Wednesday 18 January 2023

The Cotton Club (1984)

Director: Francis Coppola
Writers: William Kennedy & Francis Coppola, based on a story by William Kennedy & Francis Coppola and Mario Puzo, suggested by James Haskins’s pictorial history
Stars: Richard Gere, Gregory Hines, Diane Lane, Lonette McKee, Bob Hoskins, James Remar, Nicolas Cage, Allen Garfield and Fred Gwynne

Index: The First Thirty.

Hollywood hasn’t traditionally done a good job looking at history, its biopics just about as accurate as reality television is real, but, when it does look at history, that history tends to be almost exclusively white.

The Cotton Club is an admirable attempt to highlight a whole era of history, by focusing in on a single location that was highly important to both blacks and whites. It was made with a biracial cast by white filmmakers but based on a picture book history by a black educator. It’s predominantly set in a famous nightclub in a black area of New York that gave black singers and dancers well paid gigs but they performed for an almost exclusively white audience.

As a setting, it’s glorious. We’re in the 1930s so segregation is in firm effect. The races are not supposed to mix and Gregory Hines finds himself chastised for simply entering through the front door, even after he’s been hired as an entertainer. Also in effect is prohibition, as it had been for a decade, but the Cotton Club maintained a full drinks list for its clientele, as it was run by New York gangsters with clout in the community.

While I knew all that, I was still surprised to discover, as we soon do, that The Cotton Club is a gangster flick. I knew about it, that it was a Francis Ford Coppola film, that it was critically acclaimed even though the box office wasn’t great and that it was a film I should see, but I still somehow thought it was more about what happened on stage than off, that it was more about jazz music and dancers than gangsters and racial history.

Really, it’s about all four of those things and the first scene is a very capable highlight to that. We’re at a different venue, the Bamville Club, where lots of black guys are jamming on stage, along with a token white cornet player, who then takes a seat in the audience. In come a couple of cops who aren’t cops at all, because they’re in disguise to hurl dynamite under the table of gang leader Dutch Schultz. The cornet player knocks him out of harm’s way and so the gangster promptly and firmly takes him under his wing, without any chance to say no.

As in Rumble Fish, Coppola brings in a deep cast list but it’s a more surprising one. Maybe not the leads: that cornet player, Dixie Dwyer, is Richard Gere, who plays his own solos, and Schultz is James Remar snarling through his very best Edward G. Robinson impression. We shouldn’t be surprised to discover that Dixie’s younger and wilder brother Vincent is Nicolas Cage or that he wants to join Schultz’s crew.

However, when we shift over to the Cotton Club, we find that Owney Madden, its owner, is played by Bob Hoskins, somehow reminding us simultaneously of the genial Eddie Valiant in Who Framed Roger Rabbit and the ruthless Harold in The Long Good Friday. And his right hand man, Frenchy Demange, is, of all people, Fred Gwynne, at 6’ 5” the tallest man in every scene. That’s a brave casting choice, given that everyone and their dog still recognised him as Herman Munster, but the gamble pays off.

The central thrust of the story has Schultz task Dwyer with taking care of his mistress, a task he takes a little too literally, with exactly the sort of effect you’re already expecting. She is Diane Lane who plays her as a quintessential flapper looking for her way up. She’s only with Schultz to sleep her way into a nightclub of her very own.

A further story arc follows an accomplished tap dancer, Sandman Williams, both in work, as he gets hired by the Cotton Club with his brother and moves on up solo, and in love, as he woos an established performer, Lila Rose Oliver. He’s Gregory Hines, one of the best in the business at this point, and she’s Lonette McKee, the only name thus far I didn’t know but clearly a very talented lady.

Further down the cast, there are names like Jennifer Grey, Tom Waits, Larry Fishburne and an excellent Julian Beck, who was so good two years later in Poltergeist II: The Other Side, but a cast this deep keeps on delivering, with many of the greatest performances being given right there on the stage at the Cotton Club by these dancers or those singers. Hines shines, as does his brother Maurice, but Larry Marshall has a blast as Cab Calloway. He’s the best of a slew of characters we recognise, from Charlie Chaplin to Lucky Luciano via Jimmy Cagney and Gloria Swanson. After all, the Cotton Club did have Celebrity Nights.

Gere is good. Lane is good. Hoskins is good. Everybody’s good. Hines is excellent. Beck is a revelation. And hey, Nicolas Cage is good too, in a solid supporting slot with a story arc all of his own. It’s not a particular deep one, being another dumbass kid using the leverage of his brother’s good favour with Dutch Schultz to land himself a job as a low level gangster, then building himself up through loyalty and deceit to being something of a force himself.

I won’t spoil how that turns out but it’s fair to assume that, given that he’s a minor player in this sprawling story, it’s not much to write home to mama about. He does get himself on a few newspaper headlines and death is on his heels throughout, whether he’s dishing it out or taking it, so it’s a decent role.

However, it’s another one that doesn’t have a lot of challenge in it. There are some hints here of the future Nicolas Cage, the one who took every role he could to pay off a spiralling tax debt and overplayed a whole slew of them, but I’ve seen a lot more outrageous gangsters in my time. It’s fair to say that James Remar is one of those in this very film, being possessed of a short fuse and a vicious streak, which is a dangerous combination.

So Cage is still paying his dues at this point six films into his career, but he’d had one lead already and he wasn’t far away from more. It was going well and, unlike Vincent Dwyer, he didn’t have to shoot up a single nightclub to make his name.

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