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I Wanna Be Free: Bob Rafelson (1933-2022)

The so-called New Hollywood Movement of the 1970s is sometimes regarded as the last extended golden period of American filmmaking, a time when new voices were allowed to break through in the industry with often fascinating results. Bob Rafelson, who passed away on July 23 at the age of 89, was unquestionably one of the leading architects of the era. As a writer, director, and producer, he contributed to some of its most notable films, he helped make the career of one of the most beloved movie stars of all time, and he was even a key person behind one of the most successful pop groups of their era. He was a true Renaissance man of popular culture, and the effects of his contributions can still be seen, felt, and heard today.

He was born in New York City on February 21, 1933. After graduating from high school and studying philosophy at Dartmouth, Rafelson was drafted into the Army and stationed in Japan. While there, he began to develop an interest in film, including the works of John Ford, Ingmar Bergman and Yasujiro Ozu. Around this time, he married his high school girlfriend, Toby Carr, who would go on to become a production designer on a number of films. Upon returning to the States, his first professional industry job was as a story editor for David Susskind’s “Play of the Week,” and he eventually began working on a number of television shows at Universal Pictures, Revue Productions, and Desilu Productions. Even then, he began cultivating a reputation as someone willing to challenge authority—during his stint at Universal, he reportedly got into an argument with powerful studio executive Lew Wasserman that culminated with him shoving everything sitting on Wasserman’s desk to the floor.

Things went a little better at Screen Gems, where in 1965, he met fellow producer Bert Schneider and the two decided to form Raybert Productions, which later became known as BBS Productions. For their first effort, they decided to create a show centered around a rock ’n’ roll group—although it has often been said that the hope was to try to replicate the energy and excitement of The Beatles’ breakthrough film “A Hard Day’s Night” on a weekly basis, Rafelson stated that the real inspiration was a period of time he spent working as an itinerant musician in Mexico. When such established groups as the Dave Clark Five and the Lovin' Spoonful declined the offer to star, the decision was made to create the band themselves. An extensive series of auditions resulted in the casting of Davy Jones, Michael Nesmith, Mickey Dolenz, and Peter Tork as the members of the group that would be dubbed The Monkees. As the four were cast more for their personalities than their musical abilities, the responsibility for the music was turned over to music producer Don Kirshner and songwriters Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, who wrote many of their biggest songs.

The show earned Rafelson and Schneider Emmys for Outstanding Comedy Series in 1967 and the band had a number of top-selling records that continue to get significant play to this day. The popularity of the show allowed Raybert to get more funding and it inspired Rafelson to make his first feature film, a project that also starred The Monkees but which went off to strange, surreal areas that would, among other things, take satirical aim at the group’s own manufactured image. Rafelson co-wrote the film with an up-and-coming actor named Jack Nicholson and brought together a cast that included the decidedly eclectic likes of Annette Funicello, Victor Mature, Frank Zappa, Sonny Liston, and Timothy Carey. When the film, eventually titled “Head,” came out in 1968, the show had already come to the end of its two-year run and its once-loyal fan base had moved on to other things. The film was a notorious flop that disappeared almost immediately from theaters. In subsequent years, however, it underwent a much-deserved reappraisal from people who cited its offbeat nature, its oft-fascinating deconstruction of both the group and the concept of authenticity, and a trippy soundtrack album that contains some of the best and most ambitious music they recorded.

A flop of that magnitude might have crippled many emerging careers, but Rafelson and Schneider managed to capture the cultural zeitgeist in a big way for a second time with their second production, a little thing called “Easy Rider” (1969). It proved to be such a hit that it inspired the major studios to start funding projects by young filmmakers in the hopes that lightning would strike twice. Raybert was renamed BBS Productions after Stephen Blauner became a part of the company and the first project under their new name featured Nicholson (who had become a big star thanks to his Oscar-nominated supporting performance in “Easy Rider”) in one of his first major lead roles. The result was “Five Easy Pieces” (1970), a powerful and thought-provoking drama about an alienated young oil rig worker (Nicholson) who is forced to come to terms with himself and his own privileged upbringing when he ventures to his family home to visit his dying father. Critics raved, and it became a moderate hit, earning four Oscar nominations, including two for Rafelson himself for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay.

After co-producing another huge hit in Peter Bogdanovich’s “The Last Picture Show” (1971), Rafelson returned to the director’s chair again for “The King of Marvin Gardens” (1972), another collaboration with Nicholson, here playing David, a low-key Philadelphia radio show host recruited by his brash con man brother Jason (Bruce Dern) into a get-rich-quick scheme involving a casino in Hawaii. Jason also lives with former beauty queen Sally (Ellen Burstyn) and her stepdaughter Jessica (Julia Anne Robinson in the last of only three screen appearances she made before dying in a fire in 1975), who she is trying to get to follow in her pageant footsteps. The performances that Rafelson got from his four central actors are so powerful that they are more than enough to help overcome its otherwise uneven nature.

