I’m directing a concert reading of THE DESIGNATED MOURNER, a dramatic discourse by Wallace Shawn, for English Alternative Theatre at the University of Kansas on Labor Day, so I’ve been thinking lately about why Shawn, who is such a fine and accomplished thinking-man’s playwright, is mostly known only for his work in the movies and on television.
First and foremost, there’s MY DINNER WITH ANDRE, the extraordinary 1981 film directed by Louis Malle, which Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory scripted together and then appeared in, as themselves, having a lesurely dinner at a fashionable restaurant near Lincoln Center, all the while conversing most engagingly and eruditely about their wondrous lives in the theatre. It’s the sort of conversation I often imagine myself having, in my dreams, with Plato and Aristotle, and sometimes with Socrates, but I always manage to wake up just in time when the Greek waiters in the taverna start filling my cup with hemlock.
Sadly, after MY DINNER WITH ANDRE, Wallace Shawn appeared in a lot of absolutely awful movies, chief among them an execrable exercise in sheer dementia called NICE GIRLS DON’T EXPLODE. Believe it or not, I’m in this movie with him. I’m in it because it was shot in my own backyard (so to speak) in Lawrence, KS, and the local casting director was a friend who thought, back in 1987, that I might be “perfect” for one of the smaller speaking parts.
If you look up NICE GIRLS DON’T EXPLODE in The Internet Movie Database, a certain Jeremy Perkins from the UK who has actually seen this dreadful movie offers the following synopsis of the plot: “April has a problem. Whenever she gets anything like passionate with a guy, all sorts of things seem to spontaneously combust. The only men she meets more than once are firefighters. Actually, it’s Mom’s way of trying to keep her little girl to herself, but new boyfriend Andy is having none of such nonsense. So the heat’s on. Unfortunately, it’s Fluffy the cat who keeps getting caught in the middle.”
April is played by someone I’ve never heard of. Likewise her Boyfriend Andy. But Mom is Barbara Harris, fresh out of Robert Altman’s NASHVILLE; and Wallace Shawn is a weird guy whom Mom enlists to help her convince April that she’s a dangerous firestarter. On IMDb, two respectable professors from the Theatre Department at the University of Kansas are also credited as having parts in the movie: William Kuhlke as “Dr. Stewart,” and Jack Wright as “Maitre’d.”
Scroll to the very bottom of the cast list and you’ll see that I too am in the movie. But the character I play has no name. I am merely called “Chinese Dad.” Which is better than Fluffy the Cat, I suppose, who gets billed as “Orange Cat #5,” although I did find out during the shoot that this cool cat from L.A. was actually Morris from those adorable Purina catchow TV commercials. Correction: one of six Morrises who all look exactly alike, so they can double for each other in the commercials. In any case, “Orange Cat #5” and “Chinese Dad” developed a special relationship during the shoot, but I’m getting ahead of the story.
Here’s how I became the most troublesome actor on the set of NICE GIRLS DON’T EXPLODE, although you would never know this from my performance if you should ever have the misfortune of seeing this abysmal movie.
To begin: Everyone in Lawrence, KS was excited about a movie (any movie) being shot in the same town where William Quantrill had shot and killed 167 men and teenage boys back in 1863. My friend, the local casting director, urged me to sign on for two short scenes, for which he said I would be paid (if I remember correctly) the princely sum of $850, not to be sneezed at even by today’s standards, 22 years later. But it wasn’t really the money that convinced me to sign on; it was the chance to be in a movie with Wallace Shawn. Maybe Wally and I would become friends. He might write a feature-length movie for the two us to appear in, as ourselves. It could be called MY DIM-SUM LUNCH WITH PAUL. Or, at the very least, if the movie turns out to be only a short subject, MY MERIENDA WITH PAUL.
But, back to reality: I was given a couple of pages of the script for the first of my two scenes in the movie. In it, Boyfriend Andy, an avid pingpong player, fantasizes that he’s in China playing against the Chinese Champ in a public auditorium. Sitting in the VIP section watching the match are Mom, April accompanied by Fluffy, and me dressed in a Mao jacket (with a spiffy red scarf around my neck) as a Chinese Dignitary. Fluffy is squatting on April’s lap on my immediate left. At one point during the game, I’m supposed to turn to the cat and say, with a thick Chinese accent, just three words, the first one of which is just a sound: “Oooooo…nice cat.” And then the camera zooms in for a tight close-up of Fluffy, as the pingpong game continues.
The scene was shot in the gymnasium of Haskell Indian Nations University near downtown Lawrence. I don’t know where they found all the Asians to fill that large venue, but there they were, my people, hordes of them, chattering away in all the incomprehensible dialects of our common mother tongue. Someone said that my people had been rounded up like cattle in Chinese restaurants all over Kansas and Missouri, and that they had been bussed in for the day’s coolie labor. The whole scene took over ten hours to shoot, with a brief lunch break when we were all given small lunch boxes from Kentucky Fried Chicken to keep us calorically full and filled but not fulfilled. So that’s how General Tso got licked by Colonel Sanders in Kansas!
Before we all left for the day, Chuck Martinez, the Hispanic-American director of the movie, said my work in the scene with Fluffy was “fine.” They would be in touch “soon” about my second scene. The Lawrence Journal-World printed daily reports on the progress of the shoot, and I became somewhat concerned when I read in the paper that they were starting to “wrap up” the movie, and I still had not heard from them. Finally, late one afternoon, I got the telephone call. They gave me the address of an old house, again near downtown Lawrence. They told me to report for make-up and wardrobe at eight o’clock that night.
