Jeffrey Schwarz knows showbiz. The director and producer of more than 100 mini-documentaries for DVD treatments including those for The Silence of the Lambs, Basic Instinct and Hairspray, he’s also earnedacclaim for his documentaries I am Divine, Vito, Tab Hunter Confidential and Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story.
Schwarz’s films capture oft-overlooked stories from cinema—and queer—history. In his latest project, he uncovers the exploits of queer Grease producer Allan Carr in The Fabulous Allan Carr. Caftan-clad Carr had a rollercoaster career with hits like Grease and the stage musical La Cage aux Folles before a string of box office bombs hurt his standing. His nadir came at a disastrous Academy Awards show in 1986, which featured Rob Lowe and Snow White singing “Proud Mary” in a massive production number with a bunch of geriatric stars from Hollywood’s heyday. Now considered the worst moment in the history of the Oscars (take that La La Land snafu), the show destroyed Carr’s career.
Queerty met up with Jeffery for coffee and a chat at the historic (and all too appropriate) plaza at Sunset and Crescent Heights in Hollywood to discuss his new film about Carr, his career and all things queer.
With everything going on right now, why Allan Carr (right, with the former Bruce Jenner)? I mean, he’s kind of this peculiar figure in entertainment history—a quick rise and fall. Distinctive, to say the least. How did you come to this idea?
It started with Grease. It’s a movie that I was completely obsessed with. It came out when I was nine, and it just burned into my brain. Those images, the colors, the music, the sexuality, even though it was sort of above my consciousness at the time. I didn’t know what a period or a hickey was, but I knew it was dirty. And John Travolta, of course, although I didn’t know why I was drawn to him until much later. But I certainly was drawn to him. He was also having that “moment” with Saturday Night Fever and Grease. I knew there was this guy named Allan Carr out there that was responsible for that movie. But it didn’t really enter my consciousness. And then over the years, I’d hear about Can’t Stop The Music, La Cage Aux Folles, the Oscars… But I didn’t know his story.
And then I read the biography and I realized that this guy was so impactful in popular culture. And I’m drawn to lager-than-life characters. I’m drawn to people who kind of invent themselves. They had a dream, and they just start going for that dream tenaciously. Part of that includes creating a persona. And of course he was flamboyantly gay, but not openly gay. It was a time before people came out. And he infused his work with a gay sensibility. And I found that really interesting. And also, his story translates really well to film with dramatic peaks and valleys. And it’s ultimately a tragedy, so I felt like I wanted the audience to go along for this ride, to fall in love with Allan, even though they probably never heard of him going into the movie. And they realize how much of their own culture and experiences have been shaped by him.
I’ll have you know I wanted to wear a caftan to this interview but they were in short supply. But watching the film, I was like…he looks really comfortable.
Right? I haven’t yet worn a caftan. Brett Ratner now lives in Allan’s old house, and he found a couple…
And he told me that he found a couple and tried one on. He said he wasn’t fat enough to wear one. Yet, he said.
He had like a sense of humor about the caftans. So, actually, our producer, producer’s partner bought him a vintage caftan on eBay.
He showed me a picture of it. He said it was really heavy and itchy. It was very vintage with lots of embroidery and jewels. They were anywhere from very simple…to very elaborate bejeweled versions that Allan would wear at his parties. The caftan was part of the creating of the persona. He just wanted to be remembered; he didn’t want people to forget him. And there was no way you could forget this guy in a caftan throwing a party in his disco basement.
One thing that was sort of interesting to me watching it, there’s no family. He doesn’t have any kind of family presence in this film. And even people who were close to him like Roger Smith and Ann-Margret I kept thinking, what is this guy’s absolute? Because we see what the veneer was, and how hard he worked for that. Was he just this cipher? In your mind, who was he?
That’s a great question. I mean, logistically, there just wasn’t any family. He was an only child. His family was important at a certain moment in his life. His mom used to take him to the theatre. His dad financed his projects in the beginning. But then at a certain point they were out of the picture. So they didn’t play a huge impact in his subsequent life. His friends were his family. He created a family around him, but they were very distinct. They weren’t part of his gay world. They were very compartmentalized, these two worlds. At the end of the day, people said he was a really difficult person to get to know. The one person that I felt was the closest to was JoAnne Cimbalo. She grew up in Chicago with him. She’s not a showbusiness person. So she really got to know his heart. She didn’t see any of the real insanity. I’m really grateful that she’s in the movie, because all these documentaries…they have one heart.
They have one real center to the film…and JoAnne [was the center].
It’s fascinating who you did get to talk. Some of them seemed very, very willing, just happy to be there. And some who, at times, maybe seemed a little reluctant. The stuff that immediately springs to mind is the twinkie stuff. Or twinks, as we now call them…
Yeah. We shortened it!
He didn’t seem to have any kind of romantic life.
One of the people in the film says he was too wrapped up in himself to share his life with someone. He didn’t have a partner or a peer, someone his own age to share his life with. That wasn’t who he was. He was a little bit of a mystery too at the end of his life.
The last ten years…
At the very end when he got really sick there were some people around him…maybe unscrupulous. Maybe not. It’s a little bit of a mystery. What happened to all of Allan’s stuff? We don’t know.
Really? Nobody knows?
In a doc, usually you want to find if somebody has passed away, there’s usually somebody who’s a caretaker of the material. Where are his photo albums? Where are his scrapbooks? Where are his home movies? Where is all that stuff? And it wasn’t there. So that was a challenge to tell the story visually. In this case, I didn’t have a lot of that stuff. Just some little bits and pieces remain. So that’s also why we decided to use animation.
