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

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.

still-of-marilu-henner-in-perfect-large-picture-1c383cd30b7c298ab50293adfecb7b18-big-35

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.

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