How Did This Get Made: Perfect (An 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. 

Headline- John Travolta's Perfect Judged less than Perfect

Part 3: Looking for Mr. Goodbody

Aaron Latham: After the movie, Jim and I continued to be best of friends. Jack too. And of course I wanted to work with Jim again. But everybody who ever worked with him wanted to work with him again. So it was a matter of finding the right project.

Debra Winger: I got myself into trouble left and right after him because I just thought every director was going to greet me like that. The joke was definitely on me.

Jeff Gourson: Working with Jim spoiled me. I suspect anybody who had worked with Jim must have felt that way. I sure did. He had this wonderful approach to filmmaking. He said a couple of things to me while I was editing my first film, which gave me a whole new approach to editing.

That first film Gourson is referring to was 9.30.55. He would later work with Bridges again just a few years later, editing Perfect for the man who gave him his start. 

Jeff Gourson: He was always so calm. And, you know, he was from Arkansas, so he had a little bit of a southern drawl. I remember cutting a sequence for him and he looked at the cut and said, "that's not bad, Jeff. That's pretty good. But now I want you to read the scene again. I want you to think about what the scene is about. And then I want you to re-edit it." That was an eye-opener for me. Because, starting out as an editor, your first instinct is to take every angle that a director has shot and use it in the cut. So obviously that's where my mentality was: putting every angle together. Now, all of the sudden, I'm approaching it as telling a story instead of just cutting it. And our relationship was unbelievable, we got along so well. But he was the type of guy where even if I'd done a lousy job, he wouldn't have fired me. He would have tried to make it work. That was the kind of guy he was.

Aaron Latham: Did I ever see anybody get mad at Jim, in all our years together? Now that you mention it, I don't think so.

Debra Winger: And, you know, a few years later, he saved my life again. After I had quit for the first time.

In the years immediately after Urban Cowboy, Winger twice earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress; An Officer and a Gentleman (1982) and Terms of Endearment (1983). Yet despite what by all accounts would appear to be staggering success, Winger was dissatisfied with her post-Bridges experiences in Hollywood and decided to quit the business. 

Debra Winger: I had moved back to Ohio and I really, just, was not looking back. It must have been 1983. I had just done a couple of things and thought: fuck it. And then Jim went and that's when he wrote Mike's Murder.

Mike's Murder is about strangely beautiful and perplexing one-night stand that becomes even more complex as criminal and homosexual elements are added to the narrative.   

Debra Winger: I remember being at the farmhouse and walking out to my mailbox in the snow; wearing a nightgown with a coat draped over it. And inside I found this new script Jim had written; I think I had about half of it read by the time I got back into my house. And he just said: come back to me.

Meanwhile, as Winger was being persuaded back into acting, Latham kept doing what he did best: finding good stories. 

Aaron Latham: Well, I was doing a story—it was kind of how we did it in Perfect—on John DeLorean and had a meeting with his PR guy. He invited me to meet him at a club and first I thought it was, you know, a "club club," but then I started to notice there were people in leotards and spandex. And so I asked the PR guy what was going on here? He said, "It's a health club. It's the new meeting place. I'd never heard of that before, so I started researching it and pitched it to my editor at Rolling Stone who liked the idea. And I thought this was, it had a chance of being another movie. Looking back on it, I think the success of health clubs like these was because Baby Boom had reached that point where they wanted to keep living the life that they'd been living, but turns out you had to work out to do that. And I was always interested in the idea of where you meet people. Like a bar or a club. I had developed this theory that if can figure out what the "New Saturday Night" is and write about it, then people would be interested. Urban Cowboys was that and the singles health club was that too.

Looking for Mr. Goodbody

Latham's investigation led to a cover story for Rolling Stone. The piece was titled "Looking for Mr. Goodbody," and begins with the following: 

The jumps and kicks and sensuous contortions performed are the new dances.  The exercise instructors—who play records to keep these dances throbbing—are the new disc jockeys. Coed health clubs, the new singles' bars of the Eighties, have usurped the sounds and the energy of the discotheques.  They have also usurped the discotheques raison d'etre. They have become part of the new mating ritual. They are the new places where couples meet for one night or for many nights. They are spawning everything from lustful matinees to matrimony.

