I concluded my review of Grace Quigley with this declaration:
“After its initial release, screenwriter A. Martin Zweiback reedited the film into a version that received a warm reception with a handful of critics and won an award at the 2006 (yes, 2006) New York International Independent Film & Video Festival. However, this cut is not (yet?) commercially available. I’m interested in seeing it, because I know a good movie is buried somewhere in the weirdness of Grace Quigley—it’s just too scatterbrained to get there.”
The film’s writer, executive producer, and longtime champion, A. Martin Zweiback, took me up on that. As you may have seen, he sent me a videotape of the “writer’s cut,” which filled me simultaneously with fear and hope. Hope, because I believed a good film could come from the botched version I saw; fear, because, based on what I had seen, I didn’t know what could be done with the existing footage to substantially improve it.
To my great pleasure, The Ultimate Solution of Grace Quigley—Zweiback’s cut—is, indeed, the great film I wished Grace Quigley could have been.
But first, some backstory… Per an article in the Fall 1986 issue of Sightlines, the oft-repeated legend goes like this: Zweiback tossed a 25-page treatment over George Cukor’s garden gate in 1972. As it happened, Katharine Hepburn was there, recuperating from surgery. The treatment was given to her, and she fell in love. With Hepburn attached, and Steve McQueen interested (thanks to Hepburn’s enthusiasm), and the similarly irreverent (but vastly inferior) Harold & Maude released a year earlier, it seemed like a lock for a greenlight. But nothing in Hollywood is ever that easy.
In 1979, Columbia agreed to finance the picture with Nick Nolte in the role Hepburn wanted for McQueen. Zweiback was to direct. Nolte backed out, and by the time he returned in 1983, Columbia had backed out. That’s where Cannon Films came into the picture. They put up the money, but yet another thing had changed—Anthony Harvey, director of The Lion in Winter (for which Hepburn won her third Oscar), had been seriously injured in a car accident. Hepburn promised that Harvey would direct her next film—which, as circumstances would have it, turned out to be Grace Quigley. Zweiback graciously stepped aside, on the condition that he and his wife would be credited as executive producers and allowed on set.
But Harvey didn’t want what he likely perceived as Monday-morning quarterbacking on what had become “his” film. He threatened to quit if he ever saw the Zweibacks in New York, where the film was to be shot. The Zweibacks didn’t have any involvement until the film’s premiere at the 1984 Cannes Film Festival, where it received unanimous negative reviews.
I can’t speak to Harvey’s oeuvre. I’ve only seen the admittedly great The Lion in Winter, but based on that and a cursory look at his films, it’s easy to suspect Harvey was never the right man for this particular job. Like The Lion in Winter, the overwhelming majority of his films were stage adaptations. The Lion in Winter is a significant achievement in acting, but not so much in directing. The strength is in the casting, and Harvey was wise enough to step out of the way and let his actors do their thing. If he gave them any direction, it certainly had nothing to do with restraining their performances. A film like The Ultimate Solution of Grace Quigley requires much more subtlety and imagination than Harvey seems capable of.
Then again, it’s hard to paint Harvey in a positive light here. When asked about Zweiback’s cut of the film, Harvey responded: “I have no comment about this film whatsoever. All I can say is it’s not to be discussed. [It’s] too revolting.” But he had, in fact, seen the cut, and said of it, “I thought it was very good. It’s just that the whole thing is a little nothing that’s become a big something.” Gosh, I don’t want to get on my soapbox, but at least two people (Zweiback and Hepburn) spent over a decade championing the project. They believed in it, so Harvey stepping in to quietly ruin the film is significantly more than “a little nothing.”
It seems like a fundamental misunderstanding of the film’s tone. After viewing the writer’s cut, I went back and watched a handful of scenes in the “official” release. My sense memory of the experience of watching it is accompanied by Benny Hill’s theme, “Yakety Sax.” The music is not quite so abrasively cheerful, but Harvey’s cut evokes a tone of light, wacky comedy. Even before I knew of this writer’s cut, I found the film’s editing appalling. Vincent Canby, in his hilariously scathing 1985 review for The New York Times, called it “thoroughly muddled.” Scenes begin and end abruptly, things happen for seemingly no reason, and the whole story feels breathlessly rushed, like Harvey thought he was making a 1930s screwball comedy that just built and built and built until everyone ended up soaking wet or tried to give an elephant a bath or some other stupid bullshit. That’s not what Grace Quigley is or should be, and at the time of the film’s release, the only person willing to publicly acknowledge that was Zweiback.
I don’t know all the behind-the-scenes details, but I imagine the oft-mentioned chaos at Cannon paved the way for Zweiback’s cut. After its disastrous premiere at Cannes, everyone (including Harvey) knew the film needed work. Cannon gave Zweiback access to video copies of the film and an editing log, from which Zweiback cut together his cut. In addition to pieces of John Addison’s original score, Zweiback used moody, kick-ass music he had licensed from The Pretenders to underscore a few scenes. Most importantly, he restored a tone-setting opening scene and gave credence to the seriousness of the subject matter rather than playing it all for cheap yuks.
In fact, the most startling thing about Zweiback’s cut is that it’s not really “ha-ha” funny—scenes are situationally funny, sharp lines of dialogue provide the occasional stinging laugh, but his edit gives the film the subdued, somber tone that the frenetic official film desperately needed.
