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Cult Classics Revisited: KING OF THE GYPSIES (1978)

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KING OF THE GYPSIES
(US - 1978)

Written and directed by Frank Pierson. Cast: Sterling Hayden, Shelley Winters, Susan Sarandon, Judd Hirsch, Eric Roberts, Brooke Shields, Annette O'Toole, Annie Potts, Michael V. Gazzo, Antonia Rey, Stephen Mendillo, Roy Brocksmith, Matthew Labyorteaux, Danielle Brisebois. (R, 112 mins)

It's easy to forget that there was once a time in the early 1980s when critics were routinely hailing Eric Roberts as one of the greatest actors of his generation.  His performances as tragic Playboy Playmate Dorothy Stratten's estranged, possessive husband and eventual murderer Paul Snider in Bob Fosse's STAR 80 (1983) and as a dim-witted, small-time criminal in Stuart Rosenberg's THE POPE OF GREENWICH VILLAGE (1984) showed a raw, intense talent unlike any other leading men of the time, with the possible exception of his POPE co-star Mickey Rourke. Roberts wasn't generating big box office numbers but there was no denying that he was the real deal and an actor's actor. He received international acclaim for Yugoslav auteur Dusan Makavejev's offbeat comedy THE COCA-COLA KID (1985) and in just his sixth film, scored a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for Andrei Konchalovsky's RUNAWAY TRAIN (also 1985).  He lost to Don Ameche in COCOON, and that Oscar nod would prove to be his career pinnacle.  Word of his being "difficult" along with drug abuse and instances of assaulting a police officer and domestic violence would tarnish his image over the next decade, the same decade that saw his younger sister Julia, from whom he would soon be estranged for many years, skyrocket to the kind of worldwide fame and fan adoration that he would never receive.  Roberts wasn't exactly blackballed out of Hollywood, but the accolades that culminated in a potential Oscar for RUNAWAY TRAIN led to nothing more than the little-seen romantic comedy NOBODY'S FOOL (1986), the period drama BLOOD RED (where he used his clout to get Julia a small role in her first acting job), which was filmed in 1986 and went straight-to-video three years later, and some made-for-TV movies. By 1989, Roberts was playing a replacement Tommy Chong to Cheech Marin in RUDE AWAKENING and starring in the kickboxing actioner BEST OF THE BEST, while Julia was getting her first Oscar nod for STEEL MAGNOLIAS and was about to star in PRETTY WOMAN.  In just a decade, Roberts went from being the Marlon Brando of his day to the misbehaving, troublemaking older brother of America's Sweetheart and one of the signature faces of straight-to-VHS in the 1990s.




But back in 1978, 22-year-old Roberts came storming out of the gate, earning a Golden Globe nomination for Best Motion Picture Acting Debut for his performance in KING OF THE GYPSIES, written and directed by Frank Pierson.  Pierson got his start writing for TV shows like HAVE GUN, WILL TRAVEL and NAKED CITY, and created the acclaimed but short-lived 1971 James Garner TV series NICHOLS.  He received Oscar nominations for his CAT BALLOU (1965) and COOL HAND LUKE (1967) screenplays and also wrote the Sidney Lumet apartment heist favorite THE ANDERSON TAPES (1971).  Pierson won a Screenplay Oscar for Lumet's DOG DAY AFTERNOON (1975), which got him enough clout to tackle the 1976 remake of A STAR IS BORN with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson. That was his second directing effort, the first being 1970's THE LOOKING GLASS WAR, his strangely inert adaptation of the John Le Carre spy novel that's best known for a brawl-for-the-ages between Christopher Jones and Anthony Hopkins, but stumbles badly in the second half when Pierson turns it into his own tedious version of an ennui-drenched Antonioni film.  But after blockbusters like DOG DAY AFTERNOON and A STAR IS BORN, he was essentially able to make whatever he wanted, which led him to KING OF THE GYPSIES, a very loose adaptation of the non-fiction book by Serpico and The Valachi Papers author Peter Maas (the credits read "Suggested by the book..." rather than "Based on the book..."), and by "very loose," I mean "uses the title and little else." What Pierson's film does is basically take the concept of the modern-day gypsy--and all the stereotypes that come with it--and fashion it into a de facto reworking of THE GODFATHER with gypsies in place of gangsters.  It's not a bad idea as far as commercial entertainment goes, but, like THE LOOKING GLASS WAR, KING OF THE GYPSIES starts out strong and and loses its way.


