❉ Andy Murray looks back on the career of the cult writer.
“Having become something of a 1960s icon, Terry Southern seemed cut adrift in the new decade. These were troubled times for Southern, but he didn’t vanish from the scene entirely. Far from it: he retained his Zelig-like ability to be in the most interesting place at precisely the right time.”
The Sixties had been a grand time for Terry Southern. Then, right at the tail end of the decade came feature film versions of his hit novels Candy (released in December 1968, complete with the nudge-nudge tagline, ‘Is Candy faithful? Only to the book’) and The Magic Christian (in December 1969). In both cases, Southern had written a screenplay adaptation which was then much revised by other writers before being produced. Also, both starred his old champion Ringo Starr, now eagerly pursuing a film career. But while they were diverting curios, neither matched the power of its source novel. (Editor: Read our review of The Magic Christian HERE.)
As it happens, though, 1970 saw the arrival of Southern’s first new novel for ten years. In fact, he’d been talking it up since soon after Strangelove, and indeed had long since been paid a handsome advance by a leading publisher. In the event, it was a doozy. Blue Movie was a creative collision between Southern’s work in the film world and what he liked to call the ‘quality Lit game’.
It concerned a suspiciously Kubrick-y auteurist film director who has a yen for making the classiest, most high-budget porno flick ever, and his ensuing adventures with Hollywood’s finest. It is, needless to say, totally outrageous and very funny, though as some contemporary reviewers observed, it was hardly a radical departure for Southern.
The same year saw the release of End of the Road, probably the least-seen example of his film work of that period. Directed by Southern’s old Paris-era buddy Aram Avakian and starring a pre-Mike Hammer fame Stacey Keach alongside Strangelove alumnus James Earl Jones (who gets to deliver the immortal, deadpan line “Approach the ballerina!”), it’s highly effective in conjuring up the spirit of the early Seventies. In itself that’s odd, as it was actually based, albeit loosely, on John Barth’s blackly comic novel from 1958.
The film is trippy and impressionistic – the first ten minutes is basically a kaleidoscopic barrage of found footage and sounds – and it looks gorgeous, marking as it does the first feature credit for legendary Seventies cinematographer Gordon Willis. At times it’s almost the cinematic equivalent of free jazz, of which both Southern and Avakian were admirers. It was also a pioneeringly independent film, having been made by an entirely non-Union crew.
For all its merits, though, End of the Road didn’t get much of a theatrical release at the time. Some of its stronger content, not least a harrowing medical operation, saw it getting lumbered with a restrictive ‘X’ certificate. After a number of international festival screenings, it eventually found a cult following on the midnight movie circuit, but it barely registered at all outside of the US. Still something of a lost gem, it’s well worth seeking out, particularly if unhinged post-Sixties comedown is your particular bag.
Coupled with Easy Rider, End of the Road could have represented a turning point in Southern’s career, as he spearheaded a new wave of policised, independent film-making. In the event, though, his produced output soon dwindled away to almost nothing. It wasn’t that he wasn’t working – he always had various ventures in the pipeline – but time after time they failed to come off. Having become something of a 1960s icon, he seemed cut adrift in the new decade. There are paralells to be drawn here, perhaps, with Peter Cook, another great satirist who had an creative, frenzied, skyscraping Sixties which then gave way to a far quieter, more underwhelming Seventies.
These were troubled times for Southern. He’d run up an almighty tax bill and went on to be hounded by the IRS for decades. Perhaps not coincidentally, he’d also developed a hefty drinking habit. He spent a good chunk of this period trying to launch a film version of William Burroughs’ novel Junky that never happened. Over the course of the next few years, several potential projects went the exact same way. For a time, a film version of Blue Movie seemed to be on the cards: Ringo purchased the movie rights, Southern wrote a script and Mike Nichols was lined up to direct. True to form, though, the plan quickly capsized. (Several subsequent attempts to film the novel, with directors including Hal Ashby, Steven Soderberg and Neil LaBute attached, all fell by the wayside.)
