Directed By: Anthony Harvey
Written By: A. Martin Zweiback
Produced By: Menahem Golan, Yoram Globus
Cast: Katharine Hepburn, Nick Nolte, Kit Le Fever, Chip Zien, William Duell, Walter Abel
MPAA Rating: PG
Runtime: 90 minutes
Review Date: January 19, 2011
From 1979-1993, the Cannon Group — headed by Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus — released a string of surprisingly successful low-budget films. They made stars of Chuck Norris and Jean-Claude Van Damme, they lured bigger stars like Sylvester Stallone and Charles Bronson into their company, and they glommed onto huge franchise properties like Masters of the Universe, Superman, and Spider-Man. Despite the financial success of the films, the company almost always ran at a loss, and Cannon’s insistence on the lowest possible budget yielded bizarre but uniquely charming films. The goal of Cannon Corner is to pay homage to these films.
I’d love to know how the pitch for Grace Quigley went. It has one of the craziest plots I’ve ever seen in a film, and I sure love seeking out crazy movies. To hear a description of its story is to wonder how the hell such a movie got made. I wish I had an answer, but the film drifted into obscurity (despite being Katharine Hepburn’s last starring role) and thus, not much information is available. Maybe the mere presence of Hepburn and Nick Nolte made it a go picture.
The lunacy of Grace Quigley doesn’t quite compare to transcendent Cannon fodder like Death Wish 3 or Breakin’. Those movies take place in a cartoon universe that invents its own rules for how reality works. Grace Quigley tries, for the most part, to stay grounded in the real world, and that might be its fatal flaw.
Hepburn stars in the title role, as a lonely elderly woman threatened with eviction by her new, greedy landlord. Just when she grumbles that men like the new landlord should be killed, surprise! Seymour Flint (Nolte) kills him, right in front of her eyes. See, Flint is a professional hit man, and somebody hired him to kill the landlord. Grace follows Flint to his apartment and offers him a proposition: she won’t go to the police with what she knows, if he gives her a discount on a hit. Flint initially refuses. Because of the complications that can arise from planning and executing a hit, he can’t lower his price. He’s flummoxed when Grace ambiguously states that she can get the target to cooperate, so he reluctantly agrees to carry out her hit if she can raise $1000 (half his bare-minimum asking price).
Grace raises the money quickly — by bringing a friend (William Duell) in on the deal. She tells the friend it’ll cost $2000 in order to get her half. Who’s the target, though? Well — both of them. Grace mournfully confesses that she’s been suicidal for years, but a series of botched attempts have left her terrified about trying again. It’s time to turn to outside help. Her friend, Mr. Jenkins, wants the same thing. What’s more — Grace has a whole network of suicidal elders who just want to end it. They’re all willing to pay Flint, as long as he’s willing to do all the heavy lifting of planning their deaths and making it look like suicides or accidents.
Initially appalled, Flint realizes this might be the breakthrough he needs. Numbed to the effects of murder-for-hire, he decides he should use his limited skill-set to help rather than hurt people. I’m sure all of this was incredibly shocking in a pre-Kervorkian world, but frankly, it’s still kind of shocking.
The film gets very strange in its second half, insisting on an intrusive, eerily Freudian mother-son relationship between Grace and Flint — to the point that Grace asks him to call her “Mom,” and he actually does. Grace remains alive to help orchestrate her friends’ deaths, but she quickly discovers that having a “son” has given her a reason to live. At the same time, the formerly cool assassin finds himself plagued with guilt for the first time. Even though the old folks want death, he can’t help feeling like they’re all good people who have merely lost sight of what makes life worth living, just like Grace did. At least when he was a contract killer, he knew the target was probably a bad person.
After reading that plot summary, would you imagine this is supposed to be a raucous, broad comedy? In the way it constantly looks on the goofy sunny side of dark subject matter, the film feels a great deal like a Hal Ashby film, which is no coincidence — Ashby was originally attached to direct. Still, right around the point of an interminable scene revolving around making change for a cabbie (about halfway through), I realized Grace Quigley had lost its charms. The film loses sight of its ambitious thematic ideals as it twists the relationship between Grace and Flint into something unrecognizable from what blossomed in the first half of the film.
It was nice to see both characters find a connection through their disconnection and become better people for it. The film takes a quick, unearned left turn, though, and pits Grace and Flint against each other — she wants to rat him out to the police because he doesn’t treat her the way a son should treat a mother, and he wants to keep her quiet. Aside from the jaw-dropping insanity of each consecutive scene, the film loses its already tenuous hold on its characters and devolves into a big, goofy car chase. Granted, said car chase involves multiple hearses for maximum comedy value, but that’s the sort of raucous setpiece that belongs in a better movie — the movie Grace Quigley could have been if it didn’t lose focus in the second half.
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.
D. B. Bates is a freelance script reader and writer.