I usually hate receiving emails from students on weekends. But I loved this one: “Just finished watching Boys on the Side,” it said. “I didn’t know you edited that! I’m crying big gay tears.”
Big gay tears for a big gay film, released twenty-four years ago, starring Whoopi Goldberg, Mary Louise Parker and Drew Barrymore, directed by Herbert Ross! The picture merely broke even commercially yet critics liked it and, with the same small handful of reservations I had in 1995, so do I. All three leads are extremely affecting; Boys on the Side is a powerful tearjerker.
But the email reminded me more of making the movie than it did of the finished product. AIDS was a fresh wound in the arts world and the entire cast and crew had personal connections to the film’s main theme. I may not have realized then that it was unusual to work on a studio-financed Hollywood film from a place of deep emotional engagement. I feel lucky, now, to have done so.
I also feel a little old, because thinking about the picture brings to mind how difficult it was to “come out of the closet” a quarter of a century ago. The zeitgeist was very different during the mid-1990’s. In many straight circles, even progressive ones, homosexuality simply wasn’t viewed as commonplace. Herbert never officially came out. And initially Robin, Mary Louise’s character (who we’re meant to like), reacts to the very idea of lesbian relationships with the word, “Ewww!”
Yet the director and I shared many moments of levity about sexual identity. As he reeled off names of Broadway musicals on which he’d been “choreography doctor,” I responded (without resort to my phone, which, at that time, was rotary) by naming the theatres in which they’d run. Funny Girl? The Winter Garden. Golden Boy? The Majestic. Fiddler? The Imperial. So he chided me, saying that I knew more about musical theatre than any straight man had a right to. And damn if he didn’t teach me how to dance triplets during breaks in the editing!
In fact, a lot of what I recall about making Boys on the Side is related to song and dance. Constructing the film’s soundtrack is as memorable as any aspect of the work. Herbert, with Warner Bros music executive Mitchell Leib, had a great idea about songs to which characters in the movie listen: they would all be performed by women. Our music editor, Tom Kramer, selected “Dreams” by The Cranberries for a driving sequence. Numbers by The Pretenders, Sarah McLaughlin and Stevie Nicks came from Mitchell, who impressed the hell out of me with the fact that his mother had been Phil Spector’s piano teacher.
A set by The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black (google them at your own risk) was deleted from the movie, Indigo Girls appeared both as characters and performers in it, and I selected a few songs by male groups that would be re-interpreted in the finished film by women, among them Bonnie Raitt and Cheryl Crowe. Which is how I got to meet the extraordinary record producer and musician Don Was, who arranged and supervised Ms. Raitt’s delightful cover of The Traveling Willburys’ “You Got It” for the picture.
Indeed I have many vivid memories of Boys on the Side behind the scenes. Lunches with production designer Ken Adam, who let me pick his brain about creating the war room for Dr. Strangelove. Whoopi regaling me with stories of her stint as a ticket-taker at The Fillmore East. Drew Barrymore sending me flowers after a rough ADR session when she was trying to quit smoking two packs of Marlboro reds a day by going cold turkey.
But the event that stands out as most unusual -- perhaps in my entire career -- is screening Boys on the Side’s first assembly for Herbert Ross.
When we wrapped principal photography I told the director I’d need two weeks to finish putting together everything he’d shot, smooth out scene-to-scene transitions and do a rough temporary sound mix so he could watch the cut with music. He returned to New York, I stayed in Los Angeles.
There, as I watched the last day’s footage, my heart sank. All of it was murky and dim. But thankfully, when I called DuArt Film Lab in New York and cinematographer Don Thorin, they assured me that the negative was fine -- that only the print was frighteningly dark. The lab would correct the dailies, screen them for Herbert and ship them to me.
Relieved, I phoned the director to tell him about the misprint and the change in his schedule. Grumbling, he agreed there was no point in viewing bad material, and we arranged a screening for the next day.
So I was surprised not to hear from him twenty-four hours later, and even more so when I called DuArt and learned he hadn’t been there. But I was glad, too. “He must have cheered up,” I thought, "and headed off for a well-deserved and much-needed vacation."
I proceeded to edit. Small adjustments were made as I put scenes that had been shot out of sequence in order. I dressed my work up for presentation with temporary sound effects and music, and began to get a sense of how things would play when Herbert and I watched the cut on the big screen.
