I'LL NEVER FORGET WHATSISNAME:
A TRIBUTE TO CHARACTER ACTORS
KEVIN MCCARTHY, PAGE 4
KANSAS CITY BOMBER (1972)
"I can't believe I gotta sit through this goddamn roller derby movie," I thought as I slipped the Kansas City Bomber disc into my player. Going into this article, I decided on two unofficial rules: 1) I'd view at least one title from each decade of McCarthy's career and 2) the selections would be movies I'm seeing for the first time. What I didn't realize then was that, with the much-viewed Piranha and Philip Kaufman's Invasion of the Body Snatchers removed from the running, the 70's is slim pickins as far as McCarthy movie appearances. He did mostly television, and besides one film I'm going to be writing about in a separate article, there were only four other options, all of which sounded equally terrible (Dan Candy's Law with Donald Sutherland anyone?) Kansas City Bomber is the only one even available on dvd so it won by default...also I figured I could at least enjoy the visual of Raquel Welch in half-zipped skating outfits while the movie itself was busy sucking up the screen.
But you know what? It kind of worked for me. I wouldn't say Kansas City Bomber is actually, you know, good...but it's weird. I was into it enough to be let down by the ending. Part They Shoot Horses Don't They, part Slapshot, its concerns are the exploitation of an exhausted group of people who go around in circles day after day and the exhilaration of the cheering and jeering crowd around them. McCarthy has the Gig Young part, serving as owner/ringmaster to a Portland-based roller team with the unfortunate name of "Loggers." Fresh from Kansas City, Missouri, where she lost a one-on-one race that stipulated the loser had to leave the team immediately (such ultimatums should be given to our young running backs and wide receivers!) is Welch's skating siren, the now unsuitably-named K.C. Carr. McCarthy wants to build her into a "key personality" on the team, much to the chagrin of the Loggers' former hot shot starlet Jackie Burdette, a washed-up alcoholic with a grudge.
This kind of antagonism between upcoming prospect and has-been old dog is familiar to anyone who's seen Bull Durham, Driven or The Tooth Fairy, but it's handled very strangely in this movie. Jackie is perpetually sullen and sneaking shots from a flask - when K.C. manages to get her attention and Jackie turns to look at her, it's like she's a hollowed-out skeleton of self pity. It's a fairly haunting and not unsympathetic portrait by the Golden Globe-nominated Helena Kallianiotes. You kind of figure this can go one of two ways: either K.C. gets her rival to see that they're both being used by McCarthy and team up to take down the system together, or K.C. realizes that Jackie is the kind of a bleak foreboding of her own future and quits roller-derbyin' to spend more time with her estranged kids. But that's not what happens: Jackie is treated like a villain, the two remain bitter enemies and the big climax is a race between the two of them to determine who gets to move to McCarthy's big, new Chicago team. Which is not the direction I saw the film going (but more on that in a minute.)
It's funny, because competitive roller skating isn't very graceful. Even rough contact sports like football have beautifully-constructed plays, elegant passing, terrific-looking tackles...but in roller derby they're just kind of clunking around on their skates, slamming into walls, then flailing their arms to balance themselves back into an upright position. Aesthetically, it's very unpleasant to watch, and that's not even taking into account that it's basically a bunch of people skating around in circles. The stadium audience needs something to distract them from the monotony the same way nobody watching a NASCAR race really cares who fucking wins long as they see some good crashes. So of course they got to add crowd-pleasing, WWE-style antics which McCarthy is responsible for forcing upon the skaters. Chump hits, getting up in the ref's grill, outside help that turns the course of the race (if there is in fact any actual racing being done), benches utilized as improvised weapons. Even the scenarios are contrived - skaters going back to taunt opponents when they should theoretically be trying to win the race. The venues become like Roman arenas, complete with fans who get incensed and try to jump into the "ring."
