Damn we’re good.
With the single exception of biting the heads off of rats, lounge acts are the lowest form of show business. As such, they exert a perverse fascination on many performers, rather like the Jerry Lewis muscular dystrophy telethon.1 Bad as they are, they’re still show business, and show business, well, there’s no business like show business.
And no people like show people. But what exactly are show people like? What makes them different from you and me? The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989), written and directed by Steven Kloves2 and starring Beau and Jeff Bridges and Michelle Pfeiffer, gives a remarkably complete picture of everything show people love, and everything they hate, about show business. It is also a surprisingly heartfelt salute to that rare but persistent breed, the urban romantic.
Back in the fifties, many years ago, a great sucking sound arose in our country. It was the sound of the suburbs, sucking the hipness from the land. A few brave men resisted. They would not spend their hard-earned money on lawns, lawnmowers, backyard barbecues, household appliances, and mortgages. They would spend it on Italian suits, English sports cars, and apartments with exposed brick walls. They would stay out late in smoky nightclubs, listening to jazz, America’s only native artform, and they would walk home along wet, neon-lit streets, preferably with a cozy blonde, but, if necessary, alone. They would know life, the good and the bad, the rough and the smooth, and they would not be afraid.
The Fabulous Baker Boys begins with the sun shining low in the horizon behind an urban landscape. (Although we don’t know it yet, we’re in Seattle.) We cut to a babe in bed in an apartment with an exposed brick wall. She awakens to see Jack Baker (Jeff Bridges) putting on a tux. “Am I going to see you again?” she asks. “No,” he explains. “You’ve got great hands,” she says, which is what women always say when you tell them they’ve been a one-night stand.
Bridges walks out into what looks like an early-morning urban landscape – sunlight slanting between the buildings and the first commuters creeping in with their headlights still on.3 But as he keeps walking, it gets darker, not lighter. He’s been in bed with the babe all day, and now it’s time for a gig.
Jack hooks up with his brother Frank (Beau Bridges) in the men’s room, 45 seconds to show time. Frank needs Jack to spray “Miracle Hair” on his expanding bald spot “in a gentle, circular motion.” Jack, who’s got a head of hair like a lion’s mane,4) holds the can six inches from Frank’s scalp and blasts it for a good 30 seconds. We’re beginning to sense that Jack doesn’t give a shit.
The boys are a duo-piano act, playing to a very large fish tank and about half a dozen couples. (Dave Grusin dubbed Jack’s piano work and John F. Hammond dubbed Frank’s.) Frank handles the patter once they’re on stage, explaining to the crowd that though the Baker Boys have played in some of the finest venues in the country for more than 15 years, “there’s always something special about the Starfire Lounge here in Seattle. Maybe it’s the (beat) people.”
Jack, meanwhile, smokes up a storm, stares off into space, makes Frank cue him twice for each of his monosyllabic lines, and generally does everything except hold up a sign to the audience saying “The contempt I feel for myself is exceeded only by the contempt I feel for you.” Once the boys finish, they check in with the club manager, a distinctly unpleasant sort who tells Jack “if you want to smoke on stage, put on some dark glasses and play with the niggers on State Street.” Frank is so pathetic that he grovels in front of the schmuck, hoping to score another booking. “I’ll call you,” the schmuck says, making it clear he won’t.
We cut to Jack waking up in his pad, an urban romantic’s dream, a loft apartment with 15-foot ceilings, big windows looking out over the city, exposed brick walls, thousands of LPs, and hundreds of books.5 A little girl is playing “Jingle Bells” on his grand piano. She brings Jack a cup of coffee and they do a little mutual hand-holding. The kid’s name is Nina. She lives upstairs and comes down the fire escape to visit Jack whenever her no-good mom is entertaining, which is a lot. When Jack’s not there, she can hang with Eddie, Jack’s trés cool black lab.6
And so we get the picture. To those that have, it shall be given. That’s Jack. He’s got it all – looks, talent, and attitude – and he gets it all – babes, a hip pad, and emotional support – without even trying. From those that have not, it shall be taken away, even that which they have. That’s Frank. He’s got nothing, nothing but a wife, two kids, and a mortgage, everything an urban romantic detests.7 The harder Frank tries, the more contempt he gets.