After the release of one final project, the controversial Oscar-winning documentary “Hearts and Minds,” BBS Productions was dissolved, and Rafelson struck out on his own. And after spending more than a year on a never-realized project about the African slave trade, Rafelson elected to work on the considerably lighter “Stay Hungry,” which he and Charles Gaines adapted from the latter’s novel. Unfortunately, from this point on, Rafelson’s earlier ability to cinematically capture the cultural moment eluded him. Ten days into shooting the Robert Redford prison drama “Brubaker” in 1978, Rafelson was fired (there were rumors that he actually went so far as to punch out a high-ranking Fox executive during an argument) and eventually filed a breach-of-contract suit against the studio. When he did get to finally direct a new film, it was a new version of James L. Cain’s crime classic “The Postman Always Rings Twice” (1981), marking his fourth collaboration with Nicholson. Although a classy enough production and one that considerably upped the erotic heat that was tempered considerably by the original 1946 version, it's one that can’t help but suffer by comparison to its predecessor, one of the greatest of all noir films. It's also one of the very few Rafelson films that could have been made by any number of filmmakers without changing much of anything.

Following a long break (which found him at one point directing the famous music video for Lionel Richie’s “All Night Long”), his next film was “Black Widow” (1987), another noir experiment, albeit one in a contemporary vein. In this one, Theresa Russell plays Catherine, a woman who, under a variety of identities, has been marrying wealthy men and then murdering them via poison in order to inherit their money. Justice Department agent Alexandra (Debra Winger) notices Catherine’s pattern and begins to investigate her crimes, eventually tracking her to Hawaii and ingratiating herself into the lives of both her and her possible next target (Sami Frey). The film is a potboiler at best and came out too early to catch the vogue for erotic thrillers that "Fatal Attraction" kicked off a few months later. Still, if you can get past the somewhat clunky plotting, Rafelson establishes a suitably twisty and sexy mood right from the start (one aided immeasurably from the considerable combined presence of Winger and Russell) that helps get past some of the silly stuff and does ultimately work on some basic level—it may be trash but at least it is classy trash.

For his next project, Rafelson moved to historical drama with “Mountains of the Moon,” an epic saga chronicling the collaboration of explorer Richard Francis Burton (Patrick Bergin) and Lieutenant John Hanning Speke (Iain Glen), one that begins during a dangerous exploration in Africa and which continues (and is ultimately doomed) during an extended journey to find the source of the Nile river. The story of Burton and Speke’s journey is one that filmmakers had been trying to bring to the screen for years, but it was Rafelson, who also co-wrote the screenplay, who managed to pull it off. Instead of merely basking in the sheer spectacle of the journey (though it's impressive in this regard), Rafelson instead focused his film on the wildly differing personalities between the bold and brash Burton and the more circumspect Speke (undeniably reminiscent of the relationship between the two brothers in “The King of Marvin Gardens”) and how their respective approaches brought them together and eventually tore them apart. The result was an often-fascinating film that distributors had no idea how to market. Even today, it's difficult to track down but if you can come across it, it is a pretty amazing work that deserves to be more widely known. (Rafelson spoke with Matt Zoller Seitz about the history of its arduous production and misfired release that can be read at here.)

After a disaster (“Man Trouble”), brilliant reunion with Jack Nicholson ("Blood and Wine") and a cable movie misstep with James Caan (“Poodle Springs”), Rafelson would direct what would become his final film in 2002’s “No Good Deed.” Another adaptation of a work from a noted crime writer (the short story “The House on Turk Street” by Dashiell Hammett), the film stars Samuel L. Jackson as police detective Jack Friar (Samuel L. Jackson), who is doing a favor for a friend by looking for a runaway teenager when he turns up at a house inhabited by a group of criminals (led by Stellan Skarsgard) who are just about to do a bank robbery. The paranoid crooks take Jack prisoner and then take off, leaving him in the care of Erin (Milla Jovovich), the leader’s gorgeous and manipulative girlfriend. As the two get to know each other, she spills a tragic story of abuse, but Jack is not sure if she is being honest with him or using him as a way to get all of the money coming in for herself. The result is another strong neo-noir effort from Rafelson that benefits mightily from the inspired casting of Jackson (who dials down his performance in an effective manner) and Jovovich (who more than holds her own against Jackson.

Bob Rafelson did not direct another film for the last two decades of his life, but the veneration of the Seventies-era American cinema that he played a key part of ensured that his name and work would not be forgotten. He was be honored at film festivals throughout the world for his work and was be asked to give numerous master classes as well. He also made a number of contributions to DVDs and Blu-ray releases of his films, most notably with “America Lost and Found: The BBS Story,” an essential box set from Criterion covering the films in which he was able to successfully tell stories that encapsulated the counterculture, all within the constraints of the studio system. Here is a man who helped to genuinely reshape what could be accomplished in an American film in ways that can still be felt today. 

Peter Sobczynski

Peter Sobczynski is a contributor to eFilmcritic.com and Magill's Cinema Annual and can be heard weekly on the nationally syndicated "Mancow's Morning Madhouse" radio show.

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