How Did This Get Made: Perfect (An Oral History)

john travolta perfect oral history

John Travolta + Aerobics – Mechanical Bull = How Did This Get Made?!?!

Nobody sets out to make a bad movie. But the truth is, it happens all the time. And every time it does, there’s a fun misadventure and cautionary tale lurking somewhere behind the scenes. This is that story for Jim Bridges’ 1985 fitness focused feature Perfect. But, at the same time, it’s much more than that. It’s a story about unconventional romances, untimely deaths and how good directors can, on occasion, wind up making bad movies.

How Did This Get Made is a companion to the podcast How Did This Get Made with Paul Scheer, Jason Mantzoukas and June Diane Raphael which focuses on movies so bad they are amazing. This regular feature is written by Blake J. Harris, who you might know as the writer of the book Console Wars, soon to be a motion picture produced by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. You can listen to the Perfect edition of the HDTGM podcast here

perfect poster

Synopsis: While writing an article about a businessman turned drug dealer, Rolling Stone reporter Adam Lawrence (John Travolta) becomes fascinated by another story: how fitness clubs—particularly The Sports Connection in LA—are becoming the single bars of the ‘80s. There, Adam meets an aerobics instructor (Jamie Lee Curtis) who would appear to be the perfect center of his piece. And she is, except that her distaste for the press creates a combustible situation; one that is further complicated when a romance ensues and issues about journalistic integrity are called into question.

Tagline: John Travolta and Jamie Lee Curtis work up a sweat together!

Although Perfect is by no means a sequel, it is very much a follow-up to a film from five years earlier: Urban Cowboy. Same director, same writers and, of course, the same larger-than-life star. Heck, they were both even based on articles by the same journalist. So why did one so dynamically succeed while the other fizzled away with lost potential? As with most great Hollywood stories, the answer is much more complicated than that.

Here’s what happened, as told by those who made it happen…

Featuring:

  • Aaron Latham Writer
  • Debra Winger Actress
  • Jeff Gourson Film Editor
  • Jack O’Brien Broadway Director

Prologue:

In the summer of 1984, writer Aaron Latham and actress Jaime Lee Curtis boarded a Lockheed JetStar 731 to fly from Los Angeles to Mammoth, where principle photography on Perfect was set to begin. The owner of this plane, and also its pilot, was the film’s star: John Travolta. 

For most of the trip, the travel was smooth. Travolta appeared to be as skilled in the cockpit as he was on camera. At least until it was time to land. 

Aaron Latham: The winds that day were kind of cockeyed and, at some point in the middle of John’s landing, the entire plane starts rumbling. Things are falling out of the overhead and Jaime and I are hugging each other. I was legitimately scared. I thought not only was this the end of the movie, it was the end of everything. But eventually, John is able to land the thing—practically sideways on the tarmac—and when the plane finally stops shaking, he comes out over to us and says, “Well, as I always say: any landing is a good landing.”

CUT TO: 6 years earlier…

Urban Cowboy

Part 1: The Ballad of the Urban Cowboy

Aaron Latham: Like most writers, I’d thought about movies. In fact, I wrote my graduate thesis—and my first book—on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s experiences in Hollywood.

That book, Crazy Sundays, came out in 1971. And perhaps learning from Fitzgerald’s ill-fated exploits in Tinseltown, Latham’s life didn’t intersect with Hollywood again until several years later. Instead, he moved to the east coast and became a journalist; writing for outlets such as The Washington Post, New York Magazine and Esquire. 

Aaron Latham: Then in 1978, my boss [Esquire editor Clay Felkner] went down to do a symposium at Rice University. And as his honorarium, he asked for a tour of the city. So that night, the editors of Texas Monthly took him out to Gilly’s [a honky-tonk in Houston]. They thought it was just a good bar, but he thought it would make for a good story. So he called me up at 3 in the morning and told me to get down there.

Latham flew down the following day and what he found at Gilly’s was well worth the trip. Mechanical bulls, ten-gallon hats and hundreds of guys and gals all line dancing in unison. Having grown up in Texas himself, Latham was able to identify this scene for what it really was: the evolution of cowboy culture in an image-focused post-disco world. This was, above all else, America’s new Saturday Night. 

Latham captured all of this in an Esquire cover story entitled “The Ballad of the Urban Cowboy: America’s Search for True Grit.” The piece was published in September 1978 and, not long after, Paramount Pictures purchased the film rights to Latham’s article.  

The Ballad of the Urban Cowboy: America's Search for True Grit

Aaron Latham: They hired a producer right away, which was Irving Azoff. And then Irving set up a meeting at the Beverly Hills Hotel between me and the director they had in mind: Jim Bridges.

James “Jim” Bridges was a Arkansas-born, Southern gentleman who had gotten his start in the business as a writer for Alfred Hitchcock Presents. In 1970, he wrote and directed his first feature, The Baby Maker, starring Barbara Hershey. The film received middling reviews, but any doubts about Bridges’ future as a director were quashed by the success of his next three films: The Paper Chase, 9/30/55 and The China Syndrome. 

