Family & Companions
A former journalist, sports writer and literature professor James Toback began his film career with the semi-autobiographical screenplay for Karel Reisz's "The Gambler" (1974) and made a powerful directorial debut with "Fingers" (1978), a crude but fascinating melodrama (which he also wrote) about an aspiring pianist (played by Harvey Keitel) who reluctantly "collects" debts owed to his domineering father (Michael V. Gazzo). Actor-athlete Jim Brown, whom Toback profiled in a 1971 book, also contributed his strong screen presence in a rare subdued role as the man whom Keitel's love interest (Tisa Farrow) cannot leave despite occasional revulsion. The director-screenwriter's next three films, "Love and Money" (1980), the erotic thriller "Exposed" (1983), in which he made his acting debut as Nastassja Kinski's professor-lover, and "The Pick-up Artist" (1987) did not live up to the promise of what film critic (and personal friend) David Thomson called "... the best first film by an American director since 'Badlands'."
With his engaging documentary "The Big Bang" (1989), Toback turned what at first glance looked as if it would be a glossy flip through a series of poised, polished faces, into an emotionally gripping look at humanity. The skip-jump editing with which he juxtaposed his interviews kept the documentary moving while minimizing its inability to grasp any transcendent answers from the serious questions posed. Toback followed with a sleek, award-winning screenplay for Barry Levinson's "Bugsy" (1991), effectively combining his gambling fascination with a glamorized portrait of mobster Bugsy Siegal as an arch-romantic, American visionary. His "Vicky," a biopic of American suffragette Victoria Woodhull which made MOVIELINE's 1994 list of the 10 Best Unproduced Screenplays, remains on the shelf, and though he did uncredited "script-doctoring" in the interim, Toback did not direct again until the low-budget, somewhat controversial "Two Girls and a Guy" reunited him with "Pick-up Artist" Robert Downey Jr. The film, a character study about two woman who confront their mutual boyfriend, ran afoul of the MPAA ratings board over an extended, silhouetted scene of lovemaking. Originally classified as NC-17, the filmmaker made cuts to finally achieve an R rating, but the troubles delayed the film's 1998 release.
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Began friendship with Norman Mailer, based on an essay he published on the author in COMMENTARY, which Mailer found alert and well argued
First screenplay, "The Gambler"
Directorial debut, "Fingers"; also scripted
First film as producer, "Love and Money"; also wrote and directed; legendary director King Vidor appeared as Ray Sharkey's senile grandfather
First film appearance, portraying a professor in "Exposed"; also produced, wrote and directed
First collaboration with Robert Downey Jr, directing him in "The Pick-up Artist"
Directed fascinating documentary "The Big Bang", posing philosphical questions to a variety of people ranging from basketbal player Darryl Dawkins to producer Don Simpson
Played the part of a professor in Woody Allen's "Alice"
Received Oscar nomination for his "Bugsy" screenplay
Script for "Vicky", about early American feminist Victoria Woodhull (1838-1927), made MOVIELINE's list of 10 Best Unproduced Screenplays
Made cameo appearance in "Cassanova Falling" (filmed 1997), produced by Michael Mailer (Norman's son)
Reteamed with Robert Downey Jr for "Two Girls and a Guy", his first directing project since "The Big Bang"
Helmed "Black and White", an improvisational comedy featuring Downey and Brooke Shields
Realized a dream project, directing "Harvard Man"