Embracing the magic of one of Hollywood’s most irresistible pairings
Romancing the Stone: a deceptively cynical title for a deceptively cynical movie, particularly since our protagonist is a dowdy romance novelist chasing chivalrous idealism in the realms of pure fantasy. True to Joan Wilder’s pulp lusts, the film begins with a tale-within-a-tale prologue, the story of a Western dame falling into the arms of an honest-to-goodness cowboy who is as quick on the draw as he is noble in his intentions. When that fantasy gives way to the bustling anonymity of 80s New York City, a culture of quick lovers and lonely thirtysomethings, we find a singleton so alien to adventure she gets elevator sickness while out shopping, but her surname isn’t Wild, it’s Wilder, and wilder events will surely get.
Wilder is played by the truly wonderful Kathleen Turner, who in her 80s pomp was just so versatile and watchable. The fact that she oozed sexiness no doubt helped, the beauty discrimination of Hollywood cutting her mainstream career cruelly short along with the crippling rheumatoid arthritis that began during the filming of cult John Waters satire Serial Mom, but she was so incredibly talented, her ability to go from sweet and vulnerable to feisty and downright droll an absolute joy to behold. Here she errs towards the vulnerable, but her comic sensibilities and ability to embolden Romancing the Stone‘s cute cynicism never falters.
Watching the movie, I struggle to think of an actress more befitting of the role, and there were many more like it while her star shone brightly. When you watch a Kathleen Turner movie, you watch it because of Kathleen Turner. “When I was 40 the roles started slowing down. I started getting offers to play mothers and grandmothers,” she has often expressed. What a tragedy that barely ten years after Romancing the Stone the actress would almost vanish from the mainstream. For my money, she was, and always will be, one of Hollywood’s great female leads.
Turner aside, what makes Romancing the Stone such a blistering ride is the chemistry of its three main stars. As a woman who refuses to play second fiddle at a time when female romantic interests were generally just that, the colossal Turner deserves a special mention, but take nothing away from the equally engaging Michael Douglas as reluctant hero Jack T. Colton, whose cheeky admission that the T stands for Trustworthy is such a dead-on summation of such a lovable rogue. The fact that Sylvester Stallone was originally considered for the role is pure madness.
Jack Colton: My minimum price for taking a stranded lady to a telephone is 400 dollars.
Joan Wilder: Will you take 375 in traveler’s checks?
Jack Colton: American Express?
Joan Wilder: Of course.
Jack Colton: You’ve got a deal.
Equally memorable is the great Danny DeVito’s supporting turn as shyster antiques dealer, Ralph, a bumbling runt tasked with locating the map that leads to the titular stone, a giant green emerald that would make your eyes pop. I’ll go on the record and say it: nobody can play an unconscionable scourge who is simultaneously so lovable quite like Danny DeVito. He is generally always villainous to the point of almost super-villainy, yet you just can’t help but smile at his antics. Here he plays a bumbling cretin on the run from just about everyone, a crook so inept he even flees from the flapping outrage of an old lady when caught snooping around like a dog under her dinner table. Whenever he’s onscreen, he’s the jovial lifeblood of this movie.
Despite Romancing the Stone‘s overtly pulp presentation, the Bahia Emerald, a priceless 840 pound, 180,000 carat treasure found in Brazil’s Bahia mines in 2001, is actually very real, and the subject of a legal saga that has dragged on for decades. Unearthed from the beryllium and chromium rich folds by Portuguese prospectors known as garimpeiros, who since the early 1960s have risked their lives mining the hexagonal gemstones forged within the cooled, cracked rock buried hundreds of feet deep, the emerald was shipped from São Paulo to northern California where it was purchased and stolen several times before police found it in the possession of Idaho investor Kit Morrison, who claimed to have purchased the now-cherished art piece legally.
This led to a court battle between multiple potential owners and the Brazilian government, who of course claim the emerald is national property. Morrison told US authorities that he was given the stone as collateral for an outstanding payment of diamonds from dealer Larry Biegler, who was purportedly kidnapped by the Brazilian mafia. With ten people, three corporations and an entire nation all claiming ownership, the gemstone currently resides in the LA Sheriff’s Department, and is said to be worth up to $925,000,000. The dispute doesn’t look like being resolved any time soon.
