With the recent passing of film and TV legend James Garner, I thought I’d take a look at one of his TV films called “Barbarians at the Gate.” It was an HBO movie, but actually has better acting and writing than many Hollywood efforts. “Barbarians at the Gate” shows the greed on Wall Street that blossomed in the 1980s and has only become worse today.
‘Barbarians at the Gate’
(1993; 107 minutes; rated R; directed by Glenn Jordan and starring James Garner, Jonathan Pryce and Peter Riegert)
GREED, EXECUTIVE EXCESS AND THE ART OF THE DEAL
(NOTE: I updated this review with revised links on July 21, 2015.)
It was only a taste of things to come when company executives moved to do a buyout of RJR Nabisco in the late 1980s. Throw in executive excess, the rise of “junk bonds” and sleazy maneuvers along Wall Street and you have “Barbarians at the Gate,” a 1993 offering from HBO.
The plot is simple: executives want to buy the company; their leader spurns the junk bond kings of the time; the whole thing turns nasty as the dollar high-water mark reaches drowning levels; and the whole thing spins out with only a couple of people (and a bunch of stockholders) really happy with the whole thing.
I’ll go through some plotlines by examining the strong efforts by a large percentage of the excellent cast.
First up is James Garner, who plays RJR Nabisco CEO “F. Ross Johnson” to perfection. Garner, who passed on July 18, is at his affable-but-tough best and delivers the best lines with great timing and verve. Garner is especially good with humorous analogies such as when he examines the buyout proposal and what he receives, he’s told not to mention his numbers in public. “I don’t think a skywriter’d have enough smoke for them all.”
Garner was a versatile actor doing comedy (such as “Move Over, Darling” with Doris Day), war (the classic WWII film “The Great Escape” — click here for my review) and television (his signature role as “Jim Rockford” on “The Rockford Files”) and accomplished as well (he was nominated for an Oscar for best actor in 1985’s “Murphy’s Romance”).
After Garner, the talent and effort doesn’t drop off much and I’ll go in no particular order:
- Jonathan Pryce plays “Henry Kravis,” the egomaniacal, pretentious, nouveau riche financier who challenges Garner for the company. Pryce gives the perfect air to the role and doesn’t under- or over-play the character. His resume includes “Pirates of the Caribbean” films as well as “Glengarry Glen Ross” and as a 007 foe in “Tomorrow Never Dies” (click here for my review).
- Fred Dalton Thompson and Joanna Cassidy play “Jim and Linda Robinson,” Garner’s friends in banking and public relations. Thompson, with his signature voice, does a good job, but Cassidy one ups him overall with her smooth delivery and the chance to express emotion (Thompson’s character is a bit constrained in this area). Thompson is known for “The Hunt for Red October” (click here for my review), “Days of Thunder” with Tom Cruise and two branches of the “Law & Order” TV franchise. Cassidy is known for “Blade Runner,” “The Fourth Protocol” from the Frederick Forsyth novel (no, it is not a movie in Spanish as the IMDb.com website shows it’s Spanish language DVD cover — click here for my review), “Under Fire” and a string of TV roles.
- Peter Riegert, who is best known as “Donald ‘Boon’ Schoenstein” in the comedy classic “Animal House,” plays “Peter Cohen,” the banker who tries to broker the deal and is Thompson’s subordinate. Riegert did his best personal work in the little-remembered but truly outstanding “Local Hero” with Burt Lancaster (click here for my review), but his energetic style fits in well.
- Jeffrey DeMunn, who plays “H. John Greeniaus,” does his job to perfection, too. He’s Garner’s VP in charge of Nabisco and gets left out of the buyout package and stabs Garner in the back (figuratively, of course). In “Barbarians at the Gate,” DeMunn is the opposite of the slimy racist he played in “Betrayed” (click here for my review) or the demented serial killer in another outstanding TV movie called “Citizen X” (click here for my review).
- The rest of the supporting cast, especially Peter Dvorsky (as Pryce’s financier cousin), Matt Clark (as Garner’s sidekick), Leilani Sarelle (as Garner’s wife) and David Rasche (as financier Ted Forstmann), provide what a good supporting cast does: competent support. All do really good work.
The single funniest scene in the whole movie and what apparently spurred the plan to buy out RJR Nabisco comes at the tobacco giant’s North Carolina testing laboratory. Garner has come for an update on the company’s upcoming “smokeless” cigarette. The news isn’t good and the scene plays out with the scientists playing straight men to Garner’s profane surprise and horror.
When told that the new cigarette tested poorly (fewer than 5-percent of testers liked it) and tasted and smelled bad, Garner in frustration says, “Tastes like **** and smells like a ****. Got ourselves a winner here. It’s one **** unique advertising slogan, I’ll give you that.” If you can avoid laughing here, I’m just not sure what would bring that out in you.
However, while the best, it isn’t the only excellent scene. All the scenes in this film, from a Palm Springs golf course to a men’s public restroom to a corporate boardroom, are smooth and segue perfectly to the next; there’s no wasted time in this film. Plus, viewers don’t have to limp through some lame subplot to get to the next good scene.
The R-rating for “Barbarians at the Gate” is simply unfounded by today’s standards. While there is some profane language (yes, a few f-bombs are dropped), it is absolutely no worse than you’ll find in the bleeped-out dreck on MTV and TruTV.
Since “Barbarians at the Gate” was an HBO effort and released for TV audiences, it isn’t ranked at the Box Office (obviously). However, the No. 1 at the box office was “Jurassic Park” with $357 million, according to Box Office Mojo.
Other cast notes (via IMDb.com):
- Tom Aldredge, who plays board chairman “Charlie Hugel,” perfectly conveys a corporate personality (I especially enjoyed how he managed to criticize Garner’s greed when his own pushed the price of the company’s shares up 40-percent and ultimate payoff to him) and has been in diverse films from “Cold Mountain” to “What About Bob?”
- Cassidy is the only primary cast member to have done an episode of “The Love Boat” (click here for my overview of the series).
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