Saturday Night At The Movies: Why 'Noble Rot' died on the vine
Last week, we talked about John Belushi's career in terms of the broad strokes, and I mentioned that there was one project in particular that I thought summed up the troubles faced by the actor during his damnably brief career in Hollywood, and this week, we'll take a look at the script for that project, and what its failure in the development process said about this business.
Don Novello is probably best known to audiences as the character he created and played in the '70s, Father Guido Sarducci. Best described as an uber-hip Catholic priest, Sarducci was a regular on "Weekend Update" and even released books and a stand-up comedy album called "Breakfast In Heaven" at one point.
Novello was also a writer, though, and his most notorious screenplay is called "Noble Rot," a film that was supposed to star John Belushi as the lead. It was actually rebuilt from a Jay Sandrich script called "Sweet Deception," and Novello reworked it almost completely. Belushi was a co-writer on the film, and he saw it as a chance to define his own onscreen persona. He was frustrated by offers to do films like Paramount's proposed "National Lampoon's The Joy Of Sex," where they wanted to put Belushi in a diaper for his sketch. He was dismayed at the idea of having to play variations on Bluto for his whole career, id-addled rage babies who just acted out. It's the same fear that Chris Farley always described as "Fatty Falls Down syndrome." I'd only ever read about "Noble Rot" until recently, so when the script landed on my desk, i was excited to finally get a look at the way Belushi saw himself, versus the way he was seen by executives.
The closest thing in his filmography to "Noble Rot" is "Continental Divide," which was designed by screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan as a sort of a throwback to a romantic comedy age when Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn ruled supreme and wit was a valued and attractive commodity. "Noble Rot" offers up a very different type of character in Johnny Glorioso, one of two sons in a family of vintners. The Gloriosos have always raised their grapes and then sold them to major winemaking labels, and they decided that they would finally give it a try and make some wine of their own. Now, with an amazing first year in the bottle, they're ready to compete with the major labels, sure that they've got a one-of-a-kind wine that will win awards and put them on the map.
Sal, Johnny's older brother, is the face of the company. He's a shrewd businessman, smart and balanced, and very much like his father. Johnny, on the other hand, is brilliant but has a slight problem, especially for someone who makes wine for a living: the moment he starts drinking, he goes off-the-rails insane. On the eve of a major wine tasting, Sal suffers a major shellfish allergic reaction and their father has no choice but to send Johnny to New York with the sample bottles of their wine so he can attend the tasting.
From his introduction in handcuffs in the back of a cop car, it would be easy to assume that Johnny is going to be a typical Belushi character, wild and unleashed, but that's really not the Johnny we get to know over the first act of the script, where he's revealed to be a sweet, nervous guy who really wants to do right by his family. He ends up next to a woman named Christine Walsh in first class on his flight, and he tries to flirt a little bit, talking to her about the wine she's drinking, asking questions about the in-flight magazine. He's so utterly without pretense that he's like a kid. He's just not polished at all. He gets so flustered that he goes to the bathroom to smoke a joint, and by the time he gets back, Christine's arranged with a stewardess (the script was written in the '70s, keep in mind) to have Johnny moved to another first class seat. He's hurt, but takes it as much in stride as he can.
When they land at the airport, Christine realizes that a guy who was on the plane with her is actually following her, and she freaks out and hops in the nearest cab… where Johnny sits with his case of wine. She needs to get out of there, so she asks Johnny to tell the cabbie that it's okay. That she can share the ride. And Johnny's a nice guy, still thinking he can charm her, and he says yes.
Which pretty much ruins his life.
It's the screwball formula, with a touch of Hitchcock "wrong man" movie thrown in, and Christine is a very strong character. She tortures Johnny, using him once she realizes that the people chasing her think Johnny is a contact, part of a jewel heist, and not an innocent pawn. His family's fortunes are tied up in this briefcase of his with the wine bottles in it, and she keeps stealing it. Moving it. Playing head games with him, using the bottle as bait to keep him moving forward. And no matter how many times she kicks him in the first half of the script, Johnny just keeps taking it, keeps trying to be a good guy.
