Box Office Failures Week: The Cotton Club (1984)

Sometimes, the story behind a movie takes over the actual story of the movie. I can think of no better example than this film.

The Cottom Club was Robert Evans’ baby. Inspired by a picture-book of the famous nightclub by James Haskins, he was set to produce and direct, with Mario Puzo writing the original screenplay and William Kennedy and Francis Ford Coppola doing re-writes.

But wait? Didn’t Evans and Coppola famously hate one another after two go-arounds making The Godfather films? Didn’t Evans even claim, in his book that influenced everything I write, The Kid Stays In the Picture, that “Francis and I have a perfect record; we disagreed on everything?”

Production designer Richard Sylbert played good cop bad cop with both, telling Evans not to hire Coppola because “he resents being in the commercial, narrative, Hollywood movie business” while at the same time telling Coppola to steer clear because Evans was crazy.

Yet Coppola needed the money. One from the Heart had tanked and he’d done the one thing you should never do — he spent his own money.

Evans needed Coppola too — at least $13 million had already been committed to the film, then Vegas casino kings Ed and Fred Doumanu put another $30 million down, then Adnan Khashoggi — yes, the arms dealer — got involved. And then there’s Roy Radin, who cut a drug dealing associate out of the movie and got killed for it.

Let’s stop this Cotton Club train and get into Roy Radin, who touches all the hot button subject matter that I love so much. Back in 1991, Lydon LaRouche’s Executive Intelligence Review stated that Radin’s murder had been carried out in style. To wit, the murder was conducted in Satanic ritualistic fashion: 13 bullets to the back of the head; a Bible left near the body, opened to a passage from the Book of Isaiah, Chapter 22, which reads in part, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we shall die.””

Radin was killed by William Malony Mentzer, who was identified by “Son of Sam”  killer David Berkowitz as Manson II. He was also, at the time, the bodyguard of Larry Flynt and had two dozen similarities with the Zodiac Killer. 

Radin also had ties to the occult underground in New York and Long Island, purchasing much of his cocaine from the group that Maury Terry fingered in The Ultimate Evil as a national Satanic underground that also included the Process Church of the Final Judgement and Charles Manson. Radin was also a member of the Crowley order the Ordo Templi Orientis.

I went to one of their parties once and was shocked how boring it was, as everyone ate guacamole and discussed Debbie Harry for hours. And hours.  Also, of note, the Process successfully sued Terry and had the passage that connected them to Manson removed from future printings.

But I digress.

The budget had ballooned out of control — $65 million by some accounts, which would be $162 million in today’s money. When he became the director, Francis Ford Coppola added to the budgetary issues by firing nearly all of Evans’ crew, which meant large payoffs. Then, a whole new crew went to work, with six hundred people were constantly working at building sets, making costumes and playing music, like some demented Winchester house of a film, costing a quarter million a day as star Gregory Hines claimed that the rehearsals of the film were being filmed as the movie was shot during rehearsals.

At one point, five new scripts were written in 48-hours and at least thirty — if not forty — versions of the screenplay exist. Evans got forced out. The producers began suing one another. And the movie was still far from playing theaters.

Dixie Dwyer (Richard Gere) is working with the mob to help his career as a musician, but he’s fallen for Dutch Schultz’s (James Remar) woman Vera (Diane Lane). Meanwhile, Sandman Williams (Heinz) and his brother Lucky (real-life brother Maurice Heinz) start working at the Cotton Club, which is owned by Owney Madden (Bob Hoskins) and policed by his right-hand man, Frenchy Demange (Fred Gwynne!).

Dixie — who is pretty much George Raft — goes off to become a star thanks to Madden, but he pisses off Schultz along the way. Yet his brother remains in Schultz’s gang (and is played by a very, very young Nicholas Cage). And Laurence Fishburne is also in here as a Harlem-based mobster.

This movie again connects so many of my pop culture loves, from Warhol Factory star Joe Dallesandro playing Lucky Luciano to Tom Waits, Woody Strode and Julian Beck (Kane from Poltergeist 2!) having roles in the film.

Roger Ebert said that despite the movie having such a troubled birth, “what difference does that make when the result is so entertaining? Whatever it took to do it, Coppola has extracted a very special film out of the checkered history of this project.”

In 2015, Coppola found an old Betamax video copy of his director’s cut and spent a half million of his own money — oh Francis, you never learn — to restore the film. This new version, called The Cotton Club Encore, debuted at the Telluride Fim Festival.

The Cotton Club Encore has just been released to blu ray. It’s remastered, restored and has musical sequences and never-before-seen scenes that have been added back to the film. You can follow the link to order it.

DISCLAIMER: This movie was sent to us by Lionsgate. This has no impact on our review.

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