When Freeheld was released in 2015, I was reminded of Mask being released in 1985. Both would have benefited from being released in their years of production. By being released in 2015 instead of 2014 (when Ellen Page came out of the closet on Valentine’s day), Freeheld was dated because gay marriage had already been legalized. By being released in early 1985 instead of late 1984, Mask missed out on running for the 1985 Golden Globe and Academy Award ceremonies. Then again, Amadeus seemed destined to be the multiple winner. The histories of Mask and Freeheld are strikingly similar. In 1984, Eric Stoltz was the It boy of L.A. because he was walking around with his latex mask on so that he could understand what it would be like as Rocky Dennis. This was an unexpected publicity stunt which helped Mask gross six times its cost (i.e. 6 x 8 million = 48). In 2014, Ellen Page was the It girl in the U.S. because of her admittance that she is a lesbian (cynics saw this as a carefully timed publicity stunt given that she is one of the producers for Freeheld).
Both stars were expected to win awards of supporting status. The difference is that the It boy succeeded in landing a G.G. nomination. Both films were real life stories about someone suffering from a serious health condition and discrimination. Both films are about the relationship between a woman and a younger loved one. Both films show the latter character falling in love before the relationship comes to an end. Both films have unexpected levity. Both have endings where a female character is alone. Both movies were directed by men named Peter. Mask was directed by Bogdanovich. Freeheld was directed by Sollett. Both directors talked about the significance of nonverbal emotion. Bogdanovich agreed with László Kovács (the cinematographer) that the It boy could write a sentence with his eyes. Sollett praised the It girl for a scene near the end where she’s by herself. It’s his favourite type of scene – all emotion, no dialogue.
Like how Mask was being hyped as the 1985 equivalent to The Elephant Man, Freeheld was purported to be the next Philadelphia. The biggest surprise was that Julianne Moore wasn’t being heralded as a consecutive Oscar winner. Like Cher, she didn’t win a G.G. Unlike Cher, she didn’t get a G.G. nomination and win the best actress award at the Cannes Film Festival. Both films failed to use songs to achieve maximum success. In the dire case of Freeheld, having a song written by Linda Perry and sung by Miley Cyrus (i.e. Hands of Love) failed to tug enough heartstrings to warrant a mention of the film at the MTV Movie Awards. While having a bunch of Bruce Springsteen songs may have propelled Mask to go past the 50 million barrier, the film still did well enough to be considered a smash hit (for what is essentially a Lifetime movie).
As for why the songs weren’t purchased, Universal didn’t want to acquiesce to demands by CBS Records. The former offered $200,000. The latter demanded half a million along with 25% of cable TV and home video grosses. It didn’t help that Peter and Cher were entitled to 5% of the profits. It also didn’t help that Martin Starger (one of the producers) and Peter had their own take as to how long Mask should be. Even the notoriety was similar. Bogdanovich wanted to sue Universal for reneging the contract. Ronald L. Nyswaner, the writer of Freeheld, criticized the film-makers for sterilizing the lesbianism to the extent that it was streamlined for a non-niche audience who wouldn’t care while the lesbian demographic would feel offended. The parallels would have been more acute if the make-up artist of The Elephant Man had worked on Mask, like how Ron went from screenwriting Philadelphia to Freeheld.
Regardless, the outcomes are the same in the sense that I won’t let the It girl star in my fashion film like how the It boy (or “Rocky Dennis” as he was known on the set) was no longer allowed to star in the biggest hit of 1985. It must have been perturbing that a wider theatrical release for Freeheld couldn’t be guaranteed in spite of four stars having already received G.G. and Oscar nominations. Mask had half the number of stars but more exposure. According to Alex Zane (a U.K. TV host) during a Sky Movies featurette, Freeheld was released too late for the 2016 Academy Awards ceremony. This is dubious considering that it was released on October 2 in comparison to Room (an Oscar winner) which had been released on October 16. The reality is that Oscar finalists have to gross a certain amount of millions. Carol (another lesbian drama) was a hit (grossing three times its cost) because a love story is not overbearing like a civil rights story.
The failure of Freeheld was also due to the mainstream LGBT community paying more attention to trans-themed fare, whether it be TV serials like I Am Cait and Transparent or a film like The Danish Girl. Factoring in all of this alongside Orange is the New Black (another LGBT TV series), Freeheld would hardly have registered a blip on anyone’s gaydar (much less radar). Even Roland Emmerich’s Stonewall suffered a crueller fate. Freeheld would’ve been taken more seriously had the It girl transformed with the same amount of dedication that the It boy had. If she shaved her head, there would be a semblance of a resemblance. One criticism is that she would be more suited as Moore’s daughter. She should’ve been self-effacing enough to cast Clea DuVall, who is 17 years younger than Julianne (the real couple had a sisterly age gap consisting of 19 years versus the motherly 27 which was engendered by the It girl). However, Ellen likes older women (e.g. Clea used Ellen’s origin details during an I.D. scene in Argo).
