Great Movie Stars...The Independant Years (British Publication)

By David Shipman, 1990


When Tom Berenger smiles out of his studio stills he seems a sweet-tempered gentle man; but there are others in which he stares out at us disdainfully, with his mouth twisted cruelly. That suggests a wide range, which he effortlessly has; but even in villainy he can seem lost, wistful.

He was born in 1949 in Chicago of Irish stock. His father was a printer and he himself expected to follow him into that profession until he acted in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? while studying at the University of Missouri. He went to New York to study acting, going to work professionally in such plays as The Rose Tattoo, Electra and A Streetcar Named Desire (in Milwaukee and Tokyo). His exceptional looks brought him the role of the heartthrob on a daytime soap, One Life to Live, which in turn brought him an offer of a small role in a telefilm, Johnny We Hardly Knew Ye (77), directed by Gilbert Gates and based on John F. Kennedy's first steps into politics after concluding war service. For cinemas, he made his debut in The Sentinel, a daft dip into the diabolical directed by Michael Winner, whom Berenger described as "one of the strangest people I've ever met"- though that may be pique because his major scene was cut from the final print. He appears well down the credits, listed as ‘Man at end’, and he did not come on till the end of Looking for Mr. Goodbar. You were not, however, likely to miss him, whether parading in black bra and garter belt, quarrelling with his black boyfriend or sniffing amyl nitrate while trying to get it up with Diane Keaton.

He also spent most of his next film chiefly naked, though strictly in the cause of straight A sex if, on occasion, on the floor; In Praise of Older Women (78), directed by George Kaczender from the autobiographical novel by Stephen Vizinczey, who with good reason loathed the result. Berenger later said the film was hard work because they had to make up for lost time when Bibi Anderson left the cast, to be replaced by Karen Black. His own inexperience cannot be disguised in the general incompetence, but he is a sturdy centre as he seduces anything in skirts from Vienna to Montreal by way of Budapest. He had something of the charisma of Hollywood's leading men of the past. Paramount Pictures Television obviously thought so, for they gave him the lead in an important four-hour mini, Flesh and Blood (79), based on the bestseller by Pete Hamil. He played streetwise Bobby, who makes it to the top of the prizefight racket, pausing on the way for affairs with TV reporter (Kristin Griffith) and his own mother (Suzanne Pleshette). It was a personal triumph for him and for many years his favourite role: he said in 1983 that he might be in middle-age before he got another one as good. Still, he seemed set on a movie career with Butch and Sundance: the Early Years, in Paul Newman's old part, with William Katt in the one played by Robert Redford. William Goldman had again worked on the script (by discussing it with Allan Burns, to whom it is credited), and although Berenger had reservations about it he liked both him and the director, Richard Lester, 'so organized and disciplined'. The film's trouble was that it was not about anything beyond the joky relationship between the two outlaws. When the first reviews and returns were in, 20th-Century-Fox dropped it like a hot potato - in Berenger's opinion because they had made so much money from Star Wars that they were looking for a tax write-off. Promising to make up for the disappointment was The Dogs of War (80), adapted from a bestseller by Frederick Forsyth and directed by John Irvin (fresh from his success from the BBC's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy). He played a fellow mercenary to the top-billed Christopher Walken, both of them involved in West African politics, but his part was cut in Britain, where the film was made, and further for American audiences. Helen Shaver, who had the third biggest role, as his wife, did not appear at all in either version.

There can be little sympathy with his involvement in Oltre la Porta (82) - not, that is, if he had seen any of the other films of this director, Liliana Cavani: he was flattered to know that she had asked Milos Forman for advice on casting and he had loaned her a cassette of Flesh and Blood. Cavani used him for his innocence, he explained, as an American engineer working in Marrakesh who is puzzled by the hatred between his girlfriend (Eleonora Giorgi) and her father (Marcello Mastroianni). The film hardly travelled. Eddie and the Cruisers (83) were a 60s rock group who disappeared spectacularly when their leader headed his car into the sea: one reporter believes the truth is not so simple and tracks down the present-day Eddie. Berenger observed that he had loved the script before the several rewrites, and that he had jumped at the chance of playing two ages. He would do this again in Lawrence Kasdan's The Big Chill, though in the end Kasdan did not use the flashbacks he had filmed. He was one of the old university friends gathered at the house of Glenn Close and Kevin Kline, the one who had been a radical orator but is now a nice but narcissistic television private eye, moustached like Tom Selleck. He was praised by the press, along with the others, and it was a major credit, but it actually did little for his career. It did better for his private life. A lady called Lisa was the real-estate agent handling the locations, and when she became Berenger's second wife (in 1986), she did so in the grounds of the house used in the film.