But still we know that in his gut Jack is hurting. He should be playing hard bop with the niggers on State Street, not “Feelings” in the Starfire Lounge. He’s not respecting his talent. With all his class, he’s as big a whore as Frank.
To drive the point home, we next see the boys in Hawaiian shirts at the Luau Lounge,8 where their cloying trills and runs have to compete with Zombie-laden blenders. Bad as the room is, the boys haven’t hit bottom yet. That comes later, when the manager, who is a nice guy this time around, pays them not to come back. He figures he’ll draw better with an empty stage. Afterwards, Frank acknowledges that after 15 years, maybe the act needs freshening. He’s been thinking of hiring a girl singer. Jack agrees, as he will agree to any decision that Frank makes,9 and they set up an audition.
First up is Jennifer Tilly, doing her patented breathy airhead. Her stage name is Monica, but her real name is Blanche, so if you call her at home you should ask for Blanche, because if her mom answers and you ask for Monica her mom will hang up because she will think you have the wrong number.10
Monica/Blanche gives Jack the “instructions” for her song, “The Candy Man,” detested by the hip as much for its association with Sammy Davis Jr.11 as its own appalling lack of merit. Naturally, she’s terrible, a bad singer who insists on accompanying the song with awkward, inappropriate, and ill-timed gestures, and, naturally, the dozen or so singers we see in the montage that follows are just as bad.12
Three hours later, the boys sit, stunned by what they’ve just been through. There’s a crash, and this blonde chick shows up, shouting “shit!” She wears a big, floppy coat, her hair is messed up, and she’s got a beret half falling off her head.
It’s Michelle, of course, as “Suzie Diamond,” and, of course, she’s totally cool. If you go to the movies, you know that the person who shows up last at an audition and acts totally out of it is, in fact, totally cool. Frank tells her to buzz off, she tells him to fuck off, and Jack tells her to sing. Possessing coolness himself, he can sense it in others. Michelle takes off her coat, apparently popping a posture pill as she does so, because all of a sudden she’s got the gait of a goddess, a runway carriage that could leave Cindy Crawford in the dust.13 Plus, she’s wearing a snug mini-dress that hugs her sleek curves like Woody Allen holding onto Soon-Yi. Her hemline’s about a foot above her knee, but fahgeddaboutit, when you’re Michelle Pfeiffer you’ve always got legs to spare.14
Of course, she’s never had any professional experience, though she has been on call with a local escort service – just the sort of thing you’d bring up at an audition. With no further ado, she launches into “More Than You Know,” a thirties tune associated with Billie Holiday, just the sort of thing a young whore growing up in the seventies would be likely to sing.
Of course, she’s great.15 They hire her and set up a gig. Suzie shows up even later than Jack, wearing a garish outfit. Frank has a hissy and they rush off to find her something better, ending up, of course, with a classic black cocktail dress.16 Suzie’s a bundle of nerves, with the songs for her first set written on a bunch of tags she’s got around her wrist. Naturally, she loses the tags, falls down, says “fuck” over the microphone, and blows away the crowd with some uber-kitsch from Rodgers & Hart:
“Ten cents a dance, that’s what they pay me,
Oh how they weigh me down.
Pansies and tough guys, sailors and rough guys,
Sometimes they tear my gown.”17
After the set, Frank is furious at her unprofessional behavior. Somehow he didn’t notice that the crowd loved her. Jack splits and goes off by himself to a smoky, downtown club where the crowd is black, the bop is hard, and the drinks unwatered. These are, obviously, the State Street niggers we heard about earlier. It’s Jack’s true home, but he’s been playing hooky. “You should come around more often, Jack,” the brother behind the bar tells him.
