Tag Archives: Robert Redford

WNY’s All-Time Greatest Movie: “Buffalo 66” v. “The Natural”

redfird gallo

Last September, for Buffalo Spree’s “all-time greatest” issue, I pondered two great films shot here in the Queen City: “Buffalo 66” and “The Natural.” In light of the WNY Heritage article I discussed earlier this week, let’s take a look.

There is a scene in Vincent Gallo’s dark masterpiece “Buffalo 66” that captures the ennui of low-scale small-city life as well as any film ever made.

Billy Brown (Gallo), a fresh out of prison deadbeat, has forced tap dancer Layla to pretend to be his wife in order to impress his sour parents in dreary, cold Buffalo. After a family dinner from hell and a jaunt to the bowling alley, Billy drags Layla to Denny’s. It’s an old-style Denny’s, and it’s grim. (The last few Denny’s I’ve been in were completely redone, so don’t take offense, Denny’s of America.)

He orders a water, she orders a hot chocolate. Typically, he knows the woman who walks in the front door—it’s his old crush. In fact, Wendy Balsam (Rosanna Arquette) sits directly across the aisle. “Weren’t you in my third-grade class?” she asks. “Yes,” he mutters, head down.

It may seem a throwaway scene; in fact, it might be. But it captures a certain piece of Western New York that is not often captured on celluloid. It’s the lower-class, late-night, where-else-can-we-go?, what-am-I-going-to-do-with-my-life?, world come to life. In a real movie. One that takes place—and was shot—in Buffalo. I can remember spending pre-legal-drinking-age mornings—2, 3 a.m.—in a Denny’s just like this one, drinking coffee with my motley friends and hoping that the Wendy Balsams of my past would not be wandering in. If you grew up here, there’s a good chance you watched this scene play out often, and you were the star.

The Denny’s sequence accounts for four or five minutes of “Buffalo 66”, but it is the moment that seals the deal: Gallo’s sad, flawed character study is the greatest Buffalo-set film ever made. (Note the word “set.”)

It’s also uncomfortably homophobic, often wildly pretentious, and downright cruel. Its vision of Buffalo occasionally feels like a kick to the groin for those who love this city. And it requires that one can tolerate Gallo, the provocateur as known for receiving onscreen oral sex (in his directorial follow-up, “The Brown Bunny”) and wishing cancer upon a film critic (Roger Ebert) as he is for being a truly strong director and actor. (See Francis Coppola’s underrated “Tetro.”) It also means sitting through lots of Yes on the soundtrack, or as I like to call them, “No.” But the level of insight makes the flaws worth it.

Consider the feel-bad “Buffalo 66” the antithesis of “The Natural”, which is the more obvious “greatest Buffalo film” pick. Of course, “The Natural” was simply filmed here—it does not take place in the Queen City. But it’s the Buffalo of our sepia-toned dreams, featuring a Central Terminal packed with travelers, a gussied-up Parkside Candy on Main Street, and the Rockpile, in all its glory. Let’s call it the greatest Buffalo-shot film ever made, then.

“The Natural”’s ending is the finest sport-gasm ever filmed, with Roy Hobbs’s scoreboard-smashing home run set to Randy Newman’s swelling score. It is gorgeous, and heartwarming, and beautiful, and despite betraying the dark ending of Bernard Malamud’s book in every way, it remains the favorite movie of just about every dad in WNY, and carries an air of nostalgia for the time Redford and Hollywood came, saw, and loved our city. (The website forgottenbuffalo.com features a breakdown of all the film’s Buffalo locations.)

I’d hate to see a breakdown of the depressing locations in Gallo’s film. But the ugliness is part of the plan. And there is a nice inversion of this thematic unattractiveness in a subplot I’ve yet to mention.

Billy was imprisoned after placing a $10,000 bet on the Buffalo Bills, who, of course, lost the Super Bowl when kicker “Scotty Wood” missed the game-winning kick. (He took the blame for a crime he did not commit in lieu of paying his debt, or seeing “bad things happen.”) In essence, then, the entire film is predicated on the lingering effects of this moment, one played out endlessly in the minds of many (if not most) Buffalonians for the past twenty years. Watching the film again for the first time in several years, I was stunned by the equanimity of its ending, in which Billy decides not to kill Wood—yes, he was going to kill him—and instead recalls, “He kicked good that season … He missed one measly field goal.” So at heart, “Buffalo 66” is an ode to moving on, and that’s something Buffalonians have been forced to do with regularity.

Let’s end on the wisdom of Mickey Rourke’s bookie: “If Buffalo ever makes it back to the Super Bowl … bet against them.”

Image from Buffalo Spree; Redford photo courtesy of Buffalo History Museum

Edison, Bond, and Roy Hobbs: WNY Heritage Explores the History of Buffalo and the Silver Screen

natural lobby card

I suppose it’s no surprise that Buffalo has a fascinating film history, and not just the movies that were shot here — “The Natural,” “Buffalo 66,” “Henry’s Crime,” “Hide in Plain Sight.” There were gorgeous theaters, distribution companies for major studios, and more.

For all of these details, and other fascinating bits if cinematic minutiae, the summer issue of Western New York Heritage magazine is a must-buy. Matthew Biddle, a great writer and good friend (he interned for me at Buffalo Spree, and has been a dedicated contributor to Spree and Forever Young ever since), has written a wonderful piece about Buffalo’s “long and colorful history with the movie business” that is detailed, interesting, and wonderfully incisive.

