Why Do People Still Care About True Romance? Let Us Count The Reasons…
I recently attended the first annual True Romance Fest in Burbank, and I’ll have more on that soon, but first, I thought it was worth trying to explain: what is it about a movie that makes people love it enough to devote an entire festival to it, two decades after the fact, especially one that doesn’t involve aliens or ray guns like the usual cult cosplay fodder? I can’t speak for everyone, but I can tell you why I went, and what I learned from re-watching it three or four times in the course of a weekend.
Released a little less than 21 years ago, True Romance was the first script Quentin Tarantino wrote to end up getting made (Reservoir Dogs came out earlier, but Tarantino had written the script for True Romance first), and one of the few films he wrote that he didn’t direct (Tony Scott apparently loved both scripts, and Tarantino told Scott he could direct one). As a budding film nerd turned on by Pulp Fiction, I remember buying a double book of the scripts for True Romance and Reservoir Dogs at Tower Records, my all-time favorite junior high hang spot.
It was probably the first time I thought about a movie beyond “awesome!” or “meh,” and seeing it on the page laid bare all of those odd Tarantino-isms I might otherwise have missed. Stuff like “everything from a diddle-eyed Joe to a damned if a I know,” and guys named “Toothpick Vic” (a henchmen in True Romance and a nickname for Mr. Blonde in Reservoir Dogs) and “Lance” (Eric Stoltz in Pulp Fiction and Clarence’s unseen boss in True Romance).
Rough Draft Tarantino
What jumped out at me most and still does now is how strongly Tarantino the writer comes through without Tarantino the director there to soften him. Have you ever written something, thought it was finished, and then, just when you were about to send it out, ended up re-writing it 10 more times? Just putting yourself in the brain space of someone experiencing your work for the first time forces you to imagine yourself how others might see you. Even if you’ve already spent weeks working and reworking something, you find yourself ironing out all the rough edges that were, strangely, invisible until five seconds earlier. I imagine directing your own script is like that. Tarantino the director normally gets to keep tweaking Tarantino the writer. While Tony Scott certainly had some tweaks of his own (making the non-linear narrative linear, giving it a happier ending), more so than any other Tarantino movie, True Romance feels like rough draft Tarantino, his tics and urges and idiosyncrasies on screen with the least filtering. Even without trunk shots or the camera lingering on women’s feet, it’s hard not to feel like you know way too much about Quentin Tarantino after seeing True Romance.
Clarence Worley, Tarantino’s Idealized Id
True Romance is so much more bizarrely fascinating when you realize that Clarence Worley is all of Quentin’s favorite things about himself cranked up to 11, like Jim Carrey in The Mask. It’s not a wild assertion here, by the way, it’d be obvious that Clarence Worley is QT’s stand-in, even if Tarantino hadn’t confirmed as much himself (“Clarence was me,” he says here).
What Tarantino did with Clarence Worley is a lot like what Hunter S. Thompson did with Kemp in The Rum Diary. Two 20-something outsiders who hadn’t quite found their life’s direction or their voice as writers yet dreamt up protagonists that were avatars for everything they wanted to be – the uncompromising journalist who spoke truth to power, whatever the cost; the pop culture freak who becomes the hero simply by talking a good game, not taking shit from anyone, and being so cool. The idea seems a bit silly and childish, but if you take a step back from the fictional worlds, you realize that it totally worked. Thompson and Tarantino both sort of grew into their own avatars, through sheer will power and the clarity of their visions.
It sounds a little like The Secret, but they’re both the kind of works that, especially if you experience them at the right time, you develop an extreme attachment to. Nothing’s better in your early twenties than a work that tells you that you don’t have to apologize for being hopelessly idealistic and more than a little bit self-centered.
Once you acknowledge that Clarence Worley is a superhero based on Quentin Tarantino, it’s worth examining what his powers are:
Motor-mouthed conversationalist, especially with blonde chicks at bars. Clarence uses some of the same lines on Alabama as he does on Anna Thomson in the first scene, a seemingly oft-rehearsed shtick about Elvis (“I’d f*ck Elvis”). A friend of mine, on seeing it for the first time, described True Romance as “a feast of bizarre idioms.” Quentin’s idea of cool clearly involves having a series of slickster one-liners locked and loaded and ready to fire at any given time. They’re in almost every scene, lines like “Am I beautiful blonde with big tits and an ass that tastes like French vanilla ice cream?”
They somehow sound like lines you’ve never heard before and something your weird uncle would say, all at the same time. True Romance is sort of like living inside this reverse Truman Show, where everyone casually drops these figures of speech as if they’re common usage, even though Quentin invented them all.
Knowing more about movies than you. In his climactic showdown with Drexel Spivey, Drexel, epically portrayed by Gary Oldman in dreads and a leather beret, explains how he knows Clarence is scared, saying “On that TV there, since you been in the room, is a woman with her breasteses hangin’ out, and you ain’t even bothered to look. You just been starin’ at me.”