Aaron Latham: I was seeing Jim every time I went to LA, so I told him about this story and he said he wanted to be involved. So we went together to pitch it to several studios. We went first to Paramount who had made Urban Cowboy. And they immediately wanted to buy it. They said it was the fastest they'd ever made up their minds about anything in their lives there. But then they couldn't make a deal with Jim Bridges. Because some other studio [Columbia] had offered him 3 million dollars to direct Perfect. Why was Columbia so impressive? I have no idea. But it made an impression on him. He said nobody had ever offered him $3 million to do anything before.

And so, with a directing fee of $3 million dollars, Jim Bridges and Aaron Latham set out to adapt The Rolling Stone article into a feature film.

Aaron Latham: Now, if we're talking about how things get made, I ought to mention that Jim had just done a movie called Mike's Murder. One of the characters in it was gay and there was a backlash to the film. And there had been, according to Jim, some real bad things in the press. So he was going through a real anti-press mood. And I was seeing him all the time, telling him these stories about things the press did wrong. So I kind of stoked his fire. And so he got fascinated with this idea of the reporter—doing this story on the health clubs—making it about more than just the health clubs, which was probably the first thing we did wrong.

Just to clarify, this meant that whereas Urban Cowboy focused exclusively on the story that Latham had reported, this one would focus equal parts on the story as well as the reporter himself. So, in a sense, Aaron Latham would be Perfect's Dew Westbrook.

And, once again, John Travolta was interested in that role... 

Part 3 Also

Aaron Latham: Well, Travolta wanted to work with Bridges again. And so we pitched it to him and he wanted to do it right away. John, actually at this time, had been working out with Stallone. And Stallone had convinced him he had to re-make his body. He was always threatening to be a little chubby, and Stallone sculpted him into the New John Travolta before we came on the scene. Like brand new. So he was living what we were trying to show. Except instead of working out in clubs, he was working out with Sly. So we had the New John Travolta on board and Debra Winger wanted to be a part of it, but Jim had a different idea for the female lead [Jamie-Lee Curtis].

Debra Winger: To cast John and Jamie Lee for a movie like this, those were bold choices. And I mean that as a compliment. With them, Jim had gotten the perfect pitch, he made contact and then for whatever reasons he didn't run the bases.

Aaron Latham: In the good old days, there had been some great comedies about the press. The Front Page. His Girl Friday. And then the press had become kind of holier than thou, and you couldn't make a movie like that any more. But my argument to Jim was that the press was now more secure in its position so you could make fun of the press again. But I was wrong about that.

Debra Winger: I think Perfect was made just before the time when Jim really could have cut loose. Like, let his freak flag fly and make a total attempt to show this gay world that was unfolding, you know, around body awareness and body consciousness. Post-disco. Fitness. Coming out of the closest. But I don't know, I wasn't on set. My only involvement with the film, really, was I came to the pre-production offices once because Jim wanted me to meet Jamie Lee.

Aaron Latham: There came the day when Jaime Lee Curtis was going to come in and audition for the part. And she came in and Travolta came in to audition with her. And we're in the middle of a scene that they're reading together when Debra Winger appears at the back door of our bungalow with the governor of Nebraska [Bob Kerry], who she was dating. And she comes in and sits down beside John. In the scene. So now you got a girl on each side of John. And somehow it worked out that Debra was trying to take John away from Jaime in the middle of an audition. In the middle of a fictional scene that had suddenly become real.

Debra Winger: Something evidently cataclysmic happened, but I don't really remember.

Aaron Latham: Finally John got up and sat down on the couch beside the governor of Nebraska. Put his arm around him, kissed him. Debra got really pissy and stormed out. John told me later that he'd figured out the way to get to Debra was not to go after Debra but was to go after the governor. He made her jealous. He deliberately made her jealous.

Debra Winger: Well, you know, [with tremendous sarcasm] that would be the perfect description.

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Aaron Latham: The governor just sat there with his eyes kind of bugging out. I don't remember him saying a word. But Bridges and I agreed we'd never had an audition like that before.

Debra Winger: I think Aaron tends to—[laughing] I feel, I haven't talked to him in years—he likes to sensationalize the subjects. But you have to realize, you know, that's a very subjective approach to life. Is to sensationalize subject that you're asking others to assume is sort of factual. When in fact it's telling us as much about Aaron Latham, because that is not anything I remember. I can remember aspects of that, and I remember Johnny well enough to know what aspects of that were true and how much was playful and how much was an act. Because John loved being the movie star in a room and, you know, Bob loved being the Senator in a room and everybody was playing their part.

