Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: Birdman, as well as David Cronenberg’s upcoming Maps To The Stars, has us thinking back on other showbiz satires.
Robinson Devor might not like being compared to Richard Hudson, the terminally smooth antihero of his 1999 film, The Woman Chaser. But the comparison is so perfect—a movie about a Hollywood outsider whose creativity is crushed by the system, made by a Hollywood outsider who ended up being crushed by the system. The Woman Chaser, despite critical buzz surrounding its premiere at Sundance, bombed so hard theatrically that it was never released on DVD. Devor moved to Seattle, where he went on to make indies like Police Beat and Zoo far from the cruel whims of Hollywood. But redemption has arrived in the form of Netflix, which recently picked up The Woman Chaser after a decade in music-rights hell.
The film isn’t a period piece in the sense that everyone is talking about Vietnam and civil rights and “have you heard about this new drug called LSD”, but its stylized black-and-white cinematography (and gigantic winged convertibles) place it firmly in the early ’60s. Devor’s direction is ambitious—audacious, even—and laden with surrealist touches, like the scene where a guitarist, recording soundtrack music, is rendered ant-like in front of a massive movie screen. Even the tone, reminiscent of the great mid-century satirist Terry Southern, feels like a retro throwback.
Based on a novel by Charles Willeford, The Woman Chaser reads on the surface as noir. But like the title, the genre label is somewhat misleading, as the film is really a character study—a dissection of what happens to an alpha male’s ego when the world is no longer his to control. Patrick Warburton, beefy and barrel-chested, plays Richard as a delusional macho man, referring to himself as “sympathetic and likable” even as he (in more than one sense) screws everyone in sight. He’s not a psychopath so much as the picture of entitlement, a fundamentally selfish person who believes that everyone has a price and he’ll never run out of cash. Accustomed to a life of least resistance, Richard is able to talk his way into jobs, into money, into women’s beds, and eventually into moving back home with his mother and washed-up film director stepfather Leo (Paul Malevich), all of whom only matter to Richard as much as he can use them.
Leo, in particular, comes in handy when Richard decides that his carefree lifestyle is no longer enough and he needs to fulfill his untapped creative potential. Richard talks Leo into pawning his beloved Rouault clown painting and gets to work on his script, The Man Who Got Away, a morality tale about a truck driver driven mad with guilt after running over a little girl on the highway. (It’s basically O Brother Where Art Thou?—the film-within-a-film from Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels, not the Coen Brothers movie.) Richard’s script turns out to be brilliant—or so we’re told, he’s also the narrator—and Leo’s former employer Mammoth Studios agrees to produce the film. Ironically enough, the same personality traits that make Richard a master manipulator also make him a great film director. But in the end, this self-styled shark is an amateur compared to the studio executives at Mammoth. Emasculated on a technicality, Richard begins to disassociate.
Compared to the book, the movie version of The Woman Chaser makes Richard seem downright lovable. Okay, maybe not lovable, but less psychotic. (Compare the scene where he slams a door in the face of a woman who claims she’s having his baby. In the book, he punches her in the stomach.) He’s a cad, but not an unlovable one, at least not to the kind of person who idolizes Don Draper. Whether what happens to him is a tragedy or karmic justice is open to interpretation.
Availability: The Woman Chaser is available to stream on Netflix, and to rent or purchase from the major digital services. For physical-media sticklers, there’s also an out-of-print VHS that can ordered from Amazon for, oh, a $100 or so.