There is something magical about In Your Ear, a Boston record store/institution that lies in the basement of a Brazilian martial arts center on Commonwealth Ave. An eclectic shop where after a particularly bad week you will most likely find my wife Lily and I gleefully rummaging through the endless supply of old records, 8-track players, Mexican lobby cards, and vintage movie posters, many of which are for films that have been long forgotten. Unless of course you are Reed Lappin, a lovely man whom I’ve known for most of my thirty years in this city. Reed is the owner of In Your Ear and has always had a great admiration for movies, especially those small lost American movies, which to our good luck, he is always in the mood to talk about late on a Friday night. This past week’s excavation project at In Your Ear produced a poster of a British film from 1975 that starred Richard Dreyfuss and Jessica Harper that we had never heard of entitled “Inserts.” This nostalgic poster was reminiscent of Peter Bogdanovich’s “Nickelodeon,” but this one advertised a film that instead possessed an “X” rating and a tagline reading “A Degenerate Film, With Dignity.” As a result, it piqued our interests, and after a quick description of the plot by Reed, we decided to track it down.
The film is set in a disheveled Hollywood bungalow, sometime in the early 1930s, where we find a scruffy Boy Wonder (Richard Dreyfuss) sauntering around his home in the middle of the day, wine bottle in hand but still in his house robe as he talks up a one-hundred–words-a-second actress named Harlene (Veronica Cartwright) about shooting a scene. We soon find out that something has happened to Boy Wonder, and he has not left this home in some time, and, due to his fallout with the Hollywood system, he has been reduced to shooting pornographic loops in his living room. Harlene is one of his regular actresses, a pretty girl with a fairly irritating voice that is so shrill that we immediately understand why her transition to “talkies” has not been an easy one. Boy Wonder also had a problem making the jump from silent films, but we are not sure as to why this has happened, since directors made the move much easier than some actors who just did not have a “voice.” Early on, Harlene regales Boy Wonder with a conversation between Josef von Sternberg and Clark Gable that she overheard while waitressing where Sternberg had said that Boy Wonder was so down and out that he was panhandling, but that “this kid Gable” had defended him stating that “Boy Wonder was the only real genius in Hollywood and that he wanted to make a film with him,” a fact that Boy Wonder just shrugs off as he gets Harlene ready to shoot some “inserts,” which are short cuts to edit into to final film. Harlene does some smack and then tries to turn Boy Wonder on, even though it is widely known that his “rope won’t rise even a magic flute.”
Soon the male “talent” enters, an actor/mortician comically called “Rex The Wonder Dog” (Stephen Davies), a handsome, stoic young man who is a bit on the slow side and so very anxious to get a role in a “real movie” that he must hustle through his scene today to meet with some Hollywood producer in his hotel room for a shot. Boy Wonder then uses every director’s trick in his bag to get a violent rape scene out of Rex and Harlene, which is indeed as intense as needed, but, alas, Boy Wonder’s camera runs out of film before the climax, so he will eventually need to shoot another “insert” to finish his porno. It is during this scene that we understand that deep inside the dishevelment, Boy Wonder is a real director who is drowning in his own fear.
In walks in our heavy, Big Mac (a pre-“Pennies From Heaven” Bob Hoskins), the new Hollywood, tough and mean with enough money to bankroll Boy Wonder’s skin flick. Big Mac is thinking burger chains and freeways and reminds everyone in the room of Boy Wonder’s collapse from fame. He’s also shown up as usual, unexpectedly, but this time with another wannabe starlet, Cathy Cake (Jessica Harper). She wants to get into the “real movies” as well and makes it clear that although she may appear to just be “silly girl,” she is also more than willing to do what it takes to make it as a star. All that Harlene is looking for right now is her fix of heroin from Big Mac, who supplies her quickly so she is off to go upstairs to fix up despite the pleas of Boy Wonder who tells her she’s had enough. But she doesn’t heed Boy Wonder’s suggestion as we can clearly see that Harlene has had enough in more ways than one and soon she is found dead upstairs. It’s now up to Big Mac to make Harlene disappear, so he leans on Rex’s desire to become a star as Rex has the funeral connection that they need to get rid of the body. That leaves us with Boy Wonder and Cathy who give us almost sixty minutes of intense back and forth dialog as Cathy not only wants to get in the pictures but also get in the head of Boy Wonder. It is this scene with these two fine actors, which makes up the emotional core of the film. Here, Jessica Harper does provide us with the finest performance of the film as she brilliantly skirts the line between vulnerable ingénue and sexual coach.
Director John Byrum Talks About Casting Richard Dreyfuss
First time director John Byrum, who also wrote “Inserts,” creates this world in just one room and amazingly enough, in one take. It should not be surprising then that I should say that “Inserts,” though about the film industry, is really arranged like a stage play with actors having marked dramatic entrances. Though shot on one set, “Inserts” could’ve benefitted from a more daring cinematographer who could have exploited the small moments between Dreyfuss and Harper, which would have better accented the emotional intensity of their performances. One also wonders the necessity of the “X” rating the film received from the MPAA in 1975. Though the dialog may be tawdry, there is little sexually that would warrant an “X,” which even during this decade of sexual freedom might have been the reason for its unfortunate box office failure. One still has to admire this film’s ability to capture 1930’s Hollywood so well, a time and place where one small mistake could make or break a career and where talents could rise up through some very dark passages.
Thanks Reed for picking this one out of the bin for us.