James Toback on How He Talked Alec Baldwin, Ryan Gosling and Martin Scorsese into ‘Seduced and Abandoned’
One evening this past spring, just before leaving New York for the Cannes Film Festival, James Toback was sitting in his Upper East Side apartment watching Game 6 of the Knicks vs. the Pacers in the NBA Playoffs, the TV volume muted and Bruchner’s ninth symphony blaring from the stereo. In lieu of the halftime buzzer, the orchestra crescendoed to an ecstatic climax just as the clock hit zero and the screen faded to a commercial.
Yet, what might seem odd in anyone else’s living room is par for the course chez Toback, who has made a career out of charting the sometimes harmonious, often violent meeting of dissonant forces, from the gifted classical pianist (Harvey Keitel) who dirties his hands as enforcer for his loan-shark father in his electrifying debut feature, “Fingers” (1978), to the privileged white teens drawn like moths to the hip-hop flame in “Black and White” (1999) and the gangster seduced by the Hollywood machine in his Oscar-nominated screenplay for Barry Levinson’s “Bugsy” (1991).
“My insistence on doing two or three things at the same time has been endemic since I can remember, since I was five or six years old,” says Toback while keeping one eye squarely on the game. “I was always reading and watching something and talking to somebody at the same time. Or playing a sport and listening to music at the same time.” Or, as it happens, winning — and losing — small fortunes at the Vegas tables with an ever-present Walkman strapped to his belt and headphones in his ears. It’s an image invoked by Art Manteris, former manager of the sports book for the Las Vegas Hilton, in his 1991 memoir “Super Bookie,” in which he devoted one entire chapter to Toback entitled “Nobody Played Like Music Man.”
“I used to listen to alternately to Juice Newton singing ‘Angel of the Morning’ and Mahler’s third symphony while playing blackjack and betting on baseball,” Toback recalls. “So, the idea of making a movie in which one is asked to give one’s full concentration to one image and one central notion has always struck me as a potentially insufficient demand on the attention of the audience.”
Hollywood, gambling and gangsterism all figure prominently in Toback’s latest film a clef, “Seduced and Abandoned,” which is airing this month on HBO following Oscar-qualifying runs in New York and Los Angeles. In addition, the film opens theatrically November 8 in the U.K. and will be screened on November 13 at New York’s Museum of the Moving Image as part of a three-film Toback retrospective. Later in the month, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art will present a special 35th anniversary screening of “Fingers” with Toback appearing in person.
The product of a friendship with actor and cultural gadfly Alec Baldwin that blossomed during the filming into a full-fledged bromance, “Seduced and Abandoned” is a movie about movies: the struggle to make good ones, and the age-old battle between art and commerce, the latter ever gaining ground on the former. The setting is Cannes, where “Seduced” premiered in May and where it was shot in 2012, with Toback and Baldwin starring as thinly veiled versions of themselves, descending on the Croisette in a (mostly unsuccessful) bid to finance a film.
“There was a series of lunches and dinners, most of them at the Harvard Club, which I found bracingly exciting and interesting and unpredictable, and one night I said, ‘This should be the seed of a movie we do together,’” recalls Toback, who first met Baldwin in 1990 on the set of Woody Allen’s “Alice,” in which they both played supporting roles. “The subject kept coming up, and finally one day he said, ‘You know, I’ve never been to Cannes.’ It just evolved from there. Then we needed an intention, or a MacGuffin, and we ended up with two of them: one, which was my idea, was for us to go there to try to get another movie financed; his was to have memorable and unique cinematic portraits of certain landmark figures in the film world, and somehow to make those two movies blend into one.”