Movies Made So the Stars Could Do it! “The Thing Called Love”
We begin with a definition: A “Movie Made So The Stars Could Do It” is a motion picture that may be described as follows:
It is always a theatrical film (most often a Hollywood mainstream studio production but some indies have qualified), that is usually a bad, uninspired or otherwise forgettable example of its genre, that typically has, as its only notable aspect, a romantic relationship between two of its principals, usually two actors, sometimes an actor and a director, or occasionally some other configuration, who formed a liaison during the project.
In most cases, the film in question would have been better left unmade, had the principals bothered to have sated their sexual gratification (“Do It”) on their own time. Likewise, many of the “relationships” formed during a “MMSTSCDI” often (but not always) end as badly as their films did with critics and the general public. Steven Speilberg and Kate Capshaw of 1984’s “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,” and Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson of 1985’s “Volunteers” are but two high-profile exceptions that prove the rule.
Generally speaking, the principals meet for the very first time on the “SCDI” film in question, however, some had crossed paths prior to that. For example, Ethan Hawke has cited the fact that he first met Uma Thurman at a New York City ATM, several years before they worked together on 1997’s “Gattaca.” The key factor is whether a romance first developed (or if rumors* of a romance began) regarding the principals at the time of filming and is the litmus test to determine if any film is a bona fide “Movie Made So The Stars Could Do It.”
*Note: Rumors are often unverifiable and the question of whether the stars actually did “Do It” during or after filming is all but a moot point. If stories in the media at the time of the film’s release suggest a relationship, that is enough of a qualification for the film to be considered for this distinction. The concept of this listing is not to cause controversy for the principals, but rather to take an amusing look at how Hollywood functions generally and the work the principals did on these films in particular. In other words, the focus here is on the (usually lacking) qualities of the film first, and any relationships second.
== Notable Exceptions ==
One glowing exception is 1988’s “Bull Durham,” which featured Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon, and is widely regarded as one of the best sports comedies made. It was ranked by a panel of experts for ESPN‘s “Top 25 Sports Movies” at number four, and voted the seventh most popular film of the genre by viewers of the network in 2004. Of course, Tim and Susan finally split at the end of 2009, but their relationship still stands as one of the longer and more successful examples from an MMSTSCDI.
Another exception would be 2005’s “Brokeback Mountain” which featured actors Heath Ledger and Michelle Williams, both of whom were nominated for the Academy Award for their roles, as was the film itself, and Ang Lee won the Best Director Oscar for his work. Ledger and Williams may not have won their Oscars, but they did become parents as a result of their meeting on “Brokeback.” But Ledger’s tragic death prevented that relationship from rekindling so we’ll never know what might have happened.
Perhaps the best example of a good film that provided a Hollywood love story is 1944’s “To Have and Have Not,” which has long been considered a classic in American cinema. It is listed here because the famed romance of actors Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall began on that picture. Though Bogie and Bacall were criticized by some for that May/December romance, they were apparently genuine in their love. And sometimes great films are made, in spite of the stars getting to “Do It!”
My first selected choice to discuss is “The Thing Called Love” which was a picture made in 1993, directed by Peter Bogdanovich, and starring River Phoenix and Samantha Mathis.
The Front Story: Mathis plays Miranda Presley (“no relation”) a Brooklyn girl with the accent to prove it, who has a hankering for going to Nashville to be a country singer. She hops a bus and takes up residence in a kind of flop house hotel where she meets other wannabe Randy Travises and Dolly Partons, (played by Dermot Mulroney, Sandra Bullock and the aforementioned Phoenix) and picks up a job at The Bluebird, a honky-tonk café where new artists get the chance to sing for the patrons. This place is sternly run by KT Oslin. Miranda hooks up with Phoenix’s character James, but then, complications arise.
The interesting thing about this film is that the acting performances are all pretty darn good, which isn’t so much a surprise when you look at the cast: each of the four, all undeniably brilliant at their craft. Of course, Bullock eventually got her acting accolade by going on to win Oscar in 2010 for “The Blind Side.”
The odd thing is the number of appearances by real country singers who don’t get to sing a note, while Phoenix, Mathis, Mulroney and Bullock were all supposed to perform! It seemed like the entire film had a kind of “backward” quality (and that’s no knock on the hicks and hayseeds) but you wouldn’t expect great country singers to act, or non musical actors to be singing. Yet, that’s what you get with this film! Though, Phoenix had a passion for musical performance: he was reportedly trying to get a recording career started at the time of his death, which was one reason he was attending gigs at L.A.’s Viper Room.
There’s a story of a love triangle with Mulroney, Mathis and Phoenix, and the requisite heartache and heartbreak that always comes with a country song. But the story itself doesn’t work, which is what makes the film forgettable. I guess I could swallow the fact that a New York woman might want to go to Nashville to get her bluegrass on (wouldn’t it have been easier just to head to Hogs & Heifers?) but the script of this film keeps trying to force the viewer to swallow more and more ridiculous content and after awhile, you just have to laugh at it to make it through to the end.
The Back Story: It was reported that the main reason River Phoenix chose to do this film was he wanted to meet Samantha Mathis. And, if you look at his situation at the time, it’s all too clear. Phoenix had a long term relationship with Martha Plimpton, whom he first met and worked with during 1986’s “The Mosquito Coast” when they were both in their mid teens, and fell in love with during production on 1988’s “Running On Empty.” But at this time, Plimpton and Phoenix had a terrible falling out when she discovered that he had acquired a serious drug habit (this behavior as an apparent result of his role in the 1991 Gus Van Zant film “My Own Private Idaho”) and she gave him an ultimatum: the drugs or her. Phoenix made his selection and the couple split, but when he saw Mathis, what he actually saw was a blue-eyed and apparently more tolerant version of Plimpton! The two actresses do favor each other (Mathis was a bottle brunette so even their hair color matched) and Phoenix implicitly understood the chance to have his cake and eat it (or, more accurately have his drugs and take them) with this new relationship.
Even more ironically, at about the same time, Plimpton went on to get cast in her very first movie lead: she played the titular role in a 1992 film called “Samantha,” which also just happened to have a similar motif, though “Samantha” was set in the world of classical music, where Plimpton played a prodigious violin student attempting to come to terms with being adopted. The connector here was Dermot Mulroney, who appeared in both films.
As for the initial reaction to “The Thing Called Love,” It literally opened and closed in NYC in one week. In the wake of the untimely death of River Phoenix, some have since reassessed the film, and many feel that it is a worthy tribute to the late actor, and that the film is much better than its original harsh reviews and poor box office showing. Only you can decide if that’s true, but had he not died, and had Bullock not become a superstar, I wonder if anyone would remember this film at all?
River’s brother, Joaquin Phoenix, seemed to have somewhat better luck with country music, as he went on to win an Academy Award for his portrayal of Johnny Cash in 2005’s “I Walk the Line.” Director Bogdanovich didn’t helm another film for eight years after this one.
And Samantha Mathis, who appeared to have an interesting career going at the time, never really found a place in Hollywood as a leading actress, and now is becoming more noted for her work on the stage, which, interestingly, is also where Martha Plimpton more often finds herself, as well.
I know it can never happen, but I will always wonder what kind of play Samantha and Martha could have done together, based on their shared histories. Call the piece, A River Runs… Do It!