The Movies of 1994: Revisiting Jack Nicholson’s Bizarre, Terrible ‘Wolf’
In the year 1994, the movies were great. Greater than usual. Blockbuster or indie, rom-com or action thriller, there was something indelible about so many of them. Throughout 2014, Grantland will look back at some of the most memorable, beloved, and baffling releases of that magical time. Today: Some brave staffers take on the baffling Wolf, starring Jack Nicholson and Michelle Pfeiffer, which was released June 17, 1994.
Jack, Michelle, James, and Roger
Bill Simmons: Wolf tried to combine three of my favorite things (werewolves, Jack Nicholson, Michelle Pfeiffer) with four of my least favorite things (horrible special effects, awful writing, wasting a vintage 1990s Pfeiffer performance, and a scathing critique of the New York publishing industry that maybe 50 people cared about). Needless to say, it failed miserably. Although you do learn a valuable lesson: If a potentially rabid wolf in the middle of nowhere bites your hand — definitely hurry to get the wound checked out. Don’t take your time. Got it?
IMDb’s synopsis of Wolf is unintentionally hilarious: “Worn down and out of luck, aging publisher Will Randall is at the end of his rope when a younger co-worker snatches both his job and wife out from under his nose. But after being bit by a wolf, Will suddenly finds himself energized, more competitive than ever, and possessed with amazingly heightened senses. Meanwhile, the beautiful daughter of his shrewd boss begins to fall for him — without realizing that the man she’s begun to love is gradually turning into the creature by which he was bit.”
You know what they left out? “In the climactic ending, Wolf James Spader tries to sexually assault Michelle Pfeiffer before Wolf Jack Nicholson saves her.” That scene might be the single worst movie idea of the entire 1990s other than Nell. It does not age well. But you know what does age well? Wolf ended up becoming an allegory for baseball’s steroid era, which began — not so coincidentally — right around 1994. Check out this scene with Nicholson and David Hyde Pierce, who isn’t the most unexpected future NBC star cameo in this disaster, because David Schwimmer plays a cop in Nicholson’s incredibly bad zoo scene:
Pierce: “You’ve edited about 60 pages of this manuscript since Monday, what are you on?”
Nicholson: “Nothing, I just caught up on my sleep. I got 20 hours of sleep and I feel 20 years younger.”
Pierce: “So now you can see without your glasses.”
Nicholson: “You got a point.”
He might as well be Roger Clemens, right?
Maybe Clemens should start claiming he was bitten by a wolf.
The Wolf and the Bronco
Wesley Morris: When conversations began among this site’s staff about remembering 1994, enthusiasm grew from a collective surprise: What a strong year for American movies! Even films you didn’t like won Oscars, made money, and continue to top polls of the “greatest ever” and “most favorite.” Through about 10 titles, the project has demonstrated a fondness for that year, and, necessarily, much of that fondness is born of nostalgia. These movies meant something to me, to us, TO THE CULTURE. But something else is happening here. In indulging nostalgia, we’re somehow transporting ourselves back in time: “I was there” versus “I’m back there again,” the memory of the madeleine versus the madeleine itself. When the project brought us to Wolf, exclamation points shot from my hands. It was involuntary. It was … Proustian.
By Friday, June 17, 1994, my first year of college had ended. I had a summer job. I had met my best friend. My mother had fallen in love. I was happy. I felt free. And I was hungry. On my way to the United Artists Riverview Plaza in the small Pennsport section of Philadelphia, right off the Delaware, I stopped at a steak shop and ordered two slabs of Sicilian pizza and a soda. While I waited and then ate, I watched a television mounted on a big metal arm that protruded from the wall. It was hot, and the sun had begun to set. There weren’t many of us there. But we all watched the television and the helicopter shot of the big, white, runaway Bronco. A famous person in Los Angeles was wanted for a double murder he said he hadn’t committed. The victims were the famous person’s ex-wife and her friend.
