[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..