Barry Sonnenfeld’s Get Shorty (1995) is as movie-besotted a movie as they come. It’s based on Elmore Leonard’s novel and more broadly on Leonard’s mostly unhappy experiences of seeing his books butchered by Hollywood. (Get Shorty — whose screenplay is by Scott Frank — and Jackie Brown, which came out two years later, represented a change for the better.)
The cinematic references are basically everywhere: on the walls, adorned with posters for The Thin Man and Casablanca; on the back of protagonist Chili Palmer (John Travolta)–he wears “a black leather jacket, fingertip length like the one Pacino wore in ‘Serpico’”; and in the characters’ heads. The movies are their frame of reference.
Chili, a benign mob collector (in another film he would be a hit man), is a movie buff to beat the band. For some complicated plot reasons, his work takes him to Hollywood, where he is thrilled to meet C-movie queen Karen Flores (Rene Russo):
Karen: I know I’m better than what I’ve been doing all these years, walking around in fuck-me pumps and a tank-top, waiting until it was time to scream.
Chili: Yeah, but what a scream.
Karen: Oh yeah, it’s a real talent. Look, all I’m saying is, what I wouldn’t give for the chance to say one really great line. You know, like in that great Bette Davis movie where she says, “I’d kiss you… “
Chili: “But I just washed my hair
The Davis film is The Cabin in the Cotton (1932)
There are also references to fake movies, many of them in the filmography of the celebrated actor Martin Weir (Danny De Vito), who is riding high with his starring turn in the prestige picture Napoleon. Out for a meal with producer Harry Zinn (Gene Hackman), Chili spots Weir at a hip eatery:
Chili: That’s Martin Weir! He’s the one who played the mob guy-turned snitch in “Cyclone!”
Harry: One of his best parts.
Chili: No, his best part was when he played the crippled gay guy who climbed Mt. Whitney.
Harry: “Ride the Clouds.” Good picture.
Chili wants to be in the movies, he just doesn’t know in what capacity. An actor? “Well, I could see myself in the parts that Robert De Niro plays,” he muses. “Or maybe even, an Al Pacino movie, you know, playing a real hard-on. But I couldn’t see myself in those movies where three grown-up guys get left with a baby, and so they act like three grown-up assholes, acting all cute.” (The last line is of course a dig at Three Men and a Baby, and probably also Travolta’s own Look Who’s Talking. Get Shorty is full of such Easter eggs.)
It’s not surprising that Chili and Karen should hook up — hey, it’s a movie! — but the scene in which the sparks first fly is fresh, as well as providing entry to this blog. It’s also a great bit of acting by both — Travolta showing a guy really loving a movie, and Russo showing being surprised at being totally charmed by same. The film is Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil (1958), with Welles, Marlene Dietrich, and Charlton Heston.
In the second movie-in-movie scene, Chili is sleeping over at Karen’s when he oddly hears the TV on downstairs. He goes to investigate and, Chili being Chili, swiftly IDs the Howard Hawks Western that’s playing. And Chili being Chili, he is transfixed by the scene, despite the fact that it’s weird and scary that the TV should be on at all.
It turns out the television was turned on by a bad guy named Bo Catlett (Delroy Lindo). Some time later, Delroy meets up again with Chili and references their earlier encounter, watching “John Wayne and Dean Martin shooting bad guys in El Dorado.”
Chili is quick to correct: “That was Rio Bravo. Robert Mitchum played the drunk in El Dorado. Dean Martin played the drunk in Rio Bravo. Basically, it was the same part. Now John Wayne, he did the same in both. He played John Wayne.”
Bo responds (and I totally get how he feels): “Man, I can’t wait for you to be dead.”