Stars Jeff Bridges, Martin Landau, Joan Allen, Frederick Forrest.
Aptly and often characterized as a screen biography with direct applications to its director’s own life and psyche, Tucker: The Man and His Dream is the one Francis Ford Coppola movie made after Apocalypse Now that ranks with my FFC favorites. My overriding concern about this new Blu-ray release was whether or nor it would do justice to the picture’s electric pigments — and not just with the cars that are its heart and soul but even in day-to-day household scenes that include some out in the Tucker family barn. The result turns out to be (for a $14.99 list price) one of the most gorgeous Blu-rays I’ve ever seen of a movie made after the three-strip Technicolor era. As its standout visuals go, this is Vittorio Storaro, baby, photographing resplendent paint and wax jobs beyond Earl Scheib’s wildest dreams.
Preston Tucker was the imaginative but brazenly cheeky-to-a-fault dreamer who tried unsuccessfully (aside from moral victories and even one in court) to ruffle the auto industry’s Big Three. He, unlike them, wanted to serve returning veterans who were looking for what his advertising termed the “Car of Tomorrow — Today.” And compared with the tank-like clunkers we see every day chugging down MGM backlot streets on Turner Classic Movies, the Tucker was a handsome structure. Coppola says on the disc’s bonus extras that as a kid whose not particularly flush father invested some money in the enterprise, it looked to him like a rocket ship.
Beyond the cool design, which featured the engine in back and luggage compartment in the front, it was full of safety innovations. You know: really crackpot ones like padded dashboard, pop-out windows to minimize the damage of wrecks, and seatbelts. (As late as 1958 or ’59 in my own experience, I can remember a cousin-by-marriage who sold car seatbelts for a living, and every family member, behind his back, thought, “tee-hee” and “isn’t that cute?”) Detroit, like today’s movies, simply followed what it thought the public wanted to the exclusion of all else. More than one observer has drawn a correlation between the rise of oversized fins and taillights and Jayne Mansfield’s emergence as a star.
Coppola, of course, once had his own ideas about how movies should be made and distributed, and his heavy personal losses when One From the Heart tried to buck the Hollywood system forced him into becoming a sometimes uninspired for-hire filmmaker who, let it be said, also makes wine that I really like. With George Lucas as executive producer and some magic that made a $24 million budget look like more, Tucker was the realization of a dream project that Coppola had once envisioned as, of all things, a collaborative musical endeavor with Betty Comden and Adolph Green.
Jeff Bridges plays Tucker as an eternal optimist, and it’s a role that comes naturally to him — a guy prone to temper fits that last about five seconds before returning to the mostly perennial smile that’s his way of facing by-the-minute challenges (only 51 Tuckers got made). The movie feels totally fanciful, but a consistent directorial vision throughout makes it work against the odds; Coppola claims on the bonus commentary here that at least in broad-stroke terms, the incidents portrayed stick fairly close to real events. Well, maybe, but the movie would still play like a dream (Tucker’s or the filmmaker’s) even if they didn’t.
The villains here are the colluding auto companies, the slick silver-hairs in Tucker’s boardroom who want to substitute their own product vision, and Michigan Sen. Homer Ferguson — the person who later wrote the original bill that shoehorned “under God” into the Pledge of Allegiance when I was in second grade and is here played by Jeff’s real-life papa Lloyd Bridges. As the movie’s standout heavy, the Ferguson we see here recalls Alan Alda’s slimy portrayal of Maine Sen. Owen Brewster in The Aviator, even though it’s hard to claim that Brewster was totally out of line for feeling a little weary when it came to Howard Hughes. I always wonder what it must be like for descendants of these sharks (Brewster was a Joe McCarthy acolyte) to see gramps portrayed so repulsively by filmmakers with the stature of Coppola and Scorsese.
Joan Allen has always come off as a submerged dish to me, and one of the things I like most here — and this is, no doubt, fanciful — is the way Mrs. Tucker always seems to be decked out in seducto-duds of one kind of another when entering and exiting her scenes in the French farce known as the Tucker home. It’s complete with a blur of children, eternally stressed designers and mechanics (Frederick Forest, Mako, Elias Koteas) and dogs. Christian Slater plays one of the kids, and he barely looks old enough to get hired at the Dairy Queen.
In 1988, a great movie summer where paying customers also more or less ignored The Last Temptation of Christ, Bull Durham, Running on Empty, Clean and Sober, Married to the Mob, Labor Day’s Eight Men Out (and I could go on), Tucker underperformed but did spur renewed interest in the cars themselves, most of which were still runnable at the time of its release and sold in the collectors’ market for prices that only folks like Lucas or Coppola could afford. As a Blu-ray, the movie is something of a demo model for tank-sized home screens. Beyond Coppola’s intro and voiceover, it also comes equipped with a making-of featurette and a 1948 promotional film for the car that Coppola modified and used as the basis of Tucker’s opening scene.