The tell-all celebrity memoir falls victim to a strange paradox. Generally speaking, readers are drawn to such books by the promise of lascivious and decadent stories of life at the top: sex, drugs, rock ’n’ roll, and that whole outlandish Hollywood Babylon trip. The problem is that the more legendarily lewd and unruly the given celebrity, the less his or her actual stories tend to impress. Few would be surprised to discover when reading The Dirt: Confessions of the World’s Most Notorious Rock Band, the collaborative memoir of the glam-rock dirt bags in Mötley Crüe, that they inhaled an exorbitant quantity of drugs, or that while on tour Ozzy Osbourne, the perpetually rattled heavy metal icon, once snorted a line of ants. This is precisely what we expect of such cartoonish bad boys, after all. Their antics are so storied, looming so large in the pop cultural imagination, that the actual facts cannot help but disappoint. A line of ants? That’s it?
By comparison, a more unassuming memoir tends to generate the opposite effect. I distinctly remember, as a younger man, reading the comedian Rodney Dangerfield’s late-life memoir, It’s Not Easy Bein’ Me: A Lifetime of No Respect but Plenty of Sex and Drugs, and being charmed, not by his stories of heroic cocaine consumption (although there were plenty of those), but by his account of scaling the fence of a weight-loss clinic along with Roseanne Barr, in order to sneak away for pizza. It is an unlikely, incongruous image: Rodney and Roseanne scampering up a chain-link fence. And it speaks to the pleasures of memoirs that scrape against a subject/writer’s public persona, instead of simply recertifying it.
Director’s Cut: My Life in Film, by Canadian filmmaker Ted Kotcheff, is such a book. And not because Kotcheff—a filmmaker whose diverse filmography includes such films as the adaptation of Mordecai Richler’s The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, the Sly Stallone thriller First Blood and the zany corpse-handling comedy Weekend at Bernie’s—is some caricature of a Hollywood bigwig, whose life abounds with unbelievable stories from the surreal life lived in “Lipstick City.” Rather, it is because, in the grand scheme of global celebrity, Kotcheff is something of a non-entity.
This is not to diminish his talents, or his significant professional accomplishments, but merely to suggest that many readers (of this very piece, perhaps) have no real idea who Ted Kotcheff is. They would certainly recognize some of the films he directed, and they may have spotted his name in the credits of the wildly popular sex-crimes procedural Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, where he served as executive producer for ten seasons. Indeed, even people familiar with some of Kotcheff’s work have next to no idea about him as a person. (Embarking on his memoir, I certainly didn’t, despite counting an obscure Australian flick he made among my favourite films.) For most readers, Kotcheff is something of a blank slate.
This is a feeling that finds itself reflected in the book’s packaging, with its spectacularly generic title—which could refer, quite literally, to any director in history—and its un-alluring cover image of one of those canvas director’s chairs. However, conventional wisdom about books and covers applies here. More than just some rote, memoir-by-numbers, Director’s Cut proves an impressive, engaging story of a uniquely talented artist orbiting just on the edges of name recognition, and of Hollywood itself.
Early in Director’s Cut, Kotcheff refers to a Washington Post article in which he is referred to as “the under-appreciated Ted Kotcheff.” “Hey,” Kotcheff writes in response. “I’ll take it.”
This underappreciated status simply means that many people have come to recognize his work after the fact. While he had a few hits (most notably First Blood, which has grossed in excess of $125 million since its release in 1982), Kotcheff’s repute, even in cinephile circles, is a bit subdued. The secretly subversive First Blood, for example, looks leaner and tauter in light of the subsequent Rambo sequels. The 1977 comedy Fun with Dick and Jane, starring George Segal and Jane Fonda as a struggling couple who begin moonlighting as Robin Hood-ish burglars, feels effortlessly fleet and funny when compared to the despairing 2005 remake by Dean Parisot (starring Jim Carrey and Téa Leoni). And the acclaimed Duddy Kravitz, which took the coveted Golden Bear when it premiered at the 1974 Berlin Film Festival, seems even better in light of saggier adaptations of Richler’s work, like Barney’s Version directed by Richard J. Lewis in 2010. Time and shifting contexts of appreciation have greatly benefited Kotcheff’s work.
