Cotton Club, The (1984): Coppola’s Lavishly Produced, Emotionally Hollow Period Piece, Starring Richard Gere

Sharply uneven, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Cotton Club is a lavishly produced period musical about the 1920s-1930s legendary Harlem night club where only blacks performed and only whites could sit in the audience.

Mixing historical figures with characters loosely based on actual people, Coppola and co-writers William Kennedy and Mario Puzo create a rich but superficial chronicle of love and crime, song and dance and entertainment.

Cornet player Dixie Dwyer (Richard Gere, playing his own solos) escapes psycho gangster “benefactor” Dutch Schultz (James Remar) for a George Raft-type Hollywood career as a gangster film star.

The femme fatale is Schultz’s seductive mistress Vera Cicero (Diane Lane), who loves Dixie, against her own, better instincts.

The other personas are Cotton Club Mob owner Owney Madden (Bob Hoskins) and close associate Frenchy Demarge (Fred Gwynne). Vincent (Nicolas Cage), Dixie’s no-good Mad Dog brother; Club tap star Sandman Williams (Gregory Hines), who courts the light-skinned Club singer Lila Rose Oliver (Lonette McKee), in a role that’s a variation of the real-life, light-skinned Lena Horne, who did perform at the famous club before going Hollywood.

There are cameos by Charles “Honi” Coles and Cab Calloway impersonator Larry Marshall.

Stylistically, Coppola evokes the style of 1930s gangster movies and musicals through the use of old-fashioned devices like montages of headlines, songs and shoot-outs.

Conceived by producer Robert Evans as his directorial debut, Evans had to hand over the troubled production to Coppola, but the budget spiraled out of control as the script was re-written throughout the chaotic shoot.

By the time it was released, “The Cotton Club” production story of power struggles, financial bloat, and murder overshadowed the artistic merits of the film, which are considerable.

“The Cotton Club” got some favorable notices, though it drew criticism for subordinating the African American stories and for overusing montage in displaying the dance numbers.

Ultimately, the movie find a large enough audience to justify its exuberant budget and overcome the hype and controversy, becoming another mark signaling the end of 1970s and early 1980s “auteur” cinema.

Oscar Nominations: 2

Art Direction-Set Decoration: Richard Sylbert; George Gaines and Les Bloom.

Film Editing: Barry Malkin and Robert Q. Lovett

Oscar Awards: None

Oscar Context:

The Art Direction Oscar went to “Amadeus,” which also won Best Picture.

“The Killing Fields” received the Editing Oscar for Jim Clark’s work.

Running times: 127 Minutes.

Directed by Francis Ford Coppola.

Written by William Kennedy, Francis Ford Coppola.

Released: December 14, 1984.

DVD: Jan 19, 2000

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