The Gypsy Moths
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Burt Lancaster had a truly commanding physical presence, and always used it to his best advantage on screen. But it's important to remember that Lancaster was an adventurous actor who regularly appeared in challenging movies. Grim existential offerings like Sweet Smell of Success (1957), The Train (1964), and The Swimmer (1968) are hardly the kind of thing one expects from a matinee idol.
In that sense, The Gypsy Moths (1969), his final picture with John Frankenheimer (who directed him in four previous films), isn't that big a departure. However, even within the realm of Lancaster's other movies, this is a portrait of existential despair with a shockingly fatalistic twist. It's little wonder that audiences didn't embrace it when it was originally released, even during the turbulent 60s.
The Gypsy Moths are a team of three cocky skydivers who travel from town to town in the mid-West, putting on a stunt-filled parachuting exhibition. Trouble awaits when Mike Rettig (Lancaster), Joe Browdy (Gene Hackman), and the youngest of the trio, Malcolm Webson (Scott Wilson), find themselves in Bridgeville, the small Kansas town where Webson grew up. The team is invited to stay at the home of Webson's aunt (Deborah Kerr) and uncle (William Windom), whose marriage seems to be disintegrating. Browdy will eventually become involved with a topless waitress (Sheree North), Webson will hook up with a local co-ed (Bonnie Bedelia), and Rettig will find himself being drawn toward Webson's long-suffering aunt.
All of these people will experience psychic free-falls of one form or another, while the Gypsy Moths will also symbolically plummet through the sky itself. Rettig's motto, "To face death is hard, but to face life is harder," is a harbinger of the human tangle that awaits them.
By this point, Frankenheimer had already worked with Lancaster several times, but Lancaster's presence was still the focus of the production. It almost had to be, given his star power. Hackman, who had only recently gained marginal stardom via his work in Bonnie and Clyde (1967), noted later that he learned an important lesson while watching Lancaster on the Gypsy Moths set.
"I found a lot of people would defer to (Lancaster) in ways that - I was from the theater, you know - that I'd wonder, "Why don't they argue with him a little bit? What, is he gonna punch them out or something?" Hackman didn't literally believe that would happen, because he knew Lancaster was "a smart guy." But he did feel that when screen actors reach a particular plateau of success, their work relationships change, and not always for the better. "...people get frightened of your money or your power or both, you know. And when I found myself doing that, when I found myself getting my way without somebody really pushing against me, I really started getting worried."
Frankenheimer, for one, felt that Hackman's subdued performance was the best thing in the movie: "What I remember most about that movie, I suppose, is Hackman. I kept wanting to augment his part. What a terrific actor he is. I think maybe the two finest movie actors I ever worked with were Fredric March and Hackman. I'd work with Hackman on anything he wanted to do, I really would."
Frankenheimer would get his wish several years later, when he directed Hackman in French Connection II (1975). That shoot, though, must have been a hell of a lot easier than the one for The Gypsy Moths. For one thing, every scene in French Connection II takes place on the ground!
"We did an awful lot of (skydiving)," Frankenheimer later said during an interview, "and I used a lot of the same techniques I'd used on Grand Prix (1966): the jumper's point of view, shooting from the ground, shooting from the air, shooting from all over the place." These sequences were torture on the cameramen. "With long lenses on their cameras the operators couldn't find the jumpers quickly enough; they were going crazy." The problem was ingeniously solved by putting gun sights on the cameras.
Out of necessity, tons of people jumped from planes on The Gypsy Moths. But Frankenheimer, who was adventurous enough to drive Formula One race cars during the filming of Grand Prix, used his standing as the film's director to skirt that particular issue. "I did go up in the plane, one of the high-winged Howard monoplanes they used for parachute jumping. It was very strange. I'd watch the guys bail out one by one, and then I'd be standing at the open door. Thank you, not for me."
Frankenheimer felt that the real trouble with the The Gypsy Moths started after it was finished; a regime change at MGM resulted in it being partially re-edited so it could debut at family-friendly Radio City Music Hall, where it promptly bombed. Only in Hollywood could dealing with clueless studio executives be more frightening than jumping out of an airplane into free fall.
Producers: Hal Landers, Bobby Roberts
Directed by: John Frankenheimer
Screenplay: William Hanley (based on the novel by James Drought)
Cinematography: Philip Lathrop
Editing: Henry Berman
Music: Elmer Bernstein
Art Design: George W. Davis, Cary Odell
Set Design: Henry Grace, Jack Mills
Costume Design: Bill Thomas
Makeup: William Tuttle
Principal Cast: Burt Lancaster (Mike Rettig), Deborah Kerr (Elizabeth Brandon), Gene Hackman (Joe Browdy), Scott Wilson (Malcolm Webson), William Windom (V. John Brandon), Bonnie Bedelia (Annie Burke), Sheree North (Waitress), Carl Reindel (Pilot), Ford Rainey (Stand Owner), John Napier (Dick Donford).
by Paul Tatara