Classic Hollywood Spotlight: ‘The Outsiders’

The OutsidersThere are a lot of sayings in the world of storytelling. One of my favorites is “The only thing that matters is the beginning and the ending. And the beginning, not so much.” It’s blunt, manly and filled with a kind of old-time wisdom. It’s also totally untrue from anything but the cynical perspective of a professional entertainer. Alfred Hitchcock has a better one: “75% of directing is casting.” It’s similarly blunt, and similarly untrue. But it’s close.

Francis Ford Coppola’s The Outsiders, an adaptation of the already legendary novel by S.E. Hinton, boasted a cast that defined the new Hollywood pretty boy: Patrick Swayze, Matt Dillon, Rob Lowe, Ralph Macchio, Emilio Estevez, and Tom Cruise. There’s also C. Thomas Howell as the lead. They’re all sinfully young and there are a lot of bare arms and chests, a shower scene and more three way man hugs than I personally have ever seen. And I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. Diane Lane’s in it too, and similarly sinfully young, but she’s played only as a lilting Juliet note to punctuate the rival boy gangs of the working class greasers and the upper class socs.

If all you’ve seen of Francis Ford Coppola are the Godfather movies and Apocalypse Now, The Outsiders will feel like a filmmaker sleepwalking through a story about brotherly love, family and class. But if you’ve seen You’re a Big Boy Now and The Rain People you can recognize the familiar Coppola obsessions with family, loyalty, rites of passage and fatherhood. Nominally there aren’t any fathers in the film, but clearly Swayze’s role is that of father to these lost boys.

The magic of The Outsiders is in the way Coppola cast the movie and the way he shot the film. The boys themselves are never alone in a frame. They’re always in pairs, groups or trios for those ever-intensifying three way man hugs. The house, run with a strong paternal hand by Swayze, is always filled with these young men, a kind of moving depth of frame that plays every table and chair and doorway as another place where the family might rest. It’s a density of love expressed through arm wrestling, teasing and proclamations of eternal loyalty.

If One from the Heart cleared Coppola of the dark jungle sights and sounds, The Outsiders cleared him of the male love as expressed only through the kill or be killed primitivism of Apocalypse Now. The clear lesson of the film is about love, one that lands far more soundly than any of the songs in One from the Heart. Only Matt Dillon’s Dallas Winston carries the true primal charge. While the rumble between the greasers and the socs feels a bit sound-stagey, Dallas always has danger inside of him. Which is exactly why Dillon ended up in Coppola’s next movie, a kind of B-side to The Outsiders made in the same place with the same crew. Once again Coppola used a less personal studio film to make a smaller, more personal film, also based on an S.E. Hinton story, Rumble Fish. The Outsiders and Rumble Fish are sort of like symbiotic organisms; flip sides of Coppola’s cinematic preoccupations.

Next week: Rumble Fish.