Aaron Latham: One other difference between this and Urban Cowboy was that this was totally produced by "Jim Bridges Films." That's not an actual company—Jim Bridges Films—but I mean his people. The line producer, the production manager, etc. Not that we did anything wrong...but we could have.

With everything coming together, the abstract-though-experienced entity that was Jim Bridges Films began production on Perfect in the summer of 1984. Most of the film would be shot at the Sports Connection in LA—the location where the Rolling Stone story had taken place—but the first few scenes were filmed in Mammoth. To get there, Travolta chivalrously offered to pilot Latham and Curtis in his new Lockheed JetStar 731. 

Part 4 also

Part 4: John Travolta's Notebook

The following excerpts come from a Rolling Stone article by John Travolta entitled "From an Actor's Notebook" that appeared in an issue just before the film's release. 

  • It is traditional for the director and/or the writer of a film to give their actor a gift at the beginning of a project. For Perfect, I received a small, portable TRS-80 word processor. Which meant only one thing: Get to work on your character.
  • At first I thought I'd just brush up on my typing, but sitting practicing, I thought: why not try my hand at actually writing something. Maybe start with a profile you might find in a magazine. After all, very few people have been interviewed more than I have been in the last ten years. I've certainly read enough of that shit. Hell, why not?
  • My first thought was to do Sylvester Stallone. Here is a man who is misunderstood by many journalists and who is really a fascinating study. He is also someone I could be tough on, because I know how strong and sensitive he ultimately is. In the first line of the story, I called him Hollywood's only real bully. The profile was a big success among my friends—thus inspiring me to go on.
  • It became an obsession. I couldn't wait until the day was officially over, no phone calls, no more obligations. It was almost like having a new lover you cannot wait to be with. You are impatient during the day, longing for your rendezvous at night. But so what? At least I felt alive. It was like any good love affair. Who cares about sleep or work?
  • I first wrote about my director, Jim Brides. We had worked together on Urban Cowboy in 1979 and have remained friends. So the definitive test was to see how insightful I could be in writing about a good friend without alienating him. I let others read it first, but soon I had enough courage to show Jim. He was very shocked but somehow communicated that I understood him. Right there was the first clue to the character I could play: someone who really understands—is interested instead of being interesting—the whole time ready to cut your throat with your own words.
  • The first day I met Jaime, there was an intensely interesting test going on. It wasn't a screen test, but a test of will. A test of poise. A test of how one behaves under pressure. The setting was the Laird Studios in Culver City, the production headquarters for Perfect. Jaime Lee arrived to audition for the part of Jessie, an aerobics instructor. About the same time, Debra Winger, my costar in Urban Cowboy, visited with her boyfriend, Bob Kerrey, the governor of Nebraska. Was the timing accidental? I don't know. I do know that Debra loves drama.
  • While Debra talked on and on, Jaime sat in a corner and said nothing. She later told me she was thinking along the lines that Debra had such a reputation, she is so well loved by this group of people. What could Jaime do, what should she do, to create the same effect?
  • At that point, Debra was climbing all over me, as if to say: "This is my territory."
  • In the end, everything worked out, and Jaime got the job. She was thrilled with her new role and tired of her old ones, but maybe there was still an uneasiness in the air. Maybe something only a marriage could cure. For a while I even thought she had me in mind—but that was before she met Christopher Guest.
  • There has to be a lesson on objectivity. So I tried to write about myself: At first glance, you might perceive John Travolta to be, as one well-known critic said, "Warren Beatty's Neanderthal brother." To those who don't know him, he may appear a not particularly smart, somewhat dimwitted person. Better look again. He is really a chameleon, to the frightening degree that his empathy for people makes him become them even when he is not conscious of dong it. Even if the roles he plays call upon him to have an ability that is incongruous with his education and upbringing, he still manages to come up with the goods. Is he just a man without a soul who should not be buried in sacred ground? This was the case in England centuries ago, when actors were considered second class, degraded and only useful for cheap entertainment...
  • I wrote the following at the peak of my love affair with my computer, just at the point when we officially started filming: 
  • The flight up here on my jet was routine for me but not for my two guests: our writer, Aaron Latham, and Jamie. I was, of course, flying the plane. During our final approach, the air became turbulent and, because of the altitude, I had to use extra power. My dark glasses impaired my vision, so I threw them off my face, brushed the hair off my forehead and gripped the throttles in preparation for landing. I could hear conversation in the back of the cabin, and I felt somewhat comforted that the others were feeling secure. After all, they were not aware that this airport is known for the extreme crosswind and wind shear just at the approach to the runway. Fortunately, we landed safe and sound.
  • When my passengers deplaned, I learned that they had loved the flight, except when they saw me whip off the sunglasses and brush my hair back. To them it looked like I meant business. I did, but then I always do. I just didn't know that they were watching so closely. Next time, I'll close the curtains or change my technique.
  • I'm no sure if Jamie Lee wants to make love to me or not. It would be nice, but I'm getting cross signals at this point. Maybe we should just play it by ear. I mean, there are five months of shooting ahead of us. By this time in the movie, our characters have already made love. So the question for many actors is: Should we do it because it's good for our roles, or are we attracted to each other anyway, so why not? With Winger I waited, even though the same question came up. I guess I wanted to know that it was for me and not just for our characters. So maybe waiting assures that.
  • ...The style of this film is completely cinematic, bold and strong. A lot of the scenes are shot in close-ups and two-shots, which changes our acting styles. Thus, very subtle choices are being used. I prefer to work this way.
  • I hear the dailies were great—but what film have you not heard that about? I pray it's true.
  • The first week of shooting was by far the best that I've ever experienced. I adore Jamie. She loves being a star, really enjoys acting and being part of Hollywood. Jim, Gordon and the crew are the best. I know that I'm going to have a great time this summer, and I have confidence that the film will meet everyone's expectations.

