Go to the Digital Library top page!

Language Arts

Return to The Outsiders top page!

Susie Loves Matt
American Film
April 1983

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 "art" novel.

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 set.

"Susie's great," Dillon comments, with typical teenage reserve.

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 wanted."

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."

1 of 3 next »

P H O T O   G A L L E R Y
Click to enlarge! S. E. Hinton on Matt Dillon: "I made this kid up!"

Click to enlarge!
The cast of The Outsiders

M O R E . . .
...from the Internet Movie Database page on Francis Ford Coppola's 1983 film version of Hinton's novel, The Outsiders.

Need help searching?
Search help

Search eCUIP:

Examples: or
Contact eCUIP!

Need help?

Return to the eCUIP top page!