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James Toback - Two Girls And A Guy

     Yeah, yeah, filmmaker James Toback, whose Two Girls and a Guy opens this week, is a pathetic little putz among Cosmic Studs, huffing to keep it up with his emperors-of-sex LA pals, Warren Beatty and ex-footballer Jim Brown; and a time I met him earlier was when, true to his dim reputation, he spent a Cambridge lunch hustling his collegiate waitress at the Casablanca. And maybe the reason he hadn't made a feature in eight years is that he's a woeful filmmaker? It takes chutzpah to shape a case for Toback's truly coconuts-and-beyond kitsch duo, Love and Money (1980) and Exposed (1983), or, their opposite, the disappointingly tame The Pick-Up Artist (1987).

     But with Toback, there's a tremendous upside. He's written fine screenplays, for The Gambler (1974) and for Bugsy (1991), the latter script an Oscar nomination, and he directed an evocative, philosophical documentary, The Big Bang (1990). As for his sexually unnerving, Harvey Keitel-starring Fingers (1977), Toback gets credit in my book for jumpstarting both The Bad Lieutenant and Reservoir Dogs. Tarrantino is on record as a major Toback fan; he reveres the much-trashed Exposed.

     Finally, interviewing Toback, which I did at last fall's Toronto International Film Festival, is enormous fun. He's so smart, so quick, so hilariously outrageous! And anti-PC wild! You're not going to believe the things he says about Two Girls and a Guy. You won't be reading this steamy stuff in The Boston Globe!

     Should we start with the movie's rim job, or the masturbatory foreplay into the rim job? The participants are Robert Downey, Jr., as a self-loving mama's boy, and Boogie Nights's Heather Graham as one of his two overlapping girlfriends. His other squeeze, played by Natasha Gregson Wagner, stands nearby, outside a door and feels their vibes. Inside, they...

     This is how, on the record, Toback described it: "It's the most audacious, original sex scene. Heather's intention is to jerk him off and leave. He restrains her, gets her off. He's a very oral character, so he licks her ass, gets her very excited, turns her around, licks her pussy very well, makes her cum. He's on his knees, spent. She says, 'You think this changes anything?' and leaves."

     Is there a point? I queried him.

     "Psychology is revealed through sex," Toback answered. "These are three sexually driven, romantically obsessed beings, and when's the last time anyone has made a movie which shows character through sexual behavior? I'm working in a territory nobody is working in."

     Well, there was, twenty-five years ago, The Last Tango in Paris (1973).
"I saw Last Tango again a couple of months ago," Toback said, "and it was interesting how you don't have a movie except for the sex scenes. There are some nice moments with Brando, as a quasi-homosexual without the courage of his convictions, but the film's flat."

     And Two Girls and a Guy?

     "I think the rest of my movie holds up on its own, First, there's a verbally charged, crisp, comic explanation of sexual duplicity. Second, there are the sex scenes. Third, there's the aftermath, about Robert's mother. It's a hard movie to describe. I generally label it an unromantic comedy."

     Back to the big, dirty sex episode, which, according to the New York Times, caused fourteeen trips to the stubborn M.P.A.A. before the board conceded an "R" rating.

     "Robert and I came up with the licking ass together. What gave me the idea of his using his mouth was that I flashed back to Robert in The Pick-Up Artist. As he was practicing for a scene in makeup, I heard his wild, undulating laughter. He said, 'I just realized I have this huge mouth. It's really large!' So I had this picture of Robert's mouth, a present, which led me to take him, in Two Girls and a Guy, in an oral direction.

     "I brought the idea of the scene to Heather, and she said, 'What?' I thought I was losing it as a director. But then she took to it rather quickly, and said, 'Yes.' She's the daughter of a retired FBI agent and has a ferocious independent energy and fury. I doubt if there's any other young actor and actress who could do the scene with the confidence and lack of inhibition of these people."

     Why didn't Natasha Gregson Wagner just join in? Come on, James! A threesome!

     "That was Natasha's decision. I told her she could do what she wants. She very clearly wanted to stay outside. And I like my cuts to her as much as to what's inside! Natasha's character could be a closet lesbian. My Harvard girlfriend had a marriage and kids, now she's officially gay, a law professor in Florida. It's a journey, and Natasha's character might be early in that realm."

     Meanwhile, in there with Heather and Robert...

     Toback said, "I closed the door, and it went on for forty-five minutes, while we adjusted lenses and angles. Let's just say that they did not need any encouragement. The editing was a great deal of fun."

     A final question, and deeply probing. Was Heather Graham's orgasm in this scene a Harry Meets Sally one? Or, better, was it Real?

     "I wouldn't be surprised," said Toback. "If not, it's the best job of faking ever on screen."

GERALD PEARY
(The Boston Phoenix, April, 1998)

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