As a man in my forties, I have to first establish how dumbfounded I still am that it has been twenty years since the release of the film, 2 Days In The Valley. A fact that I only realized when The Cinefamily, the community film lovers group that I am a part of here in Los Angeles, announced on their website that they would be hosting an anniversary screening of the quintessentially 90s film, combined with a reunion of every possible member of the cast whom they could find.
Recently, big screen talent arriving in person with their films has become almost commonplace at The Cinefamily, with the likes of legendary actor, Al Pacino, doing a three day stay at the theater to screen his directorial effort, Salome, or young stars like this year’s best actress Oscar winner Brie Larson stopping by to show Room, but with the 2 Days In The Valley screening, the seemingly ageless and immensely talented A-list actress, Charlize Theron, would be there to talk about her feature film debut, which I imagined caused such a commotion that the event was soon moved from the smallish confines of the Silent Film Theater on Fairfax, The Cinefamily regular home, to the recently refurbished, NeueHouse, an impressively sleek and massive space on Sunset Boulevard which was once the home of CBS Radio beginning in the 1930s. It was clear that this was going to be The Cinefamily’s biggest night of the year so far.
So, before I discuss the goings on that occurred at NeueHouse in Hollywood on July 8th, 2016, I would like to go back to the year that 2 Days In The Valley was released, 1996, to get a sense of where my head was in terms of American cinema when I first saw the film and why, short of the presence of Ms. Theron, I would even be interested in attending this event.
Since the late 1980s, I had been completely caught up the independent film revolution that was sweeping America. It was an exciting time during those days as theaters were suddenly showing smaller, more personal, low budget films like Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise or Allison Anders’ Border Radio, which were so radically different from the bigger budget dramas and comedies that Hollywood was producing post Star Wars. The exact origins of this bizarre phenomenon were lost on me until John Sayles, the king of indie cinema, described it in the interview Lily and I did with him back in February of this year:
“I think that we were just lucky that we stumbled into filmmaking right about when the few independent distributors that there were were starting to have to deal with this new thing called ‘home video,’ and so the theaters that showed non-Hollywood movies can’t just trot out 400 Blows every August 5th and play it for two weeks because people could now own that movie, so what else are we going to show now? So, there was an audience, and there were playdates for independent movies.”
By the early 1990s, these independently produced features were making decent enough returns on their small budgets to keep the demand flowing and with that demand, a wider range of niche topics that could now be explored as the financial loss risk was minimal; that is until 1994, when Tarantino’s tawdry, dialog-heavy film crime film, Pulp Fiction, which was produced for a mere eight million dollars, grossed over two hundred million, which made the suits in Hollywood stand up and notice.
Suddenly the major studios saw a need to tap into the alternative youth culture by doing the only thing that they know how to do best: copy every single facet of what they believed made Pulp Fiction the success that it was by creating a formula that yielded a few happy accidents and a larger, more wretched collection of pale imitations.
By the fall of 1996, the internet was all the rage and the average American citizen was feeling immense prosperity in an unprecedented way, and with this dizzying wealth, you had the lowest crime statistics in over thirty years, but you would never know that based on what you were seeing on the big screen as Hollywood went dime store novel crime crazy with all of the violent tropes witnessed in Pulp Fiction. American Strays, Bound, and The Immortals all were seemingly produced in a matter of months after the release of Tarantino’s magnum opus to cash in on that film’s success.
Many films like, American Strays, deservedly went straight to video and vanished; Bound received critical praise, but tanked at the box office, and next to be released in another of what seemed to be fitted into the Tarantino mold, was 2 Days In The Valley, which features indie stalwart, Eric Stoltz (who in terms of indie cinema of the 1990s is the male counterpart to Janeane Garofalo), Danny Aiello, Jeff Daniels, James Spader, Glenne Headly, Teri Hatcher, and in one of the most striking film debuts in that decade’s history, Charlize Theron.
Directing Two Days In The Valley was John Herzfeld, whom a few critics noted at the time as the man in charge of the disastrous 1983 John Travolta/Olivia Newton-John vehicle, Two Of A Kind. Not the kind of press you need when releasing your first feature in thirteen years, and after the release of 2 Days In The Valley garnered some mixed reviews, the film was soon blended into that post-Pulp Fiction era of American crime cinema and is rarely spoken about these days.
