The Megaflop of Director John Schlesinger’s Honky Tonk Freeway (1981)

*contains spoilers

Box office megaflop Honky Tonk Freeway (1981) was unleashed at the beginning of a period of conservative Reagan-ism and the public simply didn’t take to its community led by a corrupt Christian minister and politician… even if he did mean well!

This reimagining of Stanley Kramer’s (1913-2001 pneumonia) It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1973) and Robert Altman’s (1925-2006 leukemia) Nashville (1975) had snapshots of American citizens as they cross the nation and converge to spend their money in an endangered small town in spectacular ‘capitalist’ fashion.

British DVD cover for Honky Tonk Freeway (1981)

Its feel-good message to save America from itself was at odds with the Cold War era – the enemy was within as opposed to outside – as well as with a studio which didn’t want to promote an expensive and over-budget folly which it had acquired. The film was something like the town of Ticlaw which is at the centre of Honky Tonk Freeway – it literally bypassed cinemas for video cassette and nobody knew what it really was celebrating or the fact it was to be celebrated.

It was directed by John Schlesinger (1926-2003 stroke) of Midnight Cowboy (1969) fame who was not known for his comedies. But the director took on the assignment for a change of pace.

Director John Schlesinger

The title song has the line: “Leave all your worries behind you, there’s a better life ahead…” which could almost have been a line from a speech from President Ronald Reagan (1911-2004 pneumonia) at the time. It could be a speech by any politician as it encapsules the American way of life and the attitude of moving on and making progress and the building of the freeway itself is symbolic of that.

But the film was misconstrued as Janet Maslin (1949-) of The New York Times said that Honky Tonk Freeway made America seem “a crass, foolish and disagreeable place.” But I think she missed the point as the film is somewhat of a satire of road movies and the forgotten people in America and this is something even more relevant today. Honky Tonk Freeway, as a result, remains a perennial political statement.

William Devane in Marathon Man (1976)

Politicians may promise a better life ahead but the Florida town of Ticlaw is “just too small” to qualify for a freeway exit… and so must sink or swim alone as the federal and state governments are only there “when they want to take something from you or do something to you” as one character says…. Something at odds with the symbol of a paternal President Reagan. His children are suffering…

Still, the American spirit to succeed at any cost takes over just as the title song is repeated throughout the movie after the Christian minister stroke mayor bribes a government official for an exit but is double crossed, leading to some kind of revolution.

The Day of the Locust (1975) trailer

Honky Tonk Freeway has an all-star cast, or what passed for one back in 1981, which included actors with Schlesinger experience such as William Devane (1939-) from Marathon Man (1976) as the mayor and Geraldine Page (1924-87 heart attack) from The Day of the Locust (1975) as a nun who performs an admirably awful rendition of the singing nun ‘Jeannine’ Deckers’s (1933-85 drug and alcohol overdose) hit song Dominique somewhere during the film’s shenanigans.

Other ‘stars’ include Teri Garr (1944-), Beau Bridges (1941-), Daniel Stern (1957-), Beverly D’Angelo (1951-) and the real-life couple of Jessica Tandy (1909-94 ovarian cancer) and Hume Cronyn (1911-2003 prostate cancer).

Tandy and Cronyn had appeared together with Spencer Tracy in The Seventh Cross (1944) and went onto appear in 1980s semi-classics Cocoon (1985) and *batteries not included (1986). The couple’s chemistry is undeniable in this movie and it’s no wonder the film created a new mini-career for them.

Hume Cronyn (left) and Jessica Tandy carved out a small film career after their appearance in Honky Tonk Freeway (1981)

“We’re in this together,” says an alcoholic Tandy to her long-suffering husband when they’re broken down on the freeway one rainy night. She could be speaking for all of America, with a sentence which shows a basic outpouring of hope in its cliched philosophy, except that people like her character are generally ignored or scorned and forgotten as she seems to be in this lonely downpour. Yet, we’re watching a comedy.

The cast of Honky Tonk Freeway also includes Frances Le McCain (1943-) who went on to play mothers in Gremlins (1984), Footloose (1984) and Back to the Future (1985) and George Dsundza (1945-) from The Deer Hunter (1978) and cult item The Beast (1988).

The cast today doesn’t seem that much but they’re good actors and the script which appears to have about 100 speaking parts may not be on a par with Nashville but there is an ironic sense of community and communality on the road which reaches a far more epic climax than Nashville’s concert with Honky Tonk Freeway’s massive highway pile-up seemingly meant to trump everything except perhaps the previous year’s The Blues Brothers (1980) mass collision.

Beverly D’Angelo (left) and Beau Bridges in Honky Tonk Freeway (1981)

What is interesting about Honky Tonk Freeway is that Beverley D’Angelo appeared in the similar National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983) with its cross country road trip not long after this film left cinemas in disgrace. D’Angelo is the centre of attention as she collects her mother’s ashes from a drive through funeral home or mortuary in a pink Ford Edsel. It is symbolic of the road and a company which pinned its hopes on what was thought to be a triumph of design despite its failure when it was released back in the late 1950s. Honky Tonk Freeway and the pink Edsel kind of go together with the town of Ticlaw which paints itself pink as it thinks big to try and make money… The Edsel built into the script kind of ingeniously predicted the failure of the movie and the film’s production company suffered in the same way Ford suffered financially for its failure. Will Ticlaw triumph?

A pink Edsel is on its way to a pink town as part of the it ain’t pretty destiny of Honky Tonk Freeway (1981)

“It’s a Honky Tonk Freeway, it’s America on wheels: Hotel rooms, neon lights, drive-in drive-out meals…” the title song further professes about those wheels a turning….

It’s odd but America seemed to suffer a split personality at the time as opposed to what seems to be an almost total split today. Oscar was celebrating suicide in Ordinary People (1980), masculinity with Robert de Niro in Raging Bull (1980) and the movie Tess (1980) had a heroine who is hanged for murder. And yet, half of the top ten movies at the box office in 1981 included comedies such as Stripes (1981), The Cannonball Run (1981) and History of the World Part I (1981). Maybe there just wasn’t enough room for Honky Tonk Freeway to be a hit that year, or was it just a case of the comedy being too close to home?

Geraldine Page (left) and Deborah Rush are lost in Honky Tonk Freeway (1981)

“I think God wants us to be successful,” says the well-meaning yet corrupt Devane to his flock. “So, were going to try everything and anything … and I mean anything!” Which means painting the town pink, promoting its safari park and training an elephant to water ski – and also blowing a hole in the freeway with loads of dynamite so Ticlaw really will have its own exit… It will lead to a conjunction of all the characters in the movie and a momentous party and a part of history for the town, much like the actual film’s production was in the Florida town of Mt Dora.

There is a sense of reality to the characters who tread a fine line of being not nearly as silly as It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World while also not being as serious as Nashville as they reach an almost orgasmic climax on the freeway the next morning once the party is over. It goes to show the party is never over on that fine line of the road …

The ingenuity of the townspeople of Ticlaw is a central part of the character of free democracy and capitalism in the United States. Ticlaw is the individual who must survive in a world which has passed it by, it must reinvent itself if it is to eat and remain sheltered. It is also a reminder that community is central to that survival and that even being on the road is almost a community in itself as it is still America. Transit is a community like transition is a part of the life of a community… and crossing the country still means you belong no matter where you are while those four wheels are turning…

The community of Ticlaw will do everything and anything… in Honky Tonk Freeway (1981)

According to director Schlesinger’s biographer William Mann, Honky Tonk Freeway earned only $600,000 in box office receipts in the United States after its outlay of $24 million. Like the previous year’s Heaven’s Gate (1980) which only made $3.5 million from a budget of $44 miilion, it affected the British backers Thorn-EMI which produced it and hampered their future plans to make further films. The company would fold within several years.

The reason why the film failed in America was because Universal studios, which had the rights, did not promote the property which they simply didn’t believe in, an attitude which began when they found out Thorn-Emi had already sold the local video cassette rights for the movie.

“(Schlesinger’s) career was never the same again,” said biographer Mann.

It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) trailer

In fact, it would be several years before the director would make another picture and that was the critically successful The Falcon and the Snowman (1985) starring Sean Penn (1960-).

The influences that Schlesinger brought to Honky Tonk Freeway included Jacques Tati’s (1907-82 pulmonary embolism) Traffic (1971), as well as the films of Preston Sturges (1898-1959 heart attack) which had farcical situations as well as corrupt politicians.

It’s still a mad world where anything goes and Honky Tonk Freeway remains a positive view of the nation despite it being populated by bank robbers, prostitutes, alcoholics, drug addicts and potty mouthed children.

A young Edward Clinton

Honky Tonk Freeway was the only film script written by playwright Edward Clinton (1948-2005). A successful playwright in the theatre, Clinton was aware of all the tales of too many cooks when it came to screenwriting. Despite the film’s critical and financial failure, Clinton agreed with an interviewer that the film had cult followers who described it as one of the funniest and one of the most overlooked movies of all time.

