Page Two: Sweat Lodge

Scenes from a cinematic teepee

Page Two
Crazy Mama, the second film Jonathan Demme directed (after Caged Heat), was not a welcome assignment. He was deep into preproduction on another film when, 10 days before Crazy Mama's start date, Julie Corman (Roger's wife and a producer) fired the film's director, Shirley Clarke.

Clarke had been an eccentric choice, a New York filmmaker who had made some experimental films and two very gritty semidocumentary narratives about the mean streets of New York: The Connection (about junkies waiting for the man) and The Cool World (set in Harlem).

Roger Corman called Demme, asking him to take over directing the film. Reluctantly, being in preproduction, Demme declined. Corman, however, was producing that film, as well. Demme ended up taking the Crazy Mama job.

Given all that, it is surprising that this film is as light and charming as it is. Much more a farce than realistic, Crazy Mama is a celebration of the popular entertainment of the Sixties, of hot rods and rock & roll. Shot in a Technicolor, picture-postcard style, the film looks very much of the period.

The first time we interviewed Demme, we knew nothing of what a bitter experience it had been. Graciously, Demme accepted our very enthusiastic comments about Crazy Mama. Like the best of Demme's early films, the movie embraces an atypical, extended family. Many directors who specialize in films about sleaze, decadence, and sexual perversity are clearly reactionary and traditionalist in their near-puritanical attitude toward the material, treating it as taboo, deviant, and spectacular. Demme very much embraces the idea that we all are just who we are, which is just all right by him. Sexuality in his movies is more about compassion and emotion than lust. Portraying unique, unusual families in such affectionate light is deeply humanistic.

There is a great scene in Crazy Mama involving the whole extended family. The nuclear family played by Ann Sothern (grandma Sheba), Cloris Leachman (daughter Melba), and Linda Purl (granddaughter Cheryl) has been evicted from its West Coast beauty parlor by the building's owner, Mr. Albertson (Jim Backus). They decide to leave California, heading back to the Arkansas homestead that they left when Melba was still a child. The traditional American westward journey had now been reversed, which was a trend at the time (witness Easy Rider).

Purl's character, Cheryl, is pregnant by her beach-bum boyfriend, Shawn, played by Donny Most (of Happy Days fame), and I'm not even going to start laying out those family connections. Shawn is traveling with the family because of Cheryl. Along the way, in Las Vegas, she has picked up Snake: a greased-back-hair, black-leather-jacket biker boyfriend played by Leachman's son Bryan Englund. He is very cool and hip, though there is a deep sadness to him. Both Shawn and Snake are wooing Cheryl.

Melba, meanwhile, has also picked up a boyfriend named Jim Bob (Stuart Whitman), a Texas sheriff who has deserted his very rich wife back home. Jim Bob is a kind of father but also comes across as dumb enough to be another boy.

In Vegas the gang picks up Bertha (Merie Earle), a free-spirited, gambling senior citizen (once again, you do the family positioning – great-grandmother on down).

This group is very much together as a family.

Traveling on the road, they stop at a motel where each room is a separate, concrete teepee (evidently, there used to be a number of them, but there is only one left, near the Texas border).

The seven characters are staying in one concrete-teepee motel room. Shawn, Snake, and Cheryl are sharing a bed. Beach-bum Shawn is muttering to himself about this situation of the three of them in the same bed (though there is nothing sexual among them, only sleep). He goes on and on: "Why am I not upset by this? I should be upset by this, but I'm not upset by this. Why does this not upset me? It should. But I'm not ..."

Snake interrupts him, saying something like: "Right now in Russia in a silo there is an intercontinental ballistic missile with a nuclear warhead on it that can be fired at any moment, and it's aimed right straight at this tepee! So don't sweat the small stuff!"

Now, it would be great to say here that I've taken that motto unto myself ever since, but it wouldn't be true. Sweating the small stuff excessively is one of those traits that defines me. I sweat the small stuff, the middle, and the really big stuff, sometimes democratically rather than proportionately. But I love that scene.

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Crazy Mama, Jonathan Demme, Roger Corman, Sixties filmmaking, Shirley Clarke

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