Since this, along with the kind of depressing Northwestern steelworker towns the team travels to, is what the movie has in common with Slapshot, I thought the emphasis would be on how far McCarthy asks K.C. to go to get a crowd reaction and where she would ultimately draw the line. But as the film goes on, it became, for me, increasingly unclear exactly what aspects of the sport were supposed to be "real" within the world of the movie. For example, when Welsh steps into the Logger locker room for the first time and is introduced to the team by McCarthy, her new teammates seem confused when he calls her "Diane" instead of "K.C." Why would a stage name be such a foreign concept to showmen and women used to the artificiality of their profession? There's a good amount of "rival" skaters yucking it up together after the matches a'la The Wrestler, but then something will happen like established behind-the-scenes enemies beating the shit out of each other on the rink which plays out exactly the same way as the fake fights. For a while I thought this angle could very well be the whole point, that this was moving into "what is real?" territory, but it's not addressed. Neither is whether K.C. actually had to leave town after losing to her Kansas City rival (I mean that was just for the crowd's sake, right? Or is it like when Andy Kaufman concocted the joke where the audience could vote for him never to return to SNL that producers took seriously and didn't book him again afterwards?) Since her loss coincides with McCarthy signing her to the Loggers, we never know whether or not she was going to be forced out for real. Whether the fights are real or staged, or consequences of matches actually matter in terms of the player's career, is just part of the moral haziness of athelete exploitation and owner profiteering.
The one indication that the director meant this movie to intentionally be a comment on the confusion between phony, crowd-pleasing antics on the rink and the real-life struggle and rivalries between the actual skaters is a subplot about the fall of "Horrible" Hank Hopkins. "Horrible" Hank is a hulking dimwit hired by McCarthy to be the guy the audience loves to hate, instructing him to give them plenty of "color." But with all the behind-the-scenes drama, Hopkins' sensitive mind can't keep track of what's real and what's for show (hm...maybe that's my problem too?), his confusion culminating in a public spectacle when he goes all King Kong at the audience as they hurl popcorn and sodas at him. K.C. tries to straighten him out, unaware that her compassion to Hank in the past was misinterpreted as affection. "I don't love you anymore!" shouts the blubbering behemoth, flailing about in agony like Leatherface on skates.
This leads to McCarthy firing him for scaring away the ticket holders, making poor Hank even more confused...wasn't his tantrum the kind of "color" McCarthy always requested? The whole incident is upsetting, which made me wonder whether or not the ambiguity over what the movie was about was actually a PART of what the movie was about. What better way to make a point about what elements of the story are real than to have a main character suffer a mental collapse trying to figure it out himself? This may be giving too much credit to first-time feature director Jerrold Freedman, who went on to direct the TV movie The Last Angry Man starring Pat Hingle as a crotchety doctor during The Depression and The Boy Who Drank Too Much, the Scott Baio TV of the Week special* infamous to driver's ed students and Ed Lauter fans (he handed his last credit, 1995's The O.J. Simpson Story, over to Mr. Alan Smithee.) But the point is, life - like roller derby - is confusing...people pretend they're on your side when they're really out to get you, and that kind of disappointment leads to general mistrust and paranoia ("You're next!") Hence the girls, used to being used and lied to, take K.C. to be a bad person when all she wants to do is skate. Let K.C. skate!
It really doesn't need to be said, but it needs to be said: Raquel Welch is gorgeous. Just looking at her makes me feel handsome. She looks dynamite in her skating outfit (although I prefer the blue one from the beginning to the white Logger coveralls) and she pulls off some pretty spectacular-looking flying kicks via stunt double. She's an ace at trash talk, slamming one petite competitor with the scathing "At least I got bras, not A-cubs!" But K.C. is a washout of a human being. Although she uses her skating powers to roll recreationally with daughter Jodie Foster, her son is so tired of her being off on the road he literally runs away from her when it's time to say goodbye - she can't skate her way into her children's hearts! But child-bearing has done nothing to damage her voluptuous figure, she's a fast and furious valkyrie on the roller floor and even manages to beat up two potential kidnapper/rapists who try to grab her after a game. So here's the real kicker of the movie: McCarthy scores with her! They have a Showgirls Berkley-MacLachlan thing going: he doesn't hide the fact that he's using her, and she must have employed some tricky feminist logic to convince herself that, since dating the team owner to get ahead is such an old-fashioned cliché, nobody will make that assumption. But they do, ha ha! Givin up the nappy dug out to McCarthy earns K.C. the hatred of her fellow derbyists, especially after he ships her roommate off to some godforsaken tundra to join another team just so he can visit K.C. without interruption.
Burt Henry is McCarthy's most casual and subtle villain. He's not out to crush a radio station or make millions on the black market selling the secrets of stolen miniaturization technology; he's just a businessman with no conscience when it comes to the lives of his hard-working athletes. He's the Art Modell model of owner, looking to ditch the team and move to better confines in sexy Chicago, biding his time behind the thick glass window of a booth atop the arena, arms folded, completely disinterested in the race itself but eager to gage the audience's reactions. He has no qualms about the way he does things, explaining to Welch how "We're all used. You, me...everybody on two legs!" (it would have been funnier if he said "on two skates" - oh well.) I hesitate to label him a stylish chauvinist: although he casually lets himself into the ladies' locker room, he's an equal opportunity exploiter. Interestingly though, their affair itself never really feels unscrupulous. He seems to earnestly enjoy her company and even tells her "I love ya...or, the closest thing I'll ever come to it." Turns out there's no fine line to be found: sports, business, relationships - there's a little bit of truth and falsehood in everything. That darn Jerrold Freedman, blurring the lines! Guy should have directed Inception.