When I showed up, they introduced me to the Chinese wife and two Chinese children of a Chinese colleague at the University of Kansas. They were supposed to be my wife and children in the scene we were shooting. There was also an ancient Chinese woman present who was supposed to be my mother or grandmother. Where they found this old woman, I have no idea. At wardrobe, they gave me a long Chinese gown to wear which made me look like Fu Manchu. And then I was given the pages of the script for the second scene.
This time, there are no Caucasian actors around, just me and my traditional Chinese family, sitting eagerly around a dinner table on top of which is a burbling Mongolian hot pot. It’s burbling because it’s filled with water, and a person in charge of props had just dropped some dry ice into it. Again, for some reason, Fluffy is squatting on a cushion on the chair to my immediate left. And again I am supposed to turn to the cat, speaking with a heavy Chinese accent. But this time I say more than three words. This time I say: “So glad you can join us for dinner, Honorable Cat. We all love cat.” Snicker, snicker, snicker. Then I’m supposed to pick up the cat and hold it over the burbling hot pot as the camera zooms in for another tight close-up of the terrified creature. The whole sequence, apparently, is Fluffy’s fantasy, provoked by the earlier pingpong scene, when I had leaned over in his direction and said, “Oooooo…nice cat.”
Needless to say, I was horrified for any number of reasons by this scene, so I raced out into the night in my garish Fu Manchu robes looking for Chuck Martinez, the director.
“Look,” I said, when I finally found him, “we Chinese eat a lot of things–shark’s fin, bear’s paws, monkey’s brains, snakes and puppies–but WE DO NOT EAT CATS!”
“So the scene misrepresents my people.”
“Yes. How would you like it if I were to cast you in a movie as a greasy Mexican bandido who, when he’s not robbing and killing gringos, is always found sleeping slothfully underneath a gigantic sombrero?”
“That’s beside the point. I’m the one making the movie, not you. You signed the contract, you cashed the check, and now you will do the scene exactly as it is written.”
“You can have your money back.”
“A contract is a contract. You will do the scene exactly as it is written. We have lawyers…”
“And I have friends in the Asian-American community in New York and Los Angeles who will protest and boycott your movie when you are foolish enough to release it.” He knew I was referring to the furor created by David Henry Hwang and other Asian-Americans over the Broadway production of MISS SAIGON.
“That’s ridiculous. A contract is a contract. You will do the scene exactly as it is written. We have lawyers…”
And so I returned to the shoot and did the scene exactly as it was written. But, when it came time for me to pick up Fluffy and hold him over the burbling Mongolian hot pot, even though the cat had been sedated for the scene, “Orange Cat #5” went totally ballistic and started clawing wildly at my hands and arms. I was starting to bleed from all the scratches. No matter, I said to myself, be Zen-like, stoical. NICE GIRLS DON’T EXPLODE, and NICE BOYS DON’T IMPLODE.
“Pssssst!” the animal-trainer from L.A. hissed at beast. “Pssssst!”
They covered up my wounds with make-up, and we tried shooting the scene again.
It didn’t work. “Orange Cat #5” continued to mangle and maul my hands and arms. More make-up to cover up the wounds. After the third try, I turned to the director and smiled benignly, “My contract says nothing about my getting injured, and getting God knows what sorts of diseases from this cat. I have lawyers…”
“It’s a wrap!” the director yelled suddenly, and we all went home, me to further nurse my wounds with Mercurochrome and rubbing alcohol, thinking all the while that, to add insult to injury, I had never actually met Wallace Shawn the whole time he was shooting his scenes in Lawrence.
When NICE GIRLS DON’T EXPLODE was released commercially and had its big premier in Lawrence, I refused to see it, but friends who did told me I was not actually in it, even though I was listed in the end credits as “Chinese Dad.”
Curiously enough, because of that damned contract which I signed, to this day I continue to get residual payments for my “work” in the movie, even though my two scenes never made it to the final cut. Every time they sell the movie to some unsuspecting third-world country or two-bit airline, I get a check in the mail for some astonishing amount like $1.12 or less. I have never cashed these checks.
But when the DVD was released on June 12, 2007, I finally gave in and bought a copy, hitting the pause button frequently during that whole pingpong episode. If you don’t blink, you will catch a glimpse of me in my Mao Jacket and my spiffy red scarf, sitting beside April with Fluffy on her lap but, Confucius be praised, I don’t appear anywhere else in the movie. There are no “special features” on the DVD, no revelation of “deleted scenes.” Big sigh of relief. And I’ve just learned from Amazon.com that “this item has been discontinued by the manufacturer.” Hmmmm. I wonder why.
On its website, IMDb lists no other movie credits for me, nor for Paul Harris, the man who wrote the screenplay for NICE GIRLS DON’T EXPLODE. But for Chuck Martinez, IMDb lists two other directorial credits, a made-for-TV movie in 1988 called SUPERBOY, and a full-length commercial release called THE EFFECTS OF MAGIC in 1998, about a magician and his talking bunny. Nothing after that. I ought not to be glad because I now believe, underneath it all, just like “Orange Cat #5,” he is, we are, all of us, just helpless creatures frightened of all the burbling Mongolian hot pots in our lives.
To conclude: I wonder if Wally is on FACEBOOK. I could “poke” him, invite him to visit Lawrence again, ask him to attend the concert reading which I’m directing of his play THE DESIGNATED MOURNER on Labor Day. Afterwards, we can go out for a drink or two (or three), chat till the wee hours of the morning, then go have a bite somewhere. All this time, of course, he can be taking notes for his next film and/or dramatic discourse, MY PANCAKES WITH PAUL.