterization, in flashbacks, it is Stern that Bogosian mimics – from his long black hair to his various mannerisms.
Is Stone wanting us to understand the value of someone like Leykis or Stern? Considering Stone’s politics, I wouldn’t doubt that. Maybe Stone, as someone who is known for pushing people’s buttons, is trying to tell us something about himself. Perhaps he’s trying to reaffirm his own value.
In spite of what you take from this movie or what you feel Stone’s intentions may be for making it, Bogosian’s performance is a must see. For this reason alone, Talk Radio is an overlooked classic.
Other movies shot in Texas: Take your pick. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and its many sequels/reboots including the upcoming Leatherface 3D; many of Robert Rodriguez’s films including Machete, The Faculty and the Spy Kids series; many of Richard Linklater’s films including Slacker and Dazed and Confused; Mike Judge’s Office Space; Ben Stiller’s Reality Bites; 1974’s blaxploitation horror film Sugar Hill; inagural Best Picture winner Wings; The Alamo (the 1960 original and the 2004 remake); Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show; and many, many more.
Next week: There’s no jazz in Utah.