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Movies Made So the Stars Could Do it! “The Thing Called Love”

August 19, 2010

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!

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26 Comments leave one →
  1. hsofia permalink
    August 19, 2010 5:38 pm

    I like these kind of meandering, I don’t know where this is going to end up, but I’m enjoying the ride movie overviews.

  2. August 19, 2010 6:28 pm

    “A River Runs…Do It!” AH HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA!!!!!!

    I never knew the name of this movie, and I actually just watched it recently with a friend of mine who is a country musician. It’s really, really, just..awful. And not even my love for River can make me reassess the film’s qualities.

  3. August 19, 2010 8:05 pm

    Steven and Mama Kate have been married longer than he was married to Amy Irving! I think it’s helpful for the success of these partnerships if one of the partners retires from Hollywood, though in most cases (as evident here) it’s usually the lesser known partner.

  4. August 19, 2010 8:12 pm

    Dermot Mulroney = harbinger of romantic doom.

    I think Phillip Seymour Hoffman snagged the gold dude for Capote though Phoenix was the front runner.

    Also, both Samantha and Martha have appeared as single moms of sick kids on Grey’s Anatomy. In the same season even. Season 6!

  5. Mary Alice permalink
    August 20, 2010 12:13 am

    this was fascinating. I like hearing your opinion on River, I am more up on the music side. I know River was with Flea of the Chili Peppers when he died and John Frusciante and Gibby Hanes of the butthole surfers were at that club that night as well. I think Flea was actually supposed to play with River that night in River’s band. Still, the real music collaboration that was missed is River and John, like Heath and Michelle maybe rekindling, what John and River might have created we will never know…:(…

  6. August 20, 2010 7:21 am

    Oooh, I love this piece! Thanks for sharing your expertise on the issue. And I liked the movie “The Thing Called Love” in that way where you rent something and all the people in it are sweet and doing a good job, and it’s pleasant, but by the time I rewound the movie (cause yes, it was VHS), I’d pretty much forgotten the movie. Well, except for the scenes with Trisha Yearwood. Partly because as you pointed out, she did a terrible job acting, though I didn’t mind because I was just excited that Trisha Yearwood had a part.

    How about Wild Orchid, does that fit?

    I have a fascination with Vanity Project films, especially the ones where an actor directs and their best friend/lover/spouse is the lead. I might have to put together a little post about them, inspired by you.

  7. August 20, 2010 7:24 am

    Also, January Jones from Mad Men reminds me of Samantha Mathis whenever I watch this show, and you can see it in those movie stills you posted.

  8. anne permalink
    August 20, 2010 7:37 am

    I have always thought this about “Temple of Doom” actually, the actress makes it difficult to enjoy the film because she is so awful in it and clearly there so that the director “can do it”
    thank you thank you thank you for this post :))

  9. August 20, 2010 12:13 pm

    I have a fascination with Vanity Project films, especially the ones where an actor directs and their best friend/lover/spouse is the lead. I might have to put together a little post about them, inspired by you.

    I see you, Renny Harlin!

    Okay, am I the only person who likes Temple of Doom? I mean it’s such a train wreck of chicken fried fail – I see you, Anything Goes – and she’s no Karen Allen, but it’s okay.

  10. August 20, 2010 12:15 pm

    Ethan and Uma were divine in Gattaca. It’s certainly one of the best things he’s ever done.

  11. August 20, 2010 12:19 pm

    Snarky’s: I love Temple of Doom in the same way that I love Return of The Jedi— they’re the cheesetastic “kid” movies of an otherwise bad-ass trilogy. For a long time, ToD was my favorite of the Indy movies, mainly because of my childhood attachment to it. Now I’m sort of appalled by it (Short Round, Anything Goes, and so on), but it’s probably still my default “Hey, I wanna watch a Dr. Jones movie!”…um..movie.

  12. August 20, 2010 1:11 pm

    @hsofia thank you; I consider that high praise!

  13. August 20, 2010 1:15 pm

    @eieioj The odd thing about this film is that there are moments that work beautifully, but strung together into a story? Total disaster! So as part of an actor’s reel, you would get a scene that was usable, just never show the whole movie to anybody.

    Also, “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” would have been a lot more tolerable with Karen Allen and not the weepy and screaming Kate Capshaw, but then again, we wouldn’t have had Speilberg nearly as happy.

  14. August 20, 2010 1:23 pm

    @Snarky’s Machine you’re absolutely right about the pecking order and if one of the two people definitely moves away from the big-time Hollywood scene. It makes me wonder about how the Jolie Pitts will do down the road. I mean, it’s possible they will both continue to do good work, and not feel competitive pressure, but I think when you’re at the top of the movie game, there has to be a bit of ego happening, pressure to keep doing at least as well as the spouse and that can be an issue. Rita Wilson has moved into producing and is doing some great stuff there, and dabbles in acting still clearly more as a hobby and to retain her SAG card, I’m guessing.