Part 4

One thing that Travolta interestingly doesn't mention in this Rolling Stone piece is his on-again, off-again romance with Marilu Henner, who also appears in the film. 

[With regards to the quote below, it should be mentioned that in addition to being an incredible actress, Henner has a rare "super memory," which allows her to recall every single moment of her life]

Aaron Latham: She was John Travolta's girlfriend for a big part of the time. And then they broke up, then they got back together. And I asked John why they broke up and why they got back together. And he said, "When we broke up, I came to realize that she was remembering my life for me. And I felt lost. Nobody was remembering my life any more." [smiling] I told you he was sneakily perceptive. That's not an unreflective remark. You don't expect it from John Travolta, but there you go. It sneaks up on you.

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Part 5: Tender is the Night

Jeff Gourson: Jim always kept me involved. He made it a point to fly me up in a small puddle jumper in Mammoth. And I brought the dailies because they wanted to see the dailies. So they flew me and the projectionist up there with the projector to screen the dailies. And that evening we ran the dailies and then the next evening we came home.

Aaron Latham: I used to see everything that Jim saw. He really took me under his wing. So I would see the dailies, yeah, and I don't think we were concerned. I don't remember being particularly concerned. But looking back, Jim and I would kind of say: was there a point where things went caca-ed?

Jeff Gourson: I really don't know. The thing about me as an editor when I get on a project is I think the movie is great. Obviously I'm prejudiced because I'm working on it a lot. You know, the same thing happened with Somewhere in Time. I thought that was a fantastic movie. And now it's a cult film. Perfect isn't.

Aaron Latham: I thought Jim could do no wrong. I still pretty much feel that way. We saw it as kind of a comedy about press excess, which I don't know that we quite captured. But I thought...everything was going really well in the movie until about 2/3 of the way through the movie. After that, it seemed we kind of lost something.

Debra Winger: It's so funny, last week Arliss [her husband] and I got in the car and decided to drive out to the desert And on the way there, I can't even recall what precipitated it, but I said: "I really want to look at Perfect again." I wonder if Perfect, in a way, was Jim trying to do something like Tony Richardson had done in The Loved One. I don't know. It's almost like he pulled his punch.

Aaron Latham: Jim and I were shocked by how the movie performed. It was a big shock. But the three of us—Jim, Jack and I—we remained great friends and continued looking for ways to work together. We actually worked on a third script together that was overtaken by history. You know the movie Roman Holiday? It was going to be like that, except instead of a Princess it would be [Soviet leader] Brezhnev's daughter. Who comes with him to the United States and runs away for a couple of days and has adventures and then goes home again. So we were planning to do something with that, but suddenly detente happened and they weren't our enemy any more. So we gave up on that and then Jim got sick.

In 1990, Jim Bridges was diagnosed with intestinal cancer. 

