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Better Keep Your Head


Terry Southern is one of those writers that keeps popping up, has for a long time. Nu? Why haven’t I read anything by him? I really should, shoudn’t I? Why don’t I see his books more in used bookstores?  Man, I’ve been meaning to read him for years now.

Southern is one of those characters that you hear about, time and again, yet his legend has outlasted his work. His two best know novels are The Magic Christian and Candy (co-writen with Mason Hoffenberg ), but he is more famous for the work he did as a screenwriter–Dr. Strangelove, The Cincinnati Kid, Easy Rider. (Peter Sellers, the story goes, bought 100 copies of The Magic Christian, gave one to Stanley Kubrick, and that’s how Southern got the job on Strangelove.)

Southern was briefly a writer on SNL during the Eddie Murphy years but apparently, not much of his material made the show. He was a guy who drank a lot and dig a ton of drugs, and his writing suffered as a result.

I’ve read a couple of pieces on Southern lately. Maybe I’m not missing much. There is this, from a New Yorker article about Easy Rider, “Whose Movie is This?” by Mark Singer (June 22, 1998).

Peter Matthiessen, who says that a Southern story from the fifties, “The Accident,” helped to inspire the founding of The Paris Review, told me recently that he though Southern had lost the energy and discipline to persevere as a serious writer. “I don’t believe there was much more work he wished to do,” Matthiessen said. “He was an observer anda commentator on modern life, and he had this quirky take on things. He was one of the founders of that school of irony–that cool style–and when he had a big splash with ‘Dr. Strangelove’ that irreverent, obstreperous take on things was all very startling and new. But, after that, everybody was into outrage. Terry’s style became diffused throughout the culture, and I think he’d already said what he had to say.”

And this, from an essay by Luc Sante, “I Can’t Carry You Anymore.”

Southern staked everything on effect. Thus he required a social context; he needed both an audience of cronies who would get it and an audience of squares who not only wouldn’t, but would turn purple and thrash ineffectually in offended protest. His was the strategem of someone with a lot to prove, and perhaps a lot to conceal. Other writers of his time similarly polarized the readership, but never quite in the same way. His old friend William Burroughs, for example, put all his contradictions on the line. He might have enjoyed provoking the enemy, but he hardly appeared dependent on the finger-popping approval of his frat brothers. Anway, his provocation had a point–there was a world of repression that had caused him misery and that he wanted to destroy. Southern never made it clear that he was in it for more than high fives and free drinks.

…Many of his riffs have failed to survive their context, and there wasn’t a whole lot in his work that transcended the category of riff. What we have here is a caution to the young, which might be summed up by one of Southern’s most famous lines: “You’re too hip, baby. I can’t carry you anymore.”

Here is a nice interview with Southern by his biographer, Lee Hill.

Dig this bit, about Strangelove (I especially like his take on Sellers):

I’m curious about the day to day working relationship with Kubrick as you wrote the film from the pre-production period through the actual shooting?

“Well, after my first day in London when he told me what he had in mind, he got me settled into a hotel room not far from where he lived in Kensington. That night, I wrote the first scene and then he picked me up at 4:30 the next morning in the limo. The limo was a Big Rolls or Bentley. We were in the back seat with the light on. There was this desk that folded down. It was very much like a train compartment. It was totally dark outside. If it got light, we would pull the shades down. He would read the script pages and we would rewrite them and prepare them for shooting when we got to the studio, which was about an hour to an hour and a half drive depending on the fog.”

Peter Sellers was going to play all four parts originally including the Texan bombardier. I understand you coached Sellers on his accent?

“The financing of the film was based almost one hundred percent on the notion that Sellers would play multiple roles. About a week before shooting, he sent us a telegram saying he could not play a Texan, because he said it was one accent he was never able to do. Kubrick asked me to make a tape of a typical Texan accent. When Sellers arrived on the set, he plugged into this Swiss tape recorder with huge, monster earphones and listened to the tape I made. He looked ridiculous, but he mastered the accent in about 10 minutes. Then Sellers sprained his ankle and couldn’t make the moves going up and down the ladder in the bomb bay. He was out of that part. The doctor told him he couldn’t do it. Then, it was a question of replacing him. Stanley had set such store by his acting that he felt he couldn’t just replace him with just another actor. He wanted an authentic John Wayne. The part had been written with Wayne as model.”