Shot in NYC in early 1978 in the snowy aftermath of the legendary blizzard that dumped on the midwest and moved east, KING OF THE GYPSIES tells the story of a gypsy tribe led by the fierce and ruthless King Zharko Stepanowicz (Sterling Hayden) and his wife Queen Rachel (Shelley Winters).  Years earlier, Zharko abducted Rose, the teenage daughter of rival tribe leader Spiro Giorgio (Michael V. Gazzo), when Giorgio tried to back out of a deal that would've seen Rose marry Zharko's despicable son Groffo (when Giorgio justifies his actions by saying "She hates him!" old world Zharko replies "Since when did 'like' or 'not like' have anything to do with marriage?").  When a tribal council rules against Zharko, the old man refuses to be "fucked like a $3 whore" and takes what he believes is his.  Eventually, Rose (Susan Sarandon) enters a loveless marriage with drunken, abusive Groffo (Judd Hirsch, right around the time TAXI was taking off) and they have a son, Dave. Growing up, young Dave assists his mother in scams and thefts as Groffo continues to be an drunken lout earning the perpetual disdain of his father, who sees in Dave everything Groffo is not.  As a young adult (Roberts appears 40 minutes in), Dave gets by on insurance money he scams from staging car accidents and slip-and-falls in grocery stores, but he has bigger dreams outside of the sheltered gypsy world. He gets a job as a singing waiter in a restaurant and starts dating pretty Sharon (Annette O'Toole), but King Zharko is determined to pull him back into the family and marry Persa (Annie Potts, who gets the film's most 1978 bit of dialogue with "His family's got a Betamax!"). Zharko is dying, and recognizing that Groffo would be the Joffrey Baratheon of gypsy kings, wants Dave to be his successor. When the old man passes and Dave holds the medallion and ring signifying his kingship, Groffo is so enraged that he hires two men to kill his son.  They fail, and Dave gets back at his father by attempting a daring rescue of his 12-year-old sister Tita (Brooke Shields), who Groffo's just sold for $6000 (that he's already lost at the track) in a hastily-brokered deal with another tribe leader (Roy Brocksmith) who's arranging a marriage for his own very Groffo-like son.  The story then turns into an almost TAXI DRIVER redux as a shotgun-toting Dave goes full vigilante against his father.


David Grisman's score has cues that recall the work of Nino Rota, but the GODFATHER parallels throughout KING OF THE GYPSIES go beyond that:  Zharko is Vito Corleone, Dave is Michael (though he's even more reluctant to get involved, he eventually fulfills that role), and Groffo displays some characteristics of Sonny, though Sonny's worst offense is that he was impulsive and bad-tempered, even though he thought he was doing the right thing for the family. Groffo puts himself first and has no redeeming qualities, whether he's selling his daughter, gambling away his money, or beating Rose, ripping her shirt off and violently shoving Dave's face against her bare breasts in some imagined Oedipal outrage. The very presence of Hayden and Gazzo is another nod, with Hayden's role as corrupt cop McCluskey in THE GODFATHER and Gazzo's Oscar-nominated performance as Frankie Pentangeli in THE GODFATHER PART II. The back end of KING OF THE GYPSIES reeks of either Pierson dropping the ball or Paramount and/or producer Dino De Laurentiis demanding a big, crowd-pleasing finale.  This is a rare instance of a film that would probably be much stronger if it was an hour longer.  Pierson wants this to be an epic, but once Zharko dies, it seems as if he started panicking and realized he only had 30 minutes to wrap this thing up.  When Hayden exits the film, everything after feels rushed and incomplete and the ending is terrible, with Roberts' voiceover--never a good sign--not very confidently mumbling "Maybe I can lead them into the 20th century," demonstrating all the craft, forethought and emotional resonance of a "Poochie died on his way back to his home planet" quick fix.  KING OF THE GYPSIES also has no idea what to do with its female characters--only Sarandon's Rose is given any significant screen time, while the rest are underwritten or simply vanish from the movie (Winters has nothing to do).  Even in the case of Shields' Tita, whose fate should change the course of the story, it's like she was never even there.  It's difficult to tell if this is deliberate, as in the context of this film's depiction of gypsy women as a commodity, or if Pierson simply forgot about her and assumed audiences would too as he turned Dave into a gypsy Charles Bronson.  All of this goes to illustrate that Pierson was a much better screenwriter than a director. Pierson's writing in the hands of a guy like Lumet produces celluloid magic.  Pierson's writing in the hands of Pierson the director seems to show him at odds with himself.  By the time Pierson died in 2012 at the age of 87, he went out on top as a producer on hugely popular TV shows like THE GOOD WIFE and MAD MEN.  He also served as the President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences from 2001 to 2005, and before that, directed acclaimed Showtime and HBO films like SOMEBODY HAS TO SHOOT THE PICTURE (1990), CITIZEN COHN (1992), TRUMAN (1995), DIRTY PICTURES (2000), and CONSPIRACY (2001).  It's also worth noting that he didn't write any of those cable films, which again supports the notion that Pierson was at his best when he didn't have to make directorial decisions that undermined and compromised his own scripts.


