Liz Smith: From Bicycle Chains to Django Unchained

“QUENTIN has an encyclopedic knowledge of film. All kinds of films. When I met with him to discuss ‘Django’ he told me, ‘You’ve been on my radar for a long time. I’ve seen all your movies.’

“And I said ‘come on, all my movies? You’ve actually seen ‘Dead Women in Lingerie?’ And he said. ‘Sure I have. It was a piece of shit. But you were great. Anyway, why wouldn’t I see I movie titled ‘Dead Women in Lingerie?’ Who could resist that?!”

So recalls Dennis Christopher, about one of his first meetings with director/auteur Quentin Tarantino.

Dennis is perhaps still best known as cute, blond, bicycle-riding teenager in 1979’s famous coming-of-age movie, “Breaking Away.” (Which also jump-started the careers of Dennis Quaid, Jackie Earle Haley and Hart Bocher.) But he has worked steadily since that movie, in every medium, on screens big and small ( terrific in HBO’s much-lauded “Deadwood” and on-stage, which is his first love. (“I’m just a theater rat, really.”)

I had a phone chat with Dennis the other day, as he busily promotes “Django Unchained,” 2012’s most controversial, deliriously reviewed film, starring Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Samuel L. Jackson, and a dozen other famous names, some of whom have little more than flamboyant cameo appearances.

“Django” is about a former slave who becomes a bounty hunter and wreaks savage revenge on his oppressors. I haven’t seen it yet, but it sounds like typical Tarantino — sometimes I can take that, sometimes I can’t. I did love “Inglourious Basterds,” with its wicked fantasy twist on World War II, so maybe if I squint a bit during the really violent scenes, I’ll get into ‘Django.” (A friend of mine said, “Liz, you will be squinting through the entire movie!”)

Anyway, I found Dennis, who plays a character named Leonide Moguy, to be full of excitement, energy, super smart about show biz, and a passionate cinephile who would gladly “lock myself up with my giant monitors and DVDs — if I didn’t enjoy working so much.”

SO HOW did “Django” come to Dennis?

“I had just finished the L.A. production of ‘The Temperamentals,’ trying to wind down a bit, when a script arrived at my house. There was the title, ‘Django Unchained’ hand scrawled across the front, and a signature.

“I realized it was Quentin’s own handwriting. After I pulled myself off the floor, I read the script — and boy, people don’t realize what a great writer Quentin really is. I wanted in of course, but I noticed that my character seemed to be around the same age as Leonardo DiCaprio’s.

“I called Quentin and said, ‘You realize it’s been 30 years since ‘Breaking Away.’ And he said, ‘Of, course. Don’t worry. I’m re-writing it just for you.’ So after I picked myself and my cell-phone off the floor, we agreed to meet. My agent gave me the typical three words of encouragement agents have been giving their clients since silent movies: ‘Don’t blow it.’

“There was about a three month delay before we actually met. They were scouting for locations, Christoph Waltz had an accident. You know the usual delays that make you lose your mind.

“But we did finally meet and had an incredible three-hour conversation. I was shy and in awe at first, but he was not a — what’s the male of diva, a divo? — in any way. I was knocked over by his love and respect and knowledge about movies. I can honestly say, even if he’d decided against using me, I wouldn’t have regretted one of the most stimulating afternoons of my life!”‘

DENNIS laughs, “I’ve had a ‘Zelig’-like career. I pop up unexpectedly. I’m always kind of around. I’ve worked with everybody from Lillian Gish (“A Wedding) to Elizabeth Taylor (“The Little Foxes”) to Farrah Fawcett (“Butterflies Are Free”) and from Fellini (“Fellini’s Roma”) to, now Tarantino.”

MULLING his own career and what he’s learned, Dennis remarked on the “rude awakening” he often has when talking with younger actors — “They don’t know who anybody is. They don’t who Monty Clift is, or Marlene Dietrich or Maureen Stapleton. They won’t watch anything in black and white. They have no theatrical references except for their own experiences. I mean, these are actors, with no sense of history.” And with show biz history on his mind, Dennis says, “It would be a dream come true to appear on Turner Classic Movies with Robert Osborne, who is one of my heroes.”

Informed historical perspective was one of the reasons it was so satisfying working with Tarantino: “He takes elements from every genre of film, all of which he understands, mixes it up and comes out with something unique, it is homage but it is unmistakably Quentin. It’s so wonderful to work for somebody who doesn’t have to compromise. Look, let’s face it, this business is all about compromise. But Quentin doesn’t have to. It frees him, and it frees his actors. I haven’t experienced such a level of quality and craftsmanship on a movie in a long time. It makes you really want to come through for him.

“Toward the end of the ‘Django’ there’s a spectacular shoot-out. My character is involved, and a stunt person was nicely provided. But all of a sudden I thought ‘No, I want to do this myself.’ And so did everybody else. Nobody wanted a stunt double. I guess once you’ve seen Uma Thurman beaten up endlessly in the ‘Kill Bill’ movies, you think, ‘if Uma can take it, what’s the matter with me?!’”

(“Django” looks to be another hit for Harvey Weinstein, who will make his presence and power felt as the Golden Globes and Oscars approach.)

NEXT for Dennis Christopher? “Aside from collapsing? Well, now that I am finally starting to really look my age (he is a still-boyish 57) I figure it’s a new chapter in my life. I certainly hope so! Character actors have a long shelf life.”

Oh, and then there’s that autobiography. “ I should. I know I should. But the idea of sitting down with a blank computer screen starring back — I don’t think I could get past the fright.”

I suggested Dennis just get a recorder and start talking — he expresses himself well and fluidly; no hemming, hawing or the dreaded, “Uhhh” or “It was like, you know.” All he needs is a smart editor to condense.

Dennis told me several remarkable tales of his year working on stage with Elizabeth Taylor in “The Little Foxes.” More on that soon. Suffice he began his reminisce about La Liz with, “Well, as you know, she was just a great, great broad.”

Indeed I do, Dennis, indeed I do.

This column originally appeared on NYSocialDiary.com on 1/2/13

One comment so far.

  1. avatar JERILYN says:

    Loved the “Little Foxes” and as a huge Dame Elizabeth fan for years it was a thrill to see her on stage and magnificent. It was her way of getting out of Washington and saving her life and her career. There”ain’t nothing like a Dame” and our Dame Elizabeth was the best. Thank you Liz Smith for always writing about your friend and telling it like it was. Still have hopes that you will write a book about the most amazing woman ever: DAME ELIZABETH ROSEMOND TAYLOR.