I think that's the key. That's what makes this a good Belushi vehicle. That's what made "Neighors" an interesting choice for him, and nearly a great movie. The idea of Belushi as a pressure cooker, and you just keep turning up the heat, is built into many of his great moments on "SNL," and in a sketch, he can be at full volume pretty much the whole time. What makes Johnny such a likable lead in "Noble Rot" is that he starts at such a gentle place, but we're promised that there is a Mr. Hyde buried deep inside that Dr. Jekyll.
When Johnny finally starts to realize he's being gamed, he immediately jumps in. There's a car chase that sort of shifts the tone from the first half of the film to the second, and at the end of it, Johnny jumps his car and lands it on a ferry that's already left the dock, leaving his pursuers behind. He thinks he's being chased by The New York State Grape Growers Association, determined to sabotage his chances in the tasting. The people chasing him think he has ten million dollars worth of diamonds. And Christine and her partners in crimekeep playing everyone, although she starts to feel bad about it.
There's a walk on a beach in Maine that is sort of terrifying for Johnny but nostalgic for Christine, who grew up there, and it's a big moment in their relationship. it's the first real moment for Christine, and Johnny's just sort of scared of the weather and the water and this woman who keeps screwing him over. Right in the middle of it, after Johnny basically tells her she's a crazy person, the following is written:
SFX: MUSIC, VERY SQUARE. PERHAPS BARRY MANILOW
And god help me, I laughed for ten minutes.
Instead of a ticking clock, there are a finite number of bottles that Johnny has with him, each one wrapped in a t-shirt. He has a total of four, and he needs two for the competition, so he has a two-bottle buffer. He opens one in a hotel room early on when he thinks he has a chance to sleep with Christine the first time. Then later on, after that walk on the beach, he opens another, confident that he and Christine are finally ready to get closer.
And even when Christine tries to do the right thing, the wine ends up in the wrong car, and has to chase the case down again. He does finally reach the wine-tasting, though, earlier than you'd expect in the script, and for a moment, it seems like everything is worth it. The first two judges freak out over how good the wine is, but when the French judge gets involved, he is obviously biased, refusing to compliment the wine because it's from California, and all of the stress and tension of the trip erupt, and Johnny finally, finally, FINALLY unleashes, the full Belushi, kicking off an act three where Christine and Johnny's stories keep colliding in surprising ways, with Johnny finally taking the upper hand, and with the film wrapping up in a way that defies the conventions of everything it sets in motion.
So… would "Noble Rot" have been a great film? Probably not. The worst-case scenario here is something like the Tom Hanks vehicle "The Man With One Red Shoe," and there's a lot of the script that doesn't really add up. The team chasing the diamonds in the first place sort of drop out while another batch of bad guys pop up in the film's second half, and none of them are all that interesting. The most fun stuff in the film happens between Christine and Johnny, and there's big sections of movie where they are kept apart by plot mechanics. The wine-tasting stuff is given the bum's rush, when the material about Johnny being a total savant with wine is some of the best material in the script. "Noble rot" is a term that describes an occasional fungal infection that "ruins" a crop of grapes yet curiously can yield the most amazing wine, and at the start of the film, Johnny's dad describes Johnny as the family's "noble rot," the one who seems spoiled, but who can deliver real magic at times. It's a great conception for a character, and there are moments where the film lives up to that, but I don't think it ever quite gets there. Oddly, the film never really gets Johnny drunk after what we hear in the start of the film, so we never see just how far off-the-rails he can get. When he does finally pop, it's justified because of everything that's been done to him.
What I get from the script more than anything is a desperate sense of trying to find a story that can harness all the various energies that Belushi had, all the interests he was chasing. I'm surprised they didn't build in a musical number somewhere, based on the way Johnny talks about music in the film. And to be honest, there were reportedly dozens of drafts of this thing, so I have no idea what version of "Noble Rot" I read. I'm just glad I finally read a draft of it, and more than every, I'm sorry again about the potential that went so painfully unrealized in Belushi's career. He was 33 years old when he died, and he'd only been making films for a handful of years. He still wasn't even sure who he was, and "Noble Rot" reads like someone looking to define themselves. I take it from what I've read that "Noble Rot" was a tough process for Novello and Belushi, but in the long run, it would have been a significant one for them, and may well have yielded a sweet vintage in the end.
Have you missed earlier columns in this series?
"Saturday Night At The Movies" runs here every Saturday night. Appropriately enough.
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