A movie company, theater chain, film critic and trial judge are manipulated by a publicist. 3,765 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
It was the film that everybody wanted to see and it was Frank Webster’s brilliant idea not to show it to them. Rapture In Rimini was the art film of the year in 1973. It starred Alton Benning, widely considered to be the greatest actor of his generation, and was directed by the visionary Giovanni Scanzani, who was at the forefront of the Italian cinema’s return to romanticism after decades of gritty neo-realism. But that wasn’t what anybody was talking about, not once they got past the obligatory praise and lowered their voices to a whisper.
What Rapture In Rimini was really about was “the peanut butter scene.” Because that made it more than just a foreign language film that only students and cinephiles would line up to see. It was where Alton Benning took two fingers -– one for each Oscar he’d won in past years — and dipped them into a jar of Skippy and used them to lubricate his way into the young actress playing his mistress.
That kind of thing may have been nothing new for denizens of New York’s 42nd Street groin grindhouses, but Rapture In Rimini wasn’t intended as pornography. It was art. The problem was, the law didn’t always know the difference, and this posed a monster threat for General Artists, the company about to release it.
Faced with a potentially obscene movie being locked out of mainstream theaters, Josh Volpe, who founded and headed General Artists, bit the bullet and called Frank Webster, the master movie publicist. Webster was an expert at putting asses in the seats. What remained to be seen was whether he could keep General Artists’ asses out of jail.
All bets were off in Hollywood in the early 1970s. The old-line studios like MGM, Fox, Paramount, Columbia, and Warner Brothers were chasing their own frightened tails against an explosion of films coming from ad hoc indie companies. It was a vitally exciting time. Film schools were churning out directors. Everybody was reading reviews and being choosy. People no longer went to the movies, they started going to that movie. Tickets were half the price of a new record album, meaning that moviegoers could afford to take chances, even if the major film companies could not.
Newcomer General Artists had guts. But, then, little guys have to. They staked a million dollars on the American distribution rights to Rapture In Rimini. But now they were nervous. Because the Motion Picture Association of America’s Ratings Board had slapped Rapture In Rimini with an “X,” restricting audiences to those over age 17, which automatically halved the dating crowd. It prevented the film from being advertised on radio and TV and in many newspapers as well. It also placed General Artists at odds with AmericaWide, the financial conglomerate that had bought the film company five years earlier as a leisure time division.
As a result of the "X," the bosses were refusing to allow their corporate name or logo to appear on the film, its publicity material, posters, trailers, or ads. They said it was a matter of public image. Yet the banking giant didn’t care what people thought when they redlined whole neighborhoods of minority residents. Pundits said they were more allergic to peanut butter than to poverty.
Frank Webster was known for his ideas, his follow-through, his enthusiasm, and his devotion to his clients. He could also be an asshole. In his late 40s, he had started doing ad agency work in the 1950s but quickly realized that his button-down colleagues were so afraid of their accounts that they were blind to innovation. He decided to leave but wanted to do it in a way that would spread his name around the entire advertising world. At a client’s party one night, Frank announced, “Gentlemen and Gentlemen, may I have your attention? We’re all proud of the work we did on the Prestige bathroom tissue account. So, just for fun, I’d like to show you one of the campaigns we decided not to use because the buying public may not yet be ready for such a visionary campaign.”
With that, he pulled out storyboards and played the voice-over: “Prestige Bathroom Tissue. The number one solution for your number two problem.”
Frank found a new calling with film companies. Fearful as they were, they were anarchists compared with the all-white, all-male, all-Gentile ad agencies. United Artists on Seventh Avenue, Columbia on Fifth Avenue, Fox on West 44th. Street, and Paramount on Broadway were always eager to see a new idea. Webster was a freelancer. That way, if a Vice President of Publicity hires an outsider as project coordinator and the film dies, he can blame the freelancer. If it’s a smash, he can take credit for hiring him. Frank hit more than he missed, but what made companies forget his failures was that he was always careful to kick back 10 percent of his fee to the executive who hired him.
When Josh Volpe of General Artists called him to handle Rapture In Rimini. Frank knew about the film from the trades,. He asked to screen the picture before deciding whether to handle it. “What are you, a critic?” Josh asked is old friend.
“What are you, a pornographer?” Frank shot back. He and Josh had that kind of relationship.
“It’s not pornography!” Josh said. “Its director Giovanni Scanzani won the Palm d’Or at Cannes five years ago, for crissake. He makes challenging films, not dirty ones. You’ll see. There’s a lot more to this than peanut butter.”
