Tony Hendra talks about ”Great White Hype”
January 1990 I have an idea: a This Is Spinal Tap about boxing. Boxing has much in common with rock — thievery, chicanery, no-talent morons. And racism — a great satirical target. The Great White Hype would be a fully improvised take on the backstage process of the not-so-sweet science. And the real story of Rocky: Black boxing establishment handpicks white contender. Fight is worth a billion dollars. Fight lasts 17 seconds.
February 1990 Enter Neil Leifer. Neil is America’s greatest living sports photographer — and a hyperkinetic ball of undiscourageable chutzpah. If Neil weren’t obsessed by being Woody Allen or Visconti or someone, he could well have been a hotshot producer on the order of Joel Silver.
May-October 1990 I write a detailed scenario including a part for myself as the white fighter’s racist manager — like Ian Faith, another vicious, devious, unscrupulous jerk-off. (A shoo-in role for me. As Rob Reiner said when we were making Spinal Tap, ”Tony, just play yourself.”)
1991 Neil involves Ron Shelton — director of White Men Can’t Jump and a big fan of Neil’s photos — who likes my scene-by-scene enough to put a bunch of his own dough into a 15-minute improvised test, with Neil as director, in lieu of a screenplay (like we did with Spinal Tap).
November 1992 The test is completed. Starring Bill Murray and shot at Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City, it has some great moments, but Neil’s talent for eliciting improvisation does not equal, say, John Cassavetes’.
1994 The film gets set up at Fox with Ron as writer-director. No more Spinal Tap. He takes all my stuff and turns in a great, neatly balanced satire of both ”sides.” Fox greenlights it. They start signing biggies like Samuel L. Jackson to play the promoter Sultan, the Don King doppelganger — but the white-racist manager role is still mine. When William Morris suggests Michael Caine, Ron tells them, ”That part’s taken.”
March 1995 Another twist: Ron can’t direct it. He’s busy with other commitments, like Tin Cup, starring Kevin Costner. Fox won’t wait. They substitute Reginald Hudlin, the black director of House Party and Boomerang fame. Damon Wayans is signed, Jeff Goldblum, Jon Lovitz, Cheech Marin, Chicago Hope’s Peter Berg. As for me, I’m out in the waiting room with the other bozos. A first? Writer-actor has to audition for a role he created for himself? (P.S. My audition sucked. I didn’t get the part. I failed to play myself.)
June 1995 Principal photography begins. Reggie is funny but very different from Ron. Racism all but disappears as a satirical target. Damon and Peter, as the black champ and the white contender, secondary roles, pawns in promoter Sultan’s game, improvise their way into substantial — and hilarious — roles. (But that wasn’t quite the point.) Jeff Goldblum as a self-obsessed journalist bent on exposing Sultan is mostly edged out of the final cut. Sam Jackson gives a splendidly operatic performance as Sultan.
May 1996 First black fighters and then black promoters take over the sport. And now a black sensibility rules this boxing movie, written by two white guys. Don’t get me wrong. Reggie’s movie is great, but he’s not fulfilling any white fantasies. Rocky and its brothers and Raging Bull, to name but six, were movies designed to comfort us pathetic honky wish fulfillers that at least on celluloid we had a shot, we coulda been contenders. Boxing movies were an escape from the horrible reality of turkey-legged tomato cans like Gerry Cooney. Not this time.
Tony Hendra, a former editor of National Lampoon and Spy, played band manager Ian Faith in This Is Spinal Tap.