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Toss up a bottle for the author of 'Cocktail'

Nina Metz

Chicago Closeup

5:18 PM EDT, March 21, 2013

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Before it became a lucrative if critically drubbed exemplar of '80s cinematic cheese, the Tom Cruise vehicle "Cocktail" first sprang to life as a novel by Heywood Gould, who based the book on his experiences bartending throughout New York in the 1970s.

He would go on to write the screenplay adaptation as well (the 1988 film screens Wednesday at Lincoln Hall in a doubleheader with 1989's "Road House"), paving the way for one of Cruise's Cruise-iest turns to date: slick, desperate and dazzling.

That's not quite how the guy is characterized in the book. Think older. Drunker. Scuzzier. A self-described "thirty-eight-year-old weirdo in a field jacket with greasy, graying hair hanging over his collar, his blue eyes streaked like the red sky at morning" who barrels up to the reader early in the first chapter, metaphorical hand extended, the stink of last night's booze still on his breath:

"Permit me to introduce myself. I'm Brian Flanagan, Resort Bartender Extraordinaire. I wander the watering spots, dealing in anecdote fodder, selling a dab of color to the drab, a bit of wit to the wordless. Kindly counselor, stern disciplinarian — gentle deflorations are a side specialty — a man of many parts, a few of which have loosened over the years."

There wasn't room in a big studio film for the book's wry, seedy, lowdown dirtiness, which is why we got Cruise instead, playing a haircut with a moral compass.

It may not be art. It may, in fact, be ridiculous. Twenty-five years after it was released, the movie stands as a prime candidate for running commentary, "Mystery Science Theater 3000"-style. On Wednesday, a group including comedian Joe Kwaczala (host of the weekly "Late Live Show" at iO), Cullen Crawford (who works with the Onion and Groupon) and improviser Christina Boucher will set themselves to the task with a few well-timed observations of their own.

Mockable yet eminently watchable, "Cocktail" was derided by critics when it came out. Audiences shrugged their shoulders at the reviews and said "who cares?" pushing the box office to nearly $200 million worldwide. Gould has no illusions about what the movie is, was or should have been. "People want me to dump on the movie because it's so different from the book," he told me. He's pretty happy with it, all in all. And he couldn't care less if you think he's a sellout.

Reached at his home in New York, Gould revealed himself to be exactly the kind of delightfully profane raconteur you could picture slinging drinks behind a bar. He called the book a "puke-ectomy," the fruit of many a bleary night and hung over morning. When the subject of Cruise came up, he had only kind words, later emailing with this memory: "Cruise was an excellent basketball player. He and I held the court against all comers until I hyperventilated and had to quit."

At 70, Gould is still writing, books mostly. His latest novel is "Green Light for Murder," which he says is inspired by his own experiences, once again — this time navigating the sanity-mangling subculture known as Hollywood.

Q: How did the book version of "Cocktail" come about?

A: I was a bartender myself in New York for about 11 or 12 years, from '69 to '81. I worked all over, Uptown, downtown. Met a lot of interesting people behind the bar and very rarely was it someone who started out wanting to be a bartender. They all had ambitions, some smoldering and some completely forgotten or suppressed.

Q: You were tending bar to support your writing career?

A: Yeah. I was getting books published at that point but wasn't making a ton of money, that's for sure.

Q: That holds true even now. It's still hard to make money as an author.

A: (Laughs) It's actually gotten worse — for me, anyway! I mean, I'm still getting them published, but there's less money in it. I started writing "Cocktail" in earnest in 1983 and finished it about a year later, which was pretty quick considering I'm a slow writer.

Q: Did you base the main character on anyone in particular?

A: He was a composite of a lot of people I met, including myself in those days. I was in my late 30s, and I was drinking pretty good, and I was starting to feel like I was missing the boat. The character in the book is an older guy who has been around and starting to feel that he's pretty washed-up.

Q: That doesn't exactly scream "Tom Cruise."

