If you want Judge George Hatch to tell you what "inserts" are, you must be accompanied by an adult.
"A degenerate film, with dignity"—Movie tagline
In the late 1970s, one of the best revival theaters in Manhattan was the 8th Street Playhouse, noted for its perfectly themed double-bills and clever newspaper advertising. "Bonnie and Clyde and Cool Hand Luke are serving time together." One weekend I went to "Watch Richard Dreyfuss age from a lad to a lecher." The first film was The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1974), a subversive dark comedy in which an overly-aggressive and obnoxious young Jewish kid tries to forge his way his way up the social ladder.
The second was Inserts (1975), a 1930s period piece starring Dreyfuss as Boy Wonder, a once popular and successful silent film director who failed to make the transition to talkies. "Now he directs pornos. But they're brilliant pornos." It sounded good to me, and I wanted to see how Dreyfuss handled "aging" from 16 to 36 within a year.
Even though the film had been edited down to a 99-minute running time, Inserts was still stigmatized with an X rating. MGM has just released the film on DVD, restoring about 15 minutes of excised footage. They have given the film an NC-17 rating for its sexual content, flashes of full-frontal nudity, language, drug abuse, alcoholism, and violence. But what was considered shocking in 1975 has had its sharp edges dulled by today's standards towards sex and overpoweringly graphic violent visuals. I would have slapped it with it an easy R, but that's not to say that the film has lost any of its sensational, lurid, and downright gruesome qualities.
Facts of the Case
Boy Wonder (Richard Dreyfuss, Jaws, Close Encounters Of The Third Kind) was considered an enfant terrible during Hollywood's silent era, but lost his touch for sweeping epics and brilliant comedies when talkies took over the big screen. Now he's willing to direct just about anything for a few bucks, mostly pornographic "loops" for the stag movie crowd. These "smokers" are filmed in an alcove of his own spacious but decaying mansion, so he never has to venture outside and face reality. He's become an impotent, bipolar boozehound who only comes to life when he's back behind the camera directing the most dazzling, yet degrading, elements of explicit sexual acts, often with a vengeful and sadistic tendency toward rape.
In a similar situation, Harlene (Veronica Cartwright, Alien) was once a popular "golden girl of the silver screen," but her screeching voice grated on everyone's ears and forced her out of the business. As a drug-addicted has-been, she has now degenerated even further by helping Boy Wonder shoot his "inserts"—those extreme close-ups showing actual penetration.
Both are waiting for Rex (Stephen Davies, The Long Good Friday), a self-proclaimed stud who will provide the yang for Harlene's yin in these inserts. Rex has a real job at a local funeral parlor, but he's still waiting for his big break into films, and moonlights in any movie project that may help him make connections.
Enter Big Mac (Bob Hoskins, Nixon, Beyond The Sea), a gangster who is financing Boy Wonder's newest exploit, and who wants to make his latest squeeze, Miss Cathy Cake (Jessica Harper, Pennies from Heaven, Suspiria: Limited Edition), a legitimate star. He believes Boy Wonder still has some potential because he's heard rumors about a handsome young newcomer named Clark Gable over at Pathé, who wants Boy Wonder to direct him. "I know I'm good, but with Boy Wonder directing me, I can be great!"
Can Boy Wonder make a comeback? Or is he being snookered by Big Mac's ulterior motives?
Inserts is, indeed, a quirky little movie, but it's a lot less sleazy that it sounds. It has the look and feel of an independent film, shot on a budget so low that only one set was used, giving the impression that it was once a stage drama; for maximum effect, it's played out in real time. Richard Dreyfuss already had about a dozen films under his belt, including lead roles in the popular Catch-22 and American Graffiti. But like many of today's smart actors, he took the chance to stretch his acting chops in a small, offbeat film that wasn't guaranteed to find an audience and, with its sexual content, could have damaged his career. In the closing credits, Dreyfuss is also listed as Production Assistant.