Matthew starts with the movie that is perhaps most indelibly linked to the Queen City – in the minds of Buffalonians, at least: “The Natural.” Barry Levinson’s adaptation of Bernard Malamud’s novel is, despite its still controversial happy ending, a modern classic to just about every Western New Yorker. It is the story of Roy Hobbs, played by Robert Redford, the “35-year old rookie” ball player, and for the film, Buffalo became 1930s New York, happily.

“With shooting nearly complete [in September 1983],” he writes, “a crowd of over 12,000 converged on the Old Rockpile, the rusted 45,000-seat stadium and site of the most filming. Wearing a baseball jacket for Hobbs’ team, the New York Knights, Redford thanked the crowd for the warm reception the cast and crew had received.”

(I interviewed Bisons owner Bob Rich for Spree back in July 2011, and he discussed the filming a bit, and Forgotten Buffalo has a nice tour of the shooting locations.)

Locals still talk about that magical time, but as Matthew’s article explains, it was one if many brushes with Hollywood. Consider:

  • “[In 1896] Mitchell H. Mark opened in Buffalo what’s purported to be one of the nation’s first purpose-built movie theaters.”
  • “Several Edison videographers created at least 20 films at the Pan-American Exposition [of 1901].”
  • Buffalo was home to “film exchanges” for major studios like MGM, 20th Century Fox, and Paramount. As Matthew writes. In 1941, the Courier-Express noted that “[f]ew people realize how important a movie center Buffalo is.”
  • “In late 1917, the first Buffalo-based production company, the appropriately names Buffalo Motion Picture Company, announced its premier film, a ‘drama of motherly love’ called ‘The Brink of Eternity.’”
  • The Roger Moore-era James Bond film “The Man With the Golden Gun” “featured a stunt digitally designed by Cornell Aeronautical Labs in Buffalo,” and the car still sits in a building in Hamburg.

Interesting, no? There is plenty more in the article, including Harvey and Bob Weinstein’s Buffalo years, the city’s role as a testing lab for Todd-AO, and even the recent filming of “The Best Man’s Holiday” at Ralph Wilson Stadium.

The latter, coupled with the news of a Matthew Broderick movie currently being shot in WNY, make clear that even on a small scale, Buffalo remains involved with filmdom. We need more ambassadors like Robert Redford, who, Matthew says, recalled “the ease with which the people and the place made this experience … I really like this city.”

Photo is a lobby card for the film; that is Parkside Candy in the background

Wednesday Round-Up: Coppola, Cannes, Tarkovsky, and More


I feel like Wednesday is a good day for another round-up, and we start with some very cool news involving the man I like to call FFC:

  • The Hollywood Reporter says Francis Ford Coppola is working on “an untitled film that will chronicle an Italian-American family and span from the 1930s to the 1960s,” and that, my friends, is intriguing. In recent years, Coppola has made mention of mounting an epic drama (not his abandoned “Megalopolis”) and it sounds as if this could be it. Coppola’s most recent film, “Twixt,” was a fascinating mess. My colleague Jared and I saw it at TIFF 2011, and as I put it way back when, “while it was a joy hearing Francis Ford Coppola discuss his horror film ‘Twixt’ at a post world-premiere Q-and-A, he has made what is probably the worst film of his career. (‘Jack’ was scarier.)” Completists and the curious will be pleased to know that the Val Kilmer-starrer is coming to Blu-ray and DVD sometime in 2013.
  • Another interesting bit of FFC, also from The Hollywood Reporter, finds him discussing his role writing the screenplay for Robert Redford’s 1974 “Great Gatsby.”
  • Speaking of Robert Redford, the Cannes consensus seems to be that he gives an Oscar-worthy performance in J.C. Chandor’s “All is Lost,” the “Margin Call” director’s almost-dialogue-free survival story.
  • The last two films from director Claire Denis rank among my favorites in their respective years of release — “35 Shots of Rum” in 2008, and “White Material” in 2009 and that excites me for her latest, the controversial “Bastards.” As Mike D’Angelo put it for The AV Club, “Word from the first screening of Claire Denis’ ‘Bastards,’ inexplicably playing in Un Certain Regard rather than in Competition, was that it was nigh-well incomprehensible.” D’Angelo gave the film a B, comparing it with Olivier Assayas’s “Demonlover” (a film that’s sure to come up on this site sooner or later); it has already drawn a very, very mixed response, and I can’t wait to see it for myself.
  • Film Comment talks “Behind the Candelabra,” which premieres Sunday night on HBO and screened at Cannes to strong reviews.
  • I’m a bit crestfallen at the negative reactions to Nicholas Winding Refn’s “Only God Forgives” — yep, it got booed — although, quite honestly, I’m not shocked, either. Interestingly, Peter Bradshaw raves in The Guardian, but … That’s about the only truly positive review I’ve read so far.
  • Since I wrote about it a few days ago, “Blood Ties” has been picked up for American distribution by Lionsgate.
  • Manohla Dargis talks Cannes 2013, specifically the Coens’ “comedy in a melancholic key.”
  • Did you know that all seven of the late Andrei Tarkovsky’s films can be watched online, free?
  • And last, but certainly not least, it’s never too early for some Toronto Film Festival news: Deadline reports the Godfrey Reggio-directed “Visitors,” featuring music by Philip Glass and presented by Steven Soderbergh, will have its world premiere on September 8 at the suitably ornate VISA Screening Room at the Elgin Theatre. Reggio is the director of the much-loved “Koyaanisqatsi.”


Photo from The AV Club