With Suzie out in front, the boys’ fortunes take a 180. In another predictable montage, we see her taking the Seattle lounge scene by storm, wearing a different outfit in each club.18 Jack tries to get friendly with her but it’s no go. Suzie’s got attitude even Jack can’t handle. She smokes French Ovals19 – “$3.50 a pack and I go through them like they were nothing. But I figure if you’re going to put something in your mouth it might as well be the best. Say, you’re not going to go all soft on me, are you? You aren’t going to start dreaming about me and waking up all sweaty and looking at me like I was a princess?”20
Once the act is hitting on all eight cylinders, they take it on the road, to a resort called the Mallory. Suzie, reading from the brochure, says it looks fantastic, but cynical Frank says she’s got a lot to learn. When they get there, it’s a five-star luxury resort that apparently popped out of the ground like a mushroom. They get adjoining rooms, which makes sense, of course.21 At two a.m., Suzie wakes up Frank and Jack with a blast of big-band music. “She’s got the whole Tommy Dorsey22 orchestra in there,” Frank whines. “Ellington,” mutters Jack. Dorsey’s white, Ellington’s black. Advantage, Jack.
The big room in the Mallory is nothing but class, and Suzie knocks ‘em cold. One morning, she sees Eddie wandering around the lobby and follows him into the lounge. There’s Jack, hunched over the piano, in another world, playing “his” music, jazz. Suzie approaches. “That’s beautiful,” she says. But Jack, he don’t say nothing.
The next night Frank is called away on an emergency. One of his kids ran into a car on his bicycle! Jack and Suzie take turns eyeing the door, but nothing happens. The next night is New Year’s Eve. This sets the scene for Pfeiffer’s famous rendition of “Makin’ Whoopee,” a slow-motion piano-top seduction in a red dress and heels. The number ends as a foot fetishist’s fantasy, with Jack staring at Suzie’s blood-red fuck-me pumps.23 The crowd, which is huge, goes wild, as well they might.
With the set over, Jack and Suzie are alone in the huge room, the floor covered with balloons. Suzie’s got a stiff neck, and Jack, well, he’s got the great hands. The sparks they’ve been fanning burst into flame, but the next morning they’re in separate bedrooms, both muttering “shit.”
Back in Seattle, Frank is his usual obnoxious self, ridiculing everything Suzie says. Apparently he hasn’t noticed that she’s brought the act back from the edge of extinction. Jack and Suzie are on again, off again. Suzie comes by his place once, but Jack’s not there. Nina gives her directions to the State Street dive, and Suzie checks out the scene. Jack’s there, pumping the ivories, his face hot with passion.24
Suzie guesses this is something she’s not supposed to see, so she slips back to Jack’s pad before being spotted. When Jack finally does show, they spend the night together. In the morning, Suzie has a brief run-in with Nina, who doesn’t much care for the competition. When Jack gets up, she tells him she’s thinking of breaking up the act. A dude has offered her a gig singing in cat-food commercials, and she thinks it looks good.25 Jack doesn’t have the balls to tell her he wants her to stay.
Catching shit from both brothers, Suzie decides to split. She makes one last attempt to get some support from Jack, but he’s not giving. It was just sex between them. “Once the sweat dries, you still don’t know shit about me,” he tells her. But Suzie’s one step ahead of him: “I saw you at the club, dusting off your dreams. Every time you walk into some shitty daiquiri shack, you’re selling yourself cheap.” “I didn’t know whores were so philosophical,” Jack retorts. “At least my brother isn’t my pimp,” she replies. Advantage, Suzie.
Without Suzie, the boys are in a deeper hole than ever, doing their patter to a near-empty room over a broad’s drunken laughter. In desperation, though he doesn’t tell Jack that, Frank gets them a gig at a telethon. No money, but good publicity, he says. The telethon, of course, is a nightmare of a nightmare: It’s a fund-raiser for a high-school gym! It’s broadcast on channel 71! They follow a kid bouncing a basketball to the tune of “Sweet Georgia Brown”! The announcer mispronounces their name! They get interrupted in the middle of their act!
Jack is so pissed that he walks out. The boys have it out in an alley. Jack tells Frank that he’s quitting. Frank is so enraged that he attacks Jack physically. For a brief, awful moment, we think that Jack is going to deliberately injure Frank’s hand, but he relents.
The next day, Jack goes to the State Street dive. “I’ve got Tuesdays and Thursdays open,” the spade tells him. So at least he’ll have cigarette money.26
Jack calls on Frank. They make up. He calls on Suzie. They make up, maybe. And maybe not. End of story.