The rest of the cast is comprised of relative unknowns who would quickly move on to bigger and better projects, particularly Bob Hoskins, who won several major awards for his performance in Mona Lisa, and is most familiar to American audiences for his role in Who Framed Roger Rabbit.
Written and directed by John Byrum (1984's The Razor's Edge ), Inserts can be viewed as a caustic black comedy about Hollywood in general, or as a singular, funereal cinematic elegy for one man gone to hell in a hand-basket, overindulging in self-pity. Admittedly, you'd have to be a "Ta-Ta from Tinseltown" junkie to catch all of the in-jokes that Byrum plants like landmines in the screenplay. On the other hand, there are enough witty, off-the-cuff wisecracks that come at the most unexpected times so as to knock you for a loop.
Speaking of "loops," Inserts opens cleverly with a few grainy black-and-white scenes from the stag film shot by Boy Wonder in 1930s starring Rex and Harlene, and it's the one that will provide the framework for the film. The modern audience (that is never shown) sounds like a college crowd: "Pass me the church-key." "That guy looks like a homo." "Where'd you find this crap?" "It goes for less than a buck a yard on Hollywood Boulevard."
"It goes for less than a buck a yard" is the perfect introduction to, and summation of, Boy Wonder's loss of talent, recognition, and self-esteem, and his ultimate failure as a director of even of cheap 10-minute porno loops. As the credits roll, the empty bed formerly occupied by Rex and Harlene turns from black-and-white into color, and the camera pulls back to reveal Boy Wonder's enormous living room, styled in the extravagant Spanish motif popular with Hollywood's big names from the silents through the early 1940s.
But, like Boy Wonder, the place is falling apart. Exotic wallpaper is peeling and haphazardly patched with chewing gum, adobe walls and arches are cracking, and the plumbing is inoperable, all of which are metaphors for the director's mental disintegration and impotence. His actors have to urinate in the pool. "Why can't I use the kitchen sink?" "Hey! Because I have to eat off those dishes!" There are no neighbors to complain about the backyard stench, because they've all sold their property for top dollar, cashing in on a government proposal to build a freeway across the land. Boy Wonder is the only holdout because he never answers the door, not even for that aggressive upstart, Gable.
As they reminisce about the good old days, Boy Wonder swigs cheap whiskey from the bottle and Harlene cinches her arm for another shot of heroin. They remind each other how good they once were and, once high, Harlene deludes herself into believing she'll be a star again. Boy Wonder, though, realizes he's washed up and wallows in frustration and self-contempt. The dashing Rex arrives in a cream-colored suit and tie, advising the inserts have to be done quickly because he has an important appointment with his new agent. Boy Wonder notices the dark, wet smudges on the knees of Rex's trousers and knows he's fallen for one of the oldest Hollywood sex scams that plays tyros for fools. No traditional "casting couch" here; it's obvious Rex makes his new contacts on the scuzzy tiles of men's room floors.
While filming the inserts, Boy Wonder becomes more possessed than obsessed with the details he craves. Rex is directed to strangle Harlene with his ascot. "I want to see those veins pop! I want to hear bones crack! Make her scream and beg for it!" The is one of the scenes that was trimmed because it was too brutally realistic, with Rex lifting and pounding Harlene onto the mattress and slamming her head against the backboard. Director Byrum attempted to misdirect the censors by intercutting the same scenes shot in color with those in black-and-white as they would appear in the final print. Clever idea, but I think this decision only drew more attention to the visceral carnality of the images and the ferocity of the rape.
Big Mac arrives with Miss Cake. He's overly protective about what his "little innocent" should know about this disreputable and sordid Hollywood underbelly because he wants her to stay "legit." But she insists, "Don't treat me like a child, Mac. I want to see it all. And what are 'inserts' anyway?" That question is avoided as Mac pays Rex in cash and gives Harlene her heroin. A major predicament arises when Harlene ODs on that packet of smack. How can they finish the film without the lead actress? Boy Wonder wants to continue the shoot by having Rex screw Harlene's corpse, and plans to use his creative ingenuity to "work around this temporary setback." Rex is revolted by the idea, but, "Hey, anything for a buck."