The animation has this sort of kitschy look to it. And it somehow just fits the story, and it’s a great way to fill in some of these gaps. You also found some amazing archival footage. How long did you take going through it?
A few years. I think I started to dig maybe three years ago or so. And you go to the usual archive houses like NBC had that great footage of Allan unveiling the billboard–actually right where we’re sitting right now.
Yeah, this plaza used to be Schwab’s Drugstore. And there was a billboard, I think, across the street. And he had the red carpet coming down right here.
So all the red carpet stuff, that was here. So the archive footage, we found a few things in Allan’s house that Brett Ratner found when he moved in. I think he found one single VHS tape of all the footage of the party down in the disco was found in the house. I don’t know where it came from or who shot it. So thank god we got that. And then people that knew him provided materials…so that’s part of what excites me about doing these documentaries is the archival images can bring great life to it and be used to tell a story.
Allan had such a distinctive…career that really marked pop culture in way that people don’t always realize, and in ways that I’m not sure people would really want to mark pop culture. In full disclosure, I did wake up this morning with “Cool Rider” in my head. And Grease 2 is an abysmal movie. I know it has its apologists, but oh god…oh man!
“Cool Rider” is probably the highlight.
And as pretty as Michelle Pfeiffer and Maxwell Caulfield are, I can’t do it.
Well he caught lightning in a bottle with Grease. That’s a lifetime thing. And you can’t recapture it. There’s something about it…Grease 2 definitely has it’s fans, it’s own cult. But it’s not Grease. And there’s a reason for that. So, that was sort of part of a string of failures.
And Can’t Stop the Music, which is even grimmer than Grease 2. And I did sit through it in a theatre. I’ll never forget it no matter how hard I try.
Can’t Stop the Music?
For me, I love it. It’s so insane. And so gay without being gay at all, a specifically gay movie. Taking this sort of phenomenon—the Village People—and trying to sell it to kids and families and make a PG rated movie about leather people in the village. And that didn’t work–it’s a huge flop. And I’m sort of fascinated by movies that really go for it, and fail. Can’t Stop the Music is really Allan’s vision. It’s everything he wanted to see in a movie. He thought he had all the answers and was riding so high from Grease. And he had some incredibly talented people on his team on that, but he started taking credit for everything. Then, you know, in Hollywood he made a lot of money for studios, so he felt that he could do know wrong. That was the moment of his greatest backlash. But it was a big hit in Australia, which he never let anyone forget.
He also had a hit with La Cage. It’s interesting to me that he didn’t have any follow ups to that on stage. It’s funny to me in the movie. Everyone seems to emphasize he wasn’t doing it to make a political statement. In 1984, putting a musical on Broadway with two gay leads, one of whom is a drag queen, and you set it in a drag club. That’s a political statement unto itself!
That was the first time the gay themes that are sort of submerged in his work emerged. And he would never claim to be an activist, though you look at that, and you feel that he’s sort of an accidental activist because it premiered in ‘83, which was a really dark time in New York. You look at that now, and don’t have that context. In the context of 1983 that was like, revolutionary.
It’s sad then, to my mind, that his big follow up was the Academy Awards Ceremony.
That’s what derailed him, really. He did try to develop other Broadway shows and movies, but the Academy Awards was going to be his career peak. But it completely backfired. His health declined. His standing in the town declined. And that ultimately left to a tragic end to him–I’m still trying to find out what was really going on there. It sort of snowballed, the bad reviews. A lot of people were waiting for Allan Carr to fail. They didn’t like him, and they wanted him to fail.
How hard was it to get Eileen Bowman (Snow White at the Oscars) to talk about the Snow White experience?
Not hard at all. She was ready to talk! She’s never done an interview about it on camera. We found her in San Diego; she’s still working. So she loved telling her side of the story. There’s even more to it, and it’s even more insane.
What’s the status of Goddess (Jeffrey’s forthcoming documentary on the cult film Showgirls)?
We’re looking for financing. It’s in the early stages of development.
I look back over your filmography, and it’s one of the longest I’ve ever seen with all your DVD documentaries. But your personal stuff—William Castle, Vito, Divine, Tab Hunter—the sort of common thread I see through all your work…these are all sort of outsiders to the film mainstream, but nevertheless, people who had a really big impact on pop culture, much like Allan did. What about all these sort of diverse figures connects you to all of them?
Well like I said before, I’m attracted to people who might have some insecurities or issues with themselves, but they have big dreams. And they create a larger than life persona. That’s something they all have in common. I’m very much interested in the creation of the public persona. They’re also people who were on the margins, or at one point were outside the margins and just through tenaciousness and insanity they became insiders. Divine was super talented, but was written off. And Allan Carr was written off. William Castle was written off. A lot of these people craved—they just wanted to do their best and do their work to make an impact on the world. And they did. And the films are sort of a way to reinvigorate their memory, and to show the world hey, these people are important. They followed their dreams. And they are an inspiration to people. Even if you think you have nothing in common with Divine, you do. Somebody called I am Divine an “it gets better” story on acid.
I’d say speed more than acid…
I just have a love for these subjects. And as time goes on, there’s a cultural infusion, especially for young people. I take it for granted that everyone knows John Waters films, Divine, but they don’t. So I feel kind of a responsibility to pass the torch, because I want to celebrate these people. I want to keep their memory alive for the next generation. It sounds cheesy, but it’s true. I feel it’s my mission.
It’s a good mission!
The Fabulous Allan Carr will play Outfest on July 12.
For more information on other upcoming screenings or release on streaming & home media platforms, check out the official site for the film: http://www.allancarrmovie.com/