Friday, January 06, 2006

Henry’s a movie fan -- you could even say a fanatic -- but he’s not crazy.

I determined this when I went to his place with some film geek friends to hang out, drink and watch some flicks a few days ago. I had never been to Henry’s house before, but the first moment I saw his screening room, I was amazed.

The entire area was covered -- every inch of it -- with movie memorabilia. Specifically, Clint Eastwood stuff. Actually, the collection focused largely on Clint’s Spaghetti Westerns. And to be precise: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. There were posters in every language (the original release was in Italian: Il Buono, Il Brutto, Il Cattivo). He also had bobble-heads of the characters, coffee mugs with stills from the film, even the garbage can featured a photo of the bad guy Lee Van Cleef. The place was like a museum.

“This isn’t even all of it,” Henry said. He couldn’t fit half of his collection in the room, and has loaned some of the pieces to the Gene Autry Western museum. He’s even acquired rare extra footage of one of these movies, and donated it to MGM for the DVD’s special features -- and Henry himself introduces the clip on the disc.

I know it sounds a bit obsessive, but Henry explained all this with a calm demeanor. It’s a hobby for him, the way some people play golf or knit or, yeah, blog. And unlike most enthusiasts, Henry never bragged or acted overly excited discussing his favorite movie.

I was more animated about it than him as I recalled the first time I saw it. It was maybe ten years ago. I mentioned that as a film aficionado, an ongoing student, I had felt that I should better acquaint myself with that strong staple of American cinema: the Western. But I couldn’t get into ‘em. The handful of John Wayne/John Ford films didn’t O.K. my Corral. High Noon and The Gunslinger weren’t bad, but didn’t Wyatt my Earp. Same for even Sam Peckinpah pictures.

But then I had seen Once Upon a Time in the West, a Sergio Leone movie which featured Henry Fonda as the villain, and I was impressed. Then they re-released The Good, The Bad and The Ugly on the big screen and I was blown away. This wasn’t just an enjoyable western; this was an excellent movie, period. I love Leone’s style -- the sweeping landscape views (with the Spanish countryside doubling for the Western U.S.), intercut with extreme close-ups of the cowboys’ dirty faces, where you can see every wrinkle, every pore.

And Eli Wallach -- the Jew portraying a Mexican -- was hysterical at any angle. I thought he completely stole the movie from Clint Eastwood.

I was preaching to the choir. “Eastwood wouldn’t work with him again because of that,” Henry said. “He didn’t want to be outshined.” He proceeded to tell me how the director used recent-Oscar winner Rod Steiger for his next movie (so another Jew gave an over-the-top performance as a Mexican), even though the Eastwood wasn’t even in Duck, You Sucker! (which was also known as A Fistful of Dynamite). See, Henry knows all this stuff, but the most interesting bit of movie trivia was his encounter with the director Sergio Leone himself.

Henry must’ve been fairly young, ‘cause it took place in the ‘80s. He had heard that Leone was in LA, prepping his next movie, so Henry managed to meet the man at the Chateau Marmont. Leone didn’t speak any English, so Henry explained, through the director’s translator: “Ever since I was nine years old and saw The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, I was your biggest fan.” And to illustrate that point, Henry acted out the entire movie for him, doing every part flawlessly.

Again, I know this sounds kinda nuts, but Henry has this low-key way of doing it, even when he’s imitating Tuco’s rants: “When you have to shoot, shoot, don't talk.” Or if he warbles the famous Ennio Morricone score: “Woo-de-woo-de-wooo! Wah-wah-wahh!” Henry said Sergio Leone got a big kick out him -- this kid who clearly knew the director's work backwards and inside-out.

Henry told a friend all about it, and his friend couldn’t believe it. Well, he accepted that Henry met Leone, but since the director was going to New York to shoot Once Upon a Time in America, he was flabbergasted that Henry didn’t ask the man for a job.

Henry didn’t want to overstep his bounds, but decided what the hell, nothing ventured... So he rushed back to the hotel -- and good timing too, ‘cause Leone was packing up for his trip -- and Henry said, “Mr. Leone, sorry to bother you again, and feel free to tell me no, but please, it would be such an honor to be involved with this film… in any way… follow you around with an ashtray while you smoked, anything… just to watch you work…”

Or something like that. Leone didn’t have his translator with him, so Henry had to say all this with simple English words, hand signals and broken Italian phrases. He hoped he got it across somehow.

Leone said, “Sure, kid, I’m sure I can find something for you.”

Turned out, the director did speak English. He just used a translator to keep the crazies at a distance. So Henry got a job on the movie; I think he was Robert DeNiro’s gofer or something… Probably real grunt work, but I’m sure it was an opportunity of a lifetime.

I thought it was a fun story. I don’t know if there’s any individual filmmaker I admire as strongly (Spielberg? Scorsese? The Coen Bros.?) as he did, but I could still relate. Henry cherished the experience… and like I said -- he’s fanatical, but not crazy. Even Sergio Leone could see that.


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