About halfway through Robert Altman’s Kansas City, the central metaphor of ruinous play-acting is conveyed in a story about a woman who was so enamored with Kansas City native Jean Harlow that she continued to bathe her hair in peroxide until it eventually died and broke off. In the film, that same woman finds herself in an impossible and dangerous situation having taken too many cues from movie characters in her pursuit to get her equally stupid and low-wattage husband out of serious jeopardy.
The jeopardy? Johnny (Dermot Mulroney) used a burnt cork blackface disguise to rob a wealthy African-American high-roller who is on his way to gamble at the black-owned Hey-Hey Club. Once the scheme is discovered, Johnny is taken hostage by powerful mobster Seldom Seen (a fiercely brilliant Harry Belafonte), owner of the Hey-Hey Club and mini-sociologist of black society in Kansas City, and held in the back room of the club while a marathon jam session of jazz musicians lights up the front. In an attempt to rescue Jonnny, his wife, Blondie (Jennifer Jason Leigh), conspires to kidnap Carolyn Stilton (Miranda Richardson), laudanum-addicted wife of presidential advisor Henry Stilton (Michael Murphy), and to use her as a bargaining chip in the safe release of Johnny.
Kansas City is a film brimming with juxtapositions right down to the absolutely thrilling music that plays over everything, including the brutal, back-alley slaying of a bungling kid who simply got in over his head. But the major juxtaposition being presented in Kansas City is that every level of white culture is corrupt, twisted, and perverted and, worse all, accepted as such. Set in 1934, favors are paid by pulling heavy levers with important people, voters are bussed in to vote multiple times in an unnamed election the following day, and the central idea being the ludicrous-but-true fact that even a penny ante white punk can somehow, someway have access to a through-line to an adviser to President Roosevelt. Meanwhile, the black community, weaved into the fabric of the city without the benefit of its residents being treated like equal citizens, is much more immediately powerful and streamlined due to their necessity-based self-reliance, embodied and given voice by Seldom Seen.
Where Ready to Wear didn’t feel like it was cut down enough to be laser-focused, Kansas City feels a little tight around the edges; a suitcase that is almost about to burst for all the things packed into it. The film’s pace is as frenetically wired as the energy in the Hey Hey Club which causes things that feel like they should be bigger narrative pieces (primarily, everything centering around the drama of Election Day) to fade in the mix. But while the pacing may be a little too snappy for all of the information in this film to land correctly, it is a film that grows on repeat viewings. Much like the actual city of Kansas City, there is a lot crammed into a not very large space that will be rewarded with further exploration.
On a technical level, Kansas City is as impressive as Thieves Like Us, Altman’s exploration of the same period in American history. That being said, Kansas City doesn’t quite have the same kind of languid realism of Thieves Like Us despite covering the same basic ground as there is no grim commitment to life in Kansas City, just a fleeting fidelity to genre conventions that simultaneously feels like it’s running for the exits. You get gloss instead of grain which isn’t necessarily bad in and of itself, but Altman is always better when he’s utilizing his stories to subvert a genre. In Kansas City, Altman seems to have built the film from the inside-out where he and longtime collaborator and co-screenwriter Frank Barhydt made a choice to find Altman’s voice and vision within the story instead of the other way around.
Kansas City draws a lot of strength in its Doctorow-like approach to fiction and non-fiction. From this viewpoint, it’s a lot like a mini-Ragtime, Coppola’s The Cotton Club, or even something like Gangs of New York go to Missouri. Charlie Parker (Albert J. Burnes) and his mother, Addie (Jeff Feringa), are fairly and accurately represented as she did in fact work at the Western Union office in Kansas City at the time. Seldom Seen was a real figure who was born Ivory Johnson in Oklahoma Territory and died in Baptist Hospital, a stone’s throw from my home in Oklahoma City, at the age of 102 in November 1985. The Hey-Hey Club was a real place owned by Seldom. Tom Pendergast was an actual KC political fixer. The intermingling of fact and fiction culminates in the jazz marathon functioning like a Greek chorus throughout the film with actual jazz musicians jamming while portraying their historical, non-fictional counterparts.
Also strong are the female leads and the decision to focus the film’s main narrative drive on the two. This is a movie in which Mrs. Stinson and Blondie go on a journey where they reveal to themselves and each other that they’re completely defined by their husbands. They are both in predicaments because their husbands, participants in a marriage of two that we never see until the film’s closing moments. Miranda Richardson holds her own became she’s so doped up that it’s an impossibility that she become a screeching victim. She retorts and gives subtle sass as if she can’t comprehend that she’s in mortal danger.
While still great, Jennifer Jason Leigh is a little on the broad side and plays her character as if she’s firing her Hudsucker Proxy character through her nose. Her snarl that reveals her gray teeth and her matinee-learned sneer gets employed with a little too much force a little too often even if it’s being done to convey a sad character who has seen too many movies. And while the rustic charm of Thieves Like Us gives way to a slicker production, the films are kindred spirits due to Leigh’s portrayal of a character who is exactly the kind of person Louise Fletcher steps in to save Shelley Duvall from becoming. Here, the character is too spoiled and has too much fun playing the tough moll despite being so desperately out of her depth. We know things are going to go so desperately wrong for her and her husband who have both fucked around with parts of Kansas City best left not fucked with. The ending harkens to the end of Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973) as the end of both films kick convention in the balls with unforeseen violence that seems both heartless and completely sensible.
Though it’s a little too conventional for its own good, Kansas City is a very good film with an amazing musical score. It has an interesting structure that really needs another twenty minutes tacked onto its running time. But it ultimately makes me wish Altman would have just made a film about the inner machinations of the Hey-Hey Club and made a whole other movie out of everything else.
(C) Copyright 2021, Patrick Crain