Last night, during the latest installment of Nitehawk’s series The Deuce, James Toback revealed that there’s a reason the head-smashing scene in his debut feature looks so real. It’s because, according to the controversial director, it was real.
The scene in Fingers happens after Dreems, a club owner played by football legend Jim Brown, initiates a fourway with Jimmy Angellini, the sensitive pianist and ruthless debt collector played by a young Harvey Keitel. When one of the women cavorting with Dreems refuses to kiss the other, Dreems smashes both of their heads together. Even 37 years after the film’s debut at the Selwyn Theater in Times Square, the sudden act of violence caused the audience at Nitehawk to gasp.
According to Toback, Brown was supposed to make sure their heads missed by an inch, but the head-smash actually left one of the actresses bleeding. Toback said that he tried to get the football star to ease up for the next take. But Brown, who had been accused of physically abusing women on several occasions, is said to have refused, arguing that the director had convinced him to do the movie (a risky career move) on the basis that it would show his deepest, darkest self.
It wouldn’t be the last time an athlete with a checkered past got violent in a Toback movie: last night, the garrulous filmmaker retold the story of Mike Tyson slapping and almost choking out Robert Downey, Jr. during an unscripted gay come-on scene in Black and White.
Toback himself took a punch to the face in his 1983 film Exposed, as recently recounted by Page Six. And it turns out he took a blow for Fingers, as well. When the stock audio effect for a pistolwhipping sounded more like a balloon popping, he re-recorded it by hitting himself upside the head with a revolver. It was so realistic it remains in the studio’s sound library, he said.
Of course, some will be familiar with Toback less for movies such as The Pick-Up Artist and more for his reputation as a real-life pick-up artist. Spy and Gawker have published numerous tales from women who say he approached them and invited them to talk about appearing in one of his movies, only to end up telling them things like, “Just touch my nipples and I’ll come.” (Incidentally, the women in Fingers give Jim Brown’s nipples a lot of attention.)
That’s probably why there was nervous laughter when Toback recounted how, during the filming of Fingers, he approached a young girl who was out alone at 1am and asked her if she would add some action to a scene by doing cartwheels. Toback ended up taking the child back to her apartment, but rest assured it was only to get parental consent for the shoot.
By the way, it’s not just women who get the “I want to put you in my movie” spiel. Toback made that clear last night by telling this doozy of a story:
When I was in my 20s I was, um, fucking this girl in Central Park around 1 or 2 am in Sheep Meadow, of all places, and I feel this figure hovering over me. I turn around and there’s a guy there with a knife. I thought, “I can’t believe how fucking stupid I am. What am I doing here? I’m going to get stabbed in fucking Central Park? What a horrible fucking way to end my life.” I was so depressed, I was almost crying.
She didn’t even notice him for a little while– it was like a full minute after that and then she looks at him. And he’s standing there with this fucking knife and I said, “Listen, I hope you’re not planning on doing anything crazy like that because I actually am starting a film career.” I said, “My name is James Toback and I just did a movie called The Gambler,” and I start giving my whole thing. And he’s listening, I can see he’s getting intrigued. I said, “Listen, I’m not going to promise anything I can’t deliver, but here’s what I want to suggest. The Brasserie is open 24 hours a day, it’s on 53rd Street. They have great food there– why don’t you let me put my clothes on, she puts her clothes on, we’ll go over to The Brasserie, we’ll have like an early breakfast/late dinner, whatever you want to call it. I’ll tell you about this next film, if I can fit you in I will, but at the very least I’m going to give you seom money.”
And he said, “Well, you can give me the money right now.”
I said, “I honeslty don’t have anything– here, I’ll show you my wallet, I’ve got like $20, that’s it.” I said (this was before ATM and stuff like that), “But, if we stop by my apartment she can wait downstairs with you on the street, I’ll run up and get whatever money I have in my apartment, and then we’ll go to The Brasserie.”
He said, “How do I know you won’t call the police?”
I said, “Oh, come on, please,” as if like, “Why would I do that to my best friend?”
So, I did feel honorbound to live up to my word– we went back, I got like $250, I came down, I gave him the money, and he said, “Well, we don’t have to go out for food.”
And I said, “No, I want to.” So we go out to The Brasserie and we talk for about an hour and a half. And I’m hoping that I can figure out a way to use him, but he just wasn’t interesting enough. But I did everything else that I said I would do.
He didn’t have a phone, but I gave him my phone number. He called me a couple of times. I said, “Great to hear from you.” Finally, he stopped calling and the relationship phased out.
Okay, makes sense. But what about all those women who weren’t holding knives? Why did he invite all of them back to the Harvard Club? The event’s moderator, Heaven Knows What director Josh Safdie, told Toback, “I wanted to talk about your beautiful taste in women,” but unfortunately they were out of time.
“Oh, yeah, Jesus, I know,” Toback groaned.