Taking into account Rex's full-time job as a funeral attendant, Big Mac comes up with a more logical solution. "I got a stiff with a spike in her arm and you're in the funeral business. I say let's just wrap her up and dump her in a spare hole at one of your maggot farms." While having sex with a dead woman required only a second thought, Rex has extreme misgivings about losing his real job with the funeral parlor. Talk about Hollywood priorities! Mac sweet-talks Rex with more big ideas and promises about the young fool's career, and convinces him that it's best for everyone.
As the two men prepare to haul Harlene away, Miss Cake asks Mac, "Aren't you afraid of leaving me alone with Boy Wonder?" "You kiddin' me? The Wonder here couldn't get his rope to rise with a magic flute." But the petite and seemingly empty-headed Miss Cake may be the most manipulative character of the group. Once Mac and Rex are gone, she sets out to seduce Boy Wonder and get his "rope to rise" so he can complete the inserts, that he tells her, "are simply garish interludes in the progress of the entire picture." Miss Cake is both mystified and intrigued; she believes that if Clark Gable wants Boy Wonder to direct him, he may well re-establish his former creativity and career, and make her a star, too. She wants to crawl out from under the oppressive thumb of her sugar-daddy, Big Mac, and make it on her own.
I can guarantee that both the story and characters will snag your attention early on, and the plot twists and character revelations during the last half-hour of Inserts will have you reeling.
The film has a terrific period flavor with the names of classic actors, like Clark Gable, being dropped, and notorious incidents being worked into the script. Boy Wonder recalls, "The day I was having lunch with Griffith, Gish, and Hayes, we heard about the death of 'Wally' Reid. Griffith smiled and said, 'God bless him for not dying in the middle of one of my pictures.' " Provocative and usually apocryphal remarks about Erich von Stroheim and other silent stars are tossed into the mix.
There's also a neat presaging of events. In addition to film producing, Big Mac has his fingers in several pies. He's invested in the freeway project and plans to build a "chain of gas stations and hamburger stands that all look alike. I'll put them on both sides of the road so we get everybody coming and going!" I'm sure he would have eventually supersized that burger idea. Mac also objects to Boy Wonder's filming with what would become the SteadiCam. "So's how come you're always pulling this stuff like taking the camera off the tripod, taking pictures from the ceiling, under the bed, and shooting between people's legs? And all that other fancy crap that nobody else does?"
Inserts was an audacious film for its time and paid the price for being so. Take advantage of this DVD release to see what all of the fuss was about. Despite excellent acting by the entire cast, and a provocative but well-handled storyline, most reviewers, and the general public who saw it on its original limited release, hated the movie. I've chosen to introduce some new evidence for your consideration.
MGM's anamorphic transfer looks excellent. It's extremely difficult to give dimension and variety to a film shot entirely on one set, but cinematographer Denys N. Coop (Billy Liar: Criterion Collection) creates a palpable atmosphere of melancholy, humor, dread, sensuality, and violence as scenes move from one area of Boy Wonder's living space to another. The Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono renders the smart, rapid-fire dialogue crisp and clear. The only Extra is the Original Theatrical Trailer.
For those of you who revel in saturnalian, behind-the-scenes Hollywood delights like John Schlesinger's The Day of the Locust and Frank Perry's Mommie Dearest, and have copies of Kenneth Anger's Hollywood Babylon and Paul Young's L.A. Exposed: Strange Myths and Curious Legends in the City of Angels prominently displayed on your bookshelves, Inserts is a film that should be watched immediately and inserted to your DVD library.
Not guilty! Hey, Boy Wonder? I'm still waiting for you to return my call.
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• Original Theatrical Trailer
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