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

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. 

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