David Carradine and Haskell Wexler get in a film feud

I suppose it’s fair to think that this town’s frequent film panel discussions are just a way to fill theaters on off-nights. And non-cinephiles may find them utterly boring. (Why is it, exactly, that an audience will sit through a two-hour movie, but dash for the exit before a fifteen-minute Q-and-A with the director?) Remember, this is Hollywood—and the exciting things tend to happen after the curtain goes down. In Hollywood, an ordinary panel discussion is extraordinary because the people who made the film are sitting in the audience. Here, an otherwise routine discussion can result in a lead actor confronting the film’s cinematographer and declaiming against his having received an Oscar.

Such was the case at a recent screening of the Woody Guthrie biopic “Bound for Glory” at The Aero Theatre in Santa Monica (the Westside wing of the American Cinemateque), when two of the film’s collaborators clashed in public. Directed by maverick filmmaker Hal Ashby, the film stars David Carradine, who was present at the Mar. 18 screening along with the film’s cinematographer, a Chicago-born Jew, Haskell Wexler. Carradine is a quirky veteran thesp with a prolific B-career, most widely seen in Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill.”  Wexler is considered one of the greatest living cinematographers in film history with two Oscars to prove it; he won his first in 1966 for his work on “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and his second, a decade later, for “Bound for Glory.”

Unfortunately, I missed the juicy scene that transpired, but Chris Willman (former Entertainment Weekly music critic) took all the cliff notes you’ll need.

In light of a recent cover story I wrote on SAG President Alan Rosenberg, I was interested to read that the subject of unionism led to one of the most contentious moments of the evening. (More on this, later)

In any case, this fascinating film feud might convince you that the next time you see a panel discussion scheduled, you should go.

Willman’s play-by-play from the Huff Post:

Not since I saw Bill Irwin and Kathleen Turner go at each other in an excellent production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? a couple of years ago have I experienced a night of live theater quite as riveting as the three-way cage match between David Carradine, Haskell Wexler, and the audience that transpired at an L.A. repertory filmhouse after a screening the other night. If there’s anything that wouldn’t seem to scream “fireworks!,” it’d be a panel discussion about the 1976 Woody Guthrie biopic Bound for Glory, yet it’s just this innocuous-sounding an event, held at the American Cinematheque in Santa Monica the other night, that may go down in Hollywood feud lore. By popular request from film buffs who are kicking themselves they weren’t there, I’m providing a blow-by-blow of just what a nerve-wracking, weird and wonderful night out at the fights this was. Beware: This train is bound for bedlam—this train!

There’s a moment of calm. The presumptive moderator is silent, either because he’s enjoying this too much to stop it or has mentally gone to a better place. So an audience member takes it upon himself to shout out a question about cinematography. Who knew this would be a more dangerous subject than unions? Wexler talks about color desaturation (“You’ll notice the movie gets more colorful when we get to California”) and gives some very technical details. Carradine breaks in and starts talking about crane shots. Wexler, annoyed, goes back to the specs. And this is the point at which Carradine really goes off the rails, albeit it in a more subdued, passive-aggressive kind of way. He brings out a line—which he’ll repeats at least two more times—about how Wexler “got an Academy Award for ruining my movie.” You can feel the audience holding its collective breath as Carradine goes on to say that the film “looks like it was shot through a glass of milk.” When he explains what he wished the look of the film had been—which is grittier—again, it’s a lucid point, which some critics might even agree with. But the insulting way he’s making it is either tone-deaf or just evil.

Then he tells the story of how Ashby, the director, hated the look of the film, too, and had frequently expressed the wish that he could fire Wexler. Gasps go up. Carradine then says he talked Ashby out of firing Wexler, “because if you fire somebody, they just go out in the parking lot and steal your hubcaps.” I’m pretty sure that’s a metaphor, but the audience doesn’t know what to do with this image other than to nervously titter. There will be a lot more of that—oh, yes, there will.