Southern didn’t vanish from the scene entirely, though. Far from it: he retained his Zelig-like ability to be in the most interesting place at precisely the right time. He joined the flying entourage for the Rolling Stones’ legendarily excessive 1972 US tour, writing a lurid report entitled ‘Riding the Lapping Tongue’ about the experience for Saturday Review, as well as making a fairly unflattering appearance in Robert Frank’s resulting unreleased documentary Cocksucker Blues. During the summer of 1975, he visited his actor friend Rip Torn on the set of Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth in New Mexico and ended up being given a a brief, wordless cameo in the finished film, as a reporter covering Thomas Newton’s would-be rocket launch back home. (In the finished film, a scene from End of the Road can be seen playing on one of Thomas Newton’s many TV screen.).
It’s a crying shame, but Southern spent too many of his later years in dead-end work which was beneath him. For instance, he contributed the text to an illustrated history of Virgin Records and wrote a bunch of sketches for Saturday Night Live which were never used (though the script of one, on the delicate subject of having sex with Brooke Shields, can still raise a smile and an eyebrow). And again, a whole host of intriguing projects fell by the wayside. During the early 80s, Southern knocked some ideas around with Kubrick for a potential film version of Arthur Schintzler’s novella Traumnovelle, which emerged many years later as Kubrick’s final film, Eyes Wide Shut – albeit minus Southern’s input or the comic approach that he’d lobbied for.
Around the same time, Southern had some involvement in the script for a Easy Rider sequel, titled Biker Heaven, in which Fonda and Hopper’s characters were set to return from the hereafter to try and save a post-apocalyptic America. It didn’t came to fruition, but it’s said that he received more money from the project than he ever had for the original. It’s said that he even worked up an idea for a proposed Dr Strangelove sequel, dubbed Son of Strangelove, which Kubrick was eager to give to Terry Gilliam to direct.
After long years in the wilderness, Southern’s next big-screen credit came in 1988, for The Telephone, an atrociously-received Whoopi Goldberg vehicle about an out-of-work actress making a string prank phone calls one night. Co-written with Harry Nilsson and directed by Rip Torn, effectively it was a teaming-up of Southern and his celebrity drinking buddies. In the event, Goldberg insisted on jettisoning most of the existing script and improvising her lines on set. In the UK, the movie went straight to video. Southern and Nilsson had formed a media production company, Hawkeye, to make their film collaborations, but the catastrophic reception to The Telephone, their movie debut, saw that it closed shortly after.
Southern’s last published work was the 1991 novel Texas Summer. Discovered half-finished amongst his papers by Southern’s son Nile, who then entreated him to complete it, it’s somewhere in the semi-autobiography ball-park. Essentially it was an expanded version of three of Southern’s early short stories, as anthologised in Red Dirt Marijuana, which were then woven into a longer Fifties coming-of-age narrative. It’s untypical of his work and nothing like in the same backwoods league of Hemingway or Faulkner (who Southern worshipped and referred to as ‘the Fab Faulk’), but it does manage to be vivid and affecting in its own way.
Southern was commissioned by Little, Brown to write a full-on memoir, which would have been a blast, but sadly only two chapters were ever completed. After a protracted period of ill-health, he died of respiratory failure in Manhattan in October 1995, at the age of 71. A whole new generation was then in the process of discovering his work, with his original novels being republished and his film work being released on DVD. Obviously, it’s tantalising to wonder what he might have achieved if his later career had gone differently. But then, let’s accentuate the positive here: what he did achieve was pretty darn good. His pal William Burroughs might have said it best. When asked to provide a promotional quote in praise of Southern, Burroughs, not usually a man stuck for words, was initially flummoxed, but after much deliberation he came up with the flab-free phrase: “Terry Southern knows how to write!”
Fab further reading:
A Grand Guy: The Art and Life of Terry Southern by Lee Hill
Now Dig This: The Unspeakable Wriitings of Terry Southern, edited by Nile Southern and Josh Alan Friedman
The Candy Men: The Rollicking Life and Times of the Notorious Novel Candy by Nile Southern
Not forgetting Southern’s own published fiction works:
Flash and Filligree
Candy (with Mason Hoffenberg)
The Magic Christian
Red Dirt Marijuana and Other Tastes
❉ Andy Murray is Film Editor for Northern Soul and a regular contributor to Big Issue North. He’s also the author of the Nigel Kneale biography Into the Unknown and co-author (with Dr Mark Aldridge) of the Russell T Davies biography T is for Television. He’s not the tennis guy, obviously. But he did once receive a publicity photograph of him to sign by mistake.
❉ Visit http://www.terrysouthern.com/