Friday, February 26, 2016

Now That You’ve Seen Jessica Lange in American Horror Story, Go Watch King Kong

King Kong was first remade in 1976, a full 43 years after the original version, though the big guy had never really left the American cinematic landscape and had even fought Godzilla in 1962.  However the 1976 version was a big budget feature produced by Dino De Laurentis and introduced a 26-year-old Jessica Lange in her first big screen role.
Screen legend Charles Grodin plays Fred Wilson, an oil company executive chasing rumors of big deposits on the mysterious, permanently fog-laden Skull Island, somewhere in the South China Sea.  Jeff Bridges, aka The Dude, joins him on the boat as a stowaway primatologist Jack Prescott and later they conveniently rescue Jessica Lange as Dwan from a life raft, an shipwrecked aspiring actress floating on the waves like a mermaid in a slinky black evening dress.  
“You know, like Dawn,” Dwan explains, “except that I switched two letters to make it more memorable..."
If you are accustomed to Jessica Lange’s hard-edged roles as bitter witches and venomous nuns in American Horror Story you will be pleased to see her doing her best breathy-voiced Marilyn Monroe impression in King Kong.  She lights up the screen with an old school glamour that seems nostalgic even in a movie from the 70’s, and perfectly compliments the rapid screwball dialogue between Grodin and Bridges.
There’s a certain cultural insensitivity in all the King Kong movies that you just have to accept or it will ruin your viewing experience, just like Mickey Rooney’s horrifying portrayal of Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s or basically all of Huck Finn.  We are here to see a movie about a giant ape that’s worshiped as a god by a tribe of stereotypical Africans, on an island that has dinosaurs.  I mean, if you spend all your time with you arms folded being offended, you’ll miss the fight scene between King Kong and a giant snake.
Skull Island in this version of King Kong is real, gloriously analog, and filmed on Kauai.  There are some obvious matte prints of the giant wall surrounding the village, but you also get stuntmen climbing on a life-sized version of said wall.  And speaking of life-sized, Kong was performed by a guy in a suit, and an animatronic 40-foot King Kong, complete with a massive face and hand for Jessica to act against.  Incidentally, the guy in the ape suit was Rick Baker, who would go on to win an Oscar for makeup for AnAmerican Werewolf in London (1981). 
Back in New York, Kong’s rampage ends up atop the World Trade Center, which was only three years old in 1976.  It was a refreshing update from the Empire State Building at the time, and now it serves as a nostalgic and poignant reminder of the pre 9/11 world.  He’s shot down by military helicopters instead of WWI biplanes, and falls to his death in what will eventually become the September 11 Memorial & Museum 36 years later.

I suppose we do need to compare this movie with Peter Jackson’s overblown version, and all I have to say on the subject is Naomi Watts ain’t no Jessica Lange.  One flaw that has always bothered me is that they never mention or explain the logistics how they got the big guy off the island and onto the boat.  That was the most disappointing part of Peter Jackson’s King Kong (2005) except for, all of it.

my first novel? thanks for asking:) I wrote a 4 book supernatural martial arts series concerning the ongoing feud between a group of kung-fu killer witches in san francsico’s chinatown.