At night one of “Buckfest,” as the Cinefamily’s Hadrian Belove dubbed it likely much to the delight of the guest of honor, Buck Henry, who could enjoy the laughter of those who thought they heard something else, the legendary screenwriter knew how to get the audience back for night two. Most of those onhand surely had seen what they were about to, as Henry dutifully introduced “The Graduate,” but he wanted everyone to know while he thought the film he wrote with Calder Willingham was “entertaining,” the coming attraction of “Taking Off” was “almost great.” He went one further when actually introducing “Taking Off,” saying it was his favorite film, though even without that enticement, the screening of the 1971 comedy, Milos Forman’s first American film could’ve been considered a must-see event with music rights all but taking it out of circulation since its initial run in theaters. (An import Blu-ray is available, but has never been released on any home video format in the States.)
The pristine 35mm print that was presented suggested “Taking Off” hadn’t been played much in the years since, which is a shame considering what a gem it is – a vivid snapshot of America at a cultural crossroads, by capturing the joy and freedom of free-spirited baby boomers that overran Greenwich Village in the late ‘60s, causing a panic amongst their parents in the suburbs who feared the worst. One of those parents was played by Henry, for whom the film marked a rare turn as a leading man, a fact made even more unusual in his filmography when considering he didn’t write it. Then again, according to him, no one did, despite having “Belle du Jour” writer Jean-Claude Carriere and “Six Degrees of Separation” playwright John Guare credited.
“Most of the film was not scripted,” said Henry. “Partly because it costs money to hire writers and there were too many of them at one point, so they stopped doing that, but also because [Forman] didn’t speak fluent English, so he depended on the actors to show him the way to go in scenes where it got complicated, and he liked and trusted actors enough to let them write the words, in effect.”
From the night before, Henry said how much he loved improvisation, learning from his mother, silent film actress Ruth Taylor, a veteran of Mack Sennett comedies, that “If you don’t have to worry about the words, then you can be wildly imaginative when it comes to behavior.” He also realized it would be a boon to his social life.
Said Henry, “I figured out after some years hearing my mother tell some kind of wispy tales about what it was like making silent films in the ‘20s and ‘30s, if she’s telling it straight, then they’re going to more parties than we ever thought of going to and I realized it’s because they didn’t have to memorize a fucking word!”
He would go on to describe Forman’s technique by saying in a scene between two people, “Milos would come over and say [to one actor], “You don’t want him to go out of the room, so just keep pressing him. Then he’d start a scene and tell the other person to do the opposite. ‘When he says, “Get out of the room, don’t do it.’” So it keeps everyone on edge in an interesting way.’”
Henry actually got the part of Larry Tyne, the frustrated father of a wild child (Linnea Heacock) who ventures into the Village to find her, on the recommendation of his friend, the famed photographer Mary Ellen Mark. Mark had been joining Forman on weekends to take pictures of the hippies at the Bethesda Fountain in Central Park, when the director was scouting for potential actors in his film and wondered aloud about who should play the parents.
“He described everything this character should be to Mary and she said, ‘Well, you should get Buck,’” said Henry, who added that his own first meeting with Forman was in the Park “one splendid summer afternoon.” “He didn’t know who I was of course — nobody did, including me. But Mary Ellen suggested it and Milos said later that he liked the idea of my being in the film because I had such sad eyes.”
On the other hand, Henry was impressed with how wide-eyed Forman was, having just escaped Czechoslovakia with fellow director Ivan Passer after his 1967 comedy “The Fireman’s Ball” earned the wrath of the country’s censors and the Soviet invasion drove him out once and for all.
“[Forman] was completely captivated by America, what he saw as the freedom of American citizens was unlike anything he had ever experienced under the administration of the fiendish governments he lived under,” said Henry. “And he loved that you could put an ad in the Village Voice, which he did, and 350 cute little girls showed up with their guitars.”
That audition, which is spliced across the first third of the film to give a feel of the free-wheeling Village vibe through the various young women who came in to sing songs of the era or ones they had written themselves, features cameos from a then-unknown Carly Simon and Kathy Bates, then credited as “Bobo Bates” on her original song, “And Even the Horses Had Wings.” (Vincent Schiavelli, who would go on to appear in Forman’s follow-up “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” was also a discovery of the film, stealing scenes as a marijuana expert brought in to speak to the parents’ support group that Henry’s Larry Tyne attends with his wife Lynn, played by Lynn Carlin.)
Henry said one of his favorite things about the film was the “deranged sense of music,” which ran the gamut from classical to folk music. He also shared one of his favorite anecdotes that may have may have inspired the film’s opening scene – a sit-down between Henry’s harried father and a psychologist. After Forman and Ivan Passer had been living in the Village without much success for a few months, a friend had recommended that Forman see a shrink to help him find clarity, but Passer knew his longtime friend would never submit to it.
“Milos says to Passer, “I can’t talk about my life to some stranger. It won’t work. I’ll have a breakdown and die. But here’s the situation, Ivan, you know me better than anyone in my life except my mother and father. Why don’t you just you sit with the guy for a day and see what it’s like? He can ask you the questions he was going to ask me. You can answer them and we’ll all go away happy.”
Although that may or may not have been the outcome then, at least those who saw “Taking Off” Sunday night could say that.
“The Films of Buck Henry” continues with ‘Heaven Can Wait'” playing on January 17th at 7:30 pm.