Aaron Latham: I'd go out to see him. Always. He lived with the cancer fairly successfully for what seems like a year or two. Then he got really sick where he couldn't go out. He had a portable pain pump. He looked like a concentration camp victim. It was really, really tough.

Debra Winger: Just...I don't know.  He was a function of love. Like, whatever you do is just made better by him looking at it. That's like a magic trick in a way. I think people felt really seen by him. Not just actors. And I think in life that's all we ever really want, is to be seen in whatever we do.

Aaron Latham: When in the last stage, he was in pain all the time. He would talk about the pain and he'd say, "Aaron, have you ever known anything about cancer pain?" But I'm pretty sure he believed in God. He always said he did. And I assumed it helped him. He would say, "You believe in God, right Aaron?" And I would say yes, even though I don't really. And he would say, "I believe in God. You promise me you believe in God?" "Yeah," I'd say to Jim. "I believe in God."

Debra Winger: I think we were connected by...I still feel it right now as I'm talking about it. Like, whatever people feel in huge soul relationships; I have with that guy. I've had great relationships with directors, I've had great experiences, but never that. This is something beyond words. This is a life relationship and I can get in touch with it like that.

Aaron Latham: The last time I saw him was in the hospital where he died. I was out there for some reason, working on something—oh yeah, I was working on my third movie: The Program— I had dinner with him the night before we as a company went to go film that movie. And when I came back he was really, really sick. He was at UCLA. I used to go over there and sit with him. But then I came home and got a call from a mutual friend who told me he died.

Debra Winger: Sometimes when I get really scared on a set, I just sit down and I go for Jim. He's my life line. I still call Jim. I just: what's the deal. And I just feel looked at by him and seen by him. And interested and empowered. It's my trick.

Aaron Latham: Jack said he stayed with him after he died in the hospital room. And held his head until his head got cold and then he decided he was really dead and left.

Debra Winger: He was buried in Arkansas, where he was from. I couldn't be there because I was shooting Shadowlands, but Bob went down there to sort of represent that time and spoke at the funeral. That meant a lot.

Aaron Latham: I always wondered what Jim thought [about his working on The Program with a different director]. Because it kind of appeared that I was going to be able to go on with a life and he wasn't going to be able to. But he never said anything like that. I just wonder if he thought it.

Jeff Gourson: I would have done anything for Jim.

Aaron Latham: Jim was just beloved. Reminds me of what Fitzgerald said at the beginning of Tender Is The Night. When he's talking about his hero Dick Diver. Fitzgerald said he never could figure out how to embody Dick Diver's charm, so he finally gave up on tying to recreate and just decided to show its effect on other people. And Jim's effect on other people was that everybody loved him. I don't know what that came from. I didn't spot him courting anybody.

Jack O'Brien: Jimmy Bridges and I were both sort of "adopted professional children" of the great John Houseman...As a result, Jim and I had enormous affection for each other — and thought of us in a charmingly sibling way:  but his energy, his zeal, his ebullient good spirits were so irresistible that I felt with him as if I were being swept along by some incipient Pied Piper! He had an audacious way with narrative and drama, and his early disappearance from our scene has left a void I can still feel!

Jeff Gourson: He gave me my start, the greatest possible start I could have asked for. He was the best. And so was Jack. I actually stayed in touch with him after Jim passed away. I'd meet him down near Brentwood and we'd have breakfast together. And he'd always talk about his dog. He loved animals, he rescued them. "Me and my dog, you know, doing this and doing that."

Aaron Latham: I still saw him all the time. I used to see him when I'd go out to Los Angeles, but somehow I got out of the habit. And when he would come to New York, he would look us up. In fact, an opera that he wrote with Virgil Thompson, it'll get it's first real full-scale public performance this January.

Debra Winger: There was always that thing between me and Jack, so when Jim died it was really bizarre. But I thought you know, I'll just do what I think is the right thing. I'll do what Jim would have wanted me to do; be respectful of Jack and look after him...but of course we totally fell in love. Jack and I. We got closer and closer over the years. But that love, it happened immediately. Because I think we both had this unbelievable hole. And to be with someone that loved the person as much as you did...it always helps. And then we found our own sort of quirky connections as well. I didn't hang out with him as much—and we didn't create anything together—so it wasn't the same as Jim, but it was still very close. we talked all the time on the phone. And, of course, he was always the first person I'd seen whenever I was in California.