As far as the critics were concerned in late `84 and early `85, the only thing that was stopping Eric from being the best supporting actor was Haing S. Ngor in The Killing Fields. The Cambodian won despite being a neophyte in the world of acting. His experience as a war victim lended authenticity to his role as a refugee. Even the least hardened of critics could smell foul at the sympathy vote. This doctor was the first Academy-awarded Asian in the best supporting actor field. Still, Eric was talented enough that C. Thomas Howell lost the role of Marty McFly after two weeks of rehearsals. As for why Mask didn’t get much in the way of nominations for the 1986 Oscars, Peter implied (in an interview with Marc Maron) that it was Frank Price (the president of Universal Pictures) who was pushing for Out of Africa (which was also filmed in 1984) to be Universal’s contender for the Oscar throne.
It was a more prestigious effort starring Meryl Streep and Robert Redford, hence why Back to the Future never stood a chance at being an Oscar favourite. Price wanted Mask to be literally cut down to size. Peter got his vengeance when the colossal failure of Howard the Duck resulted in Price leaving his hefty position as chairman of the motion picture group and vice president of MCA. It’s still a small victory given how Eric’s career was collateral damage. For a 1987 book titled Oscar Dearest, Steven Spielberg had to cop to it instead of copping out: “It was the toughest call I ever had to make. After all, 4 million dollars went down the drain. Eric Stoltz is a remarkable young actor in the same league with Sean Penn and Emilio Estevez. I should have gone with my hunch and delayed the film until we got Michael J. Fox.”
In the October 24, 1985 issue of Rolling Stone, Steven elaborated: “I should have waited, and yet I wanted the film out for the summer. And for the record, I think Eric Stoltz is a marvelous actor, in the same league with Sean Penn, Emilio Estevez and Matthew Modine.”
His humility is impressive when you consider that he removed his name from Fandango (1985) when he knew that it would flop. As much as he can be accused of being a megalomaniac, Peter is more megalomaniacal. When Universal tried to find the negative print of Mask to release a director’s cut, they could only find the positive prints because he owned the negative. This calls into question as to whether he had attempted to blackmail the studio back in the mid-eighties amongst that brouha. Why else was the film released in the same month as the Oscar ceremony?
He had the motive (Oscar fever induced by peers who already owned statuettes), means (passing it off as a positive print that was to be presumably screened for a critic’s screening) and the opportunity (after the manufacturing of the positive prints). At any rate, to imply that Eric was nothing more than a seat-warmer for Fox is simply wrong. The 1984 script and stylistic choices show an agenda that’s adverse to a breezy blockbuster. If anything, the only artistic interest in Fox was that his latex mask in Teen Wolf allowed for more facial expressions than what was afforded to Eric’s mask. The question now lies as to which producers of BTTF had erred on the side of Eric’s casting. It wasn’t like Universal was the only film studio who were willing to finance the film. For example, The Goonies (also 1985) was produced by Amblin but distributed by Warner Brothers instead of Universal. I actually think that it was Neil Canton and Frank Marshall who persuaded Spielberg to cast Eric as Marty McFly. Whoever voted in favour first, both of them washed their hands of casting Eric.
Neil worked as Peter’s production assistant in the `70s on three films – What’s Up, Doc? and Paper Moon before Nickelodeon. Frank, on the other hand, was Peter’s assistant on Targets (1968) and his location manager on The Last Picture Show (1971). Frank clearly cared for Peter’s opinion enough to help him produce Paper Moon (1973), Daisy Miller (1974), At Long Last Love (1975) and Nickelodeon (1976). Frank had first met Neil as they both assisted Peter in producing What’s Up, Doc?
I understand that this is a lot to take in, but try to look it at from another angle. There is another Sci-Fi movie which had a similar power struggle behind the scenes. Gary Kurtz (the producer), Lawrence Kasdan (writer) and Irvin Kershner (director) wanted to turn The Empire Strikes Back into a dark film despite the fact that George Lucas (executive producer) disagreed. With this in mind, you can see how certain players behind BTTF were taken aback by things not going their way. I believe that Eric was also cast because of his uncanny resemblance to Mark Hamill, as can be seen in A Killer in the Family (1983).