Quite the ordeal, the kind that is central to Robert Zemeckis’ romantic comedy adventure. On the surface, Romancing the Stone is a watered-down version of an Indiana Jones adventure minus Indy’s upstanding loyalty to archaeological endeavour, but it doesn’t really claim to be anything less. After all, what Romancing the Stone presents us with is a second-rate romantic novel brought to life, at least in terms of plot. But the film, written by Malibu waitress Diane Thomas in what was her only screenwriting credit owing to a fatal car crash shortly after the release of 1985’s rushed-into-production sequel The Jewel of the Nile, is so much more than an astute riff on Spielberg’s hugely popular Raiders of the Lost Ark. It’s silly, farcical stuff for the most part, but it’s also hilarious and high-spirited with a healthy dose of self-knowing. The cast, from top to bottom, are so involved with the film’s self-reflexive tone, and the candour is utterly infectious.
The adventure begins with a mysterious envelope posted to Ms. Wilder by her sister’s husband just prior to him being murdered and cut into pieces (for a PG certificate, there sure are some dark references here). Turner then receives a call from her kidnapped sister, who is being held at ransom by DeVito’s devious toerag and his alligator-obsessed cousin Ira (Zack Norman) in the Colombian city of Cartagena (though the film was actually shot in various parts of Mexico, which was much less dangerous at a time when Pablo Escobar’s infamous Medellín Cartel and police corruption had plunged Columbia into disarray). Ralph and Ira aren’t the movie’s true villains. They’re greedy, misguided, but ultimately harmless. Late in the movie, when Ira finally gets his hands on the map, his menacing demeanour turns into pure harmless mockery as he frees Wilder and her terrified sister. He’s not there to hurt anyone. He and his cousin are chancers, plain and simple.
Ira: Of all the things you could say to me right now, “I lost her,” Ralph, is gonna get the most teeth broken in your mouth.
Ralph: Look, bullethead. If they’re hiking through the jungle there’s nothing I can do about it. I have a car. I am not Tarzan. I have been through every one-horse shithole for a two-hundred mile radius. You should have seen the river I had to traverse this morning. So don’t give me any of your crap, you gutless wonder. You have been an embarrasment to our family ever since the day you were born! And let me tell you something else, Ira… You are luckiest son of a bitch that ever walked the face of the earth! She’s here!
Zemckis’ Columbia is a little less close to the bone. We do run into some drug runners, led by Alfonso Arau’s hugely infectious Juan, and though they initially threaten trouble when Douglas’ gringo strolls into town in search of some wheels, Juan happens to be Wilder’s biggest fan, and he’s not alone in his admiration for her schmaltzy codswallop. American romance novels travel far, it seems. Arau, who would go on to play El Guapo in John Landis’ Western comedy Three Amigos, is the film’s wildcard, a big kid with a crazy glint whose brief turn proves utterly endearing. I love those wacky, against-type characters.
The film’s real bad guy comes in the form of Colonel ‘The Butcher’ Zolo and his band of corrupt law officials. Manuel Ojeda plays Zolo to the absolute hilt, his dark, mysterious stranger an evil dictator right out of a comic book. For someone who plays the part mostly straight, he certainly has a grasp on larger-than-life comedy, which is absolutely a prerequisite for a film of Romancing the Stone‘s nature. Cinema has come a long way since the early 1980s, but I miss those character-driven, ensemble comedies, stripped of nuance and new-age sensibilities but bursting with childlike adventure. Perhaps this is simply nostalgia talking, but films were much more innocent back then.
The movie’s true magic comes from the chemistry of our two leads. Michael Douglas is an astonishingly refined actor on his day, but I’ve always enjoyed him playing lighter roles with an edge of curmudgeon defiance. He’s just so much fun. In terms of credibility as a serious actor, characters such as Wall Street‘s ruthless corporate raider, Gordon Gekko, of course come to mind, but he’s so comfortable in the realms of cynical hero, scoffing at the very notion of heroism, flying into fits of comical rage or crumbling under the weight of life’s annoyances. He’s mastered the art of telling it like it is, of confirming all of our worst fears about the lack of humanity in us all. He’s just so relatable.