Aaron Latham: Wait, you know he just died, right?

Jack_Larson

I did, actually. Because I'd reached out to his publicist and requested an interview only to find out—sadly, strangely—Jack Larson had died just a couple days earlier. Which not only was devastating to all of those who had loved him, but for my part—as the writer, dong what Aaron Latham had done before me; looking for the love in stories big and small—I was saddened by the fact that I felt I'd be unable to appropriately convey the importance of Jack and Jim. 

But then, at 11:30 on Tuesday night, I got an e-mail from an unfamiliar address, which turned out to be Debra Winger. And then minutes after that I got a call.

Debra Winger: Your area code is New York. Is that where you are? I figured you were in California. I didn't mean to call so late.

Blake Harris: No, don't apologize. I'm happy that you called. I had lunch with Aaron last week, so you've been on my mind.

Debra Winger: I'm just glad that someone is remembering Jim in any way. It was up to Jack, but now...

Blake Harris: I heard about Jack. I'm very sorry.

Debra Winger: My impulse to call you...well, Jim is my favorite subject...but I don't think you know anything about what happened out here. Because I don't think Aaron knows.

Blake Harris: What do you mean?

Debra Winger: I'm the one who walked up the driveway and found Jack.

Blake Harris: Really?

Debra Winger: Yeah. I came out here, supposedly to work, and that was the first thing that happened. I called Jack, the first thing I got out here. As soon as I landed, that's always the firs thing I do immediately. I kept trying to get in touch with him, so I could come on over, but he wasn't picking up. I finally left a message saying, "if I don't hear back from you, I'm just gonna come. And I know that's rude in your book, but I'm a Jewish mother, so I'm coming." And that's when I found him. He was sitting in a chair out front of his house. I saw my name near the phone and my phone number so I knew he had gotten the message.

Blake Harris: At least he heard your voice.

Debra Winger: And he had Charlie. His dog Charlie. Who was sitting at his feet.

Blake Harris: I had heard that Jack loved dogs.

Debra Winger: He did. Jim too, they were both such dog people. And Charlie was sitting there, without his leash, sitting right at Jack's feet. And in fact, when I tried to pick Charlie up, he bit me. Because he was not going to move. And Jack was sitting very peacefully in his seat. Finally, I put the leash around his neck and took him to the bushes and he peed and then he went right back to Jack's feet. I called the police and then I panicked because I thought: oh my god, they're going to take Charlie to a pound. Jack'll never forgive me and Jack's just sitting there. What should I do? Finally, I thought about calling the woman who had given Charlie to Jack and she said she'd come right over. She got there before the coroner and Charlie ran to her. And I burst into tears, finally. I hadn't cried one ear up to that point."

Blake Harris: Wow. I'm so sorry.

Debra Winger: You know, when I found him it was just absolutely...I just stood there...and I felt this sort of parenthetical close. It was the second parenthesis and the first one—the opening of the parenthesis—was sitting on the stoop, looking up at Jim Bridges and Aaron Latham walking towards on the lot at Paramount. Because when they got back from lunch, that's how it all started. And when I stood there looking at Jack, it was like the missing close.

Blake Harris: And what does that feel? Rarely in life does anything ever feel "closed."

Debra Winger: Right, life is usually dot-dot-dot...It felt very beautiful. It felt like, I don't know, when you hold a perfect pomegranate in your hand; something magical and whole. It was a whole story. And it had a beginning, a middle and an end. And I didn't know it would have this end because I was always aching for Jim, I always missed Jim, and I thought: oh god, I'll never have anyone love me like that. And trust me like that. And teach me so much about acting and everything. And then when I found Jack I realized it was just a beautiful story. It was like this beautiful story of him discovering me and then me going all the way to the end and taking care of his partner until the very end. Planning the funeral, saying goodbye. It was the parenthetical close to a huge story of my life: these guys.  It was a huge piece of me. And it's not gone, they've willed it to me. I am the keeper of both those stories inside of me and that's a really amazing feeling.

Blake Harris: It is. And I want to hear more. Would you mind taking me back to the beginning of the parenthesis? When you first met Jim?

We then spoke at length about the magic of Jim Bridges, the beauty of Jack Larson and many other things (including dolphins, at one point). Much of what we discussed is included above in this oral history. But some of it, just a tiny amount, I chose to leave out. Just a few perfect little pomegranates, that I selfishly wished to keep for myself.