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Flashback: on 1971’s Drive, He Said

Michael Margotta is a badass. I didn’t realize that until recently, but I still wish I had told him back when he was my acting teacher in the mid-1980’s. You see, “Drive, He Said”(Jack Nicholson’s official debut as a director)has been hard to come by for years. But a squeaky clean print has recently made it to DVD, so I finally got to see it in full. Margotta’s not the star, but he is third billed after William Tepper and Karen Black—and before Bruce Dern. But Michael Margotta steals the damn thing from underneath all with his manic, stream-of-consciousness, full frontal nudity performance as Gabriel. Nicholson fondly recalls(on a DVD extra)telling Michael to jump out of a car and run naked through a college campus field quickly—they didn’t have a permit for the scene, so they could only do it once. Unavoidably dated(considering the radical, Vietnam War-protesting, higher education life it portrays), it is still unexpectedly sharp in many scenes. And the college basketball stuff, with Mr. Tepper as young hotshot Hector Bloom, is especially noteworthy when remembering Mr. Nicholson’s decades long title as the world’s most famous L.A. Lakers fan. Jack has a real passion for this sport, and it comes across in how he presents it on-screen. 1970’s staple Karen Black also impresses as Olive, a married older woman with whom Hector is having an affair. And Bruce Dern more than holds his own as Coach Bullion. But this is Margotta’s show—and I waited for his return anxiously every time he was off-screen. “What would he do next?”, I wondered. He managed to never disappoint.

The plot? Oh, who knows. Nicholson also co-wrote the screenplay, and is obviously having a blast with experimentation. How else to explain a penultimate scene where Margotta has a drug-induced romp with the animals in the school’s science lab. The tone of the film owes a lot of debt to 1969’s “Easy Rider” and 1970’s “Five Easy Pieces”—not coincidentally, both Nicholson starrers. Hector(Mr. Tepper)isn’t happy(even though he’s an elite ballplayer), and struggles to find his way as a man. Olive(Ms. Black)is not satisfied with her life, marriage, or affair, and mopes through much of the movie looking bored and uninterested. And firecracker Gabriel(Margotta)is desperate to keep from getting drafted—and he’ll do or say anything to avoid that fate. The role of Gabriel is certainly written to be the scene-stealer, but it’s still awesome how much Margotta delivers. It’s a fertile collage of university life, anti-war fervor, cuckolding and sports. It’s dark—but awfully fun to watch. And you even get cameos from future television giants Cindy Williams and David Ogden Stiers as a bonus.

The Michael Margotta that I knew was a quiet, unassuming guy. He never bragged about his resume, and it would only come up in class when a student happened by one of his old film or television appearances. He was still under 40 when I was his pupil, and I recall his wife and young child occasionally being at the class. There was a very “hippie” feel to the trio, as if they were leftovers from the decade gone by. I don’t mean that as a knock—it was a good thing. Pleasant. Nostalgic. Groovy. There was a particular improvisation device that Michael liked to use involving a phone call he would be making to the student on stage. Michael would describe an imminent danger to the student, who would have to react to the information he/she was being given. Michael would end his part of the exercise by informing the character the student was embodying(over that improvised phone conversation)that he would be right there to help them—and hang up. Then the actor would react for about sixty seconds while “waiting” for Michael to “arrive”, and not knowing what danger was coming. That’s when a student planted off to the side would start yelling and banging and making all sorts of noise. It would shock and surprise the one on stage and half the class as well. It was something Michael used occasionally to indoctrinate new students—and it never failed. After being a “victim” to it my first time round, I would often get to be the secret noisemaker in future sessions. I always enjoyed that improv work, and now(after seeing “Drive, He Said”), I finally realize why Michael was so fond of it. Reportedly, teaching theater in Rome currently, I wonder if Margotta still implements that tool. It’s something I can appreciate being popular with a man who got naked for Jack Nicholson and improvised with a bunch of animals in a college science lab. You may not have to be  a great actor to pull that off, but you certainly have to be a fearless one. And also a terrific re-actor. It also helps to be a badass.     Grade:  B+

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