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The Lens: When Hollywood met St. Louis

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 19, 2009 - Because movie folk so seldom visit us, St. Louis was understandably abuzz during the filming of “Up in the Air,” but our town hasn’t been entirely ignored by Hollywood in the past.

Although it’s undeniable that stars of George Clooney’s blinding intensity rarely shine for extended periods in these parts, we’ve seen our modest share of film shoots, including “The Great St. Louis Bank Robbery” (1959), “Hoodlum Priest” (1961), “Escape From New York” (1981), “The Big Brass Ring” (1999), “The Treatment” (2001) and, more recently, “Game of Their Lives” (2005), “Steel City” (2006), “Saving Shiloh” (2006), “Alice Upside Down” (2007) and “Meet Bill” (2007).

Small or significant portions of other films – e.g., “National Lampoon’s Vacation” (1983), “Manhunter” (1986), “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” (1987), “American Flyers” (1995), “Larger Than Life” (1996), “The Lucky Ones” (2008) and the upcoming “The Informant” (2009) – also were shot in the city and environs. And of course, we’ve seen an increasing number of locally based productions, work that Cinema St. Louis regularly features in the St. Louis Filmmakers Showcase, which runs this year from July 18-23.

A few of the films enumerated above will have their diehard partisans, but “White Palace” (1990) and “King of the Hill” (1993) – both based on works by writers with deep local roots – are clearly among the most significant St. Louis-shot productions. They’re also the two about which I wrote most extensively. Accordingly, we’re offering a three-part look back at the films, beginning with a review of “White Palace” that was originally published in the Oct. 23, 1990, Riverfront Times. Future posts will feature a long on-set piece on and review of “King of the Hill.”

A note or two: Glenn Savan, the author of the novel on which “White Palace” is based, died in 2003 when he was only 49. Savan, a native St. Louisan, had both Parkinson’s disease and degenerative joint problems, which sadly limited both his life and his literary output. His only other novel is “Goldman’s Anatomy,” published in 1993. I regret that I can’t provide Savan’s “disparaging comments” about the film version of “White Palace,” which I reference in the review’s first paragraph, because I don’t have access to an online database of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat’s archives. If an enterprising Lens reader would like to provide the relevant quotes, I’d love to hear from you.

Off-white Palace

Though author Glenn Savan may rightly disagree – as his disparaging comments in Jerry Berger’s Sunday column indicate – Hollywood’s been as faithful to his “White Palace” as its philandering spirit allows: It just can’t help screwing around. The book’s adapters – director Luis Mandoki and screenwriters Ted Tally and Alvin Sargent – pare some muscle with the fat, but they don’t butcher the job, and the novel’s central relationship, its meat (to extend the appropriately crude metaphor), remains largely intact.

The novelistic details, however – the subtleties of characterization and setting – are unceremoniously sliced and flung in the Dumpster. Those civic boosters lined up for a look at St. Louis-specific landmarks and character traits, for example, will be watching a very short parade: some credit-sequence establishing shots (the Arch and riverfront), a few exteriors (a glimpse of the Fox) and passing references to Dogtown and hoosiers.

The film hasn’t a real sense of place – a strength of the novel, at least to us locals – and although St. Louis looks just fine, it’s a generic Midwest urban locale: a town like any other. That’s scarcely a major failing, since the film’s plot is easily transferable (every city has tracks with their attendant right and wrong sides) and only parochial St. Louisans are likely to care. But that loss of specificity is indicative of the film’s general reductiveness, its narrowing of focus and the accompanying distortions.

As noted, the odd couple in “White Palace’s” foreground – yuppie Max (James Spader), the well-to-do ad man, and hoosier Nora (Susan Sarandon), the down-and-out White Palace order taker – at least bear a close familial resemblance to the characters as they were pictured in print; it’s the background that fuzzes and blurs. In the film, Max and Nora exist in a disconcerting vacuum, surrounded by suffocatingly airless space. This is partially intentional: Max, who’s lost his young wife, and Nora, who’s suffered the death of her son, have legitimate voids in their lives, and they fill each other’s empty places. That’s the basis of their relationship, the one area in which their otherwise separate worlds touch.

But the movie strips everything from Max and Nora, removing the last vestiges of a support structure. Max’s pals (and, for that matter, the entire Jewish community) are viciously caricatured – they’re such noxious jerks that you can’t imagine why he hangs with them – and Nora seems nearly friendless, her only acquaintances the women she works with at White Palace. Their families are also dysfunctional: Max’s mom annoys him, Nora’s sister vexs her (although, in a rather pat reversal, Max sees the good in Sis and Nora relates to Mom).

Max’s work, prominent in the book, is mostly ignored or, when discussed, implicitly denigrated – he eventually leaves advertising for the allegedly nobler profession of teaching – and Nora’s job is simply dismissed as a joke. In stacking the deck this way, the movie ensures a good hand: Max and Nora will end up a pair because they don’t have anything or anyone else.

All of which allows “White Palace” to avoid resolving, even tentatively, its major conflict: the class differences between Max and Nora. Issues of class are seldom raised in American film, and when they are, they’re dealt with superficially.

“White Palace,” to its great credit, attempts to portray realistically the wide gaps (educational, cultural, financial) that continue to separate all the supposed equals in American society. And it does so in a fairly non-paternalistic fashion: Nora is not reshaped (as in, say, the offensively simplistic “Pretty Woman”) and made to fit more comfortably into Max’s "better" world. (The film, in this respect, improves somewhat on the novel, which has a hint of “Pygmalion” about it.)

Nora emerges as by far the stronger and more perceptive of the two: Although not book-smart, she’s intuitively intelligent, sharply observant. She’s also engagingly spontaneous, a characteristic in which the grievously anal-retentive Max is distinctly lacking at the outset (his learning to loosen up traces the film’s dramatic arc).

“White Palace’s” admirably fair-minded treatment of Nora, however, doesn’t excuse its skirting of the central problem: How are those gaps between the lower and middle and upper classes bridged? There’s certainly common ground to be found, but the film doesn’t conduct much of a search and what it turns up is sex and death.

Max and Nora, and the movie, duck the big questions: They leave town, abandoning friends and family. In “White Palace’s” Hollywood finish, Max finally commits by taking the sexual initiative and laying Nora out on a table in a public restaurant for a passionate embrace. The novel’s end, by contrast, is guardedly optimistic, with none of the film’s swooning romanticism. Kiss and make up, says the movie. Everything will work out fine.

There’s much to like in “White Palace,” of course, most prominently Sarandon’s uninhibited performance. Nora’s an older woman, and Sarandon bravely shows her own age while still communicating the earthy sensuality to which Max responds. And Spader’s fine as well, although his muffled, swathed-in-cotton performance is a bit too reminiscent of his approach in “sex, lies, and videotape.”

Finally, however, the movie disappoints with its missed opportunities, its crass stereotypes. Deserving of praise for asking the tough questions, “White Palace” fails by providing such easy answers.

The Lens is the blog of Cinema St. Louis, hosted by the Beacon.