Screenplay by Walter Newman, adapted from the novel by Richard Price
Like many novelists turned screenwriters, Richard Price first got involved with Hollywood through a screen adaptation of one of his books–1976’s Bloodbrothers, as it happens. Price isn’t credited as having worked on the script for this adaptation, or on that of the 1979 movie version of The Wanderers, so one could question whether or not those films even belong on this blog. But, first of all, from what I understand of how the film industry works, a screenplay with Price’s name on it isn’t necessarily any closer to Price’s ultimate creative vision than someone else’s adaptation of his book. And, second of all, these films are worth considering both in terms of how they presented Price’s work to a mass audience and how they affected Price’s outlook on the film industry.
Bloodbrothers apparently did not affect that outlook positively.
Back when it was still a comic book rather than a magazine, MAD once ran a feature called “BOOK!/MOVIE!,” in which it showed scenes from a made-up novel side-by-side with scenes from that novel’s made-up film adaptation. The joke was that everything in the novel was sordid and edgy, while everything in the film was sanitized and toned down for a mass audience: The book’s protagonist was an unkempt sex maniac, but his screen counterpart was a neatly groomed Cary Grant lookalike who slept in a separate bed from his wife, etc. Bloodbrothers (the movie) could itself be considered sordid and edgy, and maybe was intended to be, given its profanity, squirmy sexual content and occasional nudity. But it’s still been noticeably Hollywood-ized relative to its source material, sometimes so much so that “BOOK!/MOVIE!” doesn’t even seem like much of an exaggeration.
The plot remains more or less the same: Stony de Coco (Richard Gere, fresh out of Days of Heaven and two years away from his star-making role in American Gigolo) is a Bronx teenager torn between his father’s insistence that he join the electrician’s union, his own dreams of working with children, and his perceived responsibility to protect his younger brother Albert from their abusive mother.
But the sanding down of the book’s edges becomes apparent as early as the first scene, in which Stony’s uncle Chubby goes on an ill-fated blind date. In the book, the date falls apart because the woman can’t help bringing up her rectal cancer; here, she’s just an overzealous holy roller. Later on Stony confronts his mother by threateningly punching the wall instead of actually hitting her in the face, as he did in the novel. And the book’s casual racism has been mostly removed, in addition to its grossness and violence: At one point Chubby relates the story of his son’s death and how he came to associate the event with a newspaper headline about Willie Mays. In the film, the scene’s button line is “I used to love that Willie Mays until then.” In the book it was “I never did like that black bastard.”
Those examples are indicative of the movie’s more buttoned-up approach but not that problematic in and of themselves. There are other parts, though, where the adaptation’s restraint seriously hurts the story’s effectiveness. For example, one of the book’s most powerful scenes shows Stony and Albert’s mother Marie harassing Albert into a breakdown. Her abuse is both emotional and physical; at one point she lifts him up off the floor by his hair. It’s horrible. But here she just kind of freaks out, beating her own chest and wailing until the kid faints for no apparent reason. We know we’re supposed to take the scene seriously because of the horror movie music playing on the soundtrack, but it just comes off as comical, which makes it hard to take that whole subplot and its stakes seriously.
And then there’s the ending! The conclusion of the book seemed like the part most likely to be altered by Hollywood, and indeed it was, to an extent that borders on self-parody.
In all fairness, you shouldn’t judge a film adaptation on how faithful it is to its source. I’m focusing on how this movie differs from Price’s novel because I’m interested in how it fits into Price’s body of work, but it could totally disregard or contradict the book and still be good on its own terms. And, judged in and of itself, it is impressive in some ways. The acting occasionally dips into scenery-chewing–Gere in particular often seems to be doing an Italian version of James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause–but the cast is stocked with talented performers whose energy and charm make certain moments genuinely touching. The production values also seem pretty high; the cinematography is consistently cleanly composed and picturesque.
But that polished, professional approach also makes the movie feel artificial. The lighting is too neat, the studio sets and green-screened backgrounds too obvious. Bloodbrothers looks dated now, and I’m guessing it did in 1978 too. Both director Robert Mulligan (To Kill a Mockingbird) and screenwriter Walter Newman (Ace in the Hole) started out in the ’50s and were at the tail ends of their careers here, and they produced a film that seems like it could have come out decades earlier. Contrast their style with the loose, sweaty naturalism of, say, Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets (1973), and it’s obvious which aesthetic matches Price’s material better.
Fortunately, the aptness of that match would soon become apparent to Scorsese himself.
As for Price, he was vocally unhappy with this film, calling it “Hollywood’s juicy fantasy of what working-class New York life might be” in a New York Times article published less than a year after the movie’s release. His involvement in the film industry would only increase from this point on, but it would always be colored by a certain wariness and cynicism perhaps best summed up by another quote from that article: “[Y]ou take your money and you take your chances.”
A few other notes:
• Bloodbrothers is the first of several films I’ll be reviewing here that had A-list talent both behind and in front of the camera, but have for some reason gone more or less out of print. This one is at least available on DVD, but only through the manufactured-on-demand Warner Archive Collection. It’s funny: This was clearly intended to be a prestige picture in its time, and yet now you can only get it on print-to-order DVD-Rs, while ’70s horror flicks like The Legend of Hell House and Squirm are given sumptuous Blu-ray releases by Scream Factory. Think about that the next time you have to sit through three hours of Oscar bait WWII drama.
• There are a bunch of recognizable “that guy/girl” character actors in the film’s cast, including Paul Sorvino (Goodfellas) as Chubby, Tony Lo Bianco (The French Connection) as Stony’s father Tommy, Marilu Henner (Taxi) as “Three-Finger Annette,” Danny Aiello (Do the Right Thing) as a construction foreman, and a young Robert Englund (the original Freddy Krueger) as Stony’s romantic rival Mott.
• Elmer Bernstein’s funky orchestral theme music definitely contributes to the film’s over-produced Hollywood feel, but it’s pretty great in its own right.
• The foreign releases of Bloodbrothers seem to have had some pretty awesome alternate titles and poster art. Here’s the art for the Spanish release, Stony, Sangre Caliente, which translates roughly to Stony, Warmblooded:
But my favorite version might be the Italian one, Una Strada Chiamata Domani or A Street Called Tomorrow, the tagline of which most clearly indicates how different the film was from Price’s book: “La storia di un vincitore,” or “The story of a winner.”
Next week: Richard Price explores the New York singles scene in his 1978 novel Ladies’ Man.