Interesting sidenote on that:
OLDMAN: I heard this gang of black kids outside my trailer and thought, That’s Drexl. I showed this kid my lines and said, “Does this seem authentic?” He changed some words. He said, “That don’t fly. Drexl wouldn’t say ‘titties’; he’d say ‘breasteses.’”
TARANTINO: Those kids were clowning him, and he believed them because he didn’t know any better. Because he’s British.
Anyway, Clarence’s big retort to Drexel is, in part, “I’m not lookin’ at the movie ’cause I saw it seven years ago! It’s The Mack with Max Julien, Carol Speed, and Richard Pryor.”
You know that scene in movies where the protagonist tells someone off and everyone in the audience cheers in vicarious glee? Like Matt Damon telling off the NSA guy in Good Will Hunting, or Sandra Bullock giving the racist southern yentas what fer in The Blind Side? (If only you’d been so articulate with that dirty guac-shorting Chipotle cashier! Yay Sandy!) Consider how perfect it is that the Tarantino version of this scene is “Oh yeah? Well I already saw that movie, motherf*cker!”
How many life and death situations have you been in where the deciding factor was knowledge of obscure movies? Quentin invented one, like his version of a daydream about saving your crush from a car crash.
Being able to schmooze people from all walks of life. Be they drug dealers, whores, Hollywood producers, or cops, pretty much every character in the whole movie’s reaction to Clarence is “This kid’s crazy! I love him!”
It’s never hard to imagine how Tarantino wants to see himself or how he wants you to react, because he had a stand-in for you the audience member in almost every scene — the cops at the Beverly Ambassador, the random guy at the burger stand. You’re supposed to think he’s crazy and cool! Clarence’s unmatched film and pop-culture literacy has given him a preternatural understanding of human psychology and how to manipulate it. It’s basically the film nut’s version of every pretentious actor’s dream, where being good at pretending (or in this case, watching) gives you a super-human grasp of the human condition.
Street smarts, and anti-intellectualism. Quentin doesn’t seem like a guy who’d say things like “I ain’t no fag, but…” like Clarence does when he’s explaining why he’d f*ck Elvis. Tarantino exaggerates his avatar’s blue collar background, making Clarence the Detroit son of a security guard, rather than the LA-raised son of a musician. Even as a high school dropout and virtual nobody, Quentin still felt the need to make the cinematic version of himself even more of an outsider in Hollywood. It’s easy to see Quentin Tarantino as an idiot savant, and I’m sure it’s partly true, but its also an image that has been highly cultivated by Tarantino himself. Clarence’s ain’t-book-smart affectations are perfectly fitting for a guy who’d go on to write a multi-Oscar-winning film with misspellings in the title.
Incidentally, late in the film, Clarence Worley says of the Oscars, “Most movies win a lot of Oscars I can’t stand – safe, geriatric coffee table dog shit.” Now that seems like something Tarantino would say.
He’s cool. The chief and most obvious of Clarence Worley’s superpowers is that he’s cool. Not a particularly difficult analysis when the film ends with Alabama repeating “You’re so cool. You’re so cool. You’re so cool.”
The classic bar ice breaker question is whether a person would choose to be able to fly or be invisible. People that choose flight are thought to be less sneaky, to want to be the guileless hero, rather than bank thieves and locker room masturbators like the invisibility folks. It says a lot about Tarantino that his go-to superpower is that he’s really f*ckin’ cool. Just the coolest guy at the dive bar. He knows everything about every movie and can bullshit anyone about anything. Flight? Invisibility? Super strength? Nah, man, just give me the wisest opinion about Elvis.
Alabama Worley, World’s Cutest Love Interest
I re-fall in love with 25-year-old Patricia Arquette every time I watch True Romance, and I’m not sure the movie works if you don’t.
Coming at True Romance from the perspective of a Tarantino fan and having read the script before seeing it, there’s a tendency to assume everything good about it came from Quentin and to blame everything bad on Tony Scott (except the casual racism, that was all QT). I have my quibbles. The Hans Zimmer score sounds totally bizarre and overbearing and out of place in the beginning of the movie (why are we listening to calypso music when there’s a guy driving through Detroit on his way to murder a pimp?) and I have to think the entire action sequence in Drexel’s club would’ve had a much better spacial awareness with Tarantino blocking it.
But as much as you want to imagine everything good about True Romance happened because of Tarantino, and as much as Tarantino is frequently hailed as a genius for his casting decisions, the casting was Tony Scott, and it’s a big reason people love the film. Sam Jackson, James Gandolfini, Brad Pitt, all cast when they were the cheapest they’d ever be. Saul Rubinek is so perfect as Lee Donowitz that I honestly think “Saul Rubinek” would’ve been a better name for the character.
