In Honor of Tomorrow’s Super Moon: The Werewolf of Washington (1973)

You know what sucks?

When you’re the White House press secretary (and strangely, you look like John Dean and you also live in the Watergate, even though the Watergate scandal hasn’t even broke yet), and you’re on the President’s private helicopter, with the President and the Prime Minister of Red China, and you’re supposed to be the President’s right hand man … but the full moon is rising over the Washington Monument … and ever since you had that run-in with a wolf in and a creepy gypsy lady on a lonely road in Budapest you’ve been a bit … OFF, shall we say … and as the President (who’s kind of a moron, he really NEEDS you) tries to speak intelligently to the PM, who can barely understand English, you sit off to the side … and your panic grows … and you realize that … you’re not feeling … quite right …

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I’m not feelin’ so good. Maybe I ate some bad crabcakes.

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Just breathe. It might be just a migraine.

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Dammit. There’s that insistent underbite that always gives me away.

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To quantum leap into the future and quote a certain show that will eventually make my name for all time: “Oh, boy …”

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I hate my teeth.

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I have now surrendered to my hairy-faced befanged destiny. Foreign policy be damned.

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I am press secretary no more.

I am werewolf.

The throngs wait below. They have no idea that the pentagram has been revealed, the moon is high in the sky, the crucial silver bullets are far from this location, and a werewolf is hungry, dammit.

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So yeah. All that sucks.

But you know what doesn’t suck? Getting to watch this movie. And getting to watch one of my favorite actors of all time do his thing. I consider this to be one of Dean Stockwell’s bravest and most uninhibited performances – and I’ll talk a bit about that, because it might seem like a silly thing to say.

One of the reasons I say that is that the film was made in 1973. Dean Stockwell has said that during the 70s and early 80s he couldn’t “get arrested”, let alone get a job. He heard from his buddies Dennis Hopper and Jack Nicholson that directors in Hollywood were saying things like, “We need a Dean Stockwell type for this part …” and Hopper and Nicholson would say, “Uhm … how ’bout gettin’ the real thing? Our friend needs a JOB.” But his career was iced. It was over. He had been one of the highest paid child actors in Hollywood and now, in his 30s, he couldn’t get work. He did dinner theatre. He got his real estate license. He lived with a bevy of women in Haight Ashbury. He tried to “get back in”. He did some bad TV movies. He did bit parts. He just needed to work.

Werewolf of Washington was one of the few jobs he got during that time, and so, there’s something lean and hungry and intense about him in this film. He NEEDS the job, and he plays the part with reckless abandon. He has said that he has never worked harder on a part than the one in Werewolf of Washington. The performance is almost uncomfortable to watch at times.

There is a fantastic scene in the White House bowling alley when his hand puffs up into a wolf claw while his fingers are in the bowling ball, and as ridiculous as it all is, watch how Stockwell plays it: the desperation, the true and present urgency. He actually breaks down in tears of frustration. With all of his good work over his long life, in Compulsion and Kim and Secret Garden and Quantum Leap, and all the rest, the bowling-ball moment is my favorite piece of acting he has ever done.

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It’s messy, gripping, he pulls you in. There’s something completely available about Stockwell (at all times – but especially so in this movie, where he is brought so low by his helplessness in the face of his werewolf side).

It’s never good for an actor to get too comfortable. I’m not saying being a starving artist is great shakes, it’s not. What I mean is: there’s a certain point where stars get too big to take chances. (Tommy Lee Jones has been quite eloquent about this. “I’d love to go back to the stage – do some Moliere, some Shakespeare – but I can’t afford to now.” etc.) But here is Stockwell, with no career left to speak of, doing his damndest to keep afloat financially … and he acts the shit out of this part. There’s something beautifully affirming about it for me in terms of art, and what artists have to do. If you’re an actor, you have to act. It’s awesome if you’re Johnny Depp and every script goes to you first. But if you’re not in that position, what do you do? Not act? No. If you’re an actor, you do the job at hand with as much integrity as you can muster.

Werewolf of Washington flopped. The Watergate scandal broke while they were shooting, and the parallels were too potent. Nobody in America felt like seeing a political satire when things were actually so dire.

