Imagine, if you will, a film featuring in its cast the following array of screen legends: Jeff Bridges, John Huston, Sterling Hayden, Toshiro Mifune, Dorothy Malone, Anthony Perkins, Eli Wallach, Richard Boone, and, last but certainly not least, Elizabeth Taylor. Now imagine that you, someone who at least recognizes all those names, may very well have never heard of it.
The film is 1979’s Winter Kills, and after it was ignominiously pulled from theaters a week after its initial release, it fell into that Negative Zone where abandoned movies go to die and from where cult classics are born. Winter Kills became the latter, rediscovered on home video and, more to the point, screening on Tuesday, November 30, at Portland’s Clinton Street Theater with its director, William Richert, in attendance.
Amazingly, given that cast, this was Richert’s first feature as director, and my first question to him when we spoke by phone last week related to how he was able to cajole so many A-listers (or former A-listers) to sign on to a rookie effort. By the end of our conversation, punctuated by his distinctive laughter, I knew: Richert is a raconteur par excellence, either an effusive genius or a sly con artist—and probably a little bit of both. His question and answer session on Tuesday night should be a must-see.
Before we could even get to Winter Kills, Reichert expressed his dismay at the acquittal, earlier that day, of Kyle Rittenhouse, and his ambiguity toward our age of ubiquitous information. Soon enough, however we got to the matter at hand. “I’d never directed an actor before. I’d never looked through a Panavision camera before,” Richart recalls. To gather his cast, he says, “I just kept calling them. I bought a lottery ticket and it paid off.”
The film had a uniquely troubled production history, one that would make a fascinating movie in itself. “One of the producers was a major South American drug lord,” according to Richert. “They initially wanted Milos Forman, and we had the same agent, so my agent said ‘You can’t have Foreman, but you can have Bill Richert, even though he’s only done documentaries.’”
After running out of money, production in Beverly Hills was shut down in 1977. In fact, as Richert remembers it, he was in the middle of rehearsing a scene with Bridges and Perkins on a large sound stage when the doors were flung open and union representatives put an immediate halt to things. In the middle of all this, cinematographer “Vilmos [Zsigmond] is yelling ‘I vill keep shootink until ze lights go out!’ And then they went out. I ran around with film cans for two years to different countries trying to make money to finish it,” says Richert. “That was the first time it was shut down.”
The plot of Winter Kills has echoes in both the past and the present. Bridges stars as the younger half-brother of an assassinated U.S. President who, years, later, discovers evidence that the official record (as embodied in “The Partridge Report”) may have been a whitewashing. Huston is his father, essentially providing the same lanky, corrupt, aristocratic menace he did in Chinatown. It would perhaps be overshadowed by other thinly veiled takes on JFK conspiracy theories from the decade (mainly The Parallax View), if not for the wicked, absurdist sense of dark humor Richert (adapting a more straightforward novel by Richard Condon) brings to it.
That dark humor foreshadows the surreal disenchantment that seems to permeate America’s political consciousness today. Huston’s depraved patriarch makes a memorable entrance leading a phalanx of golf carts across a course, a spirited blonde squeezed onto each side of his seat. “Look at that scene, and then look at Trump—they’re the same guy!” Richert practically hollers.
The cast and crew moved from location to location, often one step ahead of the bill collector, in a manner reminiscent of Orson Welles’ peripatetic career in the 1950s and ’60s. “John [Huston, who was in Welles’ famously long-unfinished The Other Side of the Wind] used to compare us, he’d say ‘You and Orson…’ and that made me nervous because I knew what had happened to that film,” says Richert.
Eventually production was able to resume, and “the upside” to the hiatus, says Richert, “was that I got to cast Elizabeth Taylor, my mother’s favorite actress!” When he met with Taylor to discuss a small role as the madam of a President, he explained that he wanted her to do the whole role silent and that she wouldn’t be listed in the film’s advertising or its opening credits. Her response, according to Richert, was, “How wonderful!”
Hayden, in the heavily bearded, no-fucks-given stage of his career, has the film’s broadest role, as a WWII fanatic who hosts actual tank battles on his vast property. “When filming shut down, we hadn’t used Hayden yet,” says Richert, “and when we picked back up we couldn’t afford his [full] fee. But he came to do it anyway. Because the secret to the whole thing was my screenplay. Actors love great roles, and I wrote great roles.”
After Winter Kills, Richert’s best-known film was 1988’s A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon, starring River Phoenix in his first lead role. He also had a small on-screen role alongside Phoenix in My Own Private Idaho. Since Phoenix’s tragic 1993 death, Richert has pursued an investigation into what his website calls “River’s Truth,” positing that the full story has not been told. He’s also spearheaded a class action lawsuit against the Writers Guild of America, arguing that the WGA has failed to live up to the terms of a 2010 settlement apportioning income earned overseas to the writers owed it.
In short, he remains as iconoclastic and idiosyncratic as his best-known work. Each of them, the movie and the man, is one of a kind.
(Winter Kills screens Tuesday, Nov. 30, at the Clinton Street Theater.)