The Eyes of Penelope Spheeris

I had the honor and (frankly, thrill) of chatting with film director Penelope Spheeris on the phone for about an hour a couple of months ago. What we talked about (an upcoming project of hers) won’t inform this post, which would have inevitably happened anyway, but it did put her top of mind. It’s her birthday as I write this, and her amazing career is worth celebrating and exploring on multiple fronts. After all, she’s genuinely “with it” having been raised in a carnival; she’s a crucial figure in the field of rockumentary; she’s also a major player in the history of modern screen comedy. These aren’t the only facets of her background and career that interest me, there’s also her connection to rural America, the fact that she got her start in low-budget indie film, and that she’s Greek-Irish (my wife is Albanian-Irish). Also her mother has the same name as one of my aunt’s: Juanita, which seems to have become popular among non-Spanish people in the South for some reason in the early 20th century.

Spheeris’ mom, nicknamed “Gypsy” was 19 and married to a Kansas pig farmer when she was swept off her feet by Athens-born Andrew Spheeris, a carnival proprietor and strong man over twice her age. His Majick Empire show was passing through town, and it left town with her. Penelope was born in New Orleans circa 1945. She spent her first seven years living the carny life. Obviously she credits her dad’s influence, and the experience of her early years, to her attraction to outcasts and freaks. She definitely lives at that punk/sideshow nexus that also gave birth to Coney Island USA and much else. It’s a thing. It makes sense at an intuitive level, even if one would be hard pressed to identify a historical cause.

The carnival period was rudely interrupted when Spheeris’s father was murdered in Alabama for defending a black man in an altercation on the midway. This was 1951, long before the Civil Rights movement began to alter the racial landscape in the region. Spheeris’s killer apparently got off, the jury decided it to have been a case of “justifiable homicide”. Penelope spent the remainder of her nonage being raised by her mother and stepfather(s) in California trailer parks. She was academically serious, put herself through college as a waitress, studied such subjects as psychology and anthropology. She has a masters degree from UCLA.

But the fact that her first cousin, Costa-Gravas (b.1933) had begun making films in Europe may have had an impact on the path she eventually took. The same year that Costa-Gravas won an Oscar for Z (1969), Spheeris directed her first film, Uncle Tom’s Fairy Tales, starring Richard Pryor. (Don’t look for it; due to legal issues the surviving footage is apparently under lock and key). Around the same period, she gave birth to her daughter Anna Fox, who has been working on a film about her mom’s carny years. While raising a toddler, Penelope managed to make her second film I Don’t Know (1971) starring her siblings Linda and Andy Spheeris. It is is described as “observing the relationship between a lesbian and a transgender man who identifies somewhere in between male and female” — which was mighty radical fare a half century ago. During this period Spheeris also acted in small roles in the movies Naked Angels (1969), The Ski Bum (1971), Brothers (1973), and The Second Coming of Suzanne (1974). I actually own the latter film — it was one of those weirdie bargain bin DVDs that began showing up in dollar stores 15 or 20 years ago. This one stars early career Jared Martin, Sondra Locke, Paul Sand, and Richard Dreyfuss, with music by Touch. Inspired by the Leonard Cohan song “Suzanne”, it was directed by Michael Barry, Gene Barry’s son. Gene Barry is also in the picture, which was shot in the San Francisco area in 1972.

Most of us became aware of Spheeris with her breakthrough film a decade later, but in between came another important development that ought to be better known. Lorne Michaels hired her in 1975 to produce Albert Brooks‘ short films for the first season of Saturday Night Live (1975). Basically, she taught Brooks how to make movies. She also produced his first feature 1979’s Real Life. So…this is amazing to me. I think many or most of us are accustomed to regarding Spheeris as a rock filmmaker first, who later, rather bafflingly, became a comedy director. But as you can see, it was the other way around. Comedy was there from the beginning — first, even. They are parallel tracks in her career.

As for this business of “rock” and “music” I keep alluding to, she next directed the highly influential documentary about L.A.’s punk scene, The Decline of Western Civilization (1981). I’m pretty sure I first saw this movie not long after it was released at the Cable Car Cinema in Providence. It very matter-of-factly documents performances by bands like X, Black Flag, Circle Jerks, Fear, and others, and obviously the people at their shows. Back then, a spectacle like this qualified as its own kind of freak show. Around the same time V. Vale was founding RE/Search Publications, whose offerings explored this same anthropology/punk/freak show continuum. It was just in the air at the time. It certainly made its mark on this correspondent! Like all musical forms, punk isn’t something you turn on and off. It’s a culture, a philosophy, a politics, and an approach to living. Interestingly Penelope’s brother Jimmie Spheeris was a successful musician within quite a different musical subculture, folk, and he chummed around with people like Laura Nyro, Richie Havens, and Jackson Browne — light years away from punk. Jimmie died in a motorcycle accident in 1984. Decline eventually grew to be a trilogy. Part II, The Metal Years appeared in 1988. Part III, which chronicles the lives of street punks followed in 1998. The official website for the trilogy is here.

