I went to see a movie in the Pittsburgh
area in 1976. I've gone since then, but I'm talking about this one because
it illustrates how casting can significantly alter a dramatic moment
for a specific audience.
Brian De Palma's Obsession stars Cliff Robertson, Genevieve
Bujold, and John Lithgow. Set in New Orleans and Florence, Italy, it's
a thