SANTA FE, NM - Matt Dillon is improbably handsome, a fact that has been noticed by several million teenage girls. He is the first star in a long time who inspires his fans to squeal aloud, which they are doing right now during his latest hit, "The Outsiders." It must be a little humbling for Francis Ford Coppola (who made "The Godfather" and "Apocalypse Now") to realize that his latest movie is No. 1 on Variety's current list of box office winners primarily because it stars a good-looking 18-year-old kid from Mamaroneck, NY.
Matt Dillon gives it a good try, dealing with all this fame. He didn't grow up in show business and it hasn't gone to his head, and he claims he's just another kid with four brothers and a sister and a great affection for his mother's macaroni casseroles. He may be the star of "Over the Edge," "Little Darlings," "My Bodyguard," "Tex" and two new movies, but he wants to be treated as an "average person." If he had gone ahead and graduated from Mamaroneck High School, he says, he knows what Senior Quote he would have wanted under his picture in the yearbook: "This is the dawning of the age."
The age of what? I asked him a couple of weeks ago in Santa Fe, figuring that somehow "Aquarius" was too easy to be the answer.
"Aquarius. I am an Aquarian, which is a good thing to be right now, because this is the only age people now living will ever see."
That sounded like ice-cold logic. We were standing in the middle of the old Town Square of Santa Fe with the bells of the cathedral ringing in the air. He was wearing a leather jacket and puffing on a Marlboro. I had heard mean-spirited speculation that Dillon wears mascara on his eyelashes and uses makeup on his pale, smooth skin, but up close in the sunlight it is apparent that he quite simply has a perfect complexion and strong, thick eyebrows, and that, like Nastassia Kinski, he is simply one of those people that ordinary mundane people like the rest of us can't believe could really look as great as they seem to look.
Dillon and I were both down in Santa Fe for the city's annual film festival, which was dedicated this year to the Spirit of Zoetrope - the spirit of the various production companies and studios Francis Ford Coppola has operated under the Zoetrope name, and have made Coppola's movies and others ranging from "One From the Heart" to "The Black Stallion" and revivals like the silent classic "Napoléon."
Dillon was attending because he is the star of both of Coppola's new films," "The Outsiders" (which has been the top-grossing film in the country during both of its first two weeks in release) and "Rumble Fish" which will be released this summer. Other stars had also turned up for the tribute to Coppola, and in small-town Santa Fe they were easy to spot: Gene Hackman, Robert Duvall, Dennis Hopper, Jessica Lange, Kelly Reno, Shelley Duvall, Sam Shepherd, Harry Dean Stanton, Roger Miller and so on. These stars were getting the ordinary attentions, such as being pointed to on the street and asked for autographs. Matt Dillon was being treated just a little more fanatically by his public; he possibly owes his life to the fact that there are not enough teenage girls in Santa Fe to form a critical mass and crush him.
One morning during the festival, he escaped from his idolaters and attended a brunch in a home up in the hills above Santa Fe. Robert Duvall was also there, and as they stood together, chatting, it was possible to reflect that they represented two approaches to the occupation of being a movie star. Duvall specializes in disappearing into his roles, and who would connect his alcoholic singer in "Tender Mercies" with the Vietnam major in "Apocalypse Now" who likes the smell of napalm in the morning? Dillon, on the other hand, is so clearly a matinee idol that, like Marlon Brando long before him, he is going to have to play against type to be taken seriously as an actor.
Dillon wandered away from the huevos rancheros buffet, and I asked him how it felt to be a Teen Idol.
"I can't understand it," Dillon said. "Looks aren't a big thing to me. I keep reading these articles in fan magazines about me, and I don't even know who they're talking about. It's boring."
A friend of mine, I said, recently went to see you in "The Outsiders," and she sat in front of five teenage girls who (in her own colorful words) had orgasms for two hours.
"Isn't that crazy? I hate it. I mean, if you're gonna watch a movie, watch the movie. Don't make a scene out of it. I can't understand it." He sighed. "I guess that's just the way of the feminine gender."
In "Tex" and even more in "The Outsiders," I said, you've played for this generation the kinds of characters that Brando, James Dean and Elvis Presley once represented for their generations. What kind of changes do you see in the characters?
"Well," he said, "it may be a little hard to see, but, essentially, teenagers are the same now as they were then. Maybe they had a little more innocence then. But right now, I'd say teenagers are about where they were right before the hippie stage of the 1960s. Did you ever stop to wonder why today's kids can identify with 1950s and 1960s teenagers? Maybe it's because high school society today is more like it was then than like it was in 1970."
He lit a cigarette and settled down in an overstuffed wing chair in an art-lined study. "I went to see 'Rebel Without a Cause' only recently," he said, "and I see why people still love that movie. Those kids and today's kids, they have a lot in common."
Did you know, I said, that Dennis Hopper - who played James Dean's buddy in "Rebel"- is here at this festival?
"Well, yeah," Dillon said. "He plays my father in 'Rumble Fish.' He's quite a guy. He went through all that rebellion, you know."
Well, yeah, I said. Ah, what can you tell me about the real S. E. Hinton? (Ms. Hinton, of course, is the author who has become a heroine for today's teenagers with her novels like Tex, The Outsiders, Rumble Fish and That was Then, This is Now.)
"She is wonderful, She was on the sets of 'Tex' and 'The Outsiders,' and she really understands the way kids think - especially male kids. She was the first person to ever write a book that really understood teenagers. Well, of course The Catcher in the Rye I shouldn't forget; it was very honest. I read it and I liked Holden Caulfield because he was so tough and so simple. And with Hinton, I got the same feeling."
I asked him to discuss the differences between Tex, a farm kid from Oklahoma, and Dallas, the tough small-town hood in "The Outsiders."
"Well, Tex, he was a real natural kid. And I acted him in a real natural way. His whole life was outdoorsy, he didn't get uptight much, you always knew pretty well what he was thinking. When we were making that movie, I spent a lot of my free time outdoors, doing things, like Tex would. Dallas, on the other hand, was an uptight kid, and when we were making that movie, we were all trapped in this motel with no windows. I think that kind of shows in the character. He is more repressed."
He lit another cigarette and said he played another kind of kid in "Rumble Fish," and that now he is looking for totally different kinds of characters to play, having (my words, not his) more or less cornered the market in kid characters.
"I'd like to play some parts that are not featured through the whole film," he said. "If you notice, in most films, the lead role usually isn't the character role; the lead role has to stand there and represent something, while the character role can experiment more. I'd like a role where I could pop in and out of the story." He thought about that, blew out smoke, and added, in the voice of realism: "Of course, if you're gonna make movies, you gotta make movies, and I'm not gonna say no to a good role."
Well, yeah, I said. But what kind of a character would you really like to play?
"I'd like to play more of an intellect," he said. "A kid with brains," He laughed. "Also, I have an idea for a character who would be a real snob. I could play a great snob. A real cynical, upper-class kind of guy, a snob, only kind of derelict."
It was after that brunch that Matt Dillon stood in the Santa Fe town square while the cathedral bells rang, and revealed what he would have liked under his senior picture in the yearbook. After he had departed for the afternoon screenings, I was left standing with a man named Vic Ramos, who is one of the most famous casting directors in America.
"I cast 'Over the Edge,'" Ramos said.
I said I remembered the movie, a 1979 buried treasure about alienated kids in the suburbs of Denver. It was Matt Dillon's first movie, and he was very good in it - noticeably good.
"Yeah," Ramos said. "That was his first role. They wanted kids who looked like real kids, and I discovered him in Westchester County."
What was he, a child actor?"
"An actor? He was a kid!"