Frank agreed. The film drew him through an emotional wringer. Alton Benning played a middle-aged man arriving at the realization that he might never find a woman who could love him as much as he loved her, who meets just such a woman, who is dying. The peanut butter scene was nothing. He had never seen any actor, let alone one with Benning’s power, so emotionally naked on the big screen.
Fortunately, the film had long end credits because Frank needed the time to collect himself.
“I’ll do it. But on one condition,” Webster said.
“Don’t ask for more money,” the executive cautioned. “We know we can only play it off in the big cities and we’ll be lucky to break even.”
“On the contrary,” Frank countered. “You’re going to make a bloody fortune. I’m going to make Rapture In Rimini the must-see film of the year. But I need complete control over everything: the ads, the screenings, the critics, everything.”
“Are you sure you don’t want to personally carry the prints to the theatres?”
“I’m serious, Josh. I had no idea the picture packed such a wallop. All anybody is talking about is—.”
“Peanut butter,” they said together, sharing a knowing laugh. Then Frank grew solemn. “My job — make that my mission — will be to get people talking about the film while thinking about the peanut butter. We have to give them an excuse to see it. It will be the motion picture equivalent of people saying that they read Playboy for the articles.”
Josh held out his hand: “Deal.”
Dan Torgeson and Arnie Fuchs owned JT Theatres, a small chain of art houses in Manhattan. Many of their patrons bought tickets without even knowing what was playing because they were invariably pleased with the pictures. Arnie and Dan were plugged-in and resourceful and celebrated by the press as visionary exhibitors geared to the emerging film school generation. That’s when the old-line film companies took notice of the youth market and, one by one, either absorbed the independent distributors or priced them out of business. Suddenly Arnie and Dan found themselves dealing with the very studio behemoths they had been trying to avoid for years.
Josh Volpe’s General Artists yearned to count the big theatre chains among his customers, but had loyalty from independent cinemas like the ones Arnie and Dan owned. The word was that Rapture In Rimini could break the majors’ stranglehold and reestablish the art house circuit. That is, if they weren’t all busted for pornography.
Dan was a mensch but it was Arnie who closed the deals. He had the best poker face Dan had ever seen and used it to stare down critics, distributors, unions, and, especially, theater managers whom he suspected were skimming concessions money. He also had a sense of humor. Sso when Josh Volpe told him that JT Theatres had been awarded the exclusive New York engagement of Rapture In Rimini, Arnie reflexively asked, “Why? What’s wrong with it?”
“Nothing, Arnie,” Josh assured. “You put in a bid for it, remember?”
“Yes, but I never thought we’d get it. I figured one of the big chains would beat us out.”
“Well, they didn’t,” Josh said. “It’s a picture that needs special handling and you guys are the specialists.”
“In other words,” Arnie said, “It won’t do business.”
“It’s expected to do very well,” Josh continued. “So well that we’ve hired a publicity consultant to handle your engagement.”
“Do we have to pay for him?”
“Relax, Arnie, you need us and we need you. We want to give the picture a big opening that’ll sell it to the rest of the country.”
“What if we have legal trouble? The ‘X’ rating has come to mean porn.”
“It’s not a dirty movie,” Josh insisted. “It’s an artistic picture.”
“Then you can visit us in an artistic jail.”
“Tell you what,” Dan interrupted from his extension. “Let’s get a print and screen it for a judge. If we can get a summary judgment in our favor, we’re off the hook.”
When the call was over, Arnie turned to Dan with the same cold stare he fixed on managers he caught palming tickets. “Thanks for undercutting me,” he said.
Dan held firm. “This picture can make us big-time players. I just want to make sure we don’t get raided. We can file a brief for summary judgment with the court and charge the cost back to General Artists.” He grinned. “The only question is, do you want your brother-in-law to handle the legal work, or mine?”
Frank Webster hand-carried the film to JT Theatres’ Cinema 1. He introduced himself to Dan and Arnie, who then made introductions to Superior Court Judge A. Reginald Berwick.
“A publicist, eh?” the jurist said. “I’m not looking at your picture for purposes of publicity, I’m looking at it to see if it meets the U.S. Supreme Court’s definition of obscenity."
“I’m not looking for publicity, your honor,” Frank replied. “I’m confident that you’ll find the picture acceptable. Mature but acceptable.”
“You wouldn’t be trying to influence my legal opinion, would you?”
“Me? A mere publicist?”
“I’ll see you after the movie.”
The judge took a seat 12 rows back, on the aisle. Dan and Arnie planted themselves five rows behind him, far enough away to make him think they weren’t watching, yet close enough to listen. Frank stood guard at the doors of the auditorium in case anybody tried to enter. The judge didn’t take notes and sat so still while the picture played that Dan wondered if he was sleeping.