Nashville (1975) quad poster

At one stage during production, Clinton was called into EMI’s offices as they discussed replacing Schlesinger with Robert Altman as director. Clinton said: “No” in loyalty. He was also forced to redraft his original script several times after the original low-budget production was ramped up into a big-budget semi-spectacle. And through clever manipulation of the executives demanding extensive rewrites, he managed to get one of his original drafts used as the main screenplay by presenting it after showing them another rewrite which he knew they would hate. This is probably why Honky Tonk Freeway remains fresh today.

A similar poster celebrates America

Clinton knew that politics during the making of a movie determined the release and handling of a film which ultimately determined the box office receipts.

“If comments or actions are made during the making of the film that don’t sit well with the movie executives then don’t look for a good release,” said Clinton about the bad karma in head office during the production of Honky Tonk Freeway due to it going over-budget.

And when the movie failed due to lack of promotion, Clinton as the writer was blamed.

“That’s what happens,” he said. His original title for the movie was Stops Along the Way.

“It’s not fun,” he continued about his ‘Hollywood’ experience: “But you will definitely learn a great deal, not only about filmmaking, but about life also. It’s not an easy road.”

The only place where Honky Tonk Freeway was really loved… small town Mount Dora where it was made

And this is reflected in Honky Tonk Freeway as fortune as well as misfortune touches its characters on the way as they converge on Ticlaw, like the climax of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and their search for the treasure … It was a three-year experience for Clinton and he wouldn’t produce another filmed feature screenplay. He had experienced the tough Hollywood road.

When the finished product was screened to executives at Universal, editor Jim Clark (1931-2016) described how they sat and watched in stony silence then stood up and “began screaming at Schlesinger… saying things like: ‘This is anti-American, anti-religious… How could you have made such a thing?’”

Reviewers like Maslin seemed to agree and while films like National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978) and Caddyshack (1980) prospered without serious critical attention… Was it the fact that Honky Tonk Freeway was aimed at a broader audience which really wasn’t there or ready to embrace it? If Americans can be crass and foolish as Maslin didn’t want to know, if they are to be told so, it must be in a fully-fledged gross, comic book, crass and foolish way which can’t really be seen as the truth… It can vaguely appear to be the truth… Anyway the gross out crowd didn’t take to it while serious minded intellectuals both liberal and conservative turned a blind eye or reacted in knee jerk outrage. Truly, Honky Tonk Freeway would barely raise an eyebrow today.

Stuntman Dean Jeffries in a back brace with director John Schlesinger

Incidentally, one of the stunts which features in the finale of the movie has a GMC C6500 box truck soaring over a missing span of freeway. It was done in one take as: “After flying over the overpass, the stunt truck landed so hard that it broke its back,” said the stunt man’s son Kevin Jeffries. His father Dean Jeffries (1933-2013) was left in a back brace as a result of a broken back from the stunt. Also, the town of Mount Dora in Florida took it in their stride to paint their town congregational church pink and one local said the making of the movie in the town gave the place a “circus atmosphere”. It seems the townsfolk got the joke and in 2016 there was a special screening of the movie in Mt Dora to celebrate 35 years since the film was made there.

Mt Dora painted its church pink among other buildings for Honky Tonk Freeway (1981)

As for Schlesinger, he said while he was not political, he was interested and determined “to shake (society) up… and to deal with topics that weren’t run of the mill.”

He had already done so with Midnight Cowboy which was a hit and Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971) which had appalled studio executives in its day, this time at United Artists. He then failed spectacularly with The Day of the Locust (1975) which was some sort of Hollywood horror movie and may be his most magnificent film. It was then he went back to basics with the hit Marathon Man (1976) with its classic dental torture scene which then led to him making his vision of the home front during World War Two in Britain with the movie Yanks (1979) which also flopped.

Honky Tonk Freeway (1981) trailer

Then came Honky Tonk Freeway… Schlesinger as a Briton looking at America from the outside, could admire the country and also be appalled, just as its American screenwriter definitely wasn’t appalled, because he created a film full of almost goofy and yet somehow endearing characters pursuing their own ideas of freedom …  It’s a country which can appear to be a little off-kilter in some ways and yet, in the case of Ticlaw, by accepting its own corruption while celebrating the genuine ingenuity of its community, as they seize the day, it also shows just how close the United States was and is to some kind of a revolution… Even if it is only Revolutions Per Minute on the highway or the ongoing struggle to make an elephant water ski… It is the daily growing pains that are a part of the beauty and the universality of The American Dream. When the film Honky Tonk Freeway was left dead and buried by ruling Reagan-inspired conservatives, both government and corporate, who also kick-start the film’s premise, they also maybe began to lose sight of what would become the real forgotten America – at their own peril! It began in a town named Ticlaw…

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