Aaron Latham: Jim and I hit it off right away. We were a lot alike and I always felt really comfortable in his presence. So we set up an office on the Paramount lot and started working on the script together. Our process of writing was him on one side of a desk and me on the other. Facing each other—talking, typing—that’s how we did it. And then sometimes, we’d go home with a scene unfinished and each work on it that night. Then the next day we’d come in, compare and discover that we’d have written the same dialogue. It was almost creepy. But like I said, we were a lot alike. So we had a good time on that script. And when we’d get tired, we’d go over to casting and interview some actors because they’d already started casting before we’d written anything.

Despite not yet having a script, Bridges and Latham managed to strike gold. 

Aaron Latham: The biggest star in the world wanted to play a cowboy. John Travolta. Saturday Night Fever had just come out. Grease had just come out. And this was going to be number three. Well, as soon as we had Jim Bridges and John Travolta, we had something that had a good chance of being made.

But there was just one problem. Although Travolta was on board to play the lead, the person who that lead was based on—Dew Westbrook—he himself wasn’t on board with the project. 

Aaron Latham: It was daunting at first. Because I had to go back down to Houston and get releases from those people I’d written about. Most of them were just delighted to be in it. But my hero, we needed him. And he was mad at me. He didn’t like the piece. When I asked him what he didn’t like, he said, “You said I spent 10 dollars for my cowboy hat.” That’s what he really spent, but I guess he didn’t want anybody to know he was a cheap cowboy. Now, by this point, John Travolta was on board. And John Travolta wanted to meet with Dew Westbrook so he’d know how to play him. So I set it up, for Travolta to fly in, and meet at Dew’s little tiny apartment to meet. And the first thing Dew says to him is, “you can’t play me. You’re New Jersey. You’re not a cowboy.” Then he added, “:”If you play this role, you might get typecast.  And the guy who played Superman on television got typecast and he ended up killing himself. So you can’t play me, because you’re liable to kill yourself.” After Dew said that, I thought maybe this is the end of our movie.

But despite the rocky start to their conversation, Westbrook eventually came around. 

Aaron Latham: John just did what he always did, what he calls his “charm act.” But it was more than an act. John really was very charming. And he was sneakily perceptive.

With everything back on track, Bridges and Latham could refocus their efforts on writing, casting and anything else that would help bring to life that fateful Esquire article.   

Debra Winger: I remember exactly where I was, the first time I read that Urban Cowboy article. Lying on a mattress on the floor of my friend’s house. Reading the story, I felt like I really knew this girl. I was this girl. And I said to my friend, “Goddamit, if they were making this movie a year from now, I bet I’d have a shot. But I didn’t even have an agent back then. I was so green. And when I heard that Sissy Spacek had been cast, I remember saying to an actor friend of mine: this was really supposed to be mine! And he said, “Yeah, I know…and Dog Day Afternoon was supposed to be mine.” But I really, really meant it—I was meant to play that part—so when I read that Sissy had fallen out of the project, that’s when I conspired to sneak onto the Paramount lot.

Aaron Latham: Debra’s an interesting girl, isn’t she?

Debra: I remember walking up to the guard gate. I had brought an envelope with me and, you know, made up some long tale of woe about how I had to deliver it to someone on the lot immediately. Meanwhile, I’m dressed like Sissy and completely bent on meeting the director of Urban Cowboy. I find out where his office is, but when I get there the secretary tells me that he’s out to lunch. So I just sat right down—sitting on a stoop with tight jeans, a big belt buckle and a sleeveless t-shirt—waiting for James Bridges to come back. And then, eventually, there were these two guys just walking towards me—a guy with a long beard and cowboy boots—Aaron—and this other guy with a cute little pot belly—Jim—and his hair is sticking up, he’s got his hands in his pockets and he’s just got this wonderfully bemused expression on his face. “Who are you?” he says. And I just looked up, squinting into the sun, and said, “Well, who do you want me to be?” It wasn’t until years later that I realized what this moment really represented. It was the beginning of a story that—unlike most stories in our lives, even those that change us—would actually go on to have a middle and an end.

Interestingly enough, the way Winger felt about that fateful meeting—both in the moment and upon reflection—was not all that different from how Latham been feeling these past few months; ever since he first sat down with Jim Bridges at the Beverly Hills Hotel.  

Aaron Latham: I remember him telling me, that first time we met, that he had gotten a copy of my Fitzgerald book and read it. He said that he was going to keep the book on his night table—beside his bed—all the time we’re working together. To remind him to be nice to the writer. And he was, exceedingly.

urban cowboy

Part 2: Jack and Jim, Jim and Jack

Aaron Latham: One of the great things in literature is when two characters—in the course of their journeys—end up switching places. You know, the rich guy becomes poor while the poor guy becomes rich. And what’s really interesting: in the course of changing places, those characters will cross each other at some point.