So it’s a thankless part – and Stockwell was certainly not thanked for it by having his career resurrected. It would be another 12 years before Paris, Texas catapulted him back to where he should be. 12 years. The man was in his 40s by then. His peers were running Hollywood. His friends were superstars by that point. He doesn’t come off as a self-pitying man, but he is honest about the bleakness of those years. He had financial ease and comfort as well as stardom at a very very young age. He fell very far by his 30s. This is enough to sink many many actors. The roll-call of failed tragic child actors could fill an entire book. True and lasting success would not come for Stockwell until he was in his 50s. (And, ironically, he said that he didn’t even really enjoy acting until he was in his 40s. It just happened to be something he was good at. He had very mixed feelings about being a child actor.)

But here he is – in a movie which was, for all intents and purposes, invisible … DOING HIS JOB and doing it well. A movie made in the middle of Dean Stockwell’s leanest years of anonymity when he never made more than $10,000 a year.

It’s easy to admire the performances of those who are at the top. Who get the best scripts sent to them. Who can pick and choose. But those who don’t have choices … or not as many … what do THEY do with their talent? It is a question that interests me personally and I think that might be why the Dean Stockwell obsession came into my life when it did. I really need to learn that life lesson, and I have to learn it over and over again – because I keep forgetting. It’s so easy to get caught up in where I feel I SHOULD be right now, and what I SHOULD have accomplished, and where is my brood of children? I thought they all would have shown up by now. And where is my red carpet, because I’m THIS age now and what has happened to me? Where did it all go? Is it too late for me? It is sometimes a daily struggle to keep going, to keep doing the work, to follow Tennessee Williams’ advice: “Make voyages – attempt them – there’s nothing else”.

And a movie like The Werewolf of Washington – and Dean Stockwell’s ferocious performance – is a great reminder, for me, of all of that.

Not to mention the fact that the whole thing is a campy hoot and a half.

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Jack pleads his case, and it involves push pins and pentagrams.

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“Whatever you say, Mr. President.”

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“I think that damn wolf bit me.”

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Headin’ to work.

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What? Huh? Is someone speaking to me? I can’t hear you because my hands are swelling up into claws.

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This was one of my favorite shots. The car comes driving up to the camera – it’s night-time – a sort of Katherine Graham equivalent is driving – hugely powerful in DC circles and therefore a threat to the administration’s plans. She also, sadly, has the mark of the beast in her palm so she must die. The car comes into the frame from the road beyond – and as it gets close – we can see a creature crouched on top of the car. It’s done with no cuts. And this was a bare bones budget, so I’m sure it was actually Stockwell and not a stunt werewolf.

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Intense scene. Hilarious – but played to the hilt. He MUST be chained up so he cannot kill again – and yet his lover shows up, and refuses to believe him and tries to unchain him – and he freaks OUT. He shouts something along the lines of, “I’M A VICIOUS BEAST WITH A TASTE FOR BLOOD. FOR GOD’S SAKE, DON’T UNCHAIN ME.” It’s genius.

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He glances down at his hands during an important stressful meeting with the President and all the top brass in the military (Stockwell’s dad plays one of the generals.) Jack is trying to hold it all together – but glances down and sees that his hands are …

Oh God, no!!!

He is struggling NOT to become a wolf during the whole meeting and it’s a great acting job, really fun.

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Smile while you still can, Jack.

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“Check out the scar on my chest.”
“For God’s sake, put your shirt on.”

Stockwell quivers with conviction – he MUST show the psychiatrist the scar.

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Shots like this one above are what elevate the movie into satire. It’s fun.

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“What’s it for?”

Oh God, man, don’t ask!

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On a foggy night in Budapest, with my Commie girlfriend Gisele … I had a run-in with a wolf and a gypsy. And my life was never the same again …

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I love you. You are the President’s daughter. I work for your dad. I am also a werewolf. I am fucked.

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Poor Jack. He hangs up the phone from making a date with his lover – and bursts into tears. The moon will rise tonight. He says something to himself like, “Please don’t let me go thru this again …” He is not a HAPPY werewolf, is what I’m trying to say. He is a werewolf tormented with guilt by his own thirst for blood.

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God bless you, Dean Stockwell. You are chained to a chair.

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Hot kiss. But he is still completely wrapped in heavy chains and there is something strangely endearing and also hot about all of it. Even as I realize: oh my god, this is so stupid.

Looking at the shot below makes me realize why Dean Stockwell was first choice to do a planned (but never completed) biopic of James Dean, after Dean’s death in the 50s. Stockwell didn’t want to do it, said he had no interest in impersonating Dean, and also found no interest in playing an actual real-life actor – but his name was bandied about quite a bit as the guy for the job. I’m thankful that movie was never made, although I am curious as to what Stockwell would have been like in the role.