When the lights came up, the judge trudged solemnly up the aisle.
“I don’t know what to think,” he said. “I’m not a censor and I believe in the First Amendment. The question is whether it violates local community standards, and I don’t mean the community that likes chunky versus creamy.”
Dan tried to be helpful. “Our prime concern is Jacobellis Vs. Ohio,” he started, “where the theatre manager was arrested for showing an allegedly obscene film, Louis Malle’s The Lovers, but was exonerated when the film was cleared.”
“Don’t tell me my precedents,” Berwick grunted. “Why the hell couldn’t they have made it about a serial killer who disembowels children? The ratings people have no problem with hate, only love. Do you validate parking?”
Afterward, Dan and Arnie took Frank to lunch. “As I see it,” Arnie began, “we have two problems: the commercial and the legal. I feel confident that Judge Berwick will clear the way to show the picture. The bigger deal is how to get people in to see a movie that’s going to make them want to slash their wrists when they get home.”
“I have a solution to the second,” Frank said. “We don’t let them see it.”
He let the news sink in. “We take a page from Mike Todd’s playbook,” Frank continued. He explained how Todd once bought out an entire week’s run of one of his shows just so he could put a ‘Sold Out’ sign on the box office. When audiences found out that they couldn’t buy seats, they figured it was a hit and bought so many advance tickets that the show ran for six months.
“So listen," Webster continued. “I want to set up a series of screenings right here. Nighttime screenings, which means you’ll have to cancel some shows. I’ll need your complete contact list, including the newspaper editors, opinion makers, radio and TV people, goniffs, hangers-on, relatives, friends, every freeloader in town. I’ll invite some of them to pre-release screenings.”
“Some?” Dan asked. “Why not all? I’ll never hear the end of it.”
“You’re catching on,” Frank smiled. “We’ll make everybody so eager to see the picture that, by the time it opens, it’ll be all over town.”
“What about the critics?” Dan asked.
“Leave the critics to me."
Webster knew that Connie Stone was the most important critic in town. She was dedicated, honest, and incorruptible. Dozens of other critics looked up to her. She even had her own group of acolytes called Stonettes. Frank decided he was going to offer her something worth more than money. He happened to know that she was locked in a power struggle with another critic on her paper. "I have a way to solve our art problem and give her an edge, and it won’t cost us a penny.” Frank smiled even more slyly. “Wait.”
“I want my own private screening,” Connie Stone stated flatly. Frank greeted her and handed her the cast and credits without the usual press releases. He also handed her the most trusting face he could muster. “I have to tell you something off the record,” he started.
“There are some people who think this movie is obscene. That it violates local community standards. We even — and this is really off the record — have a judge looking at it so we’ll know ahead of time whether we should prepare to be raided.” He leaned in closer. “Your review could be very influential.”
A slight pink glow spread across Connie’s face under her makeup.
“I’m not begging you to like the film,” Frank said, “because that would be a serious breach of ethics for both of us. And in no way am I offering you any compensation if you do.” He took her elbow and led her a few feet away even though nobody was in earshot. “What’s important is that I know you’ll take it seriously. You know Alton Benning. You know Giovanni Scanzani.”
“We had dinner three years ago at Cannes,” Connie said.
“Giovanni says hello, by the way," Webster lied. "What I’m saying is that, if you do happen to like the film, and if your review should validate its artistry and establish that it’s not a dirty movie, and if you do happen to write positively, then, instead of using just a quote, we might run the entire review in all the newspapers in all the 22 key cities where we open the film.”
“In fact," Frank added, "even if you don’t like the film, I know that you, above all people, will understand it. Your views, your scholarship, and your reputation would go a long, long way toward persuading everybody, including courts across the country, that Rapture In Rimini is a work of art.”
“I’ll take your words under advisement,” Connie said, and Frank wondered if he had over-gilded her lily. He phoned the projectionist to start the movie.
Giovanni Scanzani didn’t like the idea of some strong-willed American press agent taking charge of his film. He complained to Alton Benning, and Alton Benning had his assistant phone Josh to expect a call from the celebrated actor. Josh canceled lunch to be ready for it, and — unlike his legendary behavior while making his movies — Benning actually called on time.
“I want to be among the first to congratulate you on your magnificent portrayal,” Josh told Benning when they connected.
“And I want to be the first to tell you that I will never work for you again if you mess up Giovanni’s movie,” Benning responded. “In fact, I will not give a single press interview.”
“With all due respect, Mr. Benning,” Josh cut in, “you haven’t given an interview for any of your work in over 20 years. And when you do, all you want to talk about is air pollution.”