A: Actually, there were a lot of bartenders around like Tom Cruise, younger guys who came on and were doing this for a while — and then 10 years later, still doing it. It wasn't as if I was betraying the character. It was a matter of making the character more idealistic, more hopeful — he's got his life ahead of him. He turns on the charm, without the cynical bitter edge of the older guys.

Q: How did you feel about the studio's requests to make the movie less gritty than the book?

A: (Long laugh) There must have been 40 drafts of the screenplay before we went into production. It was originally with Universal. They put it in turnaround because I wasn't making the character likable enough. And then Disney picked it up, and I went through the same process with them. I would fight them at every turn, and there was a huge battle over making the lead younger, which I eventually did.

I realized — and I think I knew all along — that the people who wanted me to make the changes were correct. They wanted movie characters. Characters who were upbeat and who were going to have a happy ending and a possible future in their lives. That's what you want for a big commercial Hollywood movie. So I tried to walk that thin line between giving them what they wanted and not completely betraying the whole arena of saloons in general.

I went to a meeting once, I guess I can tell this story, with Michael Eisner, who ran the studio, and Jeffrey Katzenberg, who was the boss, the production head. Someone mentioned that this might be a good vehicle for Tom Cruise. Eisner says, "He'll never do this, don't waste your time, he can't play this part." And then Katzenberg says, "Well, he's really interested in doing it," and without skipping a beat Eisner says, "He's perfect for it, a perfect fit!" That's the movie business: I hate him, I love him; I love him, I hate him! Guess I just buried myself with Eisner now.

Q: I have to ask about all the trick bartending stuff.

A: That's actually not in the book. It was something that we did just to amuse ourselves. At this one bar, Spring Street Bar in SoHo, this guy I worked with, we used to juggle the cans and throw stuff to each other. We'd do it, and people would laugh, and we'd show off, because you are on stage; when you're behind the bar, people are looking at you. And after a while you start to play to that — you can't help it. Or I couldn't help it, anyway.

In the book, I just describe it as people being very adept: very quick with your hands, you can make a lot of drinks at once, hold a lot of glasses. When we were making the movie, I took Tom and (co-star) Bryan Brown to my friend's bar and started showing them what we used to do, and they picked up on it and invented their own moves. They took it a lot further than we ever did, by the way. We didn't throw bottles to the extent that they did. And now you have these competitions for bartenders every year at the Rio hotel in Las Vegas where they come and do these tricks.

Q: This is all inspired by the movie, right? You basically pushed this trend into the world.

A: I think so. When the movie came out, I went downtown and these friends of mine would say, "Thanks a lot, now I've got people coming in and telling me to throw bottles up in here because of this movie! Who needs you?" These drunken bartender friends of mine were not happy: "On top of making the drink, now I gotta juggle these f--- bottles and put on a show for them?"

Q: What did you think of the movie when it came out?

A: I was not happy with the final product. It got so savaged by the critics — and I mean, it got creamed — that I can't think of a good review. All the major people whacked it — and whacked me too, personally. I was accused of betraying my own work, which is stupid. So I was pretty devastated. I literally couldn't get out of bed for a day. The good thing about that experience is that it toughened me up. It was like basic training. This movie got killed, and then after that I was OK with getting killed — I got killed a few more times since then, but it hasn't bothered me.

I remember it was late one night in Vermont this was a couple years after the movie came out, and I was driving and there was a call-in show on the radio and some guy called in who was a bartender who said, "I loved that book — this guy's a sell-out, he's a creep, he destroyed his own book!" And I'm driving, listening to this and it was just bizarre! But then a few days after that, it was hunting season, I got up early to get some milk and I went to this grocery store that was a combination grocery store-video store, and these hunters were standing around in their camouflage gear and rifles, watching "Cocktail" with the woman who worked there, who then gave me a dirty look because she had to put the movie on pause to help me, this schmuck, buy his milk and maple syrup.

