Fool for Fame
Shepard had thus made the leap to true "star" status, though even the most pedestrian of the mainstream press had to admit that this was no ordinary movie star. The Newsweek cover, for example, declares that Shepard is, simply put, a "Leading Man, Playwright, Maverick." (Ibid) The prioritizing of roles there, with the movies listed above his previous claim to fame, writing plays, is an indication not only of what the popular audience knew of Sam Shepard, but also of where he would begin to prioritize his creative energies after 1985, acting in over fifteen feature films while only two new plays of his were staged.
Also in 1985, Shepard collaborated with Robert Altman to adapt Fool For Love to the silver screen. Shepard wrote the screenplay and even took one of its starring roles, that of Eddie, providing yet another strange and extreme example of his compulsion to inhabit the roles he imagines. The play was first staged in 1983, in San Francisco and New York, to generally positive reviews for its claustrophobic menace and its touchingly bleak portrayal of the star-crossed lives of the two pathetic, incestuous lovers, Eddie and May. May is a dim-witted waitress living in a seedy motel "on the edge of the Mojave Desert" (Fool for Love and Other Plays, p. 19), and Eddie is a movie cowboy/stunt man who comes to reestablish this unseemly relationship. May is angry that Eddie has taken up with a rich starlet, and the entire scenario points suggestively to the final break-up of Shepard's marriage to O-Lan and to Shepard's relationship in the early 1980's with actress Jessica Lange.
The first stage productions employed only a dingy room for its set. The Altman-Shepard collaboration, on the other hand, sought to spread the action over a more open setting and, in a sense, to pump up the play. The final product is certainly nothing close to Terminator II, yet it is interesting to note the changes which took place in the script, and possibly in the author, by 1985. First, a bona fide starlet, Kim Basinger, was chosen to play May opposite Eddie, a character that one reviewer had already pegged as "one of Shepard's aging egomaniacal studs, a hero consumed by his own myth..." (Denby, p. 45)
The opening sequences of the film show a nervous May washing dishes and preparing herself for the evening, intercut with oblique shots of Eddie (Shepard wearing his signature cowboy hat and sunglasses) in a battered truck pulling a gooseneck horse trailer, cruising through a magnificent western landscape. Before ever uttering a line, Shepard's character slams through May's motel door. It is a far cry from the quiet beginning of the stage play, which begins with Eddie consoling May (p. 21), and one already begins to feel that this film has elaborated greatly on the play's script.
Later in the stage version, as the lovers argue over what to call the character who is coming over to pick May up for a date-- a "guy" or a "man"-- , May confronts Eddie with his own slightly insane machismo in saying, "Anybody who doesn't half kill themselves falling off horses or jumping on steers is a twerp in your book." Eddie responds curtly, "That's right." (p. 30)
The film, however, provides Shepard one of his most memorable moments on screen at this point as he adds, "If you ain't a cowboy, you ain't shit," somewhat superfluously. (Altman) Watching Fool for Love, one has to wonder whether these moments of bravado are really necessary, or whether they represent an adaptation of Shepard's public persona, rather than the play's script, to the screen.
Throughout the film, there is evidence of a transformation. Not only has this very dark and tightly composed play been wholly converted into a somewhat rambling movie, but the man who once fled New York instead of acting in one of his own plays here takes on the role with gusto and more than a little narcissism. As in Cowboy Mouth, the Shepard we see acting in Fool for Love resembles our image of him and even enacts a troubled romance that mirrors what most of the audience knew to be the case in his actual life. The difference is, however, that Shepard as Slim is an inarticulate confession of the artist's deepest conflict, while Shepard as Eddie seems to be a fun, if somehow vacuous, piece of propaganda for his public persona, that of the "Leading Man, Playwright, Maverick." Maybe he simply could not resist.
Eddie, too, is a somewhat dubious cowboy-- a stunt man rather than an authentic bunkhouse cowpuncher (p. 26)-- and a man who must keep his separate lives separate but who cannot seem to avoid the conflict between fiction and reality. He has, in a sense, returned to the scene of the crime-- he rejoins his lover (who is possibly his half-sister) and the Old Man, who may be his father-- but their interaction provides no conclusions or solutions, only competing fictions. As he says suggests to Martin, this is essentially a masquerade:
MARTIN: What would we do here?
EDDIE: Well, you could uh-- tell each other stories.
MARTIN: I don't know any stories.
EDDIE: Make 'em up.
MARTIN: That'd be lying wouldn't it?
EDDIE: No, no. Lying's when you believe it's true. If you already
know it's a lie, then it's not lying. (p. 45)
The film also has the appearance of a story that Shepard does not quite believe: both internally and externally it is a comment on the revision of roles and the substitution of "myth for history" (Marranca p.13). For example, after Eddie recounts his story of the first time he saw May, she challenges his accuracy, in both the text and in the film version:
MAY: I heard every word. I followed it very carefully. He's told me
that story a thousand times and it always changes.
EDDIE: I never repeat myself.
MAY: You do nothing but repeat yourself. That's all you do. You just
go in a big circle.
MARTIN: (standing) Well, maybe I should leave.
EDDIE: NO! You sit down.
(Silence. MARTIN slowly sits again.)
EDDIE: (quietly to MARTIN, leaning toward him) Did you think that
was a story, Martin? Did you think I made that whole thing up?
MARTIN: No. I mean, at the time you were telling it, it seemed real.
EDDIE: But now you're doubting it because she says it's a lie?
EDDIE: She suggests it's a lie to you and all of a sudden you change
your mind? Is that it? You go from true to false like that, in a
MARTIN: I don't know.
MAY: Let's go to the movies, Martin.(p.51)
Later Eddie insists that May and Martin stay, declaring, "There's not a movie in this town that can match the story I'm gonna' tell. I'm gonna' finish this story." (Ibid) The story, of course, is never finished definitively, and Eddie leaves forever.
The film adaptation is a revision of the play's internal commentary on revision, truth, and subjectivity, and it is Shepard's enactment of Eddie which, in particular, lends irony and meaning to May's suggestion that she and Martin go to the movies. If the movies, as May conceives of them, are pleasingly stable, if vaguely unreal, fictions in which the audience can believe, then the film, Fool for Love, is the anti-movie. And Sam Shepard, the life-long master of revision and self-mythology, is at its center.
It is only temporary, however: Eddie and Shepard as Eddie vanish from the scene, despite proclamations from beginning (his first lines are "May, look. May? I'm not goin' anywhere." p. 21) to end (his last words are "I'm only gonna be a second. I'll just take a look at it and I'll come right back. Okay?" p. 56) that he will not. Eddie realizes that he and May cannot continue their relationship-- a "dumb little fantasy," in her words (p.25)-- and that his dream of relocating with her to Wyoming is impossible. Once the fantasy is explored and shattered, Eddie loses interest in fulfilling his promises to May-- abruptly, and perhaps inevitably, Eddie leaves her again. With Shepard's enactment of Eddie's adoption, assessment, and abandonment of the role of apologetic lover, the film resonates with external meaning: that of Shepard's own ambivalence over the artistic promises he has made.
If Eddie and May were meant to find themselves through each other in the play, it might also be said that Shepard the playwright and Shepard the movie actor were bent on exploring and clarifying their respective roles within Shepard's dual career. What insights Shepard drew from the experience remain unknown, but he has not acted in any film that he wrote since Fool for Love.