I sincerely think Zweiback’s two most important changes are the score and that opening scene. Whereas Harvey’s film opens with a tonally meaningless montage of Grace (Hepburn) walking through the snowy streets of New York (which provides some unintentional hilarity when the following handful of scenes take place in midsummer), Zweiback opens his cut with a profoundly upsetting scene: Grace is on a curiously old-fashioned train, wearing fancy but outdated (almost Victorian) duds, to have a picnic lunch on the beach with her family. Almost at random, her family—one by one—announces they must leave her now, and they promptly walk into the water and, one assumes, drown themselves. With a fearful gasp, Grace awakens from this nightmare.
This scene perfectly sets up Grace’s state of mind—she (we infer) has outlived her entire family, and she has nothing else to live for. She has nothing more than a rent-controlled apartment and a parakeet. She’s unsuccessfully attempted suicide twice. (In one of the film’s many bracing ironies, which Zweiback’s highlights rather than breezing past, Grace’s first attempt came when she learned she had a heart condition—she exercised harder than anyone her age should, to give herself a fatal heart attack, but it resulted in her getting into the best shape of her life and neutralizing the heart condition.) She’s one of those tragic, lonely elderly people who while away the hours in good health and stable mind, just waiting to die.
An act of chance, or perhaps fate, brings Grace into the life of Seymour Flint (Nolte), a professional killer. She accidentally witnesses a hit on her nasty landlord, but when she scurries off so Seymour doesn’t know he has a witness to his crime, she accidentally hides in the backseat of Seymour’s own car (parked a few blocks away, with phony license plates). This sequence highlights one of the many other differences in the editing. Zweiback shows Grace’s palpable terror, an elderly woman stuck in the backseat of a hitman’s car, unsure of where he’s going, unsure if she’ll survive the afternoon. All Harvey does is show Grace comically plugging her ears as Seymour blasts some music. That, right there, might be a summation of the difference in approach to the material.
Armed with the knowledge of Seymour’s name and home address, she politely approaches him with an offer—she’ll pay him to kill her. When she can’t afford his fee, she brings a neighbor (William Duell) in on the deal, which makes Seymour uneasy. In Zweiback’s cut, Seymour’s crippling depression and anxiety about his line of work is much more apparent, in the same way as Grace’s loneliness. This allows the development of their surrogate mother-son relationship to succeed much more than it does in its official release. As Canby groused, “You know how far off-course the movie is when Grace Quigley turns to her business associate and says, with sincerity, ‘Seymour, would you mind calling me “Mom”?’ In the person of Miss Hepburn, Grace Quigley is not someone who needs anyone to call her ‘Mom.'” I, myself, noted the left-field disparity of this moment—but in Zweiback’s cut, not only does it make sense, it feels earned dramatically, and the remainder of the film only intensifies the complex relationship that develops between the two.
Zweiback’s cut establishes Grace as having lost her children; it also shows Seymour never had a mother. They give each other a certain, uneasy emotional fulfillment, but some of the darker choices Seymour makes in the second half of the film have a stronger root in character than in the official cut, in which the second half mostly comes across like goofy nonsense. As Grace encourages Seymour to enter a more positive realm of killing—they start a business together to kill, with permission, elderly people who want to die, instead of murdering people on behalf of criminals—Seymour finds himself losing his stress-induced physical maladies and able to effect even more positive change in his life—up to and including marrying his favorite call girl (the goofily chipper Kit Le Fever). Grace, too, almost seems to find a reason to live again.
Not only do the plot and relationships make more sense—the entire film has more gravity and emotional impact. The official film breezes through Seymour’s first exposure to nursing homes, institutional pits that make the Walter Reed scandal look like a glowing profile of the Mayo Clinic. Zweiback lingers on it. He lingers on a lengthy monologue from Mr. Jenkins (Duell), in which he explains his reason for dying. The official cut contains an abbreviated version of the same scene, with upbeat jazz music playing quietly in the background. Zweiback’s cut features somber piano. In short, everything Harvey’s cut does wrong, Zweiback’s cut does right—including the restoration of a much darker, more emotionally resonant ending.
Years before Jack Kervorkian’s rise to prominence, The Ultimate Solution of Grace Quigley could have opened up the discussion of this difficult, complex issue—had anyone seen it. After its disastrous New York run, the official version closed quickly, got a quiet home-video release, and ran on HBO at odd hours. All the while, Zweiback begged and pleaded for someone to take his version seriously, but MGM had already secured video rights based on the theatrically released version, and HBO took its cues from MGM.
I feel lucky to have seen The Ultimate Solution of Grace Quigley. It has, unfortunately, not been widely seen, though it’s garnered unanimous positive reviews from everyone who has (including Anthony Harvey, despite his condescension). Shortly after Hepburn’s death in 2003, Hollywood Reporter writer Kirk Honeycutt (who wrote a rave review of the writer’s cut for the Los Angeles Daily News in 1986) took the time to once again extol the virtues of this widely unseen version of the film. In it, he quotes Zweiback:
“MGM has the rights… I would love to see a DVD come out with both versions. It could be used by every film school in the country. What could teach more about the effects of editing and music than this particular film?”
I’m in total agreement, and such a thing is not unprecedented (for instance, Warner Brothers released a DVD with two different cuts of 1946’s The Big Sleep). On the other hand, MGM is in the midst of serious financial woes. Maybe now is the time for another company to buy back the rights to Grace Quigley on the cheap. Come on, Shout! Factory. Isn’t this your thing?