By Tom Ue.
Emmy Award-winner Jeffrey Schwarz’s many documentaries include Tab Hunter Confidential (2015), about the 1950s heartthrob and movie idol, and Vito (2011), the gay activist, film scholar, and author Vito Russo. His latest project centres on Allan Carr, best known for his producing work in Grease (1978) and the ill-fated Can’t Stop the Music (1980). Where the former has earned People’s Choice Awards in the categories of Best Picture and Best Musical Picture, the latter will make cinematic history as the Worst Picture Golden Raspberry Award’s first winner, and, together with Xanadu (1980), initiate the tradition of Razzies. Schwarz’s The Fabulous Allan Carr traces the contours of Carr’s career, documenting his eccentric style, his many successes (his Broadway production of La Cage aux Folles earned six Tony Awards including Best Musical), and his just as many failures. In what follows, we examine this fascinating portrait of the American producer and his enduring influence.
Congratulations on The Fabulous Allan Carr! A quick trawl on your IMDB page reveals hundreds of projects that you have directed and/or produced. Why Allan Carr?
Thank you! I’ve spent the last 20 years producing creative content, and this is my sixth feature documentary. Allan Carr is one of the great showmen of the 20th century, and a genius at marketing and image creation. I wanted to make this film to explore the gay experience in Hollywood in the 1970s and 80s. We tell a gay social history from the closeted era when people like Allan worshiped at the altar of Hollywood musicals, through the hedonistic 1970s and sexual liberation, and of course the 1980s when AIDS came along to ruin the party for everyone.
Carr’s influence is pervasive: many would recognize elements from Can’t Stop the Music without necessarily having seen it. How do you address the challenge of writing the documentary so that it would be equally interesting for those who know of Carr and those learning about him for the first time?
Even if people don’t know the name Allan Carr, they definitely know the work he left behind. Everyone’s seen Grease, and it will be continue to be celebrated a hundred years from now. In terms of younger queer people, I felt he’s important because Carr furthered the acceptance of gay identity just by being himself. Even though he never directly spoke about his sexuality, his queerness found its way into the projects. La Cage Aux Folles, which he produced, was the first Broadway musical with a gay love story at its center. It was revolutionary, made even more poignant by the fact that it was released at the height of the AIDS crisis.
Tell us about your research.
Because we were working from Robert Hofler’s Carr biography as inspiration for the film, there were no big surprises in terms of the general narrative trajectory. But in doing further research and interviews, I learned so much more about Allan that I didn’t expect. His emotional, inner life was something that only his close friends could have shared with me. His good friend Joanne knew him from the early college days in Chicago all the way through when he made it big in Hollywood. She’s a psychologist, and so she had a compassionate take on him with all his eccentricities and excess.
How did you select your interviewees?
We have a fabulous, colorful cast of characters to tell our story. Bruce Vilanch, Lorna Luft, Maxwell Caulfield, Marlo Thomas and many, many more. We love having Steve Guttenberg in the movie. Allan spotted him early on in his career before he was famous and saw that the leading man potential. Even though Can’t Stop the Music was a bomb, he talks about having a blast making and promoting it. So many people came out of the woodwork that I didn’t expect, like Tommy Williams who was one of Allan’s boyfriends in the 80s. And also Wes Wheadon, Allan’s eye doctor who was also part of the West Hollywood social scene.
How did you decide how much to cut and what to include?
With over fifty interviews, you just find a solid trajectory that tells the story but also relates everything to Allan’s emotional journey. If it’s just information for information’s sake, it didn’t make the cut. We only chose the most colorful stories, most emotional beats, and anything that I felt the audience would have their jaws on the floor over.
You have refrained from reporting speculations and gossip. Why?
There is an endless supply of gossip about Allan Carr. As one of the subjects in the film says, everyone has an Allan Carr story. His parties have become the stuff of legend, and some of the things I’ve heard sound not all that plausible. But I love these kinds of stories, and am fine with presenting anecdotes that may or may not have actually happened. Sometimes the legend is more satisfying than the truth and Allan was somebody who was very aware of that. He was constantly spinning and refining his own legend.
The Fabulous Allan Carr effectively weaves in these wonderful animated sequences. Tell us about your decision here. What inspired it?
There were some episodes in Allan’s life that we just didn’t have any archival material to illustrate visually, so we went about creating animated vignettes to tell the story. A brilliant animator named Sean Nadeau created a fully fledged character in the cartoon version of Allan Carr. We also had a wonderful comic actor named Drew Droege do the voice of Allan, and he was absolutely perfect. Some people thought Allan was a living cartoon character, so this approach made sense. Audiences have really enjoyed these parts of the film.
The documentary never tries to solve the problem of what makes some of Carr’s films so successful and what makes others a failure. Was this decision deliberate? If so, why?
You just simply never know what the public is going to respond to. He caught lightning in a bottle with Grease, and thought he could do no wrong. That kind of hubris never ends well, and his next film was Can’t Stop the Music, which was an embarrassing failure. He also struck out with Grease 2. But as Sherry Lansing says in the film, all great producers have failures. You just have to keep moving forward.
From your experiences, to what extent do you think the success or failure of a project is dependent on the producer?
People don’t necessarily realize just how important a producer’s role is in the making of a film. The producer is the one who finds the material, works with the writer, finds a director, is involved in casting, and all creative decisions. You can make a case that Allan Carr was an auteur, because his taste, style, and obsessions are all over his movies. So when a producer fails, I would imagine it’s hard not to blame yourself. Allan, however, with his ego sometimes refused to take responsibility for failure and blamed everybody else. But you really never know what the public will respond to or completely ignore.
What is next for you?
My next documentary is called Swanson on Sunset. It’s about Gloria Swanson’s attempts to make a musical version of Sunset Boulevard, which would star herself. She hired a couple of young songwriters who were also a gay couple, Dickson Hughes and Richard Stapley. Things get complicated when she falls for Richard, which leads to a dramatic love triangle. I’m hoping to get this out into the world in 2019, if the movie gods are on our side.
Finally, you have interviewed hundreds of interviewees across your documentaries: what would you like to be asked (but haven’t yet), and what would your answer be?
I’d like to be asked what all these films have in common. I enjoy telling stories about people who were kind of oddballs and underdogs, but found ways to empower themselves and change the world. All the movies have the theme of achieving your dreams if you are true to yourself.
Tom Ue was educated at Linacre College, University of Oxford, and at University College London, where he has worked from 2011 to 2016. His PhD examined Shakespeare’s influence on the writing of George Gissing. Ue has held visiting fellowships at Indiana University, Yale University, and the University of Toronto Scarborough, and he was the 2011 Cameron Hollyer Memorial Lecturer. He has published widely on Gissing, Conan Doyle, E. W. Hornung, and their contemporaries. Ue is the Frederick Banting Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of English at the University of Toronto Scarborough and an Honorary Research Associate at University College London.