An hour later, my paper plate and waxed cup had been cleared and the film I was headed to see had started, but I was already at the movies. Eventually, I gathered myself and continued down the street to the Riverview for the next show. The movie was Wolf, and Jack Nicholson, undergoing some kind of transformation, might have killed his wife. It’s not a movie I remember liking. I remember a shitty horse-stable ending and that I wanted the best for Kate Nelligan, who played the wife and, from a casting standpoint, was at her ripest. I remember how much I liked Mike Nichols because he’d made The Graduate and all those Meryl Streep movies, especially Postcards From the Edge. I remember the half-hour walk to the subway and feeling unsettled the entire way about the werewolf, the Bronco, and the murders. On the train platform, I remember rereading the Premiere magazine cover story about the movie and stopping as two guys yelled at each other from opposite sides of the station. I was happy, yet I was starting to feel unsettled.
Before this 1994 project, I hadn’t thought about Wolf in 20 years. I assumed I’d go back and feel a fondness, that I’d think about the pizza and O.J. Simpson and being 17, that I’d want to be smart about it since I remember the experience so well. No luck. It’s a terrible, confused, and brutally obvious movie about middle-aged virility. (Wolf was released the same weekend as Getting Even With Dad.) It had cream-of-the-crop everything — Nicholson, Michelle Pfeiffer, Nichols, music by Ennio Morricone, costumes by Ruth Graham, a screenplay partially written by Wesley Strick, who was hot in 1994.
It just didn’t have any reason to exist — the publishing world scenes are apt but have nothing to do with the flaccid stuff about wolves, which, really, has nothing to do with Pfeiffer, who has a way with literary insinuation. (“You better look like you fell,” she says to Nicholson.) Everyone except James Spader looks embarrassed. (He’s just lifting his leg.) It’s the only werewolf movie I’ve seen in which the actors appear to be playing vampires. Pfeiffer has never seemed more like Sharon Stone (it’s a Sharon Stone sort of part), and Nicholson’s cavemannish transformation scenes are what Leonardo DiCaprio was going for in The Wolf of Wall Street. Nichols doesn’t know whether to be David Cronenberg or Roman Polanski — to take the material seriously or laugh at it. Viewing it twice two decades apart lets you do both, and then laugh at yourself.
Once Bitten, Twice a Dick
Sean Fennessey: Some time around 1986, James Spader sustained a nasty bite from a mangy animal. It was on the set of Pretty in Pink, and it changed Spader. Sarcasm set in. A droll sense of superiority invaded his personality. His hair feathered just so. Pastel sweaters appeared and were gently tossed over his shoulders. The symptoms were more than a passing phase; Spader had been altered permanently, and when the lights of a movie set shone bright, a transformation occurred and he inhabited the skin of a new and uncontrollable creature: The curse of the dickhead.
Through the years, Spader has honed his curse, crafting a lucrative career out of being a guy you’d like to punch in the throat. Less Than Zero; Wall Street; Sex, Lies, and Videotape — all iconic creeps. Last year, he reinvented his career as Red Reddington, a smarmy former crook enlisted by the FBI to help solve crimes on NBC’s breakout hit The Blacklist. Next year, he’ll be a superhero-crushing dick as Ultron in the Avengers sequel. But Spader has never been more throat-punchable than in Wolf, in which he plays Stewart Swinton. Swinton is a rare breed, the sort of faux-people-pleaser who cares about little more than pleasing himself. Swinton, the protégé of Nicholson’s Will Randall, is a book-publishing marketing guru (marketing is for dicks!) who undercuts his mentor, steals his job, sleeps with his (much older) wife, and, when he apologizes to Randall, says things like, “Tell me you want me to quit, and I’ll do it. Whatever you want.” It’s the height of insincerity, a feint in the direction of politeness. When Randall does finally take him up on one of his dishonest offers, Swinton looks stunned. He actually wants me to do the thing I said I would do? The nerve …
This is a dick in disguise, before the full moon comes out. Swinton eventually does get bitten by Randall’s wolfen character (seriously, this is a real movie) and becomes the movie’s big bad in an epic faceoff. In the big finish, Wolf-Swinton murders a security guard and tries to rape Michelle Pfeiffer’s Laura Alden, who — spoiler alert if you’re a sociopath and want to watch this at some point in your life — guns Swinton down just before he thrusts a pair of garden shears into the chest of Wolf-Randall. After his death, Swinton returns to his human form, claws receding, hair shrinking back, teeth disappearing, tweed sport coat intact. Still, for Spader, the sickness remains. He would go on to great feats in dickhood. There’s no silver bullet for that curse.
