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Twenty years of 'The Right Stuff'

By PAT NASON, UPI Hollywood Reporter   |   June 10, 2003 at 4:51 PM   |   Comments

LOS ANGELES, June 10 (UPI) -- Hollywood is celebrating the 20th anniversary of writer-director Philip Kaufman's adaptation of Tom Wolfe's "The Right Stuff," with a new DVD release and a special screening featuring a reunion of the movie's cast and crew.

Kaufman appeared Monday night at the Egyptian Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard, along with members of the cast including Scott Glenn and Ed Harris, for a screening of the movie -- an account of the U.S. manned space flight program's earliest days. The panel also included Gordon Cooper -- one of the original Mercury 7 astronauts -- and legendary test pilot Chuck Yeager, a major figure in the movie and Wolfe's book.

The two-disc DVD features deleted scenes, documentaries about the making of the movie and commentary by Kaufman.

"The Right Stuff" was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, and won four Academy Awards -- including one for Bill Conti's original score. Although it was well reviewed when it opened in October 1983, it was something of a box-office disappointment, grossing just $21.2 million.

In an interview with United Press International, Kaufman did not disguise his disappointment with the picture's performance in the marketplace -- and sounded hopeful that the DVD would bring it a wider audience.

"I still have pangs and pains that not as many people have seen it as I would have liked," said Kaufman.

Regardless of the movie's commercial track record, its fans swear by it -- and the people who took part in it just about revere the experience.

"It's been that way all these years," said Kaufman.

He isn't sure why it didn't sell more tickets, but he has a rough idea.

"When it was first released, it was sold in a way that made it seem like an educational experience or a documentary," he said. "I think we made an entertaining movie that was hopefully stirring and exciting. Yet at the time it was sold sort of as a patriotic thing. Sometimes I think the space agency makes the mistake of preaching to the choir when they should be reaching out to young people who love to be excited by exploration and the unknown."

Criticism of "The Right Stuff" zeroed in on its eccentricity, but Kaufman said the movie was true to the nature of the space program, and to Wolfe's book.

"It's such a rambling, energetic, humorous, sardonic, heroic piece of work," he said, "and filled with -- what I loved about it -- the secret story that Wolfe came upon, the story of Yeager."

Kaufman recently told the Los Angeles Times that in his personal encounters with Yeager during the making of "The Right Stuff," he got a firsthand look at the pioneering pilot's capacity for eccentricity.

"He took me for a ride and turned over the controls to me and then turned off the engine," said Kaufman. "He thought it would scare me, being one of the 'Hollywood' guys. I just sort of looked at him and smiled, because I knew there was something blessed about this man."

Kaufman also recalled that Yeager -- known as a fearless pilot who was the first to break the sound barrier -- never exceeded the speed limit on the road because he knew how dangerous it was. As played in "The Right Stuff" by Sam Shepard, Yeager is a cowboy, and the Mercury 7 astronauts at times appear to be visitors to a dude ranch as they go through their training for the first manned space flight in U.S. history.

Kaufman said moviegoers might have responded more positively if the promotional campaign had focused more on Yeager.

"I think people want the real cowboys," he said.

Kaufman's first film, "Goldstein," won the Prix de la Nouvelle Critique at Cannes in 1965. The strong sexual content of his 1990 drama "Henry & June" was instrumental in the Motion Picture Association of America's creation of the NC-17.

"The Unbearable Lightness of Being" (1988) earned Kaufman a best director citation from the National Society of Film Critics and an Oscar nomination for best adapted screenplay for Kaufman and co-writer Jean-Claude Carrière.

Kaufman's next project, "The Blackout Murders," features Ashley Judd as a homicide detective working on a serial murder case in which all the victims are former boyfriends of hers.

"It's more of a film noir, kind of a mystery-thriller," said Kaufman about his first writer-director project since "Rising Sun" (1993).

It's a smaller, tighter piece of entertainment than Kaufman has become known for, and he concedes he has a taste for the more sweeping scope of "The Right Stuff" and "The Unbearable Lightness of Being." But like so many others in his business, Kaufman laments that it isn't easy to get funding for the really big pictures.

"I've got a couple of epic things I'm working on but it's always difficult to get the backing," he said. "It's tough to get people to go for projects that don't involve a lot of CGI (computer generated images), that are nonviolent."

© 2003 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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