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starring Anthony Hopkins, Ann-Margret, Burgess Meredith, Ed Lauter
screenplay by William Goldman, based on his novel
directed by Richard Attenborough
by Walter Chaw I've never been able to contextualize Richard Attenborough's Magic in any meaningful way. I think the best William Goldman pulp novels (Control, The Princess Bride, Marathon Man, Tinsel) defy categorization and emerge as artifacts out of time and genre. The homosexual twists, the sexualized fairytales, the exploding breast implants, the first-person narration taken from "Fats's Diary" of Magic, his thriller about a mad artist engaged in that hard-to-contextualize discipline of ventriloquism...
Really, what is ventriloquism? Throwing voices, manipulating creepy wooden dummies, developing schizophrenia--it seems like magic's pathetic little brother, and yet there is something so disturbing about it that it must strike at some deeper, universal dysfunction beyond the basic discomfort of lunatic nerds telling jokes through carefully-articulated dolls. Maybe all there is to it is this invasive demonstration of the inarticulate id, repressed, abused, and underfed in the tortured psyches of folks so in need of an outlet that a tree-stump with eyes will do. Find in this something of any artist (the writer and his keyboard, the filmmaker and his camera, the musician and his instrument)--a need, uncontrollable, to express through another medium (and find there the alternate definition of "medium") and, perhaps, to express things that are otherwise verboten. When this particular medium is used for crude gags and insult comedy, though, it gains a different, somehow obscene anthropomorphism. Ventriloquism is aggressive.
Goldman adapted his own novel for Attenborough's movie. The project, which courted Jack Nicholson and Sir Laurence Olivier for roles eventually taken (in an odd trans-atlantic reversal) by Anthony Hopkins and Burgess Meredith, finally saw the light of day in 1978 and eludes my attempts to put it in the perspective of the great paranoia films of that period. I want to discuss how protagonist Corky (Hopkins) fears his interiors so much that he shuns fame because fame demands that he take a psychiatric test before signing him to a contract. It's a heartbreaker, but it's also an intellectual exercise, because unless you buy whole a world in which a ventriloquist has a shot at becoming a major prime-time player on network television in the late-Seventies, the tragedy is mainly theoretical. There's method to that madness, though: if you do buy into it as an allegory for the terrible price of fame and fortune, then Magic becomes a canny, terrifying look at what the pursuit of acceptance can do to those who are essentially unacceptable. I feel a great deal of pity for Corky throughout--not only because he's an unfunny, talentless loser headed for a downfall when the wave he's riding crests (TV's history is littered with Urkels and Screeches), but also because his happiness, like all of our happiness, is as close to him as it is invisible to him.
Corky tells his dying mentor Merlin Jr. (E.J. André) of his triumph at amateur night at a theatre that, every other day of the week, features a show called "The Dreamers". Attenborough undercuts Corky's recounting with images of his stage death--and then Merlin Jr. dies, and then the stage scene repeats with Corky's rage exploding from his sweat-wet face, but this time to howls of approval. The appropriate conduit for his grief and alienation is a wooden dummy called "Fats" that opens doors to him while, in a pop analytic fashion, serves mainly to thrust Corky farther into the background. Ben Greene (Meredith, in one of the greatest performances of the decade), Old Hollywood agent extraordinaire, takes Corky on as a project and, in an extraordinary scene, challenges his disintegrating charge to spend five minutes without making Fats talk. A lot has been said about this set-piece, the performances therein and the tension Attenborough brings to it, but generally lost is this idea that Magic is all about misdirection in a sense, about tackling an impossibly jejune premise with the gravity of grand melodrama and making the audience squirm with discomfort while offering up the standard showbiz fall from grace.
Ann-Margret, in one of her last boom-boom performances (she'd play Blanche DuBois on television six years later), is the long-lost girlfriend, Peggy. Dizzy and spoiled by a steady diet of romance novels and isolation in the remote cabin getaway she operates with her difficult husband Duke (Ed Lauter), her idea of love is Corky abusing her, tricking her with stupid magic tricks, and having Fats say lewd things that Corky wished he'd said when he had a crush on her in high school. Corky has come to Peggy's Catskills retreat to escape the limelight. In one early establishing shot of downtown Manhattan, Attenborough captures in a manner seldom captured since the feeling of absolute soul-crushing a city the size of New York elicits. Used to set up the pivotal meeting between Corky and Ben wherein Corky learns of the streets paved with gold, it makes one of the most-photographed places in the world a thing that portends the closing vise of Corky's self-awareness.
Soon enough there's the split: the murder, madness, and mayhem you expect almost instinctively from a film about a ventriloquist. But Magic is above all lonesome and lovesick. It's the tale of a strange little guy who earns the keys to the kingdom and falls out the window of his castle's parapet, seeking a way to express himself and discovering instead a voice that won't stop expressing itself. There's a little backstory here: a flash to a younger time with a father who favoured the older, more athletic son--but Magic isn't really about father issues, either. Daddy not loving Corky doesn't have a thing to do with Corky treating Ben most unkindly, but it does have everything to do with that constant feeling of discomfort the picture offers in waves. It's familiar and it's alien; it's rags to riches except that it's about ventriloquism; and it's Anthony Hopkins and Ann-Margret in the sack together after he browbeats her with the world's most twisted game of Hearts. The great big trick of Magic is that it makes you feel uncomfortable in your own skin somehow, like it's reading your mind and judging the contents. And the further Corky drifts away to Jerry Goldsmith's indelible accordion score, the closer Magic gets to letting something out that you've spent a long time boarding up.
Licensing the film from Fox, Dark Sky ushers Magic to DVD in a wonderful 1.77:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer struck from the original negative that preserves the filmic palette of '70s cinema, while the accompanying DD 2.0 mono audio is deep and expressive. Attenborough's urban vistas and tableaux of wilderness isolation are recreated in lovely, autumnal colours; DP Victor J. Kemper personally oversaw this remaster and that attention pays massive dividends. (Within this period's genre pictures, it rivals Dean Cundey's work with John Carpenter.) A new interview with Kemper (12 mins.)--produced, like the rest of the supplementary material, in conjunction with Blue Underground--is informative and lends nice, succinct insight into the role of the cinematographer in the creative process. Kemper goes into some detail as to how to light a horror film so that it doesn't seem like a horror film--that sense of omnipresent, creeping dread, in other words, is art as opposed to accident. Insertion of the disc cues up Fats in shocking close-up reciting the little poem that ran once on NY television before being consigned forever to "well, that was a bad idea" infamy. Chief special feature is a new David Gregory-directed ventriloquism documentary, "Fats & Friends" (27 mins.), which charts the history of the profession and the history of film treatments of said profession, all through the scholarly passion of ventriloquist (and Fats's operator) Dennis Alwood. The revelation that practitioners are self-taught and come to it pre-puberty says everything there needs to be said on the subject.
A three-minute "Anthony Hopkins Radio Interview" is what it is, set to B-roll accompaniment, and a silent "Ann-Margret Make-Up Test" (2 mins.) fulfills my daily requirement of voyeuristic cheap thrills. She's a beautiful woman. A restored (but still grainy) theatrical trailer (2 mins.) is pretty dated but pretty terrifying all the same, nicely accenting a 28-image photo gallery of production stills, lobby cards, and advertising art. A weird Spanish-language interview with Hopkins, four television spots, and three radio spots round out the presentation. Originally published: July 10, 2006.