In 1983, Spheeris wrote and directed her first dramatic feature, Suburbia, about a ragtag collection of punk youths squatting in abandoned tract houses, cast entirely with actual punks (one of them is Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers). It was produced by — who else? — Roger Corman. Given the subject matter, Spheeris had little difficulty fulfilling Corman’s baseline requirement of including sex or violence every ten minutes. This was followed by The Boys Next Door (1985) which featured Charlie Sheen and Maxwell Caulfield as a pair of teenaged boys who reject the prospect of dead-end lives and go on a deadly crime spree. It would make a great double feature with Terrence Mallick’s Badlands (1973), which had co-starred Martin Sheen, Charlie’s dad. Her next film, Hollywood Vice Squad (1986) would also go well on a double bill, for at almost seems to be in dialogue with Paul Schrader’s Hardcore (1979), starring George C. Scott. Hollywood Vice Squad stars Scott’s wife Trish Van DeVere, and features a similar plot, a parent is frantic to find a teenaged daughter who has gotten swallowed up by the porn industry. The daughter is played by Robin Wright, and the rest of the cast includes a surprisingly high proportion of actors associated with comedy: Frank Gorshin, Ronny Cox, Carrie Fisher, Marvin Kaplan, H.B. Haggerty, and Joey Travolta. This was followed by Dudes (1987), a film mixing elements of punk, westerns, road movies, and comedies. The film was not widely released. I still haven’t seen it, but the combination of elements reminds me a good bit of the sensibility of Alex Cox.

Then, an interesting left turn: she became a writer and story editor for the 1989-90 season of Roseanne. The show sounds like a good match for her, although the medium and form probably not so much. Then she directed the documentary Thunder and Mud (1990) about the worlds of hair metal and mud wrestling.

The legend is that Spheeris turned down an offer to direct This is Spinal Tap (1984) because she felt metal wasn’t funny. An opportunity for redemption arrived in 1992 with Wayne’s World, which reunited her with Lorne Michaels, and remains the highest grossing film to date based on an SNL sketch. This is undoubtedly her best known film — ye gods, it turned 30 years old this year! But like I’ve already established, those of us of a certain age and inclination think of Decline of Western Civilization first when we hear the name Penelope Spheeris. Anyway the success of Wayne’s World ushered in over a decade of comedy film-making for Spheeris.

In 1993 she created, wrote, directed and produced the program Danger Theatre for Fox, a ZAZ style parody anthology series that spoofed action shows. Her next two cinematic features are of particular interest to readers of this blog, for they were famous reboots of classic comedy series. I saw The Beverly Hillbillies (1993) in the cinema when it was released and was honestly very much impressed. It may be the best of the modern feature-length screen remake of an old TV series. With a couple of exceptions, most of them are pretty awful, but I very much enjoyed this one, and as major fan of the original series I had been disposed to be critical. But Spheeris understood the humor, of course, and she was helped along by a terrific cast. As we mentioned in our Jim Varney post, she actually got a great performance out of the comedian, then (as now) best known for clowning around as Ernest. There was also Cloris Leachman, Dabney Coleman, Lily Tomlin, Dietrich Bader, Rob Schneider, Lea Thompson and cameos by Buddy Ebsen, Dolly Parton and Zsa Zsa Gabor. A good cast in not just half the battle, sometimes it’s ALL the battle. Which goes to why her next venture, the 1994 reboot of The Little Rascals didn’t quite click. I don’t know what the answer for solving that one is. Lightning doesn’t strike twice, I think, is the moral. She had better luck theoretically with Black Sheep, the 1996 follow up to Tommy Boy, starring SNL‘s Chris Farley and David Spade, produced by Michaels. In this one Farley plays the embarrassing brother of a political candidate (Tim Matheson) with Spade as his exasperated handler. Christine Ebersole and Gary Busey are all in the cast, and it was written by Tommy Boy‘s Fred Wolf, and it all looks good on paper, but the production suffered from on-set strife, though we now cherish it as a crucial film in the tiny, once-promising catalog of Farley-Spade comedies. Spheeris’s other comedies were Senseless (1998) with Marlon Wayans, David Spade, Rip Torn and Brad Dourif; The Kid and I (2005) with Tom Arnold, Joe Montegna, Linda Hamilton, and Henry Winkler; and Balls to the Wall (2011) with Joe Hursley

Over the years Spheeris has also directed numerous TV episodes, rock videos, and movies for television, notably the ratings hit The Crooked E: The Unshredded truth About Enron, with Brian Dennehy and Mike Farrell. Most gallingly, her bio-pic about Janis Joplin has been in development hell for years! Don’t you want to see that made? I do!

Like her mythological namesake, Penelope Spheeris weaves and watches. (That is the explanation for the title of this post). Learn about all of her other projects, and what’s next, here.

For more on show business history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on classic comedy read  Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.