Although this sentiment could probably be used to describe the offset romance that ensued between Debra Winger and John Travolta, Latham was actually here referring to the long-term relationship between Jim Bridges and his life-partner Jack Larson. 

jack-larson-dead

Aaron Latham: As you probably know, Jack played the cub reporter [Jimmy Olsen] in the original Superman TV series. So he was a big deal. But Jim—when he first met Jack—was an unknown actor.

That first meeting occurred in 1957, on the set of Johnny Trouble.

Debra Winger: They cherished each other’s essence; which was neither male nor female. Neither director, nor actor, nor producer. To some people, it might have appeared that they were an unlikely couple, but they were identical in a way. Just linked.

Aaron Latham: They were pretty secretive about it. At least Jim was, I don’t know that Jack was. There was something in one of the gossip columns at one point that said, “Jim Bridges was photographing John Travolta through the lens of love.” Or something like that. And it really upset Jim. He couldn’t work for one day. He was always afraid the Cowboys at Gilly’s were going to find out he was gay.

Debra Winger: It was a different time, back then.

Aaron Latham: What would have happened if the cowboys had found out? I don’t think anything would have happened. In fact, I’m sure some of them were gay. But Jim was very sensitive about that. In all our years, I never heard him actually say he was gay.

Debra Winger: They taught me so much in so many different ways. Certainly for me, it was like: Oh, men can live together and love each other. It was that simple.

Aaron Latham: When they would come and visit me in Washington, and I would get them a hotel room, I never knew whether to get them one hotel or two room. So I used to just get them two rooms until one time I decided I’ll just get them one room. So I got him one room. And then one day Jack was looking around the hotel room, saying, “Where’s the key? Where’s the key?” And Jim said, “I’ve got the key.” Jack turned to me and said, “I used to be the one that had the key.” They had crossed each other at some point and changed places, and it seemed to be okay with both of them.

Debra Winger: In those days, Jack and I, we always bristled in each other’s presence.

Because we were jealous of each other. I was jealous of the time he got to spend with Jim and he was not sure about me. I think it sort of scared him because Jim and I were totally in love. But, of course, he didn’t have anything to worry about. I just think that when Jim looked at me, he saw exactly what he wanted to make. My hard-ass, inability to compromise, you know, bent on “the real deal” was just what he needed.

Aaron Latham: On the first night of Urban Cowboy, we did a scene where John was supposed to slap Debra. So we went over and over with the stunt coordinator guy—on how to miss her face, but where it still looks like a slap. But, you know, Debra always wanted things to be real. So she goes to John and tries to make him really mad (instead of just acting mad). She tries to make him really raw and then, in the first take, he hits her and knocks her front tooth out.

Debra Winger: Oh yeah, that’s still the only cap I have in my mouth. It’s the front bottom right.

Aaron Latham: You could see it later in the dailies. Her tooth sailing across the room. Anyway, she finally got what she wanted, but it turned out she didn’t want it that much.

Debra Winger: Right after it happened, I didn’t want to tell anyone. Because I was afraid I would get fired. Like, that’s how innocent I was. But somewhere around four in the morning, Jim came up to me and asked, “are you okay?” He told me later he thought I’d had a stroke. My face was just, like, hanging. And I finally pulled my lip aside and said, “I think I lost this.” John was so horrified. He didn’t know.

Aaron Latham: Debra came out of the whole method tradition. She wanted to live the role. Like she would go shopping as her character. So, of course, she wanted John to really fall in love, to really have an affair. But John would have none of it. He has a different approach. He believes that acting is a craft, or maybe an art. Anyways, it’s something that you do. It’s not method. For example, during the making of the movie, everybody in the cast and crew sort of started adopting—piece by piece—rodeo gear to wear. Except Travolta. Who always wore his green tennis shoes and his t-shirts and never once—outside the movie—did he wear cowboy clothes. But what he did do, was he’d hang out a lot with the cowboys. We had kind of a little company of real Gilly’s regulars who appeared in small roles in the film and John liked to hang out with them and go home and have dinner with their families. So he would do research. But whereas Debra wanted to live it, he wanted to observe it. And I guess he had some rule with himself that he wouldn’t date people he was working with. I don’t know. But as soon as we finished filming John started dating Debra and wearing nothing but cowboy clothes. I remember Debra calls me really excited one night. She says, “Aaron, Aaron, I just made love with John Travolta on the hood of his Rolls Royce in a restaurant parking lot.” And then another night she calls and says, “John Travolta just asked me to marry him.” I asked her “what did you say?” And she says, “ I told him the movie’s over.”

Urban Cowboy came out in June of 1980. Despite opening while The Empire Strikes Back was still in theaters (and still causing lines around the block), Urban Cowboy was an instant hit. It grossed over $46 million, setting the stage for another collaboration between the key players behind the film. 

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