Naturally, Wexler is enraged by Carradine’s story. Speaking at some length for the first time, he retorts: “I didn’t know that I was going to be confronted with a story which I don’t think is necessarily a public story. But since it is public, I have to say something. Hal Ashby sent somebody to fire me, and he said ‘You’re fired,’ okay? And then after I heard that and got the message, I went to Hal and I said ‘Hal, just take a minute and STOP SNIFFING THAT STUFF UP YOUR NOSE!’ And if David will tell me there wasn’t heavy duty doping on that film, and that that wasn’t the comradeship he was talking about…” He lets that thought trail off, but adds: “When I showed up the next day, I went to work, and I was the UNFIRED director of photography. Now, that’s the goddamned truth!”

Carradine (drolly): “Okay. I don’t think that changes my story at all. Except that Haskell is a little down on people who snort cocaine.” That gets a good, nervous audience laugh. He goes on to tell a story about visiting Ashby’s mammoth trailer, and picking up a copy of the L.A. Times, which he hadn’t seen during many weeks of location shooting. “Underneath it there were about six lines of cocaine… Hal was looking at me and I said ‘Hal, do you do a lot of this stuff?’ And he said ‘As much as I can get.’ And I said ‘I’ll talk to you later,’ and I left the trailer. Because it’s not my thing. And yes, Hal was a great user of cocaine. It does not change the fact that he was… ” Carradine goes for the superlatives. “Quentin Tarantino doesn’t beat Hal Ashby, and he’s one of my favorite directors. Quentin is incredible. And he’s a big cocaine freak, too!” Okay, you want to talk about nervous laughter… (Just for the record, I’m not sure you can tell with 100% certainty from the tape whether Carradine says the present-tense “He’s a….” or, possibly, the past-tense “He was a…”) The actor continues: “But Hal was a fucking genius. I don’t like anybody to put him down and say the drugs got in the way or anything else, because they didn’t get in the way. They got in the way of him living longer, but they did not get in the way of his movies. There is not one movie he made that you cannot say it’s one of the best fucking movies that has ever been made…”

Patrick Goldstein gives the showdown more coverage:

It’s still early, but it’s pretty safe to say that the award for the “Craziest Post-Screening Panel Discussion of the Year” has to go to David Carradine and Haskell Wexler, who got to show everyone who stayed after an American Cinematheque screening of Hal Ashby’s “Bound for Glory” just what it must’ve been like to have lived through the ‘60s.

It’s not exactly a news flash that Carradine, best known for his many small and big screen roles (“Kung Fu,” “Kill Bill,” etc.) is a tad, shall we say …eccentric—he’s up to, at last count, his fifth wife. But according to this marvelous blow-by-blow account from ex-Entertainment Weekly writer Chris Willman (posted on Hollywood Elsewhere, which offers a briefer account here), Carradine really went over the top in what was supposed to be one of those evenings devoted to affectionate reminiscences about working on a movie classic, a film that earned Wexler an Oscar for best cinematography.

At first, Carradine was just odd, “in a had-too-many-highballs-before-dinner kind of way,” as Willman put it. But when the subject of unions came up, he went completely gonzo, saying unions no longer served the same purpose they used to, which prompted a ferocious shouting match with a woman in the back of the audience. With all hell breaking loose, Cinematheque publicist Margot Gerber, who was in the front row, stood up and demanded that the woman be tossed out. Carradine continued his rant, saying he’s had to cut back on buying groceries for his family because of the economy and the SAG labor tumult, adding for emphasis: “I AM NOT A RICH PERSON!” When someone in the crowd suggested that he let the lady heckler have the mike, Carradine half-heartedly tossed the mike into the audience, which instead of landing safely in the aisle—wouldn’t you just know it—bonked Gerber right on the head.

That turned out to be just a prelude for a really contentious skirmish between Carradine and Wexler, a world-class cinematographer who doesn’t suffer fools lightly, especially when they appear to be making light of his achievements. When Carradine complained that “Bound for Glory” “looks like it was shot through a glass of milk,” claimed that Ashby tried to fire Wexler and joked that Wexler “got an Academy Award for ruining my movie,” all hell broke loose.