If you've seen Roberts in enough shitty movies over the last 25 years, going back to his early days as an ambitious, rising star is a revelation.  Roberts was doing the kind of acting that made Brando and James Dean legends.  He has such an unusual presence in films like this, STAR 80, and THE POPE OF GREENWICH VILLAGE that it's easy to see why some may have found him off-putting in the era of post-JAWS, post-STAR WARS blockbusters.  Young Roberts was the kind of actor who would've flourished in the late '60s and early '70s.  He's terrific as the conflicted would-be king, torn between family (mainly his respect for his grandfather and his concern for his baby sister) and his own dreams ("I'd kinda like to be a surgeon, you know...help people" he haplessly tells Zharko in a scene Roberts and Hayden improvised that's almost an homage to the "I coulda been a contender!" speech in ON THE WATERFRONT).  There are numerous instances where he recalls both Brando and Dean in the way he seems uncomfortable in his own skin and lashes out because of an inability to articulate his emotions, whether he just starts punching a wall or hurling multiple coffee cups across the room.  He's occasionally mannered and jumpy, but it's an extremely impressive debut.  A look at Roberts'IMDb page is a thoroughly depressing experience. His '90s decline still included supporting roles in hit movies like FINAL ANALYSIS (1992) and THE SPECIALIST (1994), with a good lead every now and again (1996's IT'S MY PARTY got him some acclaim but led nowhere), and in recent years, he occasionally turned up in a major film like THE DARK KNIGHT (2008) or THE EXPENDABLES (2010), but these days, apart from sporadic one-shot guest spots on TV shows like CSI, JUSTIFIED, and GLEE, Tom Six's upcoming THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE III is about as high-profile as he gets. He seems incapable of turning down an offer, resulting in bit parts in scores of films that probably won't even get released and probably shouldn't.  How else does one explain Roberts having 66 credits for 2014 alone? And 42 in 2013?  Those are the kinds of cameo gigs where you're on the set for half a day, tops, or where you can literally phone in your performance as the voice of A TALKING CAT!?!  Roberts gave up years ago and is simply taking advantage of name recognition for quick cash (of course, he managed to squeeze in a season on CELEBRITY REHAB, and he and his wife Eliza just appeared on a CELEBRITY WIFE-SWAP episode that also served to alert the world to the continued existence of Robin Leach and Joan Severance).  There's no shame in that and he knows the stuff he's doing is garbage, but it's sad that it's come to that when you see the dynamic, hungry young man in KING OF THE GYPSIES.  Hollywood doesn't know what to do with unconventional actors like Roberts and Rourke.  Their star vehicles bomb and execs usually have them play villains and psychos and the actors get frustrated, sometimes acting out by deliberately sabotaging themselves and their implosions become self-fulfilling prophecies. Obviously, Roberts' career didn't pan out the way he'd hoped, he's burned every bridge along the way and, like Rourke, he'd very likely squander another chance if he got it, but guys like Roberts and Rourke are survivors. Roberts is pushing 60 and shouldn't have to schlep this hard, appearing in so many Z-grade turds that a cameo in Uwe Boll's ASSAULT ON WALL STREET actually qualifies as one of his better recent assignments. Sure, he's always working and he probably lives comfortably, but there must be a serious filmmaker out there with a late-career-defining role for Eric Roberts.  Everybody loves a comeback. Wouldn't it be nice to see him in the kind of WRESTLER-type triumph worthy of his talents?



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