My most vivid memory of when Urban Cowboy played in theaters in the summer of 1980…is not seeing Urban Cowboy when it played in theaters in the summer of 1980. (This is going to require a long-winded explanation, now that I think about it.) It was the transition period between my junior and senior year at my alma mater, Ravenswood Penitentiary High School, and that summer found me, my faithful sidekick The Duchess, and two other classmates attending a “journalism camp” at Ohio University in Athens, OH. We were there to learn how to better our high school newspaper and yearbook…which, in retrospect, was a complete freaking waste of time because when we tried to apply what we learned our faculty advisor vetoed every bit of the helpful advice we received. That advisor, Clara Belle Denning, had wanted to send the four of us to a similar “camp” at Marshall University in Huntington, WV…but when Marshall announced that they weren’t hosting the event that summer, CBD reluctantly settled for second place OU. I was jazzed about checking out OU because my dream was to study broadcasting there upon graduating from RHS…but the out-of-state tuition would have laid waste to the Shreve family finances. The irony is: I ended up at Marshall. (I did not get a scholarship, because my grades could not pass the minimum requirements to receive one. Let this be a lesson to the younger kids out there in YesteryearLand.)
While we were at OU, the four of us decided to take in a movie one evening…and we wound up seeing Bronco Billy (1980), the Clint Eastwood film. Billy has many admirers, but our quartet was not among them at the time we screened it. (I believe the consensus among my comrades went along the lines of “It stinks!”) Three of the members in our group laid the blame squarely on my shoulders because I apparently persuaded them to see Billy over Urban Cowboy. I maintain to this day that I am not responsible; yes, I did want to see Bronco Billy (I had listened to both the Billy and Cowboy soundtrack albums and thought the music in Billy was a better representative of country music) but I didn’t hold a gun to anyone’s head and force them to accompany me—furthermore, if my powers of persuasion were truly that potent, we’d be counting the days until President-elect Bernie Sanders takes office. (That’s a Facebook joke, son.)
So why am I prattling on about Urban Cowboy and Bronco Billy when the title of this post refers to the 1980 film Honeysuckle Rose? Mostly because I tend to remember these three films (along with 9 to 5, Any Which Way You Can, and several others) as Hollywood’s cashing-in on a public fascination with country music in the early 80s. The Powers That Be referred to this as “the Urban Cowboy craze” …but truth be told, it went back further than that—with the box office success of Every Which Way But Loose (1978), which generated several hit singles for the likes of Charlie Rich, Mel Tillis, and Eddie Rabbitt (his title track went to #1 on the Hot Country Singles chart and cracked the Pop Top 30). (You can even make a strong argument that it goes back to several films from the oeuvre of Burt Reynolds: W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings , Smokey and the Bandit , etc.)
In Honeysuckle Rose, country music legend Willie Nelson essays a role not unlike his real-life self: musician Buck Bonham, who, despite his deep love for his wife Viv (Dyan Cannon) and son Jamie (Joey Floyd), seemingly prefers the life of the open road—playing one-night stands in various honky-tonks and nightclubs with the loyal members of his celebrated country music band. One of those members, guitarist Garland Ramsey (Slim Pickens), has told Buck he’s quitting “the road” (at the request of his wife) and so Buck and his manager Sid (Charles Levin) scramble to find a replacement.
The musician hired to replace Garland has a previous commitment and won’t be able to join the band for three weeks…but the solution to this scheduling conflict arrives in Garland’s daughter Lily (Amy Irving), who demonstrates she’s just as proficient as her gitar-pickin’ pop during an impromptu performance at a family reunion. In fact, it’s Viv who recommends Lily join her husband’s musical aggregation (Garland isn’t sold on the idea…but relents when he realizes that it’s only temporary), and this helpful suggestion will come back to bite her in the derriere when Buck and Lily move beyond an innocent mentor-protégé relationship into a tongue-wagging romantic one.
As you may have guessed, Honeysuckle Rose is a slight tweaking of the film classic Intermezzo: A Love Story (1939). And to be forthright about this, the first time I saw Rose I didn’t care for the movie (I didn’t see this one in theaters—more likely I caught it on HBO). But I spotted it on the schedule of The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ a month or so back, and I thought that a second look might change my opinion. I couldn’t warm up to it the first time around because it’s a character-driven film (I was all about cleverly-plotted movies at that point in my cinematic education) and I thought with maturity, maybe it plays a little better. (Don’t think I can’t hear you snickering out there.)