A Running Diary of Our Hero’s Painstakingly Slow Transformation From Mild-Mannered Book Editor to Self-Actualized, Full-Werewolf Jack Nicholson
4:51 After hitting a wolf with his car on a snowy night, Will Randall (Jack Nicholson) inexplicably tries to drag the felled creature off the road. The wolf — playing dead — immediately bites him. Here we go!
10:17 Will receives a rabies shot from his doctor, who refuses to believe the wolf wasn’t actually a large dog. (Side note: It was a wolf. The movie is called Wolf.)
16:00 At a party at the country estate of the boss who essentially just fired him (unless he’d like to take a post editing books in Eastern Europe), Will’s burgeoning wolf-essence spooks a horse. Well, presumably his wolf-essence spooks the horse; we haven’t seen what effect his mild-mannered book-editor-essence has on animals.
24:34 Will yanks open his wife’s robe with his mouth, as wolves do. They make love, wolf-style.
25:01 Will awakes the next morning to discover that the bite wound on his hand has sprouted an alarming thicket of coarse hair. He trims it with some scissors. Here we go!
25:37 Will uses his wolf-nose to detect the scent of tequila on a coworker at the office. The coworker is taken aback because he is not currently holding a Jose Cuervo bottle. (Side note: Will also uses wolf-architectural powers to teleport the iconic Bradbury Building from downtown Los Angeles to Manhattan.)
26:05 Will’s new wolf-nose sniffs out the recent presence of smarmy protégé/junior editorial scumbag Stewart (James Spader) in his office. (Side note: Stewart will soon have Will’s job. But you saw that coming.)
26:17 Will rips through a manuscript at breakneck speed with his new wolf-editing powers. “You’ve finished 60 pages since Monday!” marvels a colleague restricted to a much more human rate of, like, 55 pages since Monday.
26:45 “You get contacts?” No, Will did not get contacts. Will got wolf-vision. Here we go!
28:07 Will’s ear twitches. He’s also developed wolf-ears, which allow for wolf-eavesdropping.
30:58 Will’s wolf-nose is growing stronger. Unfortunately, he test-drives it on his wife’s robe, which absolutely reeks of Stewart’s douche-musk.
31:29 Will jogs through the city with slightly slumped wolf-posture. In a bomber jacket. His wolf-style is already strong.
32:15 Wolf-cuckold beast mode: Will bites Stewart as he runs up the stairs to confront his cheating wife. Here we go!
34:04 Brimming with wolf-vigor and relishing the taste of Stewart’s flesh, Will tells his secretary to start making poaching calls to the company’s authors.
37:24 Emboldened by his wolf-swagger, Will officially refuses the undesirable reassignment to Eastern Europe.
37:25 The wolf-nose detects his boss’s defiant, free-spirited, beautiful daughter, Michelle Pfeiffer, nearby. (We’re going to refer to her as “Michelle Pfeiffer” and not her character name, because she’s Michelle Pfeiffer.)
47:54 Will succumbs to an intense wolf-craving for bacon in Michelle Pfeiffer’s bed.
48:54 Full moon! Will grows very lupine-chic mutton chops. Here we go!
49:32 And his first fangs!
51:25 Will brings down his first deer! Shit’s getting wolf-real!
53:54 Post-kill lope of shame back through the woods. What has he done? (What he’s done: eaten an innocent animal without utensils.)
56:33 Wolf-swagger increasing! Will makes wolf-threat to boss. Wolf job-retention ensues.
58:13 Will steals pastrami from his secretary’s sandwich. Wolves take what wolves want, lunch-meat-wise. It’s in the lore, look it up.
1:06:18 Wolf-hearing can discern sound of Michelle Pfeiffer towel-drying hair over the phone! It’s all happening! Here we go!
1:10:40 Will chomps a Central Park mugger. Perhaps this slow-burning wolf-transformation has a dark side? Nah. It’s all job security and sexual potency and breakfast in bed. Isolated incident.