The king of the urban romantics, of course, was Frank Sinatra. But even Sinatra didn’t get to play urban romantics on the screen in the fifties. Fifties Hollywood really couldn’t handle the guy, because he didn’t want to settle down. Worst of all, he wanted to get laid without getting married.27
The urban romantic read magazines (Esquire, of course, and Playboy), but his cultural weapon of choice was usually the LP, which came into existence around 1950.28 Sinatra albums like Come Fly with Me and In the Wee Small Hours virtually defined hip for the decade.29 Miles Davis was another very potent source of urban attitude, with albums like Birth of the Cool and Kind of Blue, along with the kitschier Porgy and Bess and Sketches of Spain, done with arranger Gil Evans.30
The soundtrack for The Fabulous Baker Boys is available on CD if you want it. Dave Grusin led the group that plays on the soundtrack, featuring Sal Marquez on trumpet, Ernie Watts on sax, Harvey Mason on drums, Lee Ritenour on guitar, and Brian Bromberg on bass. Grusin wrote original music for the film as well. There’s also music from Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman, among others, on the CD, as well as Pfeiffer’s vocals.
- Bill Murray’s smarmy lounge singer has been a part of Saturday Night Live for more than 20 years. Murray opened the SNL 25th anniversary special working a Native American casino. (“The tribe has been in these mountains for over 5,000 years. Or maybe it just seems that way!”) Billy Crystal used to do the transvestite Penny Lane, also on SNL. Lily Tomlin also did a drag lounge act, the hairy-chested Tommy Velour. Before Velour there was Bobbi-Jeanine (“Never b sharp! Never b flat! Always b natural!”), who operated a rolling organ with built-in fish tank. Billy Joel, who actually worked a few piano bars, didn’t have much of a sense of humor on the topic. His “Piano Man” is more maudlin than the kitsch it assaults: “They’re sharing a drink they call loneliness, but it’s better than drinkin’ alone. Oh, la la la, de de da, la la, de de da da da.” [↩]
- Someone closer to the biz than I will have to explain Kloves’s track record. He wrote and directed The Fabulous Baker Boys in 1989, and wrote and directed Flesh and Bone in 1993. He then did nothing until 2000 – writing Wonder Boys for Michael Douglas. He also did the script for the upcoming Harry Potter movie. [↩]
- On the soundtrack we hear some wicked muted trumpet that sounds like early Miles. The calendar may say 1989, and the map Seattle, but it’s really 1955, and the town is New York, New York. [↩]
- Jack’s also four years younger and five inches taller than his round-shouldered, pot-bellied, no-chinned brother. Beau Bridges, who was third-billed in this picture, deserves some sort of award for taking the role of Frank Baker. (Masochistic Thespian of the Year? [↩]
- Somehow, we never see him reading. [↩]
- She also feeds and walks him, so Jack never has to. [↩]
- Urban romantics sometimes wear skirts. In the original Superman (1978), Clark asks Lois why she obsesses over her work, why she cares so much about her career. She tells him, “I’ve got a sister. She’s got a husband, two kids, and a mortgage. That’s why I care.” [↩]
- Hawaiian shirts! The horror! The goddamn horror! [↩]
- Jack’s so passive he even lets Frank address him as “little brother” on stage. Strangely, this is never really addressed in the film. In the climax, when the brothers have a mild brawl, which Jack wins, of course, Jack does mutter something like “What do you think of your little brother now?” but it’s hardly intelligible, and no reference is made to it later. Was Kloves a “little brother”? [↩]
- Women really are stupid, aren’t they? I mean, really! What was God thinking? Was he just tired? [↩]
- Sadly, the Sam is already fading from memory. Davis, virtually a walking lounge act, was capable of giving a good performance when he wasn’t trying too hard, but 99 percent of the time he was trying too hard. His sweaty, desperate need for approval made him the constant target of ridicule from other performers. Billy Crystal did a mercilessly accurate take on him for SNL. [↩]
- They all sing wretched versions of standards. Apparently, no one in Seattle has ever heard of rock and roll. [↩]
- She says she broke a heel, but it looks like she grew a new one real quick. [↩]
- Pfeiffer was nominated for virtually every “best actress” award extant for her performance in The Fabulous Baker Boys. She won most of them, but lost the Oscar to Jessica Tandy, for her work in the three-hankie liberal kitschfest Driving Miss Daisy. [↩]
- Pfeiffer, who did her own singing, has a dark, smoky voice, sounding very much like Julie London, a serious fifties babe who recorded a long series of make-out albums with titles like “Nice Girls Don’t Stay for Breakfast.” London was one of the few recording artists whose album sales depended as much on the covers as on the content. [↩]
- The urban romantic’s ultimate fantasy was a New York blonde in a black cocktail dress. Perhaps the greatest New York blonde ever was Eva Marie Saint in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest. [↩]
- The definitive “Ten Cents a Dance” comes, strangely enough, from Doris Day in the otherwise execrable Love Me or Leave Me, Doris’s one “bad girl” role. (Don’t worry; she’s not really bad.) Unless you’ve seen Doris in black satin, hands on hips, breasts thrusting forward as she belts out “Come on, big boy, ten cents a dance!,” you haven’t seen Doris. [↩]
- Despite her unlimited wardrobe, Suzie continues to wear the same oversized overcoat through the whole picture, so she can go back to her waif routine whenever she needs to. [↩]
- English Ovals, which actually were oval, I’ve seen, but French Ovals no. [↩]
- What’s he supposed to do, say yes? Both characters pretend to be tough as nails while wallowing in self-pity, and we’re supposed to think this is cool. [↩]
- The romantic/comic possibilities of adjoining rooms were probably best exploited by the Cary Grant/Irene Dunne classic The Awful Truth. [↩]
- Tommy Dorsey, “the sentimental gentleman of swing,” was one of the most accomplished trombonists of modern times. He had big hits in the thirties with “Marie” and “Song of India.” [↩]
- There are, in fact, a lot of shoes in this flick. Kloves may be nursing a Blahnik jones. [↩]
- Grusin’s elegant New Age stylings don’t really fit in with either the scene or Jack’s emoting. [↩]
- Apparently, it doesn’t occur to her to take the cat-food money and pursue a real singing career, in LA, New York, or Vegas, which is what real performers do. If you’d blown the doors off the Mallory, would you want to spend the rest of your life doing cat-food commercials? [↩]
- The idea that you can “dust off your dreams” whenever you want is very appealing to screenwriters, who often fantasize about writing novels instead of scripts (the pay is usually lousy, but it’s your name over the title). TV series are full of characters who are or become successful novelists – Jessica Fletcher (Angela Lansbury) on Murder She Wrote; Lieut. Henry Goldblume (Joe Spano) on Hill Street Blues; John Boy (Richard Thomas) on The Waltons; and Ira Woodbine (Alan Rosenberg) on Cybill. [↩]
- The sixties gave us James Bond, the urban romantic who always got the girl, followed by Woody Allen, the urban romantic who always got screwed by the girl. Of course, the whole film noir, private-eye scene was closely linked to urban romanticism. Fifties TV shows like 77 Sunset Strip, The Naked City, and Peter Gunn had a definite urban romantic flavor. The eighties cult favorite Moonlighting was heavy urban romantic kitsch, with Bruce Willis as the downtown urban bad boy and Cybill Shepherd as the unapproachable uptown blonde. [↩]
- Records manufactured in the twenties, thirties, and forties were played at 78 rpm. A 10-inch record could hold about three minutes of music on a side, and a 12-inch about five. In the late forties, 10-inch 78s began to be replaced by 6-inch 45s, which also played for three minutes. This is why the standard pop recording is about three minutes long. “Microgroove” LPs were played at 33 1/3. A 12-inch record could hold about 25 minutes of music, and, thanks to advances in recording techniques, the sound quality was considerably higher than before. The urban romantic played his LPs on an expensive “high-fi” (for “high fidelity”), a component system that was not a stereo because stereo LPs didn’t exist until the late fifties. [↩]
- Check out Frank on the web at homestead.com/Sinatra. [↩]
- A more muscular Miles is available on the albums he did for Prestige Records in the fifties, now reissued on CD, including Cookin’, Steamin’, Relaxin’, and Workin’, that featured John Coltrane (also known as the “apostrophe” series), as well as the famous “Walkin'”/”Blue ‘n’ Boogie” date with Lucky Thompson and Jay Jay Johnson and the equally famous “Bag’s Groove” date with Thelonious Monk and Milt Jackson (usually spread over two CDs). The Miles Ahead web site is quite dry but extremely informative. [↩]