    Now, if Grey’s Anatomy got Samantha and Martha in the same hospital room, that would be Appointment Television!

    I think the thing about these “MMSTSCDI”s is that there is something to like about each one. Sometimes that’s obscured by the shortcomings, but if you really dig, you can often find something worthwhile. Temple of Doom had some cute stuff in it. I was sure they were going to have that “Mine Roller coaster” at Universal Studios, but it didn’t happen. Yet another “TOD” disappointment.

  15. August 20, 2010 1:29 pm

    @Mary Alice Yes, I do remember that Flea was around that night and I had heard River was scheduled to perform. I don’t know how talented a singer River was, but he probably could have gone a long way on charisma alone. Certainly the fan base was there.

    But to me I was looking more at River and Samantha becoming another Bogie and Bacall in a way. I envisioned the two of them acting in GOOD scripts over time. I guess ditto for Heath and Michelle. Tragic that we’ll never know the answers to any of those questions.

  16. August 20, 2010 1:31 pm

    Ok now you’re making me think. Because I LOOOOVED The Thing Called Love and think of it often and remember it fondly. But I haven’t seen it in a good long time. So maybe it really sucks and I had bad taste? I guess I’ll have to watch it again and re-assess.

  17. August 20, 2010 1:49 pm

    @raymondj Thanks so much! “Wild Orchid” is certainly on the list! I’m sure at some point I’ll be discussing that one in graphic detail (heh heh). But, yes… the “Vanity Project” is certainly worthy of scrutiny so I’ll look forward to seeing your thoughts about that. It’s kinda the flip side of the coin from a “SCDI” project!

    “The Thing Called Love” is a real case of the sum of its parts being far, far greater than its whole. There were some genuinely good and cute moments throughout the film, and who didn’t love Sandy Bullock? But it was a complete mess as a story, and I’m still puzzling over the singers acting and the actors singing elements.

    Good catch on the January/Samantha parallels! I hadn’t thought about it before, but I totally see that. The difference though is Samantha is a very good actor and January… eh… still working on it?

  18. August 20, 2010 1:54 pm

    @Anne Certainly “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” is kind of the tentpole for “Movies Made So The Stars Could Do It!” Certainly of the original three films in the series, it was always rated the worst. I guess we’ll have to reassess after that last one… and the 5th Indy movie, which I guess they’re serious about releasing in 2012!

    Really this is an endless list of films, since they make more of them nearly every year!

  19. August 20, 2010 2:01 pm

    @Laura K I can see how someone might like “The Thing Called Love,” just because there is some stuff to like there: Mathis and Phoenix are very capable actors. Bullock was just sweet and darling. And even Mulroney was good and likable, so if you like the characters, that’s a big plus to the story. Also KT Oslin was really convincing as the manager of the Bluebird, so there were some elements that weren’t terrible. And, from my perspective, if you have good characters, you have potential for a good film.

    But the story!

    Actually, my points are well illustrated on youtube, where someone kindly posted the entire movie in sections. And within the sections you can see the good moments, but the overriding issue with the screenplay really makes it a challenge.

    Again, I have to ask, had River not died and Sandy not become a major player in Hollywood after “Speed” came out, would anyone have even remembered this film?

  20. August 20, 2010 2:07 pm

    You know, I’ve always wish greater career visibility for both Martha and Samantha. They’ve always had gravitas! Running on Empty owns. That’s a good ass film. LUMET!!!

  21. August 20, 2010 2:30 pm

    @Snarky’s I’m not kidding when I say I’d love to see a film or TV series or even a music video that features Martha and Samantha together. Although obviously, that really won’t ever happen, or I can’t imagine it happening.

    The closest I think they got to each other was at the Tony Awards a couple of years ago, when they were both on Broadway and each introduced a segment of the program, but even in that case I don’t know if they were even in the same room at the time!

    It’s really not surprising that both Martha and Samantha are putting together long careers, considering their stellar acting lineage.

  22. August 21, 2010 9:48 am

    Running on Empty! I see you, Christine Lahti.

  23. August 21, 2010 3:16 pm

    Running on Empty! I see you, Christine Lahti.

    LOL, so true. Judd Hirsch!

  24. evmaroon permalink
    August 21, 2010 3:29 pm

    Christine Lahti! I see you, Housekeeping. Snarky, great run down of movies. I kept waiting for Mr. and Mrs. Smith on your list, because I’d love to watch you unpack Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.

  25. August 21, 2010 3:35 pm

    I wish I could take the credit. Penpusher wrote this! Though I wouldn’t mind taking the credit.

  26. August 21, 2010 6:29 pm

    @evmaroon unfortunately, “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” is NOT a “MMSTSCDI” since Brad and Angie were already a couple before principal photography began. But I have potential for some other related films to that family coming down the road… So stay tuned for more fun!

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