“To Live and Die in L.A.” is one of the best crime films of the 1980s. Looking at the trailer, you’d be hard-pressed to figure out why the film wasn’t a hit, considering its rapid-fire editing, intense action, and excellent cast, which featured Willem Dafoe, William Peterson, John Turturro, and John Pankow early in their careers. On the surface, it looks like every Don Simpson/Jerry Bruckheimer produced box-office blockbuster from the period.
However, director William Friedkin has an uncanny ability to make things complex, where the alleged “good guys” aren’t all that good. In fact, the good guys do a lot of morally and legally objectionable things … but unlike a “Dirty Harry” film, they pay dearly for their transgressions. In other words, “To Live and Die in L.A.” makes you, the audience member, pay dearly for your transgressions, more specifically, your voyeurism at all the graphic violence and sex that Friedkin piles on. Nobody says movie watching is easy, but if you’re OK with films that explore grey areas, “To Live and Die in L.A.” is an amazing experience. I remember seeing it twice in the theater when I was 15 (you gotta love those morally lackadaisical theater owners back in the day who didn’t give a s–t about enforcing R-ratings) and among friends who had seen it, we all thought it was as cool as “Scarface.” To say this is a movie they don’t make anymore is an understatement. I’m actually surprised it got greenlit back in the 1980s. Today, it might get a nod as a cable movie, but that’s about it.
This film appears to be based on Carole King’s life … but not exactly. Because writer-director Allison Anders did a very smart thing when she came up with “Grace of My Heart.” Instead of going the straight biopic route … and getting raked over the coals for fudging details of what actually happened to keep the story moving, she fictionalized her account. This way, she could create composites of people, tell a compelling story, and keep people focused on her film. And, instead of trying to buy the rights to all of the great songs from the Brill Building era (which would have been cost-prohibitive), she hired the composers of that period (Burt Bachrach, Gerry Goffin, etc) and teamed them up with Elvis Costello and others to write new songs. This was another incredibly smart move, because not only are the new songs terrific in their own right, but having the old songs would have further distracted audiences from the narrative.
Anders script and directing are terrific. There’s loads of great actors in this film (Eric Stoltz, Matt Dillon, Patsy Kensit, Bridget Fonda, John Turturro), but Illeana Douglas towers above them all in the performance of her career as the lead, Edna Buxton. She should have copped an Oscar nomination for this. Unfortunately, even though Martin Scorsese was Executive Producer, the film was released by Gramercy Pictures (the mini-major created by Universal Pictures and Polygram Films), who botched the release of a lot of terrific films of the period (“Dazed and Confused,” “Mallrats,” “Bound,” “Kalifornia”) that are now considered classics. When they had the occasional hit (“Four Weddings and a Funeral,” “Fargo”), it seemed purely accidental. But I digress …
This is the musical highlight of the film, in my opinion. “God Give Me Strength” was written by Burt Bachrach and Elvis Costello and is sung by Kristen Vigard (Douglas is lip-syncing).
If you want to hear a great podcast about this film, check out The Projection Booth’s episode on this film. It’s really terrific.