Still, you could switch all of them around, mix and match this role or that actor and it’d still be great, but none of, NONE of it works without Patricia Arquette. Tarantino says he wrote the role thinking of Joan Cusack, and envisioned Clarence as Robert Carradine, who in 1993 was between Revenge of the Nerds III: The Next Generation and Revenge of the Nerds IV: Nerds In Love. That makes me queasy to even think about.
Tony Scott: We met with Patricia, and Christian had a woody from the first time he saw her. That made my life a lot easier. The viewer believing they’re in love comes from their chemistry. Patricia fell in love with Christian, and he with her.
Alabama is the lynchpin of the whole thing. Is it possible we have Christian Slater’s boner to thank for this entire thing?
As written, Alabama Worley is sort of hooker with a heart of gold and quirky dreamgirl all rolled up into one. There’s nothing funnier and more telling to me than the part where Alabama is biting her lip and falling hopelessly in love with Clarence as tinkling piano plays, because of how passionate he’s explaining a Spider-Man comic. Nothing moistens lady parts like a man who can handle a comic book. He’s explaining the art work on some webbing and she’s thinking, “I. LOVE. THIS. MAN!” You could never, ever communicate Tarantino’s pathos more clearly and succinctly than that one little moment.
My point is, it’s a tough role to humanize, but incredibly, Patricia Arquette makes you forget that her character is essentially a dude fantasy. It’s all so subtle – the look on her face when she finds James Gandolfini in her hotel room, the way her voice breaks when she tells Clarence how romantic she thinks he is (…for shooting her wigger pimp in the dick). And of course, her huge blue eyes and pouty lips and adorable overbite don’t hurt either. The role requires her to be totally innocent and worldly at the same time, and I can’t imagine Alabama as any other actress.
There’s an odd formula for enduring, cult popularity that I don’t think anyone has ever been able to quite figure out, but surely one of the most important elements is the ability of a work to create its own mythology. It works best if there are elements that you can’t quite explain on first watch, but where there are enough hints that you end up creating your own, like hearing a really good punchline and having to fill in the joke.
True Romance is full of these odd, “Rectum? Damn near killed ‘em!” relationships between characters. You end up creating a lot of your own backstories. There’s the gangster guys – “What happened?” “He said Sicilians were spawned by n*ggers so Don Vincenzo shot him,” – who all seem to have this rich back story that we never find out about. Why did they send the one guy outside? Who is the weird, preening one, why did he only show up before the shootout, and why is he quoting Taxi Driver? Chris Penn and Tom Sizemore as the cops are barely in the movie, but even in a couple minutes you get these rich, provocative hints at their personal lives – Sizemore correcting Penn when he says “me and Nicholson” instead of “Nicholson and I” like an old married couple. Not to mention that they could be fraternal twins. I’ve seen the movie probably 50 times, and it wasn’t until the most recent watch that I noticed that Dennis Hopper’s dog, Rommel, runs off right before the Italians show up to chase down a female dog that had passed in front of the camera about five seconds earlier. Of course! The dog ran off to get some dog pussy! Makes total sense now!
There’s another moment, what I like to think of as True Romance‘s version of the end of Lost in Translation. The gang is about to head off to the Beverly Ambassador when Michael Rapaport’s Dick Richie (another brilliant casting choice) gets a phone call telling him got the part in the remake of TJ Hooker. He looks at Clarence and says “Hey, Clarence…” “What?” There’s a dramatic pause, and they stare at each other, but then he just smiles and says “Nothing.”
What was he about to say? I’m not one of those people who creates elaborate theories for every ambiguous plot point in the things I love (and I kind of hate that mentality), but I do love a movie that leaves those spaces for them.
And of course, True Romance wouldn’t be True Romance if not for the sheer, bold silliness of the whole thing. It doesn’t get much better than a vision of Elvis coming to you in a day dream to tell you that the cops won’t care if you shoot a pimp in the face.
(or the dick)
After everything that Tarantino has written, I’m not sure he’s ever topped that moment. Also, why are Lee Donowitz’s body guards so psychotic? They seem like Die Hard villains stuck in the wrong movie. And in the midst of the stand off, with everyone screaming at each other holding guns, would the match to the fuse really be the movie producer tossing coffee in the assistant’s face? And why would anyone shoot the briefcase full of cocaine? You’re in the middle of a fire fight but suddenly there’s a flying briefcase and it’s skeet shooting time?
People who love True Romance would have ten different answers for all these questions, I’m sure, but the reason that they bother thinking about it at all is that the film is such a glorious whatsit. Part dark comedy, part pulp, part romance, part gangster movie, part Hollywood satire, part superhero origin, and part 80s action film. It’s at once completely bizarre and intensely familiar. It’s that scab you can’t stop picking at, and that’s why I love it.
Vince Mancini is a writer and comedian living in San Francisco. You can find more of his work on FilmDrunk, the Uproxx network, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.