1:13:43 Will urinates all over Stewart’s expensive suede shoes in an act of territorial marking. His wolf-stream is strong, no Flo-Wolf required.
1:15:02 Will discovers mugger’s severed fingers in his jacket pocket. He’s appalled. He’s still (maddeningly) more editor than wolf. Let’s get on with this, guys. We don’t have all of 1994 to finish this transformation.
1:24:24 Will bays at the moon, in the fashion popularized by wolves. Here we go!
1:25:27 Will postcoitally wolf-spoons Michelle Pfeiffer. It’s much like human-spooning, but with the imminent threat of mauling from the big spoon.
1:32:55 Will’s wife has been found dead; Will suffers intense wolf-self-suspicion during a car ride with Michelle Pfeiffer.
1:45:00 Will is locked in a horse stable for safety during the approaching full moon. A wolf-suppressing pimp amulet sizzles on his chest in a way not typically experienced by those unafflicted by lycanthropy.
1:53:02 Will rips off the amulet, instigating an immediate and startling transformation into something resembling the late-career Mel Gibson. Here we go!
2:00 Full wolf! Full wolf! Finally, full wolf! It’s been a long journey, but here we are.
2:01 The end. (PS: James Spader and Michelle Pfeiffer were also werewolves. Bears mentioning.)
Elaine May, Werewriter
Alex Pappademas: Love the part where the Spaderwolf leaps at Nicholson but Michelle Pfeiffer has time to pick up a gun and shoot him because the Spaderwolf has made the mistake of leaping in slow motion. Total rookie-werewolf move! Anyway: Let’s talk about Elaine May, comedian/improviser turned actress turned seldom-interviewed writer/director/badass. May did an extensive uncredited rewrite of this movie as a favor to Mike Nichols and is probably responsible for anything in it that’s funny on purpose. You should know her work if you don’t. In his Warren Beatty biography, Star, Peter Biskind quotes Richard Burton as saying, “Elaine May is the most fascinating, maddening girl I have ever met. I hope never to see her again.” David Mamet once said, “I would run off to Argentina with her, would she but have me and could I but get her on the phone.” During a 2006 Q&A after a screening of May’s Ishtar, Nichols claims that after he passed on directing The Exorcist, a studio-exec friend told him, “You personally lost $30 million by not making this movie”; when Nichols glumly relayed this news to May, she replied, “Don’t worry, darling, if you’d made it, it wouldn’t have made that kind of money.”
Nichols and May started doing improv comedy together at the University of Chicago in the mid-’50s. In the ’60s, they made a series of inventive, whip-smart albums as a comedy duo that satirized the foibles of young overeducated people in relationships back when that sort of thing was actually underexplored territory for comedy. This material still crackles; it’s the sound of an intellectual romance in which both parties keep surprising and one-upping each other. “When you see that wild light in the other person’s eyes, and you realize that you don’t know how you got there, it’s thrilling and sort of shocking,” Nichols told the New York Times years later. “You had to stop thinking instead of start thinking. You can’t plan; you can steer toward conflict or seduction, but you have to give yourself to it.” You can hear their chemistry in this clip, a studio outtake appended to the reissue of 1962’s Mike Nichols & Elaine May Examine Doctors:
Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz flew them out to California to offer them a sitcom deal, which they declined. Their show An Evening With Mike Nichols and Elaine May became a Broadway hit in 1960; in 1961, they broke up due to creative differences, although they’d reunite sporadically in the ensuing years. (They performed at John F. Kennedy’s Madison Square Garden birthday party the same night Marilyn Monroe sang “Happy Birthday” to the president.)
Nichols became a respected theater director before breaking into film with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in 1966. May took longer to level up, but in 1971 she adapted, directed, and starred in A New Leaf, as a wealthy botanist whose husband, played by Walter Matthau, is plotting to kill her; the film was taken away from her and re-edited after Paramount refused to release a movie in which Walter Matthau gets away with murder. She directed (and polished, without credit) The Heartbreak Kid, a movie Jonathan Rosenbaum has pointed out was in no small way a sardonic rewiring of Nichols’s The Graduate that redirects our sympathies toward the woman the man-boy protagonist abandons (played by Jeanie Berlin, May’s daughter). She wrote and directed 1976’s Mikey & Nicky, with John Cassavetes and Peter Falk as small-time crooks; much of the dialogue felt improvised in the Cassavetes tradition but was apparently extensively scripted by May.
