By Susan King Nov. 9, 2019 8 AM
The newly refurbished theater at the famed Hollywood American Legion Post 43 will be blasting off Veterans Day evening with a 35 mm screening of Philip Kaufman’s acclaimed 1983 film, “The Right Stuff.” Based on Tom Wolfe’s bestseller, the epic chronicled the early years of the U.S. race to space and the test pilots and astronauts who risked their lives to get us there. (The screening is also being presented by the American Cinematheque.)
Though the film was a box office flop, it received strong reviews and eight Oscar nominations, winning four, including for Bill Conti’s soaring score. The cast includes Oscar-nominated Sam Shepard as test pilot Chuck Yeager, who broke the sound barrier, Ed Harris as John Glenn, Scott Glenn as Alan Shepherd, Dennis Quaid as Gordon Cooper, Fred Ward as Gus Grissom as well as Jeff Goldblum, Barbara Hershey and Kim Stanley.
Kaufman (“Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”) will appear in conversation with film historian and writer Alan K. Rode (“Michael Curtiz: A Life in Film”).
“This is an event to signify the 100th anniversary of Veterans Day and the 50th anniversary of the lunar landing,” said Rode. “I think it’s so appropriate.”
Kaufman, 83, who wrote and directed “The Right Stuff,” recently talked to the L.A. Times about the film, which has gained in stature over the years. (This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.)
Is it true that Chuck Yeager took you flying?
Oh yeah. We went flying over the desert. He sort of tested me. I was some kind of Hollywood filmmaker, and we were in a small airplane. He gave me the controls and turned off the engine and said, “Phil, why don’t you do it?” I looked at him because I knew he was, in a way, immortal and he was not going to go down with me.
I just said, “Chuck, why don’t you turn the engine back on?” He got it that I wasn’t going to panic. Now we see certain leaders or the leader of our country panicking over everything. There’s a coolness that Chuck Yeager had and a sense of humor. I mean, he was playing with me in a nice way, but I did feel there was some kind of immortality about him.
The original screenwriter William Goldman totally removed Yeager and the test pilots.
Bill Goldman wrote the script that was sent to me. I knew Goldman; he and I were friends. We worked on another film together. When I read the script and read the book, I thought, there’s something missing. We had a meeting with [producers] Bob Chartoff and Irwin Winkler.
[Goldman] wanted to make a film about patriotism. It was right after the Iran hostage [crisis]. He wanted to write something about American patriotism. He thought putting Yeager in and saying something about a time that had passed was negative. But it wasn’t. It was about an enduring American spirit that we really needed to get back to.
The four of us were having one of those great Hollywood script conferences. As they say, the best scripts aren’t written, they’re rewritten. Bob Chartoff really loved what I was saying. The next thing I know Bill Goldman quit in a huff, but I discovered he had committed to another movie that was supposed to start in 10 days. He was a wonderful screenwriter.
Revisiting the film recently, I realized it is really a western, especially the sequences with Yeager and those test pilots who put their lives on the line and received no publicity for their feats. And they were also surprisingly modest.
They did their job and didn’t brag, whine or complain. If the planes crashed, men went up the next day. They risked death. That was a form of patriotism, but it wasn’t flag-waving bravado.
How did Yeager and Shepard get along during the filming?
The great kind of cowboy hipster playwright and the greatest pilot — at first, they were a little standoffish. Physically they were different. They came from different worlds. But very quickly they sort of sensed a bond of some kind between them. I think to some degree Yeager became the father that Sam Shepard wrote about in so many of his plays.
It’s still so hard to believe that “Right Stuff” was a box office failure, taking in just over $21 million. The reviews were great. Audiences who did see it loved it. And it’s considered one of the great films of that decade. What happened?
Why it didn’t do well is both a mystery and quite obvious. I think the way the film was promoted and conceived of was a problem; I don’t think that some people understood the movie we were making.
But they did in France
Everyone in France loved it. It went to France and played five years!
What: “The Right Stuff”
When: 7: 30 p.m. Monday
Where: Hollywood American Legion Post 43, 2035 N. Highland Ave., Los Angeles
Admission: $15-$35 (VIP package)