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“Are you there, God? It’s me. Dean Stockwell. Can you cut me a break and get me a good part? What’s that? I need to wait 12 years? Okay, buddy, I’ll wait, but it better be worth it.”

It will be, Stockwell, it will be.

My 5 for the Day: Dean Stockwell for House Next Door.

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12 Responses to In Honor of Tomorrow’s Super Moon: The Werewolf of Washington (1973)

  1. george says:

    “God bless you, Dean Stockwell. You are chained to a chair.”

    And it’s a rocking chair! Merciful God!

  2. sheila says:

    I know – that makes it even worse!

  3. litdreamer says:

    I think I saw one of those bad movies that he was forced to do in the 70s, The Dunwich Horror (1970). The movie is supposed to be based on the classic H.P. Lovecraft novel, but reeks too much of 70s kitsch. And Dean, sadly, has a mustache in this film, and no, it doesn’t suit him.

  4. sheila says:

    I actually love The Dunwich Horror. My review here. Gloriously loopy.

  5. sheila says:

    It’s the TV movies that are REALLY bad – Paper Man (sort of a university thriller about a supercomputer and a bunch of early-computer-age hackers) and in Born To Be Sold (about prostitution and human trafficking) he barely has a speaking role. You just ache for him. This was a guy who had been a star. No shame in trying to pay the bills, but still. It’s awful to see someone completely under-used.

    Then, though, he did a lot of good episodic television – a paritcularly memorable Columbo among other things.

  6. sheila says:

    I went through a serious Dean Stockwell phase so I have seen almost everything. I even flew to Taos to crash an art gallery opening – of his work, so I knew he would be there – and got to meet him and also dance around to a live marimba band under the Taos sunset sky.

    I don’t mess around. :)

  7. Todd Restler says:

    Great actor. I loved him in To Live and Die in L.A. as a shady lawyer, among others, and was a big Quantom Leap fan. I just re-read your piece on him in The Player, with all the pointing. Great article, and great discussions there too. Loved him and Richard Grant. (“Why did you compromise the ending? What about reality?” “Did you see the test scores? THAT’S reality”)

    Werewolf of Washington looks fun. (Are you sure they didn’t have stunt werewolves? I hear they come cheap!).

    I remember Tarantino explaining why he loves “B” movies so much. Even though you know it’s stupid and campy, at a certain point, you actually DO start to care for the characters, almost in spite of yourself. That’s his favorite thing that can happen when watching a movie.

  8. tracey says:

    /I can’t hear you because my hands are swelling up into claws./ Hahahahahaha. I need to see this movie.

    That shot of his frustration in the bowling alley makes me think that, as if turning into a werewolf while bowling weren’t bad enough, Daniel Plainview could show up any moment and tell him he drank his milkshake.

  9. sheila says:

    Tracey – it’s actually a LOT of fun. The werewolf makeup is ridiculous and perfect.

    And yes, a milkshake in the White House as a full moon rises? Look out. Heads are gonna roll.

  10. sheila says:

    Todd – I went through such a Dean Stockwell phase! He’s definitely in my top 10 favorite actors. I love Quantum Leap so much – and I also love his stuff as a younger actor – Compulsion, Long Day’s Journey (believe it or not, I think he has the hardest role in that play – he’s wonderful) – and then his real childhood stuff – Kim, Anchors Aweigh (his debut), Boy with Green Hair. Terrific – his career really stands alone. I can’t think of another actor who was that huge at the age of, oh, 7 – who is still successful in the way that he is. Yes, he had those 15 dry years. Which had to have been brutal. But God, he came back and he was sooooo cool. Blue Velvet? Paris, Texas? I just lOVE his career.

    And The Player -hahahaha I just love the scenes with those two guys. (point-point-point). “Bruuuuuce Willllis ….”

  11. nightfly says:

    I had to go re-read the Dunwich Horror review. Priceless stuff. And this part always just kills me:

    The professor says, “Could you please go return the Necromonicon to its case? Can I trust you with this task?”

    Yup. “I know I was entrusted with the safekeeping of this Damnéd Tome, but y’know, you’re so cute and naive, why don’t YOU run this back to the library for me while I head to Friendly’s? I’ll get you a Fribble!” How was *I* supposed to know Dean Stockwell was hiding in the bushes? Can’t a guy delegate a little?

    • nightfly says:

      BTW – I was using the PgDn key to scroll quickly, and hit the sequence of stills showing Dean’s transformation on the helicopter… they lined up perfectly, it was like a flipbook of werewolfery. Very cool to see it like that.

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