Box office failure: Honky Tonk Freeway and the risks of embarrassing the United States

By Julia Prewitt Brown

“I wouldn’t be too sure ever about what commercial is.”
—John Schlesinger

We have become so accustomed to hearing politicians and television commentators end statements with the phrase “God bless America” that we tend to forget that its use in popular discourse is a fairly recent development. Ronald Reagan was the first to utter it in a Presidential nomination speech and in 1984 he became the first President to close a State of the Union address with these words. Democrats adopted the phrase in 1992 when nominee Bill Clinton used it in his address before the Democratic Convention and thereafter, for most of his State of the Union addresses (Scher). Thus in the 1980s U.S. political rhetoric sounded a new note of calculated piety that is still with us. The religious right helped to elect Reagan, who won by carrying 44 states with 489 electoral votes and who went on to ally himself with religious fundamentalists like Jerry Falwell throughout his presidency. It was Falwell who, some years later, launched the humorless attack on Teletubbies, the popular TV show aimed at pre-school children, on the grounds that the purple character Tinky Winky was intended as a gay role model.

John Schlesinger’s raucous farce, Honky Tonk Freeway, released seven months after President Reagan took office in January of 1981 was inimical to the spirit of these times. When the final print was screened for executives at Universal Studios, the film’s editor Jim Clark describes a scene in which the executives 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?’” (Mann 479). The film went on to garner indignant reviews like that of Janet Maslin, who, despite the fact that the film had amused her, announced in The New York Times that “John Schlesinger…thinks America is a crass, foolish, disagreeable place,” (Maslin). It’s true that the United States of Honky Tonk Freeway is, among other things, crass, foolish, and disagreeable, but no more so than the United States featured in other comedies of the period, like Animal House (1978), Airplane! (1980), Caddyshack (1980),and Porky’s (1981), all of which received more favorable reviews, and none of which offer Honky Tonk Freeway’s arch critique of the United States.[1 ] [open notes in new window]

Schlesinger was born in London in 1926 into a well-off assimilated Jewish family, cultivated in music and the arts. He began his long and varied professional career in the late fifties making television documentaries for the BBC. His first feature film, A Kind of Loving (1962), was part of the British new wave, a movement rooted in the “kitchen sink” drama of the fifties. But Schlesinger distanced himself from the ideological aims of his more politically radical contemporaries, like Lindsay Anderson, early on. In interviews he made it clear that while he wasn’t interested in advancing a particular set of political beliefs, he was nonetheless determined “to shake [society] up…and to deal with topics that were not the-run-of-the-mill” (Buruma 45). He gives the example of Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971), a film set in London of the 70s about a Jewish homosexual doctor’s relations with a young man who is also involved with a woman. Another example would be Midnight Cowboy (1969), originally given an “X” rating for its nudity, explicit homosexuality, and obscene language, a classification that was changed to “R” after the film won the Academy Award for Best Film of 1969. Even Andy Warhol admitted to feeling jealous of Schlesinger’s achievement in the film. Up through 1967, Warhol remarked,

“the underground was one of the only places people could hear about forbidden subjects and see realistic scenes of modern life…[Midnight Cowboy] took away a real drawing card from the underground” (Floyd 113).

In spite of the positive critical reception of Midnight Cowboy, the view of the United States in that film was hard for some viewers to swallow, and the suspicion that the British-born, Oxford-educated director, who also staged operas and plays, might be looking down his nose at us is suggested in some of the reviews of the film. The same suspicion lurks in some of reviews of Schlesinger’s less successful film of 1975, The Day of the Locust, an adaptation of Nathaniel West’s acclaimed satire of Hollywood in the 1930s. About Schlesinger’s view of Hollywood in The Day of the Locust, the director Sidney Lumet was reported to have asked, “How can Schlesinger shit where he eats?” (Mann 416). Since Schlesinger was making big money in Hollywood, how dare he criticize it? Going from Midnight Cowboy’s evocation of abject poverty, social fragmentation, and decadence in New York to The Day of the Locust’s portrait of apocalyptic violence inherent in the Hollywood dream factory, Schlesinger unwittingly prepared the way for a cool reception of Honky Tonk Freeway. But after the national mood shifted from the post-Vietnam, post-Watergate zeitgeist to the Reagan 80s by way of the Iran Hostage Crisis, which was widely seen as evidence of U.S. weakness, the film probably did not stand a chance, at least not with the executives at Universal.[2]