Did Kubrick ever try to get Wayne to play the role?

“Wayne was approached and dismissed it immediately. Stanley hadn’t been in the States for some time, so he didn’t know anything about television programs. He wanted to know if I knew of any suitable actors on TV. I said there was this very authentic big guy who played on “Bonanza” named Dan Blocker. Big Hoss. Without seeing him, Kubrick sent off a script to his agent. Kubrick got an immediate reply: “It is too pinko for Mr. Blocker.” Stanley then remembered Slim Pickens from One Eyed Jacks, which he almost directed for Marlon Brando, until Brando acted in such a weird way that he forced Stanley out.”

When Pickens was hired and came to London, wasn’t that the first time he had ever been out of the States?

“Yes, in fact it was the first time he had ever been anywhere outside the rodeo circuit as a clown or the backlots of Hollywood. Stanley was very concerned about him in London for the first time and asked me to greet him. I got some Wild Turkey from the production office and went down to the sound stage to meet him. It was only ten in the morning so I asked Slim if it was too early for a drink. He said, “it’s never too early for a drink.” So I poured out some Wild Turkey in a glass and asked him if he got settled in his room. “Hell, it doesn’t take much to make me happy. Just a pair of loose shoes, a tight pussy and a warm place to shit.” One of Kubrick’s assistants, a very public school type, couldn’t believe his ears, but went “ho ho ho” anyway. “Finally, I took Slim over to the actual set where we were shooting. I left him alone for a few minutes to talk to Stanley. While we were standing there talking, Stanley went, “Look there’s James Earl Jones on a collision course with Slim. Better go over and introduce them.” James Earl Jones knew that Pickens had just worked with Brando. Jones was impressed and asked Pickens how the experience of working with Brando went. “Well, I worked with Marlon Brando for six months and in that time, I never saw him do one thing that wasn’t all man and all white.” Slim didn’t even realize what he was saying. I glanced at James Earl Jones and he didn’t crack. Slim replacing Sellers worked out well because unbeknownst to me at the time, the actor that was playing the co-pilot was taller and stockier than Sellers. Whereas Slim was about the same size [as the co-pilot] and more convincingly fulfilled the intention of this larger-than-life Texan.

To what extent did Peter Sellers’ improvisation depart from the shooting script?

“It was minimal. It wasn’t like Lolita, where he improvised a great deal. His improvisational bits in Strangelove were very specific. One scene that comes to mind is when Hayden goes into the bathroom to kill himself, Peter’s lines are, “Oh go into the bathroom and have a brush up… Good idea.” Seller changed that to, “Splash a bit of cold water on the back of the neck” which is more of a British thing. That was good.”

What was Peter Sellers like to work with in general because you were associated with him off and on following Strangelove with The Magic Christian and Grossing Out, which was going to follow Being There?

“Well, it was a complete dichotomy, because working with him was like working with two people. He was an ultra-talented person who was one of the fastest improvisers ever. He could add to and enrich a scene or character tremendously beyond what was written. On the other hand, he could take it too far and detract from the quality of humor when it was his own. He was too complicated because he was so insecure. If he had reached the saturation point with the particular innovations he was making and you said ‘yeah, I don’t think we should go any further with this,’ he would take it very personally as though you were putting him down as a friend. He thought you were withdrawing your affection from him or whatever he felt was there. Then he would just get more and more into the improvisation as though he were going to insist on it because then your suggestion would represent more than just the quality of the material. For Sellers, it would represent something excruciatingly personal, which was a lot more important than the movie or any of the aesthetics involved. So it was tough because it was a constant balancing act.”


1 Shaun P.   ~  Nov 19, 2009 1:34 pm

I'm not familiar with Terry Southern at all, but I found his take on Sellers to be fascinating. Has anyone written a good biography of Sellers?

2 unmoderated   ~  Nov 19, 2009 2:33 pm

I always try to have multiple copies of Candy in the bookshop, people are always asking for it.

I heartily recommend Flash and Filigree as well.

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