Saturday, August 8, 2009

Desperately Seeking Swing Shift

To: Goldie Hawn
From: Your pal Craig
Re: Swing Shift: The Director's Cut

Dear Goldie,

How's it hanging?

As a devout reader of this blog, you will forgive me if I draw you out of anonymity for what should be a special occasion. You may not remember that this year marks the 25th anniversary of Swing Shift, the WWII-era dramedy directed by Jonathan Demme and starring Goldie Hawn. (That's you!) If so it's understandable: Swing Shift was a big disappointment, both in terms of box-office and artistic merit. Such a promising subject, too: the contribution to the war effort by American women, and the changes in the social fabric that resulted. Yet the finished product -- which I dimly recall seeing initially several years back, and dimly recall seeing again only two weeks ago -- is a schizoid amalgam of Demme's original vision and post-production tampering. (That's you.) Some good things came out of the experience: a Best Supporting Actress nomination for Christine Lahti; the origins of your impressively long-term relationship with Kurt Russell. But your movie is in danger of being forgotten entirely. Perhaps it's time for another reminder that an unreleased version still exists.

In 1990, Sight & Sound published a piece by Steve Vineberg titled "Swing Shift: A Tale of Hollywood," later included in his book on 1980s cinema, No Surprises, Please. I've razzed Vineberg in the not-too-distant past for his Paulette parroting, but I also must give credit where credit is due: his Swing Shift expose is a phenomenally-written, essential comparison between your version of the film and a bootleg VHS copy of Demme's original cut, viewed by Vineberg among others over the years. (If you or anyone else reading this knows where I can get my hands on a decent copy, please let me know.) Vineberg's piece is available online, albeit with a white-script on black-background design that's painful to read. As it remains the most persuasive and fascinating account of "how the building of a character - that is, the overall editing of her scenes - can completely alter the way an actor comes across," I'm going to excerpt some of the essential text (edited in places for momentum) here.

"Demme began shooting Swing Shift in the first half of 1983. Citizens Band (also known as Handle With Care) and Melvin and Howard had established his distinctly flaky, loose-limbed style, but this new project was the biggest of his young career. It starred one of Hollywood's most bankable performers, Goldie Hawn - who also takes a strong hand in the production of her own movies - and featured Kurt Russell and Ed Harris. A big-budget period piece, Swing Shift would begin the day before Pearl Harbor, end just after V-J Day, and focus on the introduction of a women's work force during the war; the action would take place in and around the MacBride airplane plant in Los Angeles.

"The large, promising cast Demme assembled included Christine Lahti, Fred Ward, Holly Hunter....and a few of his friends....If you'd seen Demme's previous work, and you saw how graceful a touch he had with actors, the thought of what he could do with a sensational cast like this one was enought to make you salivate. And Warners, viewing the film as a prestige picture and a potential blockbuster, planned to put it out at Christmas. It finally opened in May (1984), after a half-hearted, glossy publicity campaign that smacked of desperation. Demme renounced it, the press generally panned it and audiences failed to come out for it."

The main character, Kay (that's you), has a fairly straightforward though compelling arc. A sweet if sheltered woman who loves her husband Jack (Harris) but is also highly dependent on him, Kay, during her years at the airplane plant, learns a trade, befriends a free-spirited lounge singer named Hazel (Lahti), falls in love with a male co-worker, Lucky (Russell), and in sum becomes a different person by the time her husband returns home. As Vineberg puts it, "The movie's title doesn't just identify the hours Kay and her friends work at MacBride (four to midnight). It also tells us what happens to her during the war: her values shift, swinging her into a more profound (and more adult) understanding of the world."

Sounds great, doesn't it? But you couldn't leave well enough alone, Goldie. By all accounts, during pre-release screenings, you (and the studio) got nervous at Demme's politics, which reportedly takes a critical view of how women were exploited for manual labor and then abruptly dismissed once the war ended (not exactly Reagan Era material), and took umbrage at his characteristically inclusive ensemble approach. (Your producing partner complained that you came across as a "blonde extra" rather than the star.) Most of all, you panicked at the implications of Kay's infidelity, that your fan-base might reject your portrayal of such a character. So you removed or re-jiggered some of the original scenes and added new ones.

"In Demme's cut, we see Kay's feelings for her husband most clearly the night before he leaves, when she touches his face tenderly as he sleeps. She dedicates herself to keeping Jack's presence alive by writing to him, cherishing mementos of him, talking about him constantly - which, of course, is also her protection against the stirrings Lucky arouses in her. Lucky asks her out shortly after they've met, but she protests gently that she's married; the next time we see him approach her, she staves him off: "You've been asking me out every week for the last three months and I keep having to turn you down." At the jamboree, a stranger (Dick Miller) asks her to dance; when she automatically brings up the subject of Jack, he gets turned off and fades away. Lonely and blue, she listens to Lucky play trumpet on the bandstand and boldly approaches him on the pier afterwards, complimenting his performance.

He drives her home on his motorcycle, takes her inside ("I think I just heard you ask me in," he says, picking up on what she's too scared to say), and what follows is as candid and deeply felt a love scene as you'll find in any movie of the last decade. When Lucky begins to make love to her, she cries, frightened of her confusion about what she feels and what she thinks is right. She wakes up in the middle of the night to find him lying nude beside her, his arm across her chest; automatically, she pulls the blanket across him, as if someone were peeking in. It's a delicately funny gesture. The next night, they go out to a restaurant, and when she spots a neighbour across the room she runs into the street. He follows, but she begs him to leave her alone. "I'm married," she pleads. "Don't you understand? Don't you get it?"