Set in the fictitious town of Ticlaw, Florida, the film’s plot traces how a high-spirited town manages to survive the construction of a new freeway that deprives it of the tourist traffic it thinks it needs to prosper. Through a combination of bribery, hard work, a Disneyesque imagination of its own commercial potential, and, as a last resort, a willingness to dynamite the freeway so as to detour traffic into the town, Ticlaw triumphs. Schlesinger’s signature theme of human survival and the necessity of compromise, which is found in almost every major film he made, blends here with the pursuit of the American dream “of success at whatever cost,” as the director put it (Keating). A wide array of characters from California, Utah, Kentucky, and New York descend on the Ticlaw Inn for an evening of Bacchanalian celebration and dance. On the following day, all the visitors depart en masse only to be involved in a massive car wreck that everyone survives. At the time Honky Tonk Freeway was made, Schlesinger had been filming for over twenty years and his mastery of the medium is evident. The car wreck, which seems to rise from the choreography of the dance that precedes it, is a tour de force of elegant pandemonium reminiscent of Jacques Tati.

Honky Tonk Freeway was a legendary box office disaster. Universal had to release the film but declined to promote it. According to Schlesinger’s biographer, William Mann, it earned only $600,000 of its negative cost of $24 million and did permanent damage to Schlesinger’s reputation in Hollywood.[3] “John’s career…was never the same again,” writes Mann, insisting that in Hollywood the film was viewed not only as “a terrible betrayal of the industry” but an attack on the United States itself (Mann 481).

Though not as weirdly invidious as Falwell’s suspecting Teletubbies of seeking to undermine the nation’s moral fabric, this accusation is like it in being willfully off the mark. Honky Tonk Freeway is not an attack but a jeu, a wild ride, a mock celebration of a ruthless U.S. entrepreneurial spirit, resourcefulness, and ability to survive even its own suicidal excesses. Outright religious hypocrisy, political corruption, and sexual libertinism are all thrown into the mix, yet the musical score and mood of the film are irritatingly triumphant. So cheerful a parody of U.S. triumphalism was probably bound to fall flat with popular audiences in 1981. In campaign speeches Reagan had celebrated the importance of a strong national defense and, during his first term, he escalated the Cold War and ordered a massive buildup of U.S. Armed Forces. U.S. superiority was not to be taken lightly, especially after the failed rescue of hostages in Iran and the daily jeering of their captors.

When one wonders why the film has not enjoyed the reappraisal usually accorded to unpopular works by distinguished directors, we have only to recall that strident patriotism intensified after 9/11. In the aftermath of the bombings of the World Trade Center in 2001, even left-wing intellectuals were calling for a halt to irony. (I attended a talk during this period in which Sven Birkerts, writer, public intellectual, and later editor of Agni Review, urged critics to move away from “irony” in public discourse toward a new appreciation of “sincerity.”) Schlesinger often complained that Americans have no sense of irony—an unfair generalization, certainly, when we think of the tradition of screwball comedy, of novelists from Mark Twain, Melville, and James up to Jonathan Franzen, and of U.S. standup comedy—but he had reason to note its deficiency in much public discourse during the period in which he was making films in the United States. Honky Tonk Freeway may be read as an ironic retort to the shift from seeming powerlessness to jingoistic patriotism signaled by the election of Reagan over Carter.[4]

Another reason for the absence of a reappraisal of Honky Tonk Freeway is that it is considered relatively weak by respected admirers of Schlesinger’s work, such as William Mann and the writer Ian Buruma, Schlesinger’s nephew. The film has a small cult following but is generally viewed as far less of an achievement in comedy than his late adaptation of the Stella Gibbons’ novel, Cold Comfort Farm. Whereas the satiric edge of Honky Tonk Freeway is occasionally blunted by a Dumb and Dumber kind of humor (especially in scenes with the two bank robbers, despite the fine acting), the humor of Cold Comfort Farm is more subtle and consistent in tone. Schlesinger himself did not make strong claims for Honky Tonk Freeway, but he was often honestly critical of his own films, as may be seen in Buruma’s published conversations with him. Schlesinger did not hesitate to point out flaws that even his more severe critics had missed. Thus, an anecdote given at the end of Mann’s biography is intriguing. After seeing Honky Tonk Freeway on television nearly two decades after he made the film, the director said, “’I stand by every frame’” (555).