“A little better” is the operative phrase here. Honeysuckle Rose is not as bad as I remembered, but I remain unconvinced it hasn’t been overrated by a lot of critics. The Los Angeles Times succinctly summed up Rose as “a concert film with a plot.” The music in Honeysuckle Rose is undeniably its greatest strength; the movie’s soundtrack album shot to the top of Billboard’s Top Country Albums (#11 on the Top 200 Albums) and generated two country chart-toppers for Willie Nelson, Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground and On the Road Again. (The Grammy Award-winning On the Road Again also reached #20 on the Hot 100 and would later be nominated for an Academy Award as Best Original Song.) The album is mostly a collection of performances by Willie & Family (with additional contributions from folks like Johnny Gimble, Hank Cochran, and “Heaven is a girl named” Emmylou Harris) reprising past Nelson triumphs like Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain, Whiskey River, and If You Could Touch Her at All.
A well-received supporting role in The Electric Horseman (1979) inspired director Sydney Pollack to pitch Honeysuckle Rose to Nelson, whose character of Buck Bonham was based a great deal on Willie. (Pollack was executive producer on Rose, and later served as a producer on the Nelson-Kris Kristofferson collaboration Songwriter, released in 1986.) In a case of life imitating art, Willie had an affair with co-star Amy Irving during the making of Rose (something that I’m sure went over big with Mrs. Willie). Nelson demonstrates a commanding onscreen presence in the film (his second feature, and first starring role) and even though his character lets Little Willie do the thinking of Big Willie, Buck Bonham is a sympathetic figure (the filmmakers also resist the temptation to whitewash what Buck has done, instead allowing the audience to decide if Nelson’s charisma is sufficient absolution for the sins in his marriage). Willie would later star in the underrated oater Barbarosa (1982), yet I’ll come clean by admitting that I think Nelson is more effective in smaller, supporting turns—whether it be a standout performance as a convict in 1981’s Thief or country singer “Johnny Dean” in the satirical Wag the Dog (1997).
The problem with Rose is that its female characters don’t fare too well. Dyan Cannon’s Viv is a little too quick to forgive her husband’s infidelities (a strong woman as portrayed by Viv is would more than likely kick that cheatin’ bastid to the curb); everything is kiss-and-make-up okay once they sing a duet together before the movie’s closing credits. Granted, Amy Irving’s Lily is not played for major villainy…but the last that we see of her in Rose is in the audience, forlornly looking on at a performance that is part of a celebratory picnic held in Garland’s honor. Being ostracized from Buck and the rest of “the family” at this point seems to suggest that she’s being held responsible for whatever events took place, and that didn’t sit well with me at all. To add insult to injury, Irving received a “Razzie” as Worst Supporting Actress for her work in Rose at the inaugural Golden Raspberry Award ceremonies in 1981…and she’s not terrible at all. (I like the scene where Irving confronts father Pickens over what she’s done…and in a long shot, Slim walks away from her in disapproval before taking a beat and walking back to hug her in support.) Both actresses did their own singing on the film’s soundtrack, and there’s no need to admonish them not to quit their day jobs.
Character legend Slim Pickens would appear in a few more projects before his passing in 1983 (including 1981’s The Howling, in which he plays “Sam Newfield”—tee hee), but Honeysuckle Rose provides him with one of his stronger showcases as Bonham’s best friend (their drunken antics on Buck’s tour bus are a highlight), and Priscilla Pointer (Amy Irving’s real-life ma) plays Slim’s wife as sort of a sly in-joke (sadly, Pointer doesn’t get much to do). For country music fans, there are wonderful moments contributed by both Harris and Cochran, who performs a snatch of the Cochran-penned Make the World Go Away with real-life wife Jeannie Seely. Rose was also the second feature film for Diana Scarwid (I saw her debut, Pretty Baby  a few weeks ago) …and I kind of wish I had been living in Savannah at the time of Rose’s release because I know the newspaper ads would have touted it as “Featuring Savannah’s own Diana Scarwid” like they did with other Scarwid vehicles (Rumble Fish, Silkwood, etc.). The actor who plays the musician replacing Pickens’ character is none other than Mickey Rooney, Jr…who’s every bit as obnoxious as his old man (though in fairness, the character is written that way) playing a guy who looks like the love child of Porter Wagoner and Alan Jackson.
Director Jerry Schatzberg rode herd on two of my favorite Al “Hoo-hah!” Pacino films, The Panic in Needle Park (1971) and Scarecrow (1973); the adultery angle of Honeysuckle Rose was probably familiar territory for Jer, having helmed a similar film in The Seduction of Joe Tynan a year earlier. For those of you wanting to know what “Honeysuckle Rose” has to do with the film, the [always reliable] IMDb says it’s the nickname of Willie Nelson’s real-life tour bus. (So if you were expecting The Red Headed Stranger to do a version of the Fats Waller standard during the film’s running time…sorry to disappoint you.)