Vineberg contrasts this with Hawn's version:

"We don't see Kay in bed with Jack, so her strong sexual need for him is not as firmly established. When Lucky approaches her at work, she says, "You've been asking me out every week for the last five months' (you can actually see Hawn mouth "three" while her post-dubbed voice says "five") - presumably so we'll applaud her lengthier period of celibacy. Kay's freak-out at the restaurant occurs before she sleeps with Lucky, so it looks like an outburst of terrified chastity rather than post-coital terror.

In the new order of scenes, Kay's approach to Lucky on the pier appears more innocent; maybe she's trying to make up for her outburst outside the restaurant. When he drives her home, he has to come inside, because it's begun to rain and he's getting soaked. The scene that follows is a dopey retread from dozens of screwball comedies: his clothes drying, he putters around in one of her dressing-gowns while he serves her one of his special omelettes. They end up in bed, but next morning they have a silly, unconvincing quarrel; she kicks him out; he comes back. Hawn strives hard to reduce the relationship between Lucky and Kay to something superficial and farcical. We're supposed to think she's making a mistake, but it's all right, because she'll go back to Jack in the end."

There is much, much more, Goldie -- my favorite revelation being how a pointed moment in Demme's version, where the women are manipulated to "work harder" following an announcement of the casualties at Guadalcanal, was tinkered to come across as inspirational in yours. I concur with Vineberg that it's easy to see what you were up to: "On some level, Hawn seems to have understood Swing Shift as a protofeminist look at women on the work force in wartime," he writes. "But feminism to her means Private Benjamin: women proving they can be as good as men and twice as cute. (It doesn't mean, for example, sexual independence.)

"Demme asked her to play a woman who sleeps with two men and likes it, a woman who isn't always glamorous....but is always real. And she did it. But then she got scared and threw the performance away, reverting to something she must have thought would keep her fans happy. In the attempt, Hawn managed to turn her character into nonsense - you keep wondering why Kay can't seem to make up her mind about anything. The irony is that Hawn didn't just slash Demme's canvases, but her own as well. Her performance in the unreleased version of Swing Shift is easily the finest work of her career."

Not yet having seen Demme's cut, I can't vouch for that statement, nor for the opinion that his version "is extraordinary - one of the best movies made by an American in the 80s." But I think that we should be given the opportunity to decide for ourselves. It's a safe bet that you're nearing the end of your career, Goldie. Your IMDb page shows nothing currently in production, and the number of good films to your credit are -- let's face it -- few and far between. You still may not think much of Demme's version, and of course you are entitled to your opinion (though, as your old pal Burt Reynolds once demonstrated with his disparaging remarks about Boogie Nights, actors often aren't the best evaluators of their own work). But I firmly believe it's in your best interest to let it see the light of day. Wouldn't a DVD release of a Director's Cut be a golden opportunity to get your name back out there? If the movie -- and you -- are as good as Vineberg and many others claim, wouldn't it be lovely to be remembered for it?

Don't take my word for it. Ask Kurt. He seems like a level-headed fellow. Listen.




Craig said...

Another revealing passage from Vineberg's essay, one that ties directly into his thesis about editing:

"Near the end, Lucky, hurt and angry at Jack's reappearance, has a one-night stand with Hazel, and the two women make it up. But that night they go together to hear Lucky play at a local club, and Kay gets smashed and turns acerbic. The result is a screaming fight between the two women on the street, which ends with a drunken Kay, flat on the sidewalk, yelling after Hazel, "I was in love!"

"A friend who watched the director's cut of Swing Shift with me marvelled at the way Hawn played the fight scene, which had been so unmemorable in the release print; he could hardly believe it when I told him they were exactly the same. The difference is that in Demme's cut, Lucky performs a second number - dedicated to "anyone who's ever been in love, ever been hurt by love, and is still trying to figure it out" - and Kay, looking over at Hazel, sees an intense longing in her eyes that seems to suggest more than a one-night stand. (She's misreading - understandably, in the circumstances.) Hawn is fantastic here; she looks dazzled by the pain of having lost, she thinks, her lover and her best friend at a single blow. That's what her reading of "I was in love!" plays off; it changes the whole meaning of that line.

Mickey said...

i too am looking for the Director's cut of this movie - if you find it, let me know! :)


Penelope said...

I really like this movie a lot but have always felt that something was missing in it. A few years ago when I first read online that my copy of this movie was not what the director intended I went, "Ah!" You can feel somethings been edited out or changed. I especially enjoyed the focus in "Swing Shift" on what women went through during this time. I have been searching online for years now, trying to find the person who has this infamous "VHS copy" of the director's cut and would also love to get info on who to contact regarding this if anyone has it. Thanks, Penny

Craig said...


Thanks for your comment. As of this writing, I know of no one who has a copy of the director's cut. Demme himself said that the tape got old and weathered and his version no longer exists. You'd think someone interested in film preservation would have donated it to an archives, where by now it could have been converted or restored. I'm still holding out hope that there's one out there somewhere.

Anonymous said...

Any update on the director's cut? I would love to see it. Honestly, I loved Swing Shift, but the version i am reading about on this blog sounds amazing, as well! I would love to watch it.

Anonymous said...

Any luck? I can't believe no one had the foresight to at least make some dubs...c'mon, somebody! Anybody!