Future generations may look differently on this film. Even if it continues to be judged a lesser accomplishment than his more celebrated works, it may come to be seen as one of the more telling lampoons of its historical moment. Not only might later audiences be more receptive to a satire that is not directed at their own but an earlier generation. U.S. triumphalism has become an established target of TV satire since the film was made, as the popularity of “The Colbert Report” proved, and the success of the Coen Brothers dour comedies, which include a heavy dose of satire of U.S. institutions, shows that audiences are willing to entertain a more ironic view of the United States than they were in 1981.[5] The contrast between the Coen Brothers’ brutal humor and Schlesinger’s more refined raucousness may have to do with Schlesinger’s roots in earlier comedy. The quirky humor of Honky Tonk Freeway is dispersed over an extended narrative that alternates between chaos and repose, reminding us of Tati’s films. Schlesinger viewed Tati’s Traffic before he began filming and he echoes its patterns of destruction and recovery. In another link to a great comic filmmaker with a genius for working a film’s rhythm up to epiphanies of hysteria, Honky Tonk Freeway recalls the films of Preston Sturgess. Schlesinger’s screenwriter Edward Clinton began his career as an actor and had worked with one of Sturgess’ prized actors, Eddie Bracken. “What I learned from him had a great influence on my playwrighting,” he said in discussing Honky Tonk Freeway (Interview). Lack of balance,distortion, and incongruity—the trademark of Bracken’s style—are felt in scenes throughout Schlesinger’s film.

“I rather like excess,” said Schlesinger in an interview with Roger Ebert in 1975. The histrionic tendency of films like The Day of the Locust (1975) can seem unpalatable, but such exaggerations are usually there for a reason. (An example might be the bloody, erotically tinged cockfight in The Day of the Locust.) A technically gifted director, Schlesinger sometime uses technique to excess, but excess is also tied to his strengths. Born and bred in England, Schlesinger at least avoided that “catastrophic form of Englishness” that, in Adam Gopnick’s view, sometimes afflicts the English artist:

“a dread of pretension raised to an aesthetic principle….a false sense of decorum [that was] in Auden’s view, the real English vice” (Gopnick, 74-9).

Whatever weaknesses the operatic Honky Tonk Freeway may possess, a false sense of decorum is not one of them.

Take the costumes, for example, ingeniously designed by Ann Roth. Even those who like the casual extremes of U.S. dress will wince at the pure kitsch of the outfits that the citizens of Ticlaw and the characters who converge there wear: shimmering reptilian leisure suits, bewildering belts and jewelry, flowered shirts matched with plaid pants, women’s purses the size of luggage, and so on. In Honky Tonk Freeway Americans are nothing if not self-assured. Hume Cronyn plays a retired advertising executive who is proud to have “invented bad breath.”

Schlesinger’s talent for highlighting the more brazen details of life in the United States may be owing to his English perspective. Not so much the “supercilious European disdain” that Buruma lightly complains of in his introduction to Conversation with Schlesinger—although this factor cannot be wholly denied—as that peculiarly English appreciation, evident throughout the history of English comedy, for the embarrassing gesture, personality, or situation. For example, Carmen Shelby, played by Beverly D’Angelo, drives her pink Edsel into a drive-through mortuary in Paducah, Kentucky, where she will pick up the urn of her mother’s ashes, which rises up from the depths on a small elevator platform. At that point, we know we are approaching the comic terrain of Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One, the British satire of the LA funeral business adapted to film by Tony Richardson in 1965, and we are prepared to laugh anew. And we do laugh or begin to laugh, but then we are caught in a curious bind because Carmen is clearly suffering over the death of her mother. Directing D’Angelo throughout the film not to mug or deliver punch lines but to play the comedy straight, Schlesinger guides the viewer to be both amused and touched by her situation. In the aftermath of her loss, she wistfully remarks, “The International House of Pancakes has been the one consistent thing in my life,” and we believe her. [6]

