CASTING STUDY: WILD AT HEART
If you were in high school in the late 1980s and wanted to see Eraserhead, you would still have to draft a friend with a car to drive to the nearest college town for a late night screening. That’s why it seemed like such a cultural sea change when, on the heels of his success with Twin Peaks, David Lynch’s adaptation of Barry Gifford’s Wild at Heart hit the multiplexes in 1990. Like all of Lynch’s films of that decade, Wild at Heart was critically reviled, even booed when it won the Palme d’Or at Cannes. That didn’t really matter then. Cannes was, and is, a long way from Port Huron, Michigan, where there was a theater with two dollar matinees. It was August when the film came out and the theater was air-conditioned, while my family’s house was not, and I believe I saw Wild at Heart five or six times.
Full disclosure, I alternated with viewings of Total Recall.
Gifford’s novel is a beat poet’s noir—the plot is a mythically skimpy one of a girl and boy on the run, but the language winds along a two-lane blacktop through southern gothic and contemporary underworlds. Lynch’s film riffs with the novel, rather than adapts it, resulting in a lunatic, hyperviolent tribute to, as the director explained in interviews at the time, “finding love in hell.” With young love thwarted and several musical numbers, it’s his version of an Elvis movie.
Lula was looking up at the back of Sailor’s head, admiring his curly chestnut hair. “Honey?” she said. “I sure am glad that prison haircut is on its way to growin’ out. Gives me somethin’ to grab hold of while we’re makin’ love.”
“You remind me of my daddy, you know?” said Lula. “Mama told me he liked skinny women whose breasts were just a bit too big for their bodies. He had a long nose, too, like yours. Did I ever tell you how he died?”
Gifford’s ex-con is like a sinner from a Flannery O’Connor story but rendered in comic book halftones. While Nicholas Cage does not instantly come to mind as a potential performer, one thing he is not often given credit for is his level of meta-commitment to his better roles. He’s not just Nicolas Cage playing Sailor. He’s Nicolas Cage playing Elvis playing Sailor just as he was Nicolas Cage playing Adam West playing Bid Daddy in Kick Ass.
Lula Pace Fortune
Lula sat up and fixed a pillow behind her back. Her long black hair…fanned out behind her on the powder blue pillowcase like a raven’s wings. Her large grey eyes fascinated Sailor. When he was on the road gang he had thought about Lula’s eyes, swum in them as if they were great cool, grey lakes with small violet islands in the middle. They kept him sane.
“Five years ago?” Lula said. “When I was fifteen?”
“Sometimes I feel just like one of Dracula’s wives. You know, those skinny women in see-through robes with long hair and fingernails who follow the Count around and do what he says.”
Lula brushed away her bangs and frowned… She’d had her eyelids tinted the day before and she wasn’t sure that she liked the effect. They made her eyes look sunken or something, she thought.
Laura Dern finds in her performance as Lula a kind of complete freedom through fits and spells, like a Tennessee Williams character but one that gives in to all those unquenchable desires. Temperature wise, Dern is the opposite of Lula’s observation of herself in the novel as a bride of Dracula in high contrast black and white.
Bobby laughed. He had a lopsided grin that exposed only three brownish front teeth on the upper right side of his mouth. He had dark, wavy hair and a small, thin nose that bent slightly left. His eyebrows were long and tapered and looked as if they’d been drawn on. What frightened Lula about Bobby Peru were his eyes: flat black, they reflected no light. They were like heavy shades, she thought, that prevented people from seeing inside. Lula guessed that he was about the same age as Sparky and Buddy, but Bobby was the kind of person who would look the same when he was forty-five as he did when he was twenty.
In the novel Bobby Peru is described with an air of slow southern rot. Willem DeFoe’s performance as Bobby in the film version is closer to animalistic. He works the reptilian body language, unleashes predatory mood swings, and steals the second half of the film.
After reading the book for the first time this month, I was struck by the beautiful device of Lula and Sailor telling each other their stories of previous romance, both tragic and comedic. Talking out narratives is how people fall in love—or at least into intimacy—in actual life. While the book and film differ in scope, Lynch stayed true to that love, and hell, on screen.