A case in point is Weekend at Bernie’s. The film met with lousy reviews. In his critique, Roger Ebert (showing a failure of imagination) simply refused to indulge the idea that people in the movie would not notice the life stage of the title character. “It should be immediately obvious to several people that Bernie is dead,” he wrote in 1989. “In order for them not to notice, they must be incredibly dense.” Yet the film earned a cult following precisely for this reason, and for the pure, patent, macabre silliness of two aspiring yuppies goofing around with a corpse. The Weekend at Bernie’s franchise was even immortalized in a 1997 episode of Seinfeld, a mark of its unlikely indelibility in pop culture. As if that was not enough, in 2011 Bernie’s was screened in its entirety as part of an exhibit on “high concept” art at New York’s Whitney Museum.
There is also the example of 1971’s Wake in Fright, an Australian film of which I am quite fond. And I am not alone. Though little seen upon its original release in the early 1970s, and believed lost for decades, the film was restored and resuscitated a few years ago, screening as a “classic” selection at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival, alongside such other stone-cold masterpieces as Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes and François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows. Martin Scorsese is a longtime admirer of the film, as is the Australian singer-songwriter Nick Cave, who hailed it upon the occasion of the 2009 restoration and re-release as “the best and most terrifying film about Australia in existence.”
The sustained interest in, and critical revaluation of, so much of Kotcheff’s work makes the man behind it ripe for study. A close examination reveals a uniquely talented, superlatively Canadian figure, whose career nimbly traipses along the parallel between insider and outsider.
Born in Toronto in 1931 on a “rickety, Formica-topped kitchen table” to Bulgarian immigrants (his birth name was Velichko Todoroff Tsotcheff), Kotcheff got his professional start as a stagehand for the CBC. He dreamt of directing Hollywood movies, like Canadian expat filmmakers Arthur Hiller (Promise Her Anything, Love Story) and Norman Jewison (In the Heat of the Night, Moonstruck).
An obscure episode in his youth foiled that dream. As a teenager he had signed on to a communist book-of-the-month club, enrolled by the neighbourhood leftie who, he claims, used to hang around a local diner wearing a beret and cape. Kotcheff unsubscribed after receiving just three books, but it was enough for the United States to deny him entry as a young man. That led a restless Kotcheff to London, England, in 1957, where he struck up a serendipitous friendship with Mordecai Richler. “We came from the same slummy world, had the same coarse adolescence,” Kotcheff writes of his bond with the Montreal-born Richler. “What intrigued both Mordecai and me at that time was something we discussed often later on: from our identical, totally unpropitious backgrounds, where in hell did we get our aspirations, he to be an important novelist, me to be an important filmmaker?”
Kotcheff’s friendship with Richler proved instrumental in launching his career as a filmmaker. In London, Kotcheff read a draft of Richler’s then-latest novel. It was a story that resonated with him, about a restless, borderline-manic young man desperate to make something of himself, be it through hard work, cunning or sheer graft. Its title: The Apprenticeship of Daddy Kravitz.
Kotcheff was eager to mount Duddy Kravitz as a feature film. But there was little interest in Canada at the time. He would end up getting the chance in 1974, directing the beloved version starring a very young Richard Dreyfuss in the title role. It wound up one of the most successful and acclaimed Canadian movies of all time; but we all know that. In the meantime, he swallowed his pride and churned out a made-for-TV version for the British anthology drama series Armchair Theatre. Ever the risk taker, in the early 1970s (still barred from the United States) Kotcheff departed the United Kingdom. This time, he’d find himself in the balmy, washed-out wastes of rural Australia, tackling a project that would end up looming mightily in his filmography.
Wake in Fright took its title from a particularly ominous Australian adage: “You dream of the Devil and you wake in fright.” It is the story of an arrogant young teacher (Gary Bond) who finds himself waylaid in a podunk mining town called Bundanyabba (known to locals as “the Yabba”) during his Christmas break. On his first night in the Yabba, the teacher loses all his money indulging in the local gambling pastime, a coin-flipping game called “two-up.” Broke, stranded, lost in a sea of beer, sweat and stinking masculinity, he slumps into violence and barbarism.
Wake in Fright was a success, albeit a complicated one. It premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 1971, where Kotcheff was nominated for the prestigious Palme d’Or. But commercially, it flopped. It did not help that it was released in America under the considerably less evocative title Outback, which (as Kotcheff notes) makes it sound like some kind of National Geographic nature film. Still, in a roundabout way, the film helped Kotcheff realize his ambition of finding success outside Canada.