He was next due to appear opposite Terri Garr in Michael Apted's Firstborn, but was in an auto accident and was replaced by Peter Weller. The film had no success at all, but neither did the two he did, chiefly because the writers and directors concerned had not got the weight for the job. Fear City (84) was as sleazy as the Times Square areas in which it was set, with Berenger as an ex-boxer running a series of strip-joints whose performers are being picked off by a maniac intent on cleaning up the town; Rae Dawn Chong was one of them, loved by Berenger but drawn to her own sex, and Billy Dee Williams was the cop in charge of case. Rustlers' Rhapsody (85) was advertised by a tagline which fairly described it: 'The singing cowboy. To a lawless land he brought truth, justice, fancy riding and some wonderful outfits.' Hugh Wilson wrote and directed (riding high after Police Academy). Berenger's own notices for these two were good to excellent, but he was dead at the box-office. Later he admitted that there were three years when he couldn't get work, which would seem to be true if Paramount had delayed release of his last film and if we discount a seven-hour Sidney Sheldon mini, If Tomorrow Comes (86), which he surely did in desperation. He and Madolyn Smith disported themselves over London, New York, Amsterdam, the East and West coasts of American and much of the Cote d'Azur, falling in love and stealing jewels.

"I got to the point when I wasn't depressed about my career any more; I just didn't care." His agent had surrendered to cocaine and his manager to alcohol, so he replaced them. But rescue came from Oliver Stone, who puts talent before box-office clout when casting: Platoon was his autobiographical account of the Vietnam war, with Sergeant Barnes (Berenger) in charge of the platoon which massacres the inhabitants of a native village. In his account of the filming Stone wrote: 'He's a quiet actor with the moral stamina and possible longevity of a Fredric March or Spencer Tracy. He buries his natural personality so well in his parts that, even in films like The Big Chill, people don't see the original stamp and tend to overlook him. Here I want him to play someone with evil in his heart, but play with an understanding. . .from watching his coiled performance I think many people at the end of the film will think he has been wronged by Charlie Sheen, William Dafoe, and destiny.' Berenger was surely impressive, but his evil seems fictional unlike, say, Sean Penn in Casualties of War later, who was only a few stops up from a moron. The film won a Best Picture Oscar and reinstated Berenger, who was offered Someone to Watch Over Me (87) when its director, Ridley Scott, saw it in rough cut. Scott's film was a thriller with Berenger as a working-class cop from Queens whose marriage is in danger when he falls for the socialite witness (Mimi Rogers) he has been assigned to protect. The film did not succeed in breaking Scott's bad box-office run and returned only $4,5000,000 of its $17 million budget.

Of the several stars whose career dipped in the 80s, Berenger was the strongest of those talents who returned at the end of the decade. And he chose carefully, Roger Spottiswoode directed Shoot to Kill (88), co-produced and part-written by Daniel Petrie Jr (who had scripted Beverly Hills Cop. It co-starred Sidney Poitier in a tale of a city cop (Poitier) and a mountain guide locked together, often in enmity, as they plough through a rugged mountainous terrain in search of a killer and a party led by the guide's girlfriend (Kristie Alley). The film did well, making back $12,500,000 of its $15 million budget, but not well enough to avoid a retitling for overseas, Deadly Pursuit. Betrayed had an even better director, Cost-Gavras, and a clever leading lady, Debra Winger, but neither player was able to bring dimension to unconvincing characters, a brave little FBI lady and the redneck farmer she sleeps with in order to uncover the Fascist group to which he secretly belongs. This time: $12 million recovered of its $19 million cost, Last Rites was the first thriller since I Confess predicated on the fact that a priest is bound by silence not to reveal what he has heard in the confessional, but in this case he is unsure of the truth and torn by divided loyalties, since he has family links to the Mafia, Donald P. Bellisario, creator of 'Magnum, P.I.', wrote this holy unlikely story, which made back only $100,000 of $16 million budget, though it has to be said that a troubled and yet quiescent MGM/UA was doing little to sell its films during this period. A baseball story, Major League (89) was not ill named, for the return this time was $21,5000,000 on a budget for $12 million. Berenger was the veteran player with dodgy legs playing alongside some goofballs and neophytes. The director was David Ward, better known as a scriptwriter was, and he and Berenger did not get on: "He treated me like I knew nothing. Most of the cast felt the same. He was so inexperienced I nearly walked off the set. It's the only time I felt like quitting." He also had a guest role as a gung-ho recruiting sergeant in Born on the Fourth of July, directed by Vietnam vet Oliver Stone.

In the meantime he had decided to stray from the Hollywood mainstream by filming with Alan Rudolph, and Love at Large (90) found him playing a bumbling private eye hired by a mysterious lady (Anne Archer) to track down her lover, while also employing another (Elizabeth Perkins) to spy on him. He then played an amnesiac in Shattered with Greta Scacchi, once announced for William Hurt and Sissy Spacek, and then he did The Field, in Ireland for director Jim Sheridan, as the catalyst. It is not a large role, but they asked him and he said yes, for supporting parts rid him of the onus of carrying a film, while he also enjoyed being part of an ensemble cast (though this is not). He then went to Brazil to do a film once meant for Paul Newman, At Play in the Fields of the Lord (91) written by Hector Babenco (who is also directing) and Jean-Claude Carriere from the novel by Peter Matthiesson, Saul Zaentz is producing, a guarantee of quality, and most cinemagoers would be happy to find Berenger on the receiving end of many such offers. He said: "I don't have ambition like I used to. I've done it all, I feel like I'm there. If I wanted to I could retire in about four years.If they don't want me, I don't care." So all right: but because Richard Gere and John Travolta are at present enjoying enormous hits, it would be our loss if Berenger were lower in the pecking order.

thanks to Jean and Leigh

*NOTE: European spellings and research errors on the author's part (David Shipman) remain as they originally appeared in print.
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