Film Review: Escapes

Michael Almereyda’s documentary portrait of a Hollywood almost-somebody vividly captures the both the seediness and very occasional stardust of a life lived adjacent to filmland success.
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When I was an undergraduate film student at USC in the halcyon 1970s, I joined the Delta Kappa Alpha fraternity, where I met some very interesting characters. Unusual among this very gay bunch (actually nicknamed “DKGay”), was a mother-and-daughter team, both of whose first names started with J. Mom was a very thin Carolyn Jones lookalike into caftans and quite obvious-looking auburn bouffant synthetic wigs, and her daughter was a plain Jane with acne who nevertheless fancied her adolescent self as Juliette Greco (if you please). Still, both were quite sweet. Mutual friends, however, soon warned me of a questionable influence in their lives: a Svengali-seeming character with the improbably affected name of Hampton Fancher III.

What I knew about this guy was that he may have been related to the locally famous name of Mulholland, had been involved with Teri Garr and married to Lolita starlet Sue Lyon, and taught the acting class wherein my friends met and fell for him. All of these points, except for the Mulholland thing, duly appear in Escapes, Michael Almereyda‘s documentary portrait of this shape-shifting survivor whose life utterly defines the word “picaresque.”

A sort of modern Tom Jones, with good looks which mixed the Byronic with Teddy Bear-ish teen idol, out of the rough, ethnic barrio of East Los Angeles, Fancher began as a flamenco dancer but was ostensibly an actor, with dozens of films and especially TV programs to his credit. His most famous project was his adaptation of the Philip Dick novel which eventually became Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. But even before that—another of the many “nearly clinched it” success-veering moments in his life—Fancher had had a rollercoaster high and low life, involving a lot of women, drugs and drink, some personal tragedy, broken career promises galore and just about anything else you could think of which contributes to the guts and so little glory comprising the Lotusland of the non-winner.

Almereyda is clearly in thrall to this loquacious lothario and life-liver-to-the-fullest, whose involvement with the upcoming Blade Runner sequel may just be the ticket to triumph, at last. He sets up the grandest and most forestalled of entrances for his subject, letting various, random clips from his career play onscreen while, in voiceover, Fancher recounts his often hard-knock life with extreme selectivity. Finally, after the first chapter of this memoir ends, we see Fancher as he is today, slightly ravaged, still cute and charismatic. now supposedly resigned to his less than supernova fate in this most company of towns. He managed to work with fascinating people, both newcomers like himself and his affable buddy, TV star Brian Kelly, as well as Claudette Colbert, whom Fancher appeared with in Parrish (1961), her celluloid swan song, along with an amazing cast that included Karl Malden, Troy Donahue, Connie Stevens, Dean Jagger, Bibi Osterwald, Diane McBain, Carroll O’Connor and, as a pair of sharecroppers, Sylvia Miles and New York theatre stalwart Crystal Field. But apart from Kelly, whose flamboyant but tragically short career obviously haunts Fancher, there are very few anecdotes regarding anyone famous. Instead, we are mostly treated to accounts of his early salad days where he’d go just about anywhere and do just about anything for a hot load of bucks.

Although he modestly claims to have been no Casanova like Kelly, Fancher certainly had his share of movie beauties, including Barbara Hershey, whom you’ll be reminded here was, for quite a spell, an “It girl” in Hollywood, parlaying her early TV series success to stardom in the widest variety of films, ranging from the shocking teen summer idyll gone bad, Last Summer, through her involvement with David Carradine, her partnership with Scorsese in Boxcar Bertha and The Last Temptation of Christ,  to The Stuntman and A World Apart, in which she finally learned how to act. It was she who first encouraged Fancher to write, not act, at which he admits he was not very good.

You never actually hear Almereyda asking Fancher any particular question in the course of filming, leading you to believe that he pretty much ran the show, bringing up only the subjects upon which he wished to expound while Almereyda let the camera run. More than actual career stuff or film history, the doc settles for a loose, informal portrait of a man still on the hustle.

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