The Arkansas River, which
cuts through the center of Tulsa, Oklahoma, is wide,
shallow, and sluggish. It moves imperceptibly under
the heavy, humid August air; temperatures have been
hitting over a hundred for weeks. In summer, most
things in Tulsa seem to come to a halt. People who
were attracted by the now long-gone unemployment rate
of two percent sit outside at night to escape the
closeness of small, rented homes that don't have air
conditioners. Their children are the children about
whom and for whom Francis Coppola is making Rumble
Fish, a film based on S. E. Hinton's self-proclaimed
Rumble Fish is an expressionist parable
of coming of age with unconscious stylistic links
to Ernest Hemingway, Raymond Chandler, and James
M. Cain. "I had to worry about money, and whether
or not the old man would drink up his check before
I got part of it ... and I had a cop itching to
blow my brains out. ... So I didn't have much
time for serious thinking about my life," says
Rusty-James, the novel's narrator-hero. Coppola's
standard link is to compare The Outsiders,
his conventionally conceived film of Hinton's
first novel, to The Godfather; he compares
Rumble Fish with its Caligari
camera angles, its Cat People fog, and
its Citizen Kane shadows to Apocalypse
Now. For her part, Hinton is happy to leave
comparisons aside. She has read almost no Hemingway,
Chandler, or Cain, and she does not intend to
read more: Her hard-boiled teenybopper tough guys,
with warm but not soft hearts thudding gently
under black leather carapaces, are her own inventions,
and would like to keep them that way.
Matt Dillon, who plays Rusty-James in Rumble
Fish, doesn't much like comparisons either.
"Marlon Brando?" he says at the mention of the
name most often paired with his. "When I was doing
Over the Edge and was playing around, someone
told me I was like Brando. I didn't take that
as a compliment. I thought he was a fat old man
the only thing I'd seen him in was The
Godfather. Then I saw A Streetcar Named
Desire." Dillon's eyes narrow. "I remember
a few things from it. It was ... interesting."
Everyone is predicting stardom for this unassertive
kid who made his film debut at fourteen in Over
the Edge. If he achieves it, he will have
his talent, luck, Hinton, and Coppola to thank,
in that order. After Dillon's impressive performance
in My Bodyguard, Tex (based on another
Hinton novel), and The Outsiders, Rumble
Fish promises to establish him once and for
all. He may someday play Paul Newman to Sean Penn's
Robert De Niro.
Hinton remembers being "horrified" when Tex
director asked her to take a look at Dillon. "Tex
is a sweet little unworldly cowboy, and here was
this guy who said, 'Like, man,' and told me Rumble
Fish was his favorite book. When I get a letter
from a kid who says Rumble Fish is his
favorite book, he's usually in a reformatory."
Hinton's about-face was total and led to a fascinating
symbiotic relationship between the writer of children's
books and the star of children's movies. "All
of a sudden," Hinton recalls, "I thought, I made
this kid up; I wrote this kid. He was exactly
the kid I was writing about and for really
bright, doesn't fit into the system, has possibilities
beyond the obvious." Hinton decided she him in
The Outsiders, too, but got nowhere with
Warner Bros. So she went directly to Coppola.
In due course, Dillon was cast.
"I love that kid," Hinton says, telling a long
story about Dillon's maturity in dealing with
an inebriated adult actor on the Rumble Fish
"Susie's great," Dillon comments, with typical
Bystanders on the Rumble Fish set have noticed
that the Hinton-Dillon relationship has already
cooled. Dillon is involved with a woman in her
twenties and Hinton, having grown somewhat weary
of the responsibilities of playing parent ("It's
as close as I've ever come, and it isn't an entirely
pleasant experience you worry a lot"),
is protecting herself against the loneliness of
the sideshow leaving town. Dillon's thoughts are
on the future: Rumble Fish, he knows, is
the vehicle that could do him the most good. Or
the most harm.
Hinton's novels, and the films made from them,
are generously greeted as documents carrying the
timeliness of tomorrow (the ads for Tex
were one-word come-ons: "Tex. Tough. Tender.
Today"). In that context, their thoroughgoing
maleness is surprising and oddly old-fashioned.
The books are always about boys; except as addenda
to the males, there are no Hinton Little Women.
"When I was a teenager, I didn't understand what
girls were talking about," she explains. "They
were always waiting for something to happen; they
got to stand in the john, rat their hair, and
outline their eyes in black. Even now, when I
go to baby showers, I still feel like I'm an anthropologist
at some weird rite."
As her blue Mercedes streaks past the gaudy bronze
hands that adorn the entrance to evangelist Oral
Roberts's City of Faith medical complex - "Part
space station, part Disneyland," Hinton cackles
she cheerfully confesses ignorance of children's
literature. "I don't know what the latest hot
trend is. I hate the 'problem' approach. Problems
change. Character remains the same. I write character."
With equal cheer, she discusses her role in what
she hopes will be a movie revolution. Young-adult
fiction has long been savvy and sophisticated
in its treatment of teenagers, and she would like
to see that savvy and sophistication come to the
screen. "Teenagers are not," she says with disgust,
"the sex-crazed morons you see in most movies."
Why is she committed to kids? "It's an interesting
time of life. Feelings are more dramatic, ideals
are slamming up against the walls of compromise.
They have more feelings than any other segment
of society, but they are more afraid of showing
their feelings than any other segment."
The character of Rusty-James is heavy with teenage
anomie, but he's basically a sweet guy. Dillon
concedes autobiographical overtones, but stops
at the leather-jacketed, James Dean iconography.
"Of course, you know that Rumble Fish is
glorified. I never got my head smashed in by a
crowbar, like Rusty-James does. Kids I knew really
got into the book, but it wasn't their life. We
weren't poor. Sometimes being from the middle
class is not great either. You're in the middle
again. You can't complain that you've been too
spoiled, and you can't complain that you've never
had anything. That's why in The Outsiders
it says that things can be rough all over for
kids." That's all he'll say on the subject
he has already developed the protective instincts
toward his privacy he will need to survive. Speaking
professionally, he echoes Brando: "I didn't realize
what acting was, until I started doing it. I had
been acting all my life without knowing it."
What Dillon wants most is to "keep on doing what
I'm doing. I feel I have a lot to accomplish."
The "Teencake Agonistes" treatment he received
from Rolling Stone is part of that process,
and his dismissal of it seems genuine. "I think
that if anyone can handle stardom," Hinton conjectures
confidently, "Matt can." The comparisons to Brando
and Dean have rattled him, however; he is not
at ease in the company of the deceased and porcine.
"I never thought about being a star, until it
happened. Now, I can't start over at something
else without everyone knowing about it and watching.
A lot of other people want to be stars because
of the immortality. James Dean he made
three movies, right? And Jim Morrison; he's like
Dean, dead but not forgotten. They got what they
Dillon twitches his lip, Presley-style. Can it
be that he imagines himself following the blazing
footsteps of legends who burn out early, after
all? The laugh is contemptuous this time. "J.
D. Salinger, man, he's a legend and he's still
alive! Tennessee Williams is he still working?
I thought so. I always like to hear that. It's
like Francis he keeps going, man, he never
quits. I like hearing that to be great you don't
have to be insane."
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H O T O G A L L E R
E. Hinton on Matt
made this kid
cast of The Outsiders
M O R E . . .
page on Francis Ford Coppola's
1983 film version of Hinton's
novel, The Outsiders.