On July 8th, 2016, any sign of 2 Days In The Valley’s failure to achieve an audience in the mid-1990s was lost shortly after Herzfeld lovingly welcomed the packed house at NeueHouse. To be fair, most were in attendance for an opportunity to see Charlize Theron in person, but the enthusiastic crowd still reveled in the anniversary screening of her debut film, which, despite some seriously clumsy issues with the dialog and a few needless cultural misrepresentations for effect, is still a pretty clever metaphor for the fading face of old Hollywood wrapped in an Elmore Leonard-inspired wrapper.
Having not seen the film in two decades, my real takeaway was how genuine the performance was from the late director Paul Mazursky, who essentially plays the onscreen persona of Herzfeld, who in real life had been languishing in TV movie hell for years after the Two Of A Kind mishap, having even directed one of the three notorious Amy Fisher biopics that all aired on the same night in 1993. If you’re keeping track of such things, Herzfeld’s version was the one that starred Alyssa Milano.
Immediately after the screening, the cast of Herzfeld, Theron, Headly, and production designer, Catherine Hardwicke took the stage and began to lovingly reminisce about their experiences during the production of the film, but again, it was Theron, who dominated the conversation as Herzfeld’s film was her first featured role in a Hollywood production as she explained:
“I had been in L.A. for about 10 months. I really didn’t know where my life was going to go. I was so intrigued by this aspect of storytelling, even though I wasn’t crystal clear about what it was. I think my naivety and stupidity kind of helped me in a weird way. And John was crazy enough to give me the job.”
Soon after that statement, Theron floored the audience (many of whom were budding actors themselves) by admitting that 2 Days In The Valley was only the fourth audition that she had ever gone on since arriving in Hollywood. In the short pause after she delivered that tasty tidbit of news, the entire room let out a collective gasp, which seemed to be filled with amazement and a tinge of envy. Hadrian Belove, the evening’s host and Executive Director of The Cinefamily, responded to Theron’s statement by announcing that he had, courtesy of Herzfeld, the star actress’s original audition tape cued up and ready to screen, which caused Theron to hide in embarrassment.
Catherine Hardwicke, now a fine director in her own right, followed Theron’s moment of shame by boasting of the joy she felt in creating the random ridiculous and mostly oversized objects d’art that would be found in the home of one of the film’s heavies, a ponce of an art dealer, superbly played by Greg Cruttwell, who seemed to have a knack for portraying jerks as he is well remembered as the vile cultural elitist, Jeremy, in Mike Leigh’s masterful 1993 film, Naked. Actress, Glenne Headly, then humorously recalled the overdramatic fuss that Danny Aiello made when he was asked to shave his head as his hitman character, Dosmo Pizzo, was supposed to have a poorly affixed hairpiece that comedically falls off from time to time. Director Herzfeld then explained that the bizarre character name of Dosmo Pizzo came from the same place that was the source of inspiration for the entire film: a graveyard. As Herzfeld explained, one day he was laying flowers on his mother’s grave when he noticed the name, Dosmo Pizzo, on a nearby tombstone which inspired him to take out a tape recorder and dictate to himself not only some of the other odd names of the nearby entombed, but also the plot for what would be Two Days In The Valley.
The most entertaining moment of the evening occurred once the panel began to take questions from the audience. Immediately, someone connected to the film yelled out that “Danny Aiello was trying to get Herzfeld on the phone to be part of the evening’s discussion.” Herzfeld then called his friend, Danny, who sadly couldn’t make the event, and once being broadcast through a hand mic, Aiello chastised the director for never having written a sequel to 2 Days In The Valley as he always wanted to see the trajectory of Dosmo Pizzo and the Glenne Headly character of Susan Parish, who defiantly drive off together at the end of the film. Aiello, heard throughout the building as he was yelling through Herzfeld’s cellphone into the microphone, said, “We could’ve lived happily ever after and opened up a pizzeria on the East Coast like I did in Do The Right Thing.”
Not too long after Aiello’s manic phone call did Belove call the evening to an end, but not before the cast began a very endearing sequence of hugs to each other with genuine appreciation to the audience for being there and honoring their film, which despite its lack of initial success, still meant a lot to them as one of the most entertaining experiences they had ever had on a film set, and for one young actress, it was the break that made for a very successful film career that is still going strong till this day.