The Don was in exile during the early ‘80s. Francis Ford Coppola’s dream of owning his own independent movie studio had come crashing down with the cataclysmic failure of his “One From The Heart,” a quixotic soundstage musical overwhelmed by its own production design. (As with megaflops like Martin Scorsese’s “New York, New York” and Peter Bogdanovich’s “At Long Last Love,” musicals proved the Achilles heel of the New Hollywood mavericks.) One step ahead of his creditors and squabbling with Wim Wenders over reshoots on the latter's Coppola-produced English language debut "Hammett," it was, in the filmmaker's own words, "chaos incorporated time." So that's when the director of "The Godfather" films and "Apocalypse Now" up and moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma for a while to be the cinematic voice of YA novelist S.E. Hinton.
A 35mm print of “The Outsiders” screens on Wednesday, Aug. 1 as part of the Somerville Theatre’s “Play It Cool II” series, and it’s worth taking another look at this oft-mocked operatic curio on a giant screen. Coppola’s achingly heartfelt adaptation of Hinton’s 1967 novel had the most unlikely of origins: a petition. Librarian Jo Ellen Misakian of the Lone Star School in Fresno, California sent the filmmaker a letter signed by over 300 students asking him to please make a movie out of their favorite book.
“I used to be a great camp counselor,” Coppola told a New York Times reporter in 1983, “and the idea of being with half a dozen kids in the country and making a movie seemed like being a camp counselor again. I’d forget my troubles and have some laughs again.” After an arduous audition process it was the campers Coppola chose that launched a thousand Tiger Beat magazine covers, spawning what became known as “The Brat Pack.” C. Thomas Howell played our protagonist Ponyboy Curtis, supported by a cast including Matt Dillon, Patrick Swayze, Diane Lane, Ralph Macchio, Rob Lowe, Emilio Estevez and Tom Cruise.
Susan Eloise Hinton famously wrote “The Outsiders” when she was a sophomore at Will Rogers High School in Tulsa. (She published under the initials S.E. so male book critics would be inclined to take her work more seriously.) Hinton’s tale of greasers and socs (pronounced “soshes,” short for “socials”) bullying and switch-blade fighting at the drive-ins and vacant lots of their dead-end town remains a rite of passage for young readers to this day. The book stings with a teen’s dawning understanding of life’s cruelties and a yearning for an innocence already slipping away.
(When asked on Twitter recently why Johnny and Dally had to die at the end, the author replied, “because I am a stone cold bitch.”)
Coppola, never a filmmaker who believed in half-measures, went all-in, conceiving the film adaptation as a Technicolor widescreen melodrama, in his words: “a ‘Gone With the Wind’ for 14-year-old girls.” Personally, I think a lot of how you feel about “The Outsiders” depends on how old you were when you saw it. I still vividly remember catching it on HBO when I was way too young to be watching it and being traumatized by the sight of Matt Dillon shot dead under the streetlights. (I was also quite taken with Diane Lane’s Cherry Valance, for reasons I was as yet unable to articulate.) The movie felt so massive and overpowering, certain images and scenes stayed with me all through adolescence.
Seeing it again in my 20s, “The Outsiders” just struck me as ridiculous. Stevie Wonder’s mawkish, anachronistic theme song and all the fake painted sunsets match the often hysterical over-emoting of the pretty boy actors. It’s all pitched so big, brassy and unsubtle — exactly the kind of thing that’s easy to laugh at when you’re a smarty-pants know-it-all. It was the cool-kid opinion at the time to prefer “Rumble Fish,” the experimental, black-and-white Hinton adaptation Coppola shot in Tulsa immediately afterwards and released the same year. That one had swear words and Mickey Rourke.
Yet now in my 40s I love “The Outsiders” almost as much as I did when I was 9. I quite accidentally ended up watching it again recently and found all of Coppola’s cornball flourishes to be rather endearing, even generous. It’s a teen movie that doesn’t condescend to kids, but translates their tumultuous emotions onto a giant canvas in a larger-than-life Hollywood vernacular that went out of fashion at least 20 years before the picture was even made.
And that cast now seems so impossibly young! It’s sadly stirring to see the late Patrick Swayze (quite good here, actually) as the beleaguered older brother trying to hold the family together, and I daresay Emilio Estevez has never been more appealing than as a laid-back, scene-stealing sidekick with a thing for Mickey Mouse. He’s certainly more relaxed than Tom Cruise, who in a sign of things to come bursts into his scarce scenes doing acrobatic back-flips off of car hoods. (Cruise actually had one of his front teeth removed by a dentist so it would appear to have been knocked out in the film’s climactic rumble, which has gotta be the most intense commitment ever from an actor with eighth billing.)
It’s striking how vulnerable these kids are, with Coppola emphasizing an almost feminine tenderness between them. Even Matt Dillon’s swaggering delinquent is perpetually on the verge of tears. There’s a wistful quality to the film’s grandiloquence, as the sweeping strings of Carmine Coppola’s orchestral score attempt to impart these small-time hoods in a nowhere town with mythic status, as if they were icons of the silver screen. It’s certainly no accident that both the book and film begin with Ponyboy walking out of a movie theater.
“The Outsiders” screens Wednesday, Aug. 1 at the Somerville Theatre.