Ironically, the best way to describe his firing is to use Star Wars as an example. Imagine if Lucas was so afraid of the film being a flop with an unknown lead actor that he comes up with an excuse – Mark Hamill is so wooden that he needs to be replaced by Richard Thomas. The second excuse is that Richard was the first choice but he was too busy filming the remaining season 4 episodes of The Waltons. The symmetry being that both actors were born in 1951 like how Eric and Fox were born in 1961. What compounds the BTTF situation further is that Frank married one of the executive producers in 1987 – a woman who helped form Amblin Entertainment with him and Spielberg in 1981. To understand the backroom politics, Frank and Neil convinced Steven to cast Eric on the strength of Peter’s exaltation. Steven then convinced Robert Zemeckis, who knew that Airplane was proof of a drama actor being able to play the straight man. Bob Gale and Kathleen Kennedy wanted anybody else, but Steven sensed his right-hand man’s gut instinct. Steven first met Frank because of Peter as can be read here.
In the December 1988 of Box Office, one of the three casting directors for BTTF (Mike Fenton) talked about the casting process: “There were great discussions before Eric was cast. Those of us who were on the front line of the film did not think that Eric was the best possible actor for the job, but we simply couldn’t get Michael J. Fox. I think the head of Universal made a business decision in the casting of Eric, Everyone had just seen Mask, which Eric starred in and which Universal owned; and I think that the studio decided that Eric was going to become a very important actor. They thought it was a great idea to cast him in a role that was the exact opposite of the one in Mask, and Steven Spielberg allowed Universal to make that final decision.”
In an episode of Hollywood’s Best Directors, another Mike – Figgis said: “The thing about actors is you choose them because there is something about them that speaks to your instinct. It might not be what I thought of when I wrote the part, but I see something interesting in this person. Working with stars, I think, is very complicated. If you work in the studio system, they would demand that you have a star because they need that for marketing. The big contradiction about film-making is the very thing that they want is the thing that you don’t want.”
Sean Astin revealed in his autobiography (There and Back Again: An Actor’s Tale) about how Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh experienced this contradiction during the making of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring in 1999: “New Line did not want to hire Stuart Townsend, but Fran and Peter used their influence with the studio to help him get the part. They reasonably felt that Stuart could overcome his youth and make the part his own. Maybe Stuart could be a great Aragorn. I suspect he could. Given the particular dynamic of this film, I think Peter and Fran believe they did Stuart a disservice by rallying around him to get the job, only to discover that it wasn’t going to work out.”
Sean continues in a way which allows for a neat tie-in with this article: “The studio sometimes gives notes that are completely antithetical to what the director is trying to do, so the director develops a defensive posture with the studio. It takes a sophisticated mind to elevate the nature of the work to a level that is consistent with those notes. He picked his battles and gave the studio plenty of victories along the way. Stuart was a casualty of one of those battles. Everyone was really worried about him for a while. Eric Stoltz went through something similar with Back to the Future. Eric is a dear friend of mine, and he’s told me the story of his firing on more than one occasion. I know how painful it was for him.”
Back to Figgis: “When I worked with Richard Gere, his career was zero. He had done a film called King David. Basically, he couldn’t get a job. When I made Internal Affairs, the studio begged me not to use him. They wanted to use Kurt Russell. I didn’t want to use Russell because I felt he was too obvious. A good actor but he was gonna deliver something that you expected. Richard was always ambiguous. Just by a little hair, I won my argument and I made the film with Richard. I remember, after when the film came out, getting a telegram from Disney’s Michael Eisner saying – Thank you so much for this film because we’ve just done a film with Richard called Pretty Woman and this makes it so much easier to market him as an actor again. You’ve done us a huge favour.”
Mike successfully argued his case because An Officer and a Gentleman (1982) was more profitable than any `80s movie where Kurt was leading the fray. Similarly, the movies which Fox had been in were less profitable than what Eric had been in by the time that the summer of `84 came to an end. Instead of handing the blame to someone else, Zemeckis admitted that he was ladder-climbing (as quoted in a book titled America’s Film Legacy: The Authoritative Guide to the Land): “You can’t make creative decisions for corporate reasons.”
Another example of self-reproach shows how Eric’s layoff from the movie was as difficult for Zemeckis as it was for Spielberg (as mentioned in a Tom Shone book titled Blockbuster): “It was the hardest meeting I’ve ever had in my life and it was all my fault. I broke his heart.”
In the first of 3 memoirs, Fox said something which makes me think that Eric’s firing was more to do with politics than artistry: “Audience tracking — exit polling of moviegoers to assess their likelihood of electing to see a new film — indicated that not many were likely to go see Doc Hollywood. There’s always a target number for the gross ticket sales that a movie should meet or surpass on its first weekend – a figure based on a variety of factors, including the number of screens. In 1991, $6 million was the consensus number below which we’d be in trouble. It didn’t help that we were an August release, since late summer is the dumping ground for a less-than-promising product. Doc Hollywood was a hit. Not a gigantic hit; not a blockbuster, but an undeniable, guaranteed-to-make-a-profit box office success.”