Saturday, January 31, 2009

Robert F. Lyons: A Prince of Our Disorder (1970-72)

By the late 1960s, there were protesters of every stripe. There were college students who protested the war in Vietnam and blacks and whites who protested on behalf of civil rights. There were women who protested for equal rights for their sex. And homosexuals made their stand at the Stonewall Tavern in Greenwich Village, marking the opening salvo in the Gay Rights Movement. Among those movie voices who spoke most persuasively for societal change was Robert F. Lyons.

Robert F. who?

Robert F. Lyons, with his long hair and hippie-ish manner, was, for a short time, Hollywood’s go-to guy when it came to embodying the counterculture. He first came to prominence playing Elliott Gould’s whacked out friend in Richard Rush’s Getting Straight, one of three movies released in 1970, along with Stanley Kramer’s R.P.M. and Stuart Hagmann’s The Strawberry Statement, that attempted, although too late and in too bogus a fashion, to dramatize the student unrest on U.S. college campuses during the Vietnam War. Lyons is hilarious as a hippie who tries every trick in the book in order to escape conscription into the military. He walks around with a purse, has a black woman with a passel of kids pretend to be his wife. It’s all in very bad taste and all very funny, with the kicker that in those days a very simple formula applied to the draft--conscription = Vietnam = death. Based on this performance and a slightly laidback Jack Nicholson vibe, Lyons stood poised for movie stardom.

Lyons next shows up as sociopathic serial killer Skipper Todd in Barry Shear’s The Todd Killings (1971) opposite a pre-John Boy Richard Thomas. Perpetually clean-cut, Thomas himself had just played a sociopathic teenager, along with Bruce Davison and Barbara Hershey, in Frank Perry’s Last Summer (1969), which ends shockingly with the disaffected suburban characters played by these three actors gang raping a helpless victim touchingly played by Catherine Burns.

The Todd Killings is a fictionalized account of the true story of sixties’ thrill-killer Charles Schmidt, who was known as “The Pied Piper of Tucson.” Director Shear knew a thing or two about restless youth, having directed Wild in the Streets (1968), about a rock star who parlays his star power into a seat in the Oval Office, The Todd Killings perfectly captures the dark side of the peace and love subculture that eventually led to the Tate-LoBianco murders and the ultimate bad trip of the Altamont Free Concert, where Hell’s Angels employed to provide security at the speedway beat a fan to death while the Rolling Stones played on stage. This terrifying moment was captured in the Maysles Brothers’ famous documentary, Gimme Shelter (1971). Lyons’ chilling performance as Skipper Todd is the flip side of the beatific disposition he deployed so amusingly in Getting Straight.

In 1972, Lyons starred as the scruffy romantic lead in the marquee-bursting Dealing, or the Berkeley-to-Boston Forty-Brick Lost-Bag Blues. The movie is based on a novel by Michael Douglas. No, not the son of Kirk, husband of Zeta-Jones and Academy Award-winning star of Wall Street. This Michael Douglas was the pseudonym for the writing team of the late Michael Crichton and his younger brother, Douglas. In it, Lyons plays a Harvard law student who travels to Berkeley to pick up forty bricks of marijuana for his friend, John Lithgow (hilarious in his movie debut as a dandified Harvard student), who is the campus drug dealer. In Berkeley, Lyons meets Sukie, played by Barbara Hershey, an actress who was the perfect embodiment of the hippie ideal, playing, among other roles, an earth mother who rents out her womb to a barren doctor’s wife in James Bridges’ The Baby Maker (1970) and the free spirited girl friend of Michael Sarrazin in Robert Mulligan’s The Pursuit of Happiness (1971). (In her real life, Ms. Hershey even added Seagull to her last name in recognition of the bird that was accidentally killed during the filming of Last Summer.) In the time-honored tradition of screwball comedy, Lyons is even given a straight-laced girl friend (Ellen Barber with her hair tied back tight in a chignon) to provide the proper contrast to the unconstrained--in every sense of the word--Ms. Hershey.

Almost every movie comedy of this period features a scene in which a straight character “turns on” for the first time and has some kind of epiphany. Think of Peter Sellers tasting those hash brownies proffered by Leigh Taylor-Young (the poor man’s Barbara Hershey) in Hy Averback’s I Love You, Alice B. Toklas (1968). Or Barbara Streisand offering uptight George Segal a toke of her marijuana cigarette in Herbert Ross’ The Owl and the Pussycat (1970). What’s interesting about Dealing is the fact that it contains no such scene. Marijuana is presented as a normal, everyday aspect of college life. In fact, Dealing, the book, is really a big shout out to law enforcement for the decriminalization of anti-marijuana statutes. But what’s funny about the book is that, instead of adapting the psychedelic stylings of a Ken Kesey, Dr. Hunter S. Thompson or Tom Robbins, Dealing is written in a slightly hipper version (obviously the younger brother's influence) of the stolid, middlebrow style that is the mainstay of Crichton’s fiction, from his first, The Andromeda Strain, through Jurassic Park, to, sadly, his last, State of Fear.

In the movie, trouble happens when Hershey flies from Berkeley to Boston to visit Lyons, muling eighty pounds of marijuana. She is busted by a corrupt cop played by Charles Durning, who takes the marijuana for himself. And the story recounts what happens when Lyons tries to get the marijuana back from Durning. The movie goes the book one better and ends with a climactic shoot-out at—of all places—Walden Pond! In the same way that marijuana entered the soft underbelly of white middle class American life during the late sixties, hippies were eventually subsumed into the rest of mainstream society. And Robert F. Lyons went from hippie outsider sidekick in Getting Straight to handsome hippiesh leading man in Dealing.

Dealing is also notable for featuring an actress with the onomatopoeiac name of Joy Bang. She would also appear in Roger Vadim’s Pretty Maids All in a Row (1971), in which Rock Hudson, cast surprisingly against type, plays a popular high school gym teacher and guidance counselor who sleeps with his prettiest female students, then murders them. The movie is a virtual hymn to the enduring power of young female flesh (what else would you expect from the French auteur who directed his wife, Jane Fonda, as the scantily-clad Barbarella?).

Inexplicably, Robert F. Lyons never became a movie star, although he does have a long resume of acting in episodic TV (from The Rookies to Cold Case). Dealing was barely released by Warner Bros. in the winter of 1972 and was never given a chance to find its audience. Perhaps, when the spirit of the 1960s soured in the wake of Charles Manson and Altamont, actors such as Lyons suddenly found they weren’t needed any longer to embody an idea that no longer existed. Barbara Hershey went on to play more complex female characters in movies such as Phil Kaufman’s The Right Stuff (1983), as the wife of test pilot Chuck Yeager (an iconic Sam Shepard), and Woody Allen’s Hannah and her Sisters (1986), as the object of brother-in-law Michael Caine’s romantic obsession. But for one brief moment, in 1972, Lyons and Hershey were the Tracy and Hepburn of the turn on, tune in, drop out set. The outcasts had become card-carrying members of the status quo. And Robert F. Lyons became an unintended victim of his own contribution to transform society.

No comments: