Movies We Like
Call me crazy, but recently I stumbled across the 1976 King Kong remake, the one that is now known as Jessica Lange’s first movie, and for some reason, I really enjoyed it. (I saw it years ago as a kid, but didn’t remember it too well.)
Don’t get me wrong—the original ’33 flick really is a classic, and if you have kids, it’s a great introduction to both older and adventure films. And everyone agrees, even with its archaic special effects, the film still holds up as a thing of beauty. Well, guess what—so does this version.
Many historians often think of Kong ’ 76 as a cynical cash grab because it was made by the overly extravagant producer Dino De Laurentiis (and in the day, he was made fun of perfectly on Saturday Night Live). Though this might of been a get-rich-quick scheme for him, don’t forget that he is the guy who helped bring Fellini to the world. Also, King Kong was made in his heyday, between outstanding films like Three Days of the Condor, Serpico, Ragtime and Blue Velvet (and then a whole bunch of terrible ones like The White Buffalo, Orca and Amityville II: The Possession). Granted, with Kong ’76, some may find that a guy walking around in a obvious ape suit is laughable today, and Kong's exact size seem to vary from big to giant, but if you can get past that, the film is both exciting and rather moving. And it helps to have three completely different but fascinating actors starring in it.
You probably know the story—the 70s Kong varies a little from the original but only superficially. A hilariously deadpan Charles Grodin stars as sleazy oilman Fred Wilson, in a rare no-joke role, sporting a great seventies ’stache, highlighted when he puts on a safari hat. He leads an expedition to an uncharted mysterious island in search of a new source of bubbling crude. The great Jeff Bridges, in his hunky days, shows up as Jack, a long-haired and bearded stowaway on the ship. But he’s no ordinary hippie—he’s actually a brilliant primate paleontologist who just wants to get to the secret island for research purposes.
The ship's testosterone is thrown out of balance even more when a life raft is spotted, and in it is the lone survivor of a sunken ship, who turns out to a be a wannabe actress, Dawn (Lange, full of ethereal beauty in her short shorts, a sorta disco-ized Grace Kelly). As they near the island, permanently shaded by fog, somehow Jack and Dawn become the stars of the show and get to join the small team that explore the island. There they find a giant fortress with (offensively portrayed) natives, who are about to sacrifice one of their own. Jack quickly figures out the sacrifice is going to a giant monkey, their god. They want Dawn as their next sacrifice but the white guys protect her, until the natives easily kidnap her off the boat. They give her to the big monkey, who turns out to be a giant gorilla named Kong.
The ape gets a big crush on her, which helps since it turns out there is no oil on the island. Wilson decides bringing Kong to N.Y. as a sort of mascot would be the next best thing. Through much convolution, Kong hits the big apple and goes bananas, leading to a genuinely tragic ending on top of the now gone World Trade Center (updated perfectly, since the original was represented by the '30s Art Deco style of the Empire State Building, while the more decadent '70s get the ugly, artless twin glass towers).
If I sound condescending, I don’t mean to, I’m just self-conscious writing about the plot, on paper it’s ridiculous, but in truth, it’s all very exciting. John Guillermin had been a journeyman B-movie director going back to ’49, with some Tarzan flicks as the high point of the first half of his career (actually Tarzan's Greatest Adventure was one of the better entries in the long-running series, at the time feeling like a more realistic reboot for the jungle man). Somehow, by the '70s, he made it up the ladder to empty big budget films, peaking with the mega-hit, all-star disaster film The Towering Inferno in ’74. King Kong was his follow-up, and it was another hit, though no one would accuse this guy of being an auteur. The island locations are often stunning, a mix of Hawaii and Hollywood backlots. Bridges is fascinating to watch, evening if he was slumming for a paycheck (around this time he also popped up in some interesting, comparatively “little” films like Hearts of the West and Stay Hungry). And Lange is utterly gorgeous, but no one would have guessed that by the next decade, she would become a major powerhouse talent. Here, she seems utterly spaced out; little did we know this wasn’t some ditzy model but actually a character choice by a great actress.
The real heart of the story is the relationship between Lange and Kong, but it’s a one-sided love story. I mean, she likes him as a friend and all, but he’s totally bananas for her. By today’s standards, Kong may not always be fully convincing (but no worse then Peter Jackson’s billion-dollar, computer-animated Kong in 2005). The great make-up artist Rick Baker (An American Werewolf in London) was credited with the monkey suit and also used puppets and mechanics. The effects usually feel goofy, like a robotic stuffed animal. But surprisingly, by the end, it appears to worked enough for Kong to feel like a fully formed character. Kong is kidnapped and stuck in a giant oil hold in the tanker (unintentional allusions to Africans being chained and shipped into slavery) and finally put on display in New York, where he eventually wreaks havoc before his assassination. One can’t help but get a broken heart for the big guy. Though his tracking down and finding of Lange (while peeping at her through a window) is totally laughable, his demise, and her affection for him, is touching. And though you might be tempted to insert a snide comment about “monkeying around” here, the film does deserve better, dissipate its poor reputation. So out of respect, let's just say, the three-way love triangle of Lange, Bridge and Kong is closer in spirit to Casablanca than your average "giant ape on the loose" saga.