She was a friend, confidant, and occasional collaborator of Warren Beatty’s, but never his girlfriend. “She liked him, but Elaine was too savvy to be one of those girls on Warren’s list,” her friend Peter Feibleman told Biskind. “The minute sex got into it, she would have been dead in the water. She became the person he talked to.” She and Beatty cowrote 1978’s Heaven Can Wait, first as a vehicle for Muhammad Ali, then they retooled the lead as a part for Beatty once Ali dropped out. May did extensive uncredited work on Beatty’s Reds, from the script stage to the editing room; Beatty claims he couldn’t have made the movie without her. Dustin Hoffman says her uncredited rewrite saved 1982’s Tootsie. May went on to direct both Beatty and Hoffman in Ishtar, an odd 1987 comedy that didn’t deserve to become synonymous with failure, although that was what happened. Reports that May was an erratic director who let the production spiral out of control (a rep that had dogged her since the Mikey & Nicky shoot) may have been exaggerated; she claims she never ordered the flattening by bulldozer of a square mile of Moroccan sand dunes. Either way, May hasn’t directed a movie since, or taken a screenplay credit on anything except The Birdcage and Primary Colors, both for Nichols.
Wolf was nominally inspired by the novelist Jim Harrison’s 1971 “false memoir” of the same name, although the two have little in common. A 1992 Chicago Tribune profile of Harrison mentions the writer turning in a “sixth and final draft” of the Wolf script; in the same story, Harrison recalls “a sort of argument” with Mike Nichols over whether the film was a “werewolf picture,” which seems like a pretty fundamental issue to get stuck on. Cape Fear writer Wesley Strick was brought in to housebreak a screenplay that even Harrison admitted would have yielded “a three-hour Gothic horror movie with blood coming off the f–king walls.” But it was reportedly May who saved the movie, by amping up the satirical bite (one line cut from the publishing-party scene, per Newsweek: “At first I thought, ‘Not another Holocaust book’ — but it’s selling, it’s selling”) and breathing enough life and agency and backstory into the Laura Alden character to convince Michelle Pfeiffer to play the part.
The best scene in the movie (or the best scene not involving a werewolf hopping around in an expensive-looking V-neck sweater, anyway) is the bit between Pfeiffer and Nicholson in the hotel, when Laura springs Nicholson’s Will from handcuffs with a paperclip, a trick from her delinquent youth. “You pick up shit you think you’re never going to need,” she says, “and then one day you meet a man who chains himself to the radiator and it all falls into place.” Her response when Will asks if she’s sure she wants to get involved with a guy who may be a werewolf is also classic: “You mean instead of the gaiety and warmth of my normal life?” Laura has a distinctive point of view in this movie — dry, grown-up, without illusions — that seems like it could have only come from May, although we’ll never know because she’s kept her own counsel about the project. “It’s like some Taoist thing with her. Very mysterious,” Harrison told Newsweek back in 1994. “Come in, do the work, take the money, leave no tracks.”
Nice Lair. What Did That Set You Back?
Molly Lambert: During Wolf all I could think about was how rich everyone seemed. How were they all so rich? Was book publishing really that lucrative in the early ’90s? It also felt very much like it was still the ’80s, specifically the The Bonfire of the Vanities ’80s, which I imagine was the case for the very rich? Michelle Pfeiffer’s country estate was like a WASP wet dream. And when they went to the party at the big mansion with the horses in the backyard? Where were they? Were they in hell? Everything in this movie was decorated with ornate fabrics and fine Tuscan leather and other Ralph Lauren aesthetics. I am pretty sure it takes place in the exact same imaginary New York as Eyes Wide Shut. Everyone lives in giant penthouses and has country homes to summer in. But they also work at the Bradbury Building, which is in downtown Los Angeles. I found Wolf very confusing for a number of reasons, and spent most of it thinking How did this happen? when I was not thinking Wow, they are all so rich! Wolf changed me.