Director’s Cut’s chapter on the film yields the book’s strangest insights—specifically, Kotcheff’s rapport with that unparalleled symbol of Australia: the kangaroo. “I felt a real kinship with the kangaroos,” Kotcheff writes. “I hope you won’t think that I’m delusional when I say I could communicate with them telepathically.” He then goes on to describe how, as if through some bizarre human-marsupial magic, he was able to direct the wild kangaroos, hopping around deep in the Australian outback, as if they were any other actor on set. This lengthy digression in Director’s Cut speaks volumes to the appeal of the book. There is a rare, weird, singular pleasure to be found in learning that the director of Weekend at Bernie’s and the first Rambo picture believed he could telepathically bond with the mind of a kangaroo.
With Wake in Fright, Kotcheff delivered what wound up being regarded as one of the definitive filmic visions of Australia, ranking right up there with Picnic at Hanging Rock and Mad Max. People—and this is perhaps especially true of Canadians—tend to bristle at the skepticism or contempt of outsiders. And, at the time of the film’s release, many Australians seemed offended by Wake in Fright’s unflattering depiction of life in the outback as a burly brawl of vicious homo-eroticism. Kotcheff recounts a story of an early screening of the film during which an Australian man stood up in the cinema, bellowing “that’s not us!” If the story is to be believed, there is a certain irony in a man protesting a depiction of belligerent, macho yahoo-ism by screaming at an ambivalent movie screen.
But Kotcheff’s perceptive and often caustic outsider’s eye would serve him throughout his storied career, especially after his U.S. ban was lifted and he was finally able to move into Hollywood filmmaking, leapfrogging off the critical and commercial success of Duddy Kravitz with First Blood, the first film to cast a peak-surly Sylvester Stallone as emotionally coiled Vietnam vet John Rambo. Before he was recast in the progressively stupider sequels as a ripplingly muscular jingoist killing machine, Kotcheff’s Rambo was a tight-lipped, violence-averse drifter visibly shaken by the experience of war. In the original script, Stallone’s character was meant to take his own life at the end of his film. Ever savvy, and a bit cynical, Kotcheff (correctly) assumed that America was not prepared for such a despairingly downbeat ending, and wrote and shot a new one on the fly. The producers were irate, but Kotcheff was right. America was not ready to see a broken-down Vietnam vet blast his own brains out on screen.
As in Wake in Fright, Kotcheff projected a nation’s most unspeakable collective anxieties back at them, suggesting not only that Vietnam was a pointless war, but also that everyone in America knew this and was trying desperately to suppress or banish that realization. Like Brian Dennehy’s mean-spirited sheriff in the film, America kept trying to run the memory of the war to the proverbial edge of town. And like Stallone’s John Rambo, that memory just kept drifting back. As realized by Kotcheff, First Blood was a film that scraped against both Stallone’s triumphalist star persona (this, after all, was Rocky, the protagonist of the all-American, working-class success story) and the foundational myths of America itself.
Midway through the book, Kotcheff recites an “old jape” about the ever-elusive Canadian identity: “What is the distinguishing characteristic of a Canadian? That he has no distinguishing characteristics.” It would be too easy to level the same criticism at Kotcheff and directors like him: workaday journeymen with little in the way of a discernible style. It would also be unfair, as such a criticism ignores Kotcheff’s unusual ability to move effortlessly and seamlessly between styles, genres and even national cinemas.
Like his idol Norman Jewison before him, and contemporary workhouse Canuck transplant Denis Villeneuve (Incendies, Sicario, Arrival), Kotcheff could go from directing live television to a staggering variety of feature films. Even the movies Kotcheff never got to make—like an adaptation of A Clockwork Orange starring Mick Jagger, or a biopic about the Bulgarian king who risked his life to shelter Jews during the Second World War—sound on paper more interesting than the bulk of contemporary multiplex fare. If Canadians are not exactly bereft of distinguishing characteristics, then we are at the very least a breed of wily shape-shifters, like Kotcheff, making his way through Canadian, British and Australian film industries like some kind of Commonwealth chameleon.
Ted Kotcheff’s career feels consummately Canadian in this way, for better or worse. He never realized his wacko version of A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick would beat him to the punch), or became a household name, or did anything near as galling as insufflate a pile of ants. But he collaborated with Richler, Stallone, Gregory Peck, Gene Hackman, Billy Wilder, Terry Southern, Jane Fonda and countless other big-ticket stars. As Director’s Cut makes clear, Kotcheff may not be (to revise the old idiom) “the guy.” But he is the guy just to the right of the guy—solid, uncompromising, quick with a ribald anecdote, weirder than even his weirdest films suggest and, somehow, telepathically bonded with kangaroos.