The screenplay of Altered States is credited to Sidney Aaron, a pseudonym for Paddy Chayefsky, who wrote the script based on his own novel but asked that his name be removed from the final product. Janet Maslin had an interesting theory about this: “It’s easy to guess why (Chayefsky) and Mr. Russell didn’t see eye to eye. The direction, without being mocking or campy, treats outlandish material so matter-of-factly that it often has a facetious ring. The screenplay, on the other hand, cries out to be taken seriously, as it addresses, with no particular sagacity, the death of God and the origins of man.”
This was the first movie for both William Hurt and Drew Barrymore, who was 5 at the time and appears very briefly as one of the Jessup kids. A young John Larroquette has one scene as an X-ray technician. And Hurt’s right-hand man is played by the great Bob Balaban, veteran of everything from Midnight Cowboy to Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but perhaps best known as the NBC executive on Seinfeld whose love for Elaine causes him to lose his mind and eventually his life.
An isolation tank also appears in the tragically underrated Simon, where Alan Arkin plays a philosophy professor who’s tricked into believing he’s from another planet. IMDB calls Simon‘s tank scene a “parody” of Altered States, but seeing as both movies were released in 1980 and Altered States came out on Christmas, I don’t think that’s the case. Perhaps you’d like to judge for yourself? Unfortunately, Simon remains out of print. To the YouTube!
One of the strangest things about Altered States is that — spoiler alert — in the end it reveals itself to be fundamentally a love story.
A romantic comedy it’s not. The first time William Hurt’s character, Eddie Jessup, does it with his lady love, played by the delectable Blair Brown, he talks about Jesus and the crucifixion, then recounts the story of his father’s “painful and protracted death of cancer.” Despite or because of this she falls for him anyway, and their courtship / marriage / separation / etc. runs as a counterpoint to the many bizarre events that transpire.
As Emily Jessup, Brown is utterly crucial to this movie’s credibility, such as it is. Not only do you believe that she is an anthropology professor who just happens to look like a movie star, you believe that she loves Eddie despite his being a singularly difficult person to love. She does as good a job as humanly possible of delivering lines like this: (more…)
I’m probably one of the few people on the planet who has sentimental feelings about this movie, a truly oddball piece of work from legendary oddball director Ken Russell. Altered States announces itself as a Transmission from Planet Weird in its very first moments, where wires float in what appears to be a copper hot water heater with a porthole. Then up into the frame drifts William Hurt wearing dark goggles with his head ensconced in some kind of clear, round space helmet. And we’re off.
This is really Hurt’s film; its story is the story of his character, Edward Jessup, a Harvard professor with a mystical streak who likes to float for hours in an isolation tank. He also develops a certain fondness for the psychedelic mushroom amanita muscaria, and when he decides to mix the two, trouble ensues.
I don’t want to say too much, on the very slim chance that you haven’t seen Altered States and would like to. I recommend it, but not without qualifications: It walks a very delicate line between deep and campy, scary and silly, and sometimes stumbles and treads all over that line. But not unlike Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, it is loaded with such energy that it jumps right over the normal categories to become an animal completely its own. And speaking of animals…well, no, that would be a spoiler.
There will be more to say on this topic, but for now I just want to get something up there, quiet the nagging voices. Happy Monday, everybody.