Sunday, May 1, 2016

Don't Make a Scene: The Right Stuff

Nothing says "May Day" like a scene from The Right Stuff.

The Set-Up: It's one thing to hear Tom Wolfe's niche-tech-pop-phraseology coming from the male squad of test pilots and astronauts in The Right Stuff. But it's quite another hearing it come from they-who-also-serve—their wives.

Director Philip Kaufman did an amazing job of screen-interpreting Tom Wolfe's tome that broke through the PR myths of NASA and the Air Force and created its own mythology for America's fighter-jocks and missile-men. Even when the Wolfe-speak isn't there, his breezy, slightly wise-acre tone is, and bristles and infuses each scene of wind-bag bureaucracy and puffed up politics. The blustery jostling-for-position world of the test-pilots and astronauts is told with a slightly more serious air, while the cadre of alpha-male test-pilots is treated with, finally, a kind of respect.

And then, the wives.

The day-to-day terror of the test-pilots' wives is addressed by Kaufman within the opening minutes, and their frustration with the tight-lipped fraternity of their jet-set husbands, and their own banding together for support and PR transformation into pastel-cotton-clad "proud and happy" sisters-of-Jackie are explored in passing throughout the movie.

Except for in this scene, where the wives of "Gus" Grissom, "Deke" Slayton, and "Gordo" Cooper are sequestered inside (in the shade from the desert, thinking dark thoughts) and discuss their lot at Edwards AFB while their husbands talk shop and gossip about their affluent neighbor and remain clueless about the pain ...and fears...of their wives. In pushing the outside of the envelope, they've neglected a glass ceiling.

And patio door.

The Scene: It's the week-end at Edwards AFB, and around the government housing, both wives and husbands are talking shop. "Pud-knockers" Grissom (Fred Ward), Slayton (Scott Paulin), and Cooper (Dennis Quaid) eye their rival Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard), while inside the wives (Veronica Cartwright, Mickey Crocker, and Pamela Reed) eye their husbands.

Chuck Yeager: Good one, son. Fire it in here!
Deke Slayton: Look at ol’ Yeager. On top of the pyramid for five goddamn years.
Deke Slayton: Every time somebody goes faster he just goes up again.
Deke Slayton: He stays the fastest man alive.
Marge Slayton: You know, sometimes all it will take...
Marge: just the sound of a truck starting. I think...
Marge: ...“That’s the crash-truck!”
Marge: Anyway, I’m really glad we could talk.
Marge: I thought I was the only one who had these nightmares.
Trudy Cooper: Yeah, me too.
Marge: Nobody ever wants to talk about anything around here! Everybody’s always trying to…
Marge: ”...maintain an even strain.”
Betty Grissom: Well, you marry a fighter-jock and you marry the military.
Betty Grissom: I’ll tell you one thing, though, the military owes me for all this. One day I expect the military to make good.
Betty: Well, I do!
Betty: Anyway, it sure ain’t your average dull life.
Trudy: I went back East to a reunion and all my friends could talk about was their husbands’ work.
Trudy: How dog-eat-dog and cut-throat it was on Madison Avenue.
Trudy: Places like that...
Trudy: Cut-throat...I wondered how they would have felt if each time their husband went in to make a deal...
Trudy: ...there was a one in four chance he wouldn’t come out of that meeting.
Trudy: I’m going home to my folks in San Diego.
Betty: What did Gordo say?
Trudy: He "maintained an even strain."
Marge: Look at them out there.
Marge: You’d think they were talking about sports.
Deke: Hey, Gordo!... (The untended barbecue has started a fire and is burning their food, the men attempt to put it out with their beers)
Gus Grissom: Go, hot-dog! Go!
Betty: Men! Sometimes they’re just such...ass-holes.
(The women laugh hysterically. Betty gets up, embarrassed, even changing her chair)
Marge: Sometimes they sure are handy ass-holes, though...

Trudy: Sometimes. Sometimes...(She breaks down, and turns away from the women, not wanting to show her tears. It's at that moment, Cooper notices her)
Gordon Cooper: Hey honey!!
Gordon Cooper: Ya wanna hot dog?
(Trudy backs away from the window, and is lost in the reflection)*

The Right Stuff

Words by Philip Kaufman and Tom Wolfe

Pictures by Caleb Deschanel and Philip Kaufman.

The Right Stuff is available on DVD from Warner Home Video.

* And in case anyone doesn't "get" it, a line is dubbed in once Reed is out of sight "I'm leaving, Gordo'" as if we couldn't remember what was said ten seconds before, and the empty frame wasn't already suggesting it.

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