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« Breaking Box Office Part Two | Main | Are All Acting Oscar Records Made to Be Broken? »
Sunday
Nov182012

Playing Dress-Up: Jodie Foster in "Bugsy Malone"

[For Jodie Foster Week, I invited a few guests to write about pivotal Jodie Foster movies for them. Here is Susan Posnock, who you may remember as a regular on Awards Daily a few years back. - Nathaniel R]

With Jodie Foster turning the big 5-0 tomorrow, Nathaniel asked if I would come out of my semi-retirement from film writing to help celebrate the actresses’ oeuvre. He offered up a number of films to reflect on, but the one I immediately thought of – despite the fact that I hadn’t seen it in about 30 years – was Bugsy Malone.

Long before the Internet, DVDs and even videos, I remember catching the film as often as I could (and my parents would allow) on HBO. In addition to Foster in a relatively small part, as tough-talking gangster’s moll Tallulah, it starred then-unknown Scott Baio in the titular role. Watching it this week I was struck by how completely odd it is – something I didn't pick up on as a kid. But as an adult, its unique flavors stand out. [More...]

Written and directed by Alan Parker, Bugsy Malone is full of contrasts, both brilliant and banal. It featured a cast of British and American kids, playing the ultimate game of dress-up as ‘20s-era gangsters. They wore suits and flapper dresses and donned slicked-back hairdos. They drove pedal-powered cars and their weapons of choice included pies to the face and “splurge” guns that dispensed whipped cream. If you’ve never seen it, imagine Boardwalk Empire with children, custard pie in place of blood, and plenty of songs.

Parker clearly put a lot into his feature-length directorial debut, released in 1976. Filmed at the United Kingdom’s Pinewood Studios, the production values – from the meticulously rendered speak-easy to those whipped-cream splurging guns – are top notch.

Its take on the movie musical is also unique. The songs, written by Paul Williams ("Rainbow Connection," the Academy Award-winning "Evergreen" from A Star is Born), have a catchy cadence to them. By replacing the kids singing voices with adults who sounded nothing like them, the musical interludes take on a surreal quality. Foster, reflecting on the film year’s later, noted her shock at hearing the high-pitched voice that was chosen for her. Baio’s squeaky-high speaking voice hilariously cuts into Williams’ much lower singing voice during one of the film’s songs. Overall, the odd juxtaposition of sound to image is more jarring than the dubbing on a Godzilla film. Yet somehow, it works, making the film even more memorable.

Here’s Foster vamping it up (but not singing) as Tallulah:

The contrast between Foster’s performance and her non-professional co-stars is  striking. The majority of the cast is about as good as your typical High School production (though the dancing ranges from fun and exuberant to excellent). And while Baio is cute and John Cassisi brings a nice Brooklyn attitude to mob boss Fat Sam, Foster is simply in a different league.

In the British television documentary Bugsy Malone: After They Were Famous, she talks about the experience of going from the very adult-world of Martin Scorsese to the stylized Romper Room of Bugsy Malone.

It was an interesting experience coming from Taxi Driver and Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese and then to kind of drop into 200 kids, none of whom had ever made a film before. Honestly, Alan Parker didn’t have a lot to say to me. He just sort of forgot I was there…he had so many Labrador puppies to deal with that he kind of just let me do my thing.

While the other cast members stumble around some of the lightning fast dialogue, Foster’s like a mini Mae West, saucily spouting lines such as, “I like my men at my feet.” You can see some of that brassiness in Foster’s introduction to the trailer for the film here:

Despite the impression it leaves, Bugsy Malone is not Foster’s most well-known film from the period; it came out the same year as Taxi Driver and Disney classic Freaky Friday. However, it does seem to have quite a following, especially in the United Kingdom. I hadn’t thought about it in years, when I heard it name-checked at The Film Experience during Melanie Lynskey's guest blog and in Armando Iannucci’s 2009 comedy In the Loop. (Gina McKee’s character comments on how young D.C. staff are saying, “They're all kids in Washington. It's like Bugsy Malone, but with real guns.”) There’s also a homage to its ending in the British sitcom Spaced. And according to Wikipedia, it was the most screened film in UK secondary schools during 2011. I find it odd that my nieces – all around the target-audience age – have never heard of it, but their English counterparts could probably sing along to it. The film remains a true original and Foster’s performance (which, along with Taxi Driver, helped her nab a couple of BAFTAs) is a testament to her preternatural talents..

 

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Reader Comments (9)

Jodie Foster as a kid had the best delivery ever. Just watch this film and Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore. She makes other kid actors look like amateurs.

November 18, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSimone

I've been dying to watch this again for years for many of the same reasons (suddenly noticing references to it and remembering how much i loved it as a child)

November 18, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNathaniel R

Bugsy Malone is a total classic here in the UK, and regularly shown on tv, especially around Christmas time. I absolutely adored it as a child - I was born the year it came out, so its tv premiere got me at just the right age.

I really wish Paul Williams had known what he was dealing with when it came to Jodie Foster. Her singing voice should have been like Amy Irving in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

November 18, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterScott

I adore Bugsy Malone. It's one of my favourite musicals. Nathaniel, as a musical fan, you may want to check it out again pronto. The songs are terrific, and the overall staging, filming and editing of the musical numbers is first-rate.

November 18, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterEdward L.

The stage version of the film is still very popular as a drama production for UK secondary schools which probably explains why the film is still so often screened in such places - it's no doubt being used for reference purposes.

November 19, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSteve

It definitely seems to have a larger following in the UK versus in the US. Though there are plenty of folks (like me) who remember it from childhood.

Regarding the adult voices -- I've read at least one account that Parker regrets the decision not to let the kids sing the songs. I suspect that if he had, the results would have been mixed. For instance, Baio's voice was clearly at the Brady Bunch "When It's Time to Change" stage.

November 19, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSusanP

I've been putting off watching this movie for years as I do all "kid" movies, but this is an interesting write up. Thanks Susan.

In preparation for Jodie Foster week I went back to read up on some old reviews. I came upon a particularly nasty one from 1999 (for Anna and the King) from Manohla Dargis who proclaimed that Foster is "Never an especially interesting screen presence after she exited puberty." Of Jodie's kid roles, I've only seen Taxi Driver, so I can't really offer an opinion on that, but I wondered, is she (at least partially) right? Then I thought maybe Anna and the King was so bad that Dargis just had to cut someone over it...:-)

November 19, 2012 | Unregistered CommenteraleX

As a huge fan of the great singer Helen Reddy, I am very familiar with the superior skills of Paul Williams, many of whose songs were covered by Helen. That, in combo with being a fan of both Parker and Foster, makes me want to see this obscure movie.

November 19, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

Alex:
There was a period of time in the mid 90's that Foster got a bit of backlash from the media. She was producing, directing, had her own production company and was beloved (and protected) within the industry. Some critics seemed to resent it. In fact, one reporter even asked her about it and she said that she knew it was eventually going to happen. By the time Panic Room came around, it had stopped. The reviews from those times are not very kind to her, even though she actually did a fine job in Anna & The King.

She also had some controversial moments like having a kid without naming father, which did not sit well with the Church and male-activists.

November 20, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMemories..

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