Sunday, March 19, 2006
When the City Needed a Hero
Tonight I've been thinking about the movie Hero at Large -- an all-but-forgotten comedy from 1980 starring John Ritter and Anne Archer. I wondered why, after 26 years, this film still comes to mind. I have a theory. Hero at Large came along, not only at an impressionable time in my life, but also at a time when New York (where the film takes place) was desperately in need of a hero. I believe New York found that hero 13 years later in Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, but at the time of this film, the city was in decay and getting worse. Times Square and 42nd St were not the family friendly, Disney-esque destinations they are today. That area, laden with crime daily, was a virtual ghost town of hollowed out theaters, drug dens, streets of prostitution and violence. It was the Times Square that Martin Scorsese so brilliantly depicted, just four years prior in Taxi Driver. And like Travis Bickle before him, Steve Nichols -- a down-on-his-luck actor who can't pay his rent -- is a loner looking for love. The two films, though wildly different in tone, are surprisingly similar. Both take place in New York during an election year. While Bickle is transformed by the campaign taking place, Nichols is ultimately "used" by the candidate to rally the city to him. Bickle's vigilante/hero is an evolution; Nichols' unlike hero status is more of a fluke at first -- he stops a store robbery while dressed as Captain Avenger (the fictional hero whose film he's promoting by personal appearances throughout the city) -- but then is embraced and repeated. But both men, ultimately, are doing the same thing -- giving the city a hero. In both films, politicians can't do that -- In the post Watergate era, they lack the moral grounding. The "take action" heroics of Bickle and Nichols is what the city -- and the country -- craved at the time. It's what I believe put Ronald Reagan in the White House for eight years. Hero at Large may be considered by many to be a second rate comedy, but I think in retrospect, it deserves a second look. Like Midnight Cowboy and Taxi Driver, it serves as a "slice of life" piece of New York that (for the better) no longer exists.