KCB finds McCarthy in a transitional period between "classically handsome actor" and "creepy old man," which says a lot for his virility since he would have been sixty when the film was shot. I didn't count, but I think this is the most number of suits he's worn in any of the movies I've seen him in, most remarkably a spiffy looking pin-striped navy blue number that no doubt played a hand in winning over the lovely Raquel. Twenty-six years her senior, he's commanding in their scenes together, a reminder of the suave younger man who promised to show Dana Wynter his "bedside manner." He gets second billing, pretty impressive for this far into his career, and what the part lacks in juiciness is made up for by the fact that he gets to constant make out with Raquel Welch. Sorry to keep bringing it up but...woof.
As I mentioned, I was a little hazy on whether some of the in-fighting between K.C. and the other skaters were supposed to be authentic rivalries or merely staged, but the one sure thing the movie wants to get across is that McCarthy is the bad guy, getting rich on roller derby fever while the actual skaters are being sapped of life. Which is why the big finale that is so frustrating and makes it hard to tell what the whole thing's even been about. The off-rink antagonism between K.C. and Jackie has reached such a boiling point that McCarthy lets them know he'll only be taking one of them to Chicago. The decision will be made...in the arena! One-on-one, winner takes all, loser heads to the local waterhole to drink themselves to death. This of course mirrors the earlier race that sent K.C. to Portland; if this was a traditional sports film with training montages showing how K.C. became a better skater, obviously the ending would be that she redeems herself by winning. But since the movie had been about (at least I thought) athlete exploitation, the emptiness of life on the road away from one's family and the crippling humiliation of being a skate monkey performing for white trash idiots across a bleak northwest, I figured one of three things had to happen. A) K.C. and Jackie realize they are both expendable pawns to this uncaring corporation and strike back against it somehow. B) K.C. stops mid-skate, unstraps her helmet, her elbow pads, her knee guards, her bra (yeah, why not?), tosses them to the floor and exits the arena as a silent "fuck you" to McCarthy and the booing crowd. C) K.C. is all geared-up, waiting at the starting line, when the news comes that Jackie has either drunk herself to death or committed suicide: a dramatic way for K.C. to finally realize what a harsh and shallow life she leads. She removes pads, guards, bra, etc. So imagine my surprise at the ending: K.C. wins! It's a flat-out match complete with ridiculous slow motion shoving, getting back up and shoving more in front of crossing line. Should this really be the final freeze frame of the film?
Hell no! If anything, if should be this:
Or...it should be of K.C. returning home, embracing her kids and freeze frame on that. It wasn't supposed to be about winning! I don't get it, Freedman! Up to this point, the movie didn't even bother to explain how this cyclical "race" works (Jackie seems to lap K.C. on more than one occasion.) These characters who skated together, suffered together, showered together...they needed to unite! To end on this note that all K.C. needed was to win some undefined race is almost as nonsensical as McCarthy's reaction, which is to scowl and look defeated. But why? He set the rules, and he'd obviously prefer K.C. to win over Jackie since he was grooming her for Chicago all along (and it's not like he has a major falling out with her or anything.) Maybe I've seen too many Michael Ritchie movies with the theme of competition as a dead end - for the full running time, it seemed like there was more to the movie than just a standard uplifting sports tale. The conclusion isn't only lazy, it just makes the entire movie up to that moment completely pointless. A sad waste.
But at least Kevin got to bag Raquel.
* Not to be confused with his other Scott Baio TV of the Week anti-drinking and driving special "All the Kids Do It," directed by Henry Winkler, in which he plays an aspiring Olympic high-diving hopeful whose friends pressure him to chug beers with them all the time. I saw it in middle school and remember the ending real well: he gives up the sauce, then he's driving and gets plowed into by another car. That motorist? D.U.I. But it seemed harsh to me that Baio had made the right decision and still ended up getting crippled in a car wreck that wasn't his fault. I guess the special was just really pessimistic: if you don't become a life-shattering drunk, another life-shattering drunk will be glad to shatter your life for you. You're fucked either way! Thanks for the message, Fonzie.
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