the grifters blog

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THE GRIFTERS (’90) by Pablo Kjolseth

Anjelica Huston won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in PRIZZI’S HONOR (‘85), but in my book her performance in THE GRIFTERS (‘90) – for which she received a Best Actress nomination – is the one that should also have taken home the gold. She lost it to Kathy Bates for her role in Rob Reiner’s MISERY (’90), which was admittedly a tour de force. Let’s just say it should have been a tie and agree that it was a hell of a year for the femme fatale.

As recently as five years ago, Huston described her performance as Lilly Dillon in THE GRIFTERS as the most challenging role of her career. Given the bleak and harrowing narrative curve of the film it’s easy to see why. Any film based on a book by Jim Thompson, who is famous for chronicling the lives of losers and psychopaths with nihilistic aplomb, is bound to deliver on grim gut punches that spare no prisoners and provide cautionary tales that are not for the faint of heart.

In the case of THE GRIFTERS, the tragedy that Jim Thompson unravels combines obsession with money on par with something out of GREED (‘24) as he fuses them with family dynamics that carry that horrible unease you get from reading a play by Sophocles. Tossing a love triangle into the mix in no way ameliorates the feeling that disaster is inevitable.

The two other corners of the triangle are John Cusack, playing the part of Lilly’s son, Roy, and Annette Bening as Roy’s new girlfriend Myra Langtry. Threesomes always get sticky, but when all the players involved are con artists you can count on it getting overly complicated and maybe even a little bloody.

Cusack, still in his early twenties and still freshly known to most filmgoers as Lloyd Dobler in SAY ANYTHING (‘89) successfully brings real pathos to the table. It was a good career choice that announced his range could go far afield from a John Hughes comedy. It probably helped that Cusack was a huge Jim Thompson fan. As vulnerable as Cusack’s performance is, it’s Annette Bening who bares all in completely fearless fashion. BUGSY (‘91) would follow the year after and make a mark, but for me that mark starts here.

Stephen Frears was an interesting choice to direct. The studios originally wanted Martin Scorsese to do the job but Scorsese ended up being the producer of the film instead. Frears had proven himself with quality social dramas and arthouse hits, such as MY BEAUTIFUL LAUNDRETTE (‘85) and SAMMY AND ROSIE GET LAID (‘87), but it was probably the box office success of DANGEROUS LIAISONS (‘88) that landed him the job. After all, DANGEROUS LIAISONS also had two women and one man caught in erotic webs of intrigue and duplicity.

As to the genesis of the project, I reached out to Bruce Kawin who gets special thanks in the end credits. I took classes from Kawin when I was a student at C.U. Boulder and remember him using THE GRIFTERS in his screenwriting class. Here’s what he had to say about how he got the ball rolling: 

When I was at Bob Harris’s Images Film Archive looking for stills to illustrate my textbook How Movies Work, Bob asked me if I knew any relatively unknown novelist whose books would make good movies. I told him about Jim Thompson and suggested three of his novels, including The Grifters. Bob and his partner, Jim Painten, decided on The Grifters and helped me as I wrote the first draft of the script. We took this script to Martin Scorsese, who made many suggestions for the rewrite. I took his advice when I rewrote the script, and that became the official first draft. Marty produced, working with Bob and Jim. Eventually Marty chose Stephen Frears to direct the picture, and Frears decided he needed an American noir novelist to write the shooting script; he chose Donald Westlake. Westlake got exclusive screen credit for the script, which was nominated for an Academy Award. Marty thanked me for bringing the novel to his attention and said he’d be glad to listen to any further suggestions I had about novels to adapt; I received a screen credit thanking me for my contributions to the project.

I’d like to give special thanks to Bruce Kawin for many reasons, but one of those would be that it was because of him that I got into Jim Thompson’s novels back when I was a student in college. Whether you read Thompson’s books or see movie adaptations of his work, he provides a white-knuckle ride through the underbelly of society that you won’t soon forget.