When we first meet Colton, he’s a down-on-his-luck vagrant who saves Wilder, not from any sense of duty, but because the mustachioed fiend holding her at gunpoint takes a shot at him. Zolo misses of course, instead piercing his water bag, leaving him without fluids high in the middle of nowhere. His reaction tells us that he’s used to such misfortune, something that is all but confirmed when we realise the truck totalled by the bus Wilder was tricked into taking is in fact his, the caged birds that were sent careening towards freedom the latest get-rich-quick scheme in his lifelong pursuit of that same liberty, which he imagines will come in the form of a luxury sailing boat and the anonymity of the sea. The sentiment ‘good luck with that’ would have rolled off your tongue were it not for a certain something in Wilder’s ludicrously inappropriate luggage, luggage he quickly disposes of after tiring of Wilder’s big city impracticality. Put succinctly, they’re not exactly made for each other.
That’s when the romancing, not the romance, begins. Of course, it’s all based on romance, or at least an imitation of it on Colton’s part, who not only sees the chance to get rich, but to get laid in the process, a development cutely foreshadowed in the below scene. This is the culmination and ironic punctuation of a mud slide debacle to match Richard Donner’s The Goonies in the ‘how fun would that be!’ stakes. Their grudging quest is little more than a misguided calamity, the kind of adventure you’d look back on as you would a horrible vacation that gets more amusing with each passing year, those unforgettable experiences where romance is forged and bonds are strengthened.
Douglas and Turner are made for one another, so in harmony that their transition from polar opposites to star-crossed lovers is not only believable, but inevitable. In Wilder’s novels, the wandering loner has heroism in his blood, but that doesn’t typically translate to the real world, and Douglas’ vagrant has absolutely no intention of taking anyone on his oceanic adventure. He’s a loner through and through, which is presumably why a gringo has wound up traversing the badlands of 80s Colombia carrying a shotgun with so many bullets you’d think he was the secret proprietor of a local gun store.
Douglas goes from crafty philanderer to unwilling hero to head-over-heels heartthrob in one of the most satisfying adventure pairings since Karen Allen and Harrison Ford. The moment when Colton struggles with the tail of a falling crocodile, the very same whose stomach holds the key to his lifelong dream, while Wilder yells for help under attack is just priceless, an exquisite microcosm of the character’s inner battle between doing the right thing and the right thing for himself.
Joan Wilder: You’re the best time I’ve ever had.
Jack Colton: I’ve never been anybody’s best time.
It’s not surprising that the two actors, along with DeVito, would go on to co-star in a trilogy of films before the decade was up. Granted, 1989‘s black-hearted domestic comedy War of the Roses isn’t a conventional sequel per se, but in many ways it’s a natural progression. They say marriage can prove the death knell for any relationship, and that is literally the case in a movie that in my eyes will always be the third part of the Turner, Douglas, DeVito trilogy. Directed by DeVito, the pint-sized actor plays mediator as a lawyer and friend of the family, again something of a natural progression since his and Douglas’ characters teamed up in The Jewel of the Nile to rescue Wilder from Spiros Focás’ brutal dictator, Omar Khalifa, resulting in Colton and Wilder tying the knot.
For me, Romancing the Stone represents the honeymoon period in a fledgling relationship: the thrill of uncertainty, the draw of unrequited love, of fresh and feverish romance and the promise of adventure. In The Jewel of the Nile there’s much more to lose, yet things grow more comfortable. The adventure is still thrilling but they, and we, have been there before. In The War of the Roses there is serious, irreversible burnout. The adventure has long died out, the familiarity has set in to the point of aggravation. The romance is not just over, it’s dead in the water.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the pair’s chemistry wasn’t confined to the silver screen. As the actress would explain, their immediate spark almost led her to an affair with the then-40-year-old actor. “The chemistry was there and Michael and I were both terrible flirts,” she would recall with a glowing air of nostalgia. “I thought Michael was separated. We were in the jungle and I was feeling very romantic towards him. It was going to happen. Then I walked on set one day and his wife was suddenly there… she sat next to him and made that very clear to me. And that was that. You don’t mess with another woman’s husband.”
In the idealistic realms of fantasy, it’s the shared, once in a lifetime adventure that makes our pairing so special, the kind that results in our fictional author’s most gripping plot to date, with an ending that, despite its flagrant condoning of animal cruelty (those were different times, people), is befitting of the mushiest romantic page-turner, but that’s precisely the point. Whether Romancing the Stone is a Raiders of the Lost Ark rip-off is neither here nor there, nor is the movie’s blatantly recycled plot, a point highlighted by the fact that what we’re getting is a story within a story, idealism forged from a less-than-ideal situation that puts character above all else. And what a ride it is!