Monday, July 6, 2015

White Palace (1990)

Director: Luis Mandoke                                  Writers: Ted Tally & Alvin Sargent
Film Score: George Fenton                            Cinematography: Lajos Koltai
Stars: Susan Sarandon, James Spader, Jason Alexander and Kathy Bates

As the Rabbi of Temple Emanuel and an adjunct professor in classics at Washington University, as well as the author of numerous books on Judaism, Rabbi Joe Rosenbloom was an institution in St. Louis for decades. But just when his fame was about to go national in 1990, Rabbi Joe’s big scene ended up on the cutting room floor. It’s the scene where Jason Alexander gets married to Rachel Chagall at a Jewish wedding and, though the complete ceremony was filmed, the only shot that remains in the picture is from the front, looking at the couple, Rabbi Joe’s yarmulke the only part of him visible. With the possible exception of Meet Me in St. Louis--which was shot entirely in Hollywood--White Palace is probably the most famous picture filmed there. All of the locations were actually in the St. Louis area, including Sarandon’s house in Dogtown. The story was adapted from the novel by Glenn Savan, and the screenplay sticks fairly close to the original, with the exception of the ending, which is pure Hollywood. Savan wanted to call his novel White Castle, but the company denied him permission to use the name and so both it and film used the pseudonym for the title.

The film begins with James Spader coming home from work, preparing for a night out at his best friend’s bachelor party. He’s been entrusted with picking up the burgers from a chain called White Palace instead of White Castle, a Mid-Western institution. But when he gets to the party some of the boxes are empty, and so he goes back to get a refund. At the counter is Susan Sarandon, who calls him Fred Astaire because of his tux. When he gets back, Jason Alexander tells him to keep his money because he’ll need it for therapy. It turns out Spader’s young wife has died in a car crash and after two years he still grieves. He stops at a bar on the way home and who should he meet but Sarandon. She cons him into giving her a ride home and talks him into spending the night. She wakes him up by having sex with him in the morning and while he initially resists, he is also inexplicably drawn to her. The two could not be more unlike, however. He’s twenty-seven and a neat freak, while she’s nearly forty-four and a total slob. He works in a big advertising agency in St. Louis, while she works at a burger joint. The crux of the conflict comes when Spader is embarrassed by the older woman, and lies to her to keep her away from his circle of upper class friends and family.

The primary theme of the picture is one of class distinction, which is easy to lose sight of with the difference in their ages being so prevalent. Spader is Jewish. He lives in an expensive home. He drives a Volvo and wears a tuxedo to a bachelor party. The first encounter with Sarandon in the burger joint, he with his bow tie and her in her uniform, is pointed. This idea continues when he stops at the country bar on the way home for another drink. Country music plays from the jukebox in the tavern, typically associated with blue-collar workers or farmers, but on the way home he plays opera on his car stereo, defining him as upper class. He calls the opera, “The most beautiful music in the world.” Sarandon, on the other hand, asks, “Got any Oak Ridge Boys?” The class conflict climaxes before the romantic one does when Stephen Hill discusses politics at the dinner table and Sarandon tells him that Merle Haggard could be president and he’d still be rich and she’d still be poor. Beyond this, however, the real subtext of the film, and one that should have been explored further, is something Spader asks near the end, “How do you know who’s right for each other?” This is the key. In his world there are only specific types of people that may be chosen from for romantic partnership. Spader was embarrassed at himself for going outside of those expectations. And with the examples of such polite misery all around him by adhering to them, why not follow his heart instead?

It’s almost difficult to believe that the film came out the same year as Pretty Woman, as that film seems almost juvenile by comparison. Spader and Sarandon are able to generate some real emotional chemistry on the screen and rather than manufactured conflict they grapple with genuine feelings and problems. The best that can be said about Luis Mandoke’s direction is that it’s invisible, which is not a bad thing for this kind of film. It floats along seamlessly, allowing the viewer to identify with the characters rather than marvel at the shot selection. The film score by George Fenton, while serviceable, is not particularly memorable, but again, its contribution to the film as a whole is just right. There is also a great supporting cast. In addition to Alexander and Chagall, Kathy Bates plays Spader’s boss, and Stephen Hill is Alexander’s father. The wonderful Eileen Brennan plays Sarandon’s older sister, and Jeremy Piven appears as an extra at the bachelor party. Susan Sarandon was nominated for a Golden Globe, but otherwise the film was ignored at Oscar time. It’s too bad, because it is such a strong dramatic story, and much better than the highly contrived Ghost, another film released the same year. White Palace is an emotional rollercoaster, but the realism makes it a wonderful film and a highly recommended romantic drama.

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