It reminds me of Odets’ great love/confrontation scenes, particularly the ones between Lorna Moon and Joe Bonaparte in Golden Boy. Only with swears.
These are two tough people. Hard-boiled. They are not only not used to love and softness, they fear it and attack it in themselves and in each other. Jeff Bridges and Michelle Pfeiffer play the hell out of this scene, but it sure helps to have such good dialogue. I wrote a bit about Fabulous Baker Boys (screenplay by Steve Kloves, who also directed) in my 5 for the day piece about Jeff Bridges, and wrote:
It’s not an ingratiating part, Jack Baker, or at least not the way Jeff Bridges plays it. We are struck by his beauty in that film, his smoldering sexiness, his stoic tough-guy appeal. But he doesn’t let us in. It’s not in his nature. His beauty is a fortress, and whatever is going on behind it, is deeply private. He has set up his life that way. He’s not playing hard to get. He is hard to get.
It is said about Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” that the music is so mathematically perfect that if you understand the structure, then the piece plays itself. I play the piano, but certainly not with a level of competence that could help me understand that concept, but I will take the experts’ word for it. When a structure is perfect, then the fault would be in you if you can’t pull it off. It’s also true that you must rise to meet the challenge of the material.
The same is true for great acting scenes. Of course you must have talent. That’s a given. But often, if the writing is poor, even talented actors can’t justify what they are doing. The writer has abandoned them, the writer has given them too much clunky exposition, the writer doesn’t understand how emotions work, how one thing leads to the next, how a conflict can escalate, drastically, with one cruel remark, how conversations can swerve off course dramatically: conversations are organic, things don’t happen in a proper order. People are messy, we don’t always express ourselves clearly. A good writer can put dialogue on the page that begs to be spoken, to be filled out and lived. That’s what people mean when they say something “leapt off the page”. It doesn’t happen often. You know it when you see it.
Give two talented actors a scene like the following, however, and it almost plays itself. That’s good writing.
SUSIE: I told Frank I’m quitting.
SUSIE: As of now.
JACK: Well, if you need a recommendation you let me know.
SUSIE: Jesus, you’re cold you know that? God, you’re like a fucking razor blade.
JACK: Careful, you’re gonna have me thinking you’re going soft on me.
SUSIE: You don’t give a fuck, do you? About anything?
JACK: What do you want from me? You want me to tell you to stay? Is that what you’re looking for? You want me to get down on my knees and beg you to save the Baker Boys from doom? Forget it, sweetheart. We survived for 15 years before you strutted onto the scene. 15 years. Two seconds, and you’re bawling like a baby. You shouldn’t be wearing a dress, you should be wearing a diaper.
SUSIE: Jesus, you and Egghead are brothers, aren’t you.
JACK: Let me tell you something. Over the years, they’ve dropped like flies in every fucking hotel in this city. We’re still here. We’ve never held a day job in our lives. He’s an easy target, but Frank’s done fine.
SUSIE: Yeah, Frank’s done great. He’s got the wife, the kids, the little house in the suburbs. Meanwhile, his brother is sitting in a shitty apartment with a sick dog, Little Orphan Annie upstairs, and a chip on his shoulder as big as a Cadillac.
JACK: Listen to me, princess. We fucked twice. That’s it. Once the sweat dries, you still don’t know shit about me, got it?
SUSIE: I know one thing. While Frank Baker was home putting his kids to sleep last night, little brother Jack was out dusting off his dreams for a few minutes. I was there. I saw it in your face. You’re full of shit. You’re a fake. Every time you walk into some shitty daiquiri hut you’re selling yourself on the cheap. Hey, I know all about that. I’d find myself at the end of the night with some creep and tell myself it didn’t matter. And you kid yourself that you got this empty place inside where you can put it all. But you do it long enough and all you are is empty.
JACK: I didn’t know whores were so philosophical.
SUSIE: At least my brother’s not my pimp. You know, I had you pegged as a loser the first time I saw you but you’re worse. You’re a coward.