“Yes, but if I was ever going to give one, it would be for this picture.”
“With even more respect, Mr. Benning,” Josh continued, “when General Artists picked up this picture we didn’t have a lot of competition. Your last three pictures have tanked, and, regardless of how brilliant you are — and you are magnificent in everything you do — you don’t have the clout to demand anything from anybody.
“You listen to me, Benning,” Josh continued, dropping all pretentions of politeness. “For once you have a distributor who’s not going to dump your picture in the drive-ins or cut it so it makes no sense. Rapture In Rimini is one of the best films I’ve ever seen, and we intend to treat it like that. If you and Mr. Scanzani care as much about your picture as we do, you’d come down off your mountain or wherever you hang out between paydays and take an interest in your own goddamned work. You’re getting a percentage of the gross, for crissake, and if you do anything to damage those grosses I’ll sue your coddled ass back to when you were a spear carrier for Orson Welles.”
Volpe hung up before Benning could. Then Josh threw up in his trash can.
The invitations went out on a Friday, and on Monday morning the calls started coming in. Nobody had seen the picture yet, but that didn’t matter. A pre-release invitation is strange currency. It isn’t about the money, it’s about the status. People start considering passes not a favor but a right. Frank knew he was upsetting the web of payoffs that General Artists and JT Theatres had established. “Nothing makes people say ‘yes’ faster than telling them ‘no,’" Frank assured Josh. “This is just what we want.”
The critics, of course, were sent proper screening notices, but they were told that it was for them alone. No guests. When their editors called to ask why they hadn’t received the customary courtesy invitation as well, Frank lied that it was “the filmmakers” keeping them out. Indeed, the next day it was all over the papers that General Artists was picking and choosing whom they were inviting to see Rapture In Rimini in advance of its opening.
Judge Berwick meanwhile was having trouble writing his summary judgment, which is a legal opinion written by a jurist rendering a verdict without a trial, giving potential litigants a sense of what might happen if they went to court. So he asked to screen Rapture In Rimini again, and this time to invite his wife and in-laws.
Meanwhile, Dan and Arnie were hearing from their own families. “I keep telling everyone it’s not a dirty movie,” Gladys Torgeson said, “and they all say, if it isn’t, why does it have an ‘X’ rating?”
Dan explained. “Tell them that Midnight Cowboy, Medium Cool, A Clockwork Orange, The Devils and If… were also ‘X’-rated.”
“But then they bring up peanut butter.”
Said Arnie, “For crissake, nobody’s even seen the goddamn picture.”
On the Sunday before the film opened, Connie Stone published her review. It wasn’t just a rave, it was a beatification. Phrases like “It changes the art of cinema” and “The nakedness is internal as well as external” made for a money review. Frank phoned her at home with his gratitude.
“Nothing to thank me for. The film is a triumph in every way.”
Frank said, “I already sent your review to the advertising department. They’re checking with your newspaper now to see about licensing it for national use. Anybody who hasn’t heard of the film now will certainly hear about it. For that matter, anybody who hasn’t heard of you will hear about you, too.”
When Frank reported back to Josh, the executive smiled.
Connie Stone’s review gave Judge Berwick the cover he was looking for. By pronouncing Rapture In Rimini an artistic success, it trumped any concern over community standards and allowed him to decree from the bench that the picture did not meet the U.S. Supreme Court’s murky threshold of obscenity. He handed down his summary judgment on Monday, the day after the review came out.
That same day Alton Benning landed his private jet at JFK airport and held a press conference. When informed by the attending press that Rapture In Rimini had just been adjudged both legally and artistically not obscene, he responded, “The real obscenity is not found in love but in mankind’s actions against himself and god’s world. I’m speaking, of course, about the obscene pollution of our air by industry, rampant technology, wastefulness, and our own profligacy.” Benning was widely rumored to be an Oscar contender for his performance in the film that revived his career, but then gained weight and invested his percentage of the movie’s grosses in wind farms around Palm Springs.
Rapture In Rimini played for a record-breaking six months at the JT Theatres’ Cinema 1 in Manhattan. Dan Torgeson and Arnie Fuchs immediately asked for a revision of booking terms and an increase in studio contribution to advertising. They got both. then leveraged their success into a number of high-profile bookings that straddled the line between art and commerce. They were eventually pushed out of business when the major film companies decided to start their own “independent” subsidiaries and stopped serving the art house market.
AmericaWide rewarded Josh Volpe by stripping him of his executive power as payback for publicly associating them with an “X”-rated film, even one that was an artistic and commercial triumph. A year later he left with four top General Artists executives to start his own studio.
Nat Segaloff photo by Liane Brandon