My trip to New York was approaching fast. The film’s travel coordinator booked flights and reserved a hotel room. My assistant editors lined up our temp mix and prepared the work print for shipping and screening. Then the phone rang. “It’s Lee Radziwill for you,” I was told.
Now that was weird. Of course, I’d met Lee, Herbert’s wife (and Jackie Onassis’s sister), before. But she wasn't involved in film production at all, so it didn’t make sense that I would hear about the screening from her. Mr. Ross, she said, wanted me to bring a VHS copy of the film instead of the 35mm. work print. I was confused; viewing a clean print off the original negative in a state-of-the-art screening room was infinitely preferable to looking at VHS tape on a monitor. Why hadn’t Herbert called?
A few hours later, the mystery was solved. Beth, the director’s personal assistant, phoned and quipped, “I’ll bet you want to know where the screening will take place.” I said I did. “OK,” she responded. “On Friday at 2pm, you’ll bring the videocassette to Lenox Hill Hospital’s Coronary Care Unit.”
That’s right. Shortly after I told him about the misprinted dailies, Herbert Ross had a heart attack. Years of smoking and drinking, and a hair-trigger temper had taken their toll. But it was all hush-hush. If word got out that the director was “incapacitated,” Warner Bros. could legally take the picture away from him. And with a film as personal as Boys on the Side, the results might have been disastrous. Which is why outside of a small group of people close to Herbert, no one’s known about the infarction until now.
I recalled it when I got my student’s email. And looking back after all these years, as I said, screening my first cut of Boys on the Side in a coronary care unit might be the strangest experience I’ve had in post-production. Herbert in bed, pale, wearing a hospital gown, hooked up to an IV, tubes in his nose, monitors beeping away. What if he doesn’t like the cut?
That really did cross my mind. I mean, watching the first assembly of any movie is unpleasant. That’s just a given. In scene after scene, text, performances, set design, costumes and lighting all convey the same thing, transforming moments that were powerful in the script or dailies into exercises in redundancy. It’s invariable and unavoidable, as sound maestro Randy Thom points out in “Designing Film for Sound;” screenwriters, actors and filmmakers all give 100% and you don’t want less. But the upshot is that you have to carve away at what’s been made expendable by the hard work of one artist or another. This sculpting is essential to editing. Unbearable first assemblies are so common, in fact, that Billy Wilder famously advised, “Never fall in love with your rushes and never slash your wrists when you see the first cut.”
So, yes, I was nervous. Hair-trigger temper. Heart attack. First cut. VHS.
But Herbert was a seasoned director, to say the least. Having helmed nearly thirty pictures -- including Funny Lady; Play it Again, Sam; The Sunshine Boys; The Turning Point; Pennies from Heaven; The Goodbye Girl; Footloose and Steel Magnolias -- and having worked with by such master cutters as Paul Hirsch and the late Richie Marks, he knew what to expect and what not to expect from a first assembly.
So we watched my initial pass at Boys on the Side with reasonable expectations. As it unfolded, its hospital scenes and its story about love and mortality made us feel as though we were “method viewing.” And when the film ended, with Whoopi singing a heart-rending version of “You Got It,” I looked over and the director was crying. So was I. Good tears. Cathartic tears.
Herbert Ross recovered and we went to work in an editing suite in Los Angeles, crafting a film that remains moving and meaningful. We mixed our sound in the Bay Area and, while he indulged in the occasional after-work martini, Herbert stayed away from steak dinners and cigarettes. When we finished, the director took some time off, then began to develop Out to Sea, a vehicle for Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau.
I was hoping to edit that for him right away. But Herbert was meticulous about working with writers to get the screenplay ready to shoot, and many months passed. We’d meet occasionally and once, over lunch, he told me he’d run into an anxious Mr. Matthau. The actor, his deadpan expression tuned perfectly, growled at the director: “Herbie, hurry up with the script already! I’m getting too old to play old.”
Sadly, Herbert David Ross passed away before he could make Out to Sea, almost eighteen years ago. He’d have turned 92 this coming May. I miss him. But I think he’d have been happy to know that Boys on the Side is enjoying a second life on Netflix. And that it will be shown one of these weeks soon at University of North Carolina School of the Arts as part of an ongoing program called “Out at the Movies.”