27 Years Later:
A Response to the Critics


It wasn't the airplanes Dino De Laurentiis's Kong needed to fear, it was the ghost of the original. In the 43 years since its initial release, the original King Kong had been rereleased several times, always to big box office, with the result that, by 1976, just about every critic had grown up on that version, and could imagine no other interpretation. It was the film of their childhood, seen through the worshipful eyes of children, even if those eyes now belonged to supposedly staid, learned critics.

In the end, they overreacted. Prior to the film's December 17th release, the critical commentary was nothing short of vicious. Great secrecy surrounded the production, but that didn't stop the critics from finding fault with what little they could learn. No detail escaped scorn, with the result that, now, after the passage of 27 years, much of that overheated criticism seems down right comical.

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All three lead actors were virtual unknowns at the time, and yet, remarkably, all three have gone on to stardom and critical acclaim. Jessica Lange, Jeff Bridges, Charles Grodin -- hard to believe now that De Laurentiis was pilloried by the critics for casting them, but he was. This in spite of the fact that Bridges was, even then, a two time Academy Award nominee, and that Grodin had had extensive work on Broadway. To the critics, Grodin was just a stage actor (not apparently a real actor), and Bridges was just the son of Lloyd. And Jessica Lange -- the critics positively outdid themselves in derisive commentary.

King Kong was Lange's first film; previously she had been a "high fashion" model. Nonetheless, as she explained in interviews, the modeling had only been a way of breaking into acting and to pay the bills. She had spent two years in Paris studying mime under the man who taught Marcel Marceux. Today, there isn't a critic alive who has anything but praise for Lange, and she has the two Oscars to prove it. But in 1976 De Laurentiis's decision to trust his director's instincts and go with an unknown was almost universally condemned. Again and again the critics equated lack of experience with lack of ability. They didn't want talent, they wanted a name, and Jessica Lange wasn't a name. In hindsight, it is obvious director Guillermin's instincts were right on the money. Instead, he suffered slings and arrows such as James van Hise's who, after listing the leads of Lange, Bridges and Grodin, sourly wrote: "Needless to say, the cast is not impressive."

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Nor were the special effects spared the withering scorn of critics. In the months leading up to the film's release, the production's publicity team gave out a lot of false information. They downplayed the fact that Kong would almost totally be portrayed by Rick Baker in an animatronic mask and costume, and implied that a 40-foot robot would appear throughout much of the movie.

Nonetheless, the critics were scornful of both methods of portraying the giant ape. Nothing, it seemed, would do but that King Kong be recreated using the same stop-motion animation effects used in the original. Worse, the critics had a hero in Universal Pictures which, having lost in court the battle to make their own remake, claimed they would have used stop-motion throughout. (Universal also let it be known that they would have only real movie stars in their King Kong. None of this Jessica Lange crap for them. They suggested Susan Blakeley would play Kong's bride. Susan who? Indeed.)

In hindsight, it seems unlikely that Universal ever intended to make King Kong, with stop-motion or otherwise. (In the court settlement, they received a percentage of the box office from De Laurentiis's Kong without ever having to shoot a frame of film.) Today big budget fantasy films are a monthly occurrence, but in 1976 it would have been unprecedented for a major studio to attempt such a thing. As everyone then agreed, Dino De Laurentiis was the only producer crazy enough to push through something like King Kong. Not until Star Wars came along (costing a measley 10 million) did the major studios finally start to take special effects seriously.

But, even more unlikely, is the idea of Universal using stop- motion. In the 43 years since the 1933 King Kong was made, Ray Harryhausen had been virtually alone in using stop-motion, in films which were all low budget, and it showed. Today, no filmmaker would be caught dead using stop-motion extensively in a big budget film. It was a good effect, but never quite good enough. Certainly there is no doubt that a 12 million dollar stop-motion King Kong would have been something to see, but it is hard to imagine that Universal was serious.

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More important, it is hard to see what would have been the point. Universal's remake would have been virtually identical to the original, set in the thirties, a climax atop the Empire State building, etc. It could only have replaced the original, not stood next to it as another interpretation. In fact, champions of Universal's bid, such a Forrest J. Ackerman, admitted that the only reason for remaking Kong along the lines Universal promised was to have a Kong in colour. Now that we do have a colourized version of the 1933 King Kong, the idea that they might have spent 12 million just to colourize King Kong back in 1976 seems ludicrous. Moreover, having seen the colourized version, it is clear to this writer that much of the success of the original owes to its being in black and white. Colourized, the miniature effects become glaringly obvious and the whole thing begins to look rather like Claymation's California Raisins.
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Conversely, viewed through hindsight, the special effects that were employed in King King 1976 were nothing short of ground-breaking. The critics endlessly mocked the use of a "guy in an ape suit" in a 24 million dollar film, predicting that it could only lead to the sort of thing seen in the Godzilla movies. They could not understand that special effects are about illusion and that, where illusion is concerned, all that is important is the end result, not the means by which those results are achieved. Ironically, watching the finished film, the majority of critics honestly believed they were seeing a 40-foot robot gorilla throughout much of the film. That fact alone proves that the "guy in an ape suit" worked. They didn't realize they were seeing a six foot Rick Baker in a miniature set.
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Moveover, the mask (rather six masks) used was able to assume astonishingly subtle expressions through the use of animatronics designed by Carlo Rambaldi, who later created the alien in Alien and the alien in E.T. (Rick Baker fashioned the rubber surface of the mask.) Today, such masks are a key special effect in Hollywood, but King Kong 1976 was the first and remains the most impressive use of the technology.
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Had De Laurentiis used stop-motion, it is unlikely an 18-inch model could have created the subtlety of emotion which Rick Baker was able to convey. And even the most scornful critics admitted that they did feel sympathy for Baker's Kong.

The problem with stop-motion is that it is a miracle in and of itself. Watching the original Kong, we marvel just to see Kong move, because we know it isn't real. Every little motion is a triumph. We don't ask for anything more. But with Baker's Kong, because the movements are real, more can be delivered in the way of a performance. And more was delivered. Indeed, watching Baker's performance, it is not too much to say it is comparable to Boris Karloff's Frankenstein, revered by film buffs, and it is a shame that Baker has never been similarily recognized as an actor for his roll in bringing Kong to life.

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Once critics saw the finished film, some reluctantly admitted that, for all their scorn, it had worked after all. Many though did not. For these, their reviews essentially comprised a list of ways in which the new Kong differed from the old, the point apparently being that any change had to be for the worse. They refused to simply review the movie on its own merits.

Again, no detail escaped scorn. The Skull Island wall should have been stone, as in the original. The helicopters in the climax were too clearly a reference to the Vietnam War. Jeff Bridges's hair was too long. Indeed, for a great many critics, Bridges's hair was the real monster in King Kong. Jessica Lange should have kept her mouth shut, they said, and just looked pretty, as Fay Wray did in the original. (The film genres most embraced by critics are inevitably those in which women are either absent or submissive to men -- gangster films, westerns, war movies, and, recently, serial killer flicks.) And the World Trade Center wasn't phallic enough.

Critic Emerson Baldorff wrote: "The new version substitutes the World Trade towers for the Empire State Building, and what kind of phallic symbol is that?" More than anything, this surely showed the wide gulf between what 1976 audiences were looking for in a King Kong remake, and what critics were looking for. Audiences were looking for an emotionally involving tragic horror/love story.

Critics were looking for a big dick.