The characters’ general lack of embarrassment drives the plot action from opening scenes in which William Devane, playing the town mayor who also serves as the town preacher, bribes a government official before our eyes. Brazen behavior rises to a pinnacle later at a freeway restaurant where all the tourists converge before descending on Ticlaw. Thus Jessica Tandy, who plays a joyful, canny alcoholic, insists to her husband Sherm that by ordering five Old Fashioneds at once during lunch she is proving she is not an alcoholic because she never drinks in secret. Here we are given a snapshot of self-deception at its most vainglorious. A drugged out drifter joins Carmen and her new lover at a table and casually opening the funereal urn begins snorting the ashes as if they were cocaine. (“That’s my mother!” she protests. “You’re shittin’ me,” he replies.) When a waitress carrying a plate of seafood calls out, “Who gets the crabs?” a group of gay men shout, “We all do, sooner or later!”

The United States of Honky Tonk Freeway is a place where anything goes as long as it does frighten the horses. Any action that vaunts itself, seeks satisfaction, makes a splash, or can be advertised for sale is acceptable and even admirable. We’re asked to believe that it makes perfect sense for the residents of a small town on the verge of bankruptcy to try to compete with nearby Disneyworld. All they have to do is train an elephant to water ski. Those who drive to Ticlaw from afar are equally bold. Why not rob a bank if you want to take a vacation to Florida? Or if you’re tired of a religious vocation, consider prostitution. Urging the reluctant black sheriff to dress as an African native with a bone in his nose for the arriving tourists, the town mayor exclaims, “Do it for private enterprise!”

With its wide array of characters converging by car in a final scene, the structure of Honky Tonk Freeway resembles the epic comedy It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad Mad World, directed by Stanley Kramer in 1963. But whereas the earlier film, with its panoply of brilliant comedic performances, centers on greed, Honky Tonk Freeway is more of a sly Aristophanic carnival of pleasure and human folly. For all its vulgarity, Ticlaw, now painted salmon pink to attract tourists, its stucco surfaces awash with light and rain, appears radiant as the tourists enter one by one by car. Opening its arms to everyone, the town becomes a parody of U.S. democracy.

Painting the church steeple pink for the tourists. Advertising the town to draw in traffic from the freeway.
“Get in the Pink. Come to Ticlaw!” The nuns hitchhiking after their car breaks down.

For what Ticlaw finally has to offer are pleasures that evaporate as quickly as the rain on its sun-drenched pavement: food, sex, dance. As Schlesinger said in an interview,

“[W]hen all do meet in Ticlaw, Florida, all focus departs from them, and their stories are left as a mass of loose and blunted ends.”

The young nun breaks with her superior, the dentist cheats on his wife, and the children run from the circus animals in fear. Earlier in the film, the camera’s “flowing from one car to the next while they speed along the highway unites all the characters in a way far more compelling than the plot ever manages to,” said Schlesinger (Study). Held together by their dreams of the future, the characters race on until disaster strikes at the end. As the theme song sardonically promises: “Keep your worries all behind you / There’s a better life ahead.”

In making Honky Tonk Freeway, Schlesinger turned away from his usual emphasis on complex characters and situations, an emphasis that made full use of his talent for working with actors. (Alan Bates, Glenda Jackson, Dustin Hoffman and many others have credited Schlesinger with developing their art.) Whereas earlier films are known for going beneath the surface—for example, in showing Joe Buck’s inner misery in Midnight Cowboy or the emotional complexity of the unconventional love triangle in Sunday Bloody Sunday—this film allows its characters to scramble on the surface like so many bad skaters on a sheet of ice. In the end, the community of Ticlaw survives and Schlesinger’s favored theme of human survival lightly infuses the subplots. The most moving of these plotlines is that of Sherm and Carol, the elderly couple played by Tandy and Cronyn. When their car breaks down late at night on the freeway in the pouring rain, the hatless Sherm heads out in search of help. “I’ll go with you,” says Carol, “We’re in this together.” It’s a momentary tribute to the endurance of married love, something Schlesinger witnessed in his own parents. Quiet and understated, it shows how conscious Schlesinger is of the power of contrast.

All the other relationships between men and women in the film, in marriage and otherwise, are loudly exploitative. The foul-mouthed children of one such couple, travelling in a vast, over-equipped RV, ignore the sites rushing by that their mother, played by Teri Garr, primly orders them to observe. The only appealing children in the film occupy a bus marked “Asian-American Orphans,” human consequences of the Vietnam War. They add a touch of whimsy to the film that is charmingly evoked through a masterful tracking shot that follows their animated faces as they narrate, in increasingly wild and exaggerated form, an absurd story about a carnivorous horse.

The Orphan Hostage Crisis. The mayor explains to the governor that he is holding the Vietnamese orphans hostage until he agrees to build the freeway exit. The governor finally gives in. The actors next to him ressemble John Erlichman and John Dean, both White House counsels who served under President Nixon and who went to prison for their involvement in Watergate.

Community is not to be found in the bourgeois family, the government, or in any church, but in Aristophanic revelry and U.S. dreams of “a better life ahead.” Does the car wreck make the characters come to their senses? Can anything be salvaged? In her hotel room Carmen sweeps up the spilt ashes from the urn after her lover has traipsed through them, leaving white tracks on the carpet like Chaplin in the snowstorm.

Carmen prepares for an evening of pleasure, but the cord of her hairdryer is about to yank her mother’s ashes off the dresser. Carmen’s new lover leaves footprints of her mother’s ashes in the hotel room.

What did audiences feel walking out of the theater? Every character survives the wreck but is last glimpsed trapped in a punishing physical position ironically suited to his or her personality, like so many sinners strewn across a comic Dantesque landscape. (The orphan bus remains intact.) The story, Schlesinger said,

“is about bribery and corruption and going after a dream. The dream of success at whatever cost. This can be taken literally or not. But we pushed it as far as I believe we can go” (Keating).

No doubt it was pushed too far for many viewers, but it’s not often that a film makes U.S. audiences both laugh and wince at its country’s “dream of success at whatever cost.” Schlesinger’s own politics were inconsistent—in England, he prided himself on having voted for all three parties in the course of his life—but he remained an astute social critic of both the United States and England in his films. According to Buruma, Schlesinger was “both inspired and appalled by America” and he regarded England “with great affection and almost constant irritation”(xx). His dual allegiance enabled a salutary critical distance.

A panorama of U.S. life that includes a dentist, pimp, nun, ad executive, prostitute, bank robber, animal trainer, housewife, politician, drug addict, preacher, nymphomaniac, and children’s writer is not to everyone’s taste, anymore than Bartholomew Fair, Ben Jonson’s grand spectacle of London life of the early seventeenth century, with its pickpockets, bullies, gallants, and justices, is to everyone’s taste. The gags in John Landis’ Animal House are funnier to many viewers, as proven by the popularity of that film since its release, but Honky Tonk Freeway is not a film of gags. As  Schlesinger explained,

“If we had really wanted to make a totally surefire commercial, “we would have hired six gag writers and I wouldn’t have directed it. It would have been a series of gags, which is what the public seems to be oriented to….I wanted to do an affectionate comedy that had a dark side, and yet had moments when you could be absolutely serious” (Study).

U.S. audiences may have missed the affection not only because of the national mood, as I have suggested, but because Schlesinger’s lead actors were not as well known or beloved as the actors in, say, Caddyshack (Bill Murray, Chevy Chase) or Animal House (John Belushi).[7] But Schlesinger achieved his moments of seriousness. The screeching wreckage of cars that concludes Honky Tonk Freeway is one such moment, bringing to mind an observation on the opening page of a novel published the same year the film was released, John Updike’s Rabbit Is Rich. As customers crowd into Rabbit Angstrom’s Toyota dealership to take advantage of the Japanese manufacturer’s better mileage, Rabbit observes that “the people out there are getting frantic, they know the great American ride is ending” (3).