Q: Now that we're a few decades removed, do you think some of the movie's enduring appeal is really about nostalgia for all those cheesy elements that people might have initially resisted in 1988?

A: Yeah, the parts of the movie I found cheesy I find endearing now. I was at a screening and somebody got up, like a really huffy-tweedy kind of guy, and he said, "Well, it has a certain Reagan-era charm to it." Whatever that means. So people are a little more forgiving toward it. I guess the passage of time kind of mellows it and puts it in its proper context. It's probably the same reason we like those old Cagney movies from the '30s; because if you go back and read the reviews of those classics we love? They got creamed too.

Q: Are you OK with the fact that people make jokes about the movie?

A: Totally. I don't know why this is, but I stopped taking myself that seriously. I never took myself as seriously as other people do and now even less. I'm doing the best that I can and working as hard as I can just like everybody else. But if people want to goof on the movie, that's great.

Q: Did you make up Coughlin's Laws, or did you know someone who had a running joke in that vein?

A: Yeah, that was me. That was me! It wasn't Gould's Law, though. We called it the Penal Code. And if you did something wrong, you got a penalty. There was a lot of late-night bloviating about stuff, that's where this is coming from. It got too long and complicated to put in the book, even.

Q: Any credence to the rumors that there's a Broadway musical version of "Cocktail" in the works?

A: That's ongoing and it's been an interesting process. I find myself defending the movie as it is against attempts to do silly things to it. People always want to get their hands on something and change it. But I own it, so if you want to do it, you have to come through this bulky, pain-in-the-ass guy. Here's what I think: If you have something that's so popular, it's crazy to make the show completely different. You cannot frustrate expectations. That soundtrack went quadruple platinum. So fine, write more songs, but you have to include the emblematic songs like "Kokomo" and "Hippy Hippy Shake."

I have never said this about anything, but because of the history of this movie and even the book, this would be a hit. Everybody I speak to says, "Yeah, I'd go see that." So what I'm trying to do now is keep it pure. I mean, keep the impure movie pure, if that makes any sense.

"Cocktail" and "Road House" screen in a double feature at Lincoln Hall as part of its 3 Penny Was Here film series (in homage to the venue's previous life as a movie theater) 7 p.m. Wednesday, with running commentary from local comedians. Admission is free. Go to lincolnhallchicago.com.

Pick up

After debuting last week at SXSW, the Chicago-shot relationship comedy "Drinking Buddies" from local indie filmmaker Joe Swanberg has snagged theatrical distribution from Magnolia Pictures. The movie is Swanberg's first project to feature recognizable names including Olivia Wilde. A release date for "Drinking Buddies" has yet to be announced.

Casting updates

British comedic actor Steve Coogan ("Tropic Thunder") has been cast as the lead in the ABC pilot "Doubt," shooting in Chicago this month. The legal drama centers on a former cop-turned-lawyer who uses his street-wise expertise to win cases. U.K. comedy fans know Coogan for his multiple turns as Alan Partridge, the grandly absurd fictional radio and TV host he has played on and off for the last 20 years.

Another British actor is coming to Chicago. Theo James joins the movie adaptation of "Divergent," which begins shooting locally next month. The dystopian YA book series by Evanston-based novelist Veronica Roth envisions a futuristic Chicago in which Four (James) trains the teenage protagonist Tris (Shailene Woodley of "The Descendants") to wage battles both physical and mental. James currently stars on the CBS police drama "Golden Boy" but is better known for his brief stint on "Downtown Abbey" as the hunky-but-doomed Mr. Pamuk.

On the water

Surfing filmmaker Jack McCoy's latest feature "A Deeper Shade of Blue" traces the history of surfing from its modest origins in Hawaii to the $6 billion global industry it is today. McCoy's film, which features underwater imagery, screens next week as a Fathom Events one-time special, followed by an off-site panel discussion featuring McCoy and world-renowned surfers that will be beamed to the movie theater. Thursday at AMC River East. Go to FathomEvents.com

nmetz@tribune.com

@NinaMetzNews