By the time the Coen Brothers released their fourth feature film, Barton Fink (1991), they were quickly becoming the toast of Hollywood, winning various awards and prizes as well as a rapidly growing fan base thanks to the cult appeal of previous films like Blood Simple (1980) and Raising Arizona (1984). Their follow-up feature to Barton Fink was much anticipated but the Coens surprised everyone when their fifth movie turned out to be The Hudsucker Proxy (1994), which was drastically different from anything they had made before.
Synopsis: When the president of Hudsucker Industries commits suicide by taking a running jump through the forty-fourth floor boardroom window, his executive staff panics. But chairman of the board Sidney J. Mussburger (Paul Newman) finds a way to turn the situation to his advantage by concocting a devious stock manipulation that will devalue the Hudsucker holdings and allow him and his cronies to buy them up cheaply. All he has to do is hire a total moron to run the company and let nature take its course. Mussburger finds the perfect patsy in Norville Barnes (Tim Robbins), a bumbling mailroom employee. Complicating matters is investigative reporter Amy Archer (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who goes undercover as a secretary at the company and learns what is really going on at the top. In the end, it is Norville’s idea for a children’s toy – the Hula Hoop – that ultimately reverses the company’s poor financial situation and sabotages Mussburger’s master plan.
The Hudsucker Proxy had been in the works for years. In fact, the brothers were working on the screenplay for the film as early as 1981 and continued to tinker with it through the mid-eighties while they collaborated with their friend, director Sam Raimi, on Crimewave (1985). Once they completed their screenplay, it was picked up by producer Joel Silver in 1985 but the movie didn’t go into production until 1991 with Warner Brothers agreeing to distribute it. More importantly, the Coen brothers retained their right to final cut that they had negotiated for their earlier films.
Still, casting The Hudsucker Proxy was no easy matter since Silver and Warner Brothers had their own favorites to champion such as Tom Cruise in the role of Norville Barnes and Winona Ryder or Bridget Fonda as female reporter Amy Archer. In fact, Silver originally pushed for Jeanne Moreau in the role. The Coen brothers, however, insisted on Jennifer Jason Leigh for Amy Archer and, in some ways, it was a reward for the actress who had auditioned for roles in two previous Coen brother movies without success.
It should also be noted that Ethan Coen originally wanted to play Norville Barnes but his change is mind is probably reflected in Joel Silver’s comment on working with the duo: “They like being quirky artistic filmmakers, but they want to have their movie perform as well.”
Another bone of contention was the casting of the duplicitious business tycoon Sidney J. Mussburger. Joel Coen later recalled that, “Warner Bros. suggested all sorts of names. A lot of them were comedians who were clearly wrong. Mussburger is the bad guy and Paul Newman brought that character to life.” Newman, however, wasn’t the brothers’ first choice for the part. They initially approached Clint Eastwood about the role but he was unable to commit due to scheduling conflicts.
Most of the filming was done at Carolco Studios in Wilmington, North Carolina but the scope of the production was so much larger than any previous Coen picture, the brothers hired Sam Raimi as a second unit director. He ended up directing the opening sequence in The Hudsucker Proxy with Charles Durning as well as the delightful hula hoop craze montage. Raimi had also contributed to the screenplay over the years and the movie is packed with cinematic in-jokes and pop culture associations such as Norville’s creation of the Hula Hoop and the Frisbee, which were actually masterminded by marketing genius, Richard Knerr, the co-founder of the Wham-O Fun Factory.
The Hudsucker Proxy (1994) was easily the most ambitious production to date for the Coen brothers but it also proved to be their biggest commercial flop. It cost $25 million to make and only grossed $3 million at the box office. Part of the expense was due to the spectacular special effects and the elaborate set design by Dennis Gassner which should have won an Oscar. Sadly, the movie wasn’t nominated for anything.
The entire film is an affectionate throwback to another era of Hollywood filmmaking and is loaded with classic movie references: Jennifer Jason Leigh’s performance as fast-talking reporter Amy Archer seems modeled on the Hildy Johnson character (played by Rosalind Russell) in His Girl Friday (1940); the massive, inner workings of the giant mechanical clock look like something out of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1926); the angel who saves Norville from a skyscraper high dive could have been inspired by the heavenly messenger in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). There is even a Dean Martin homage a la Peter Gallagher’s cameo as a flashy lounge crooner who sings “Memories Are Made of This.” Last but not least is a delightful supporting cast that includes Bruce Campbell (star of Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead), John Mahoney (of Frasier and In Treatment TV fame), Bill Cobbs (Ghosts of Mississippi, That Thing You Do!) and Jim True-Frost, who is currently featured in the TV crime drama American Rust.
Would The Hudsucker Proxy have performed any better at the box office if Tom Cruise, Winona Ryder and Clint Eastwood had ended up being cast in the film? Probably not. It was just too stylized and eccentric to appeal to mainstream audiences in 1994, who also weren’t as aware or interested in the film’s cultural and aesthetic references to classic movies of the thirties, forties and fifties. Todd McCarthy’s review for Variety reflected the majority consensus at that time: “one of the most inspired and technically stunning pastiches of old Hollywood pictures ever to come out of the New Hollywood. But a pastiche it remains, as nearly everything in the Coen brothers’ latest and biggest film seems like a wizardly but artificial synthesis, leaving a hole in the middle where some emotion and humanity should be.”
Only in recent years has The Hudsucker Proxy been reassessed favorably by Coen brother fans who either avoided it during its initial release or wanted it to be something it wasn’t. It not only looks spectacular but is so much more imaginative and entertaining than some of the duo’s later work such as the likable but slight The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001) with Billy Bob Thornton, the romantic comedy Intolerable Cruelty (2003), in which the Coens were functioning as guns-for-hire (a rarity for them), and the disappointing remake of The Ladykillers (2004).
Alan Nayman in The Coen Brothers, a wonderful retrospective of the filmmakers’ work, points out and rightly so, that “The Hudsucker Proxy is among the Coens’ brightest films, rejecting not only the fatalism of Blood Simple and Miller’s Crossing – stories where the protagonists’ survival is linked to a high body count – but also the disturbing ambiguity at the end of Raising Arizona, which refuses to clarify the nature of H.I.’s dream and contains the possibility that everything won’t work out for the best. Everything about The Hudsucker Proxy’s finale is calibrated for maximum reassurance.”
The Hudsucker Proxy went on to receive a nomination for the prestigious Golden Palm award at the 1994 Cannes Film Festival and to win the Best Production Design award from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. The film was released as a multi-format set (Blu-ray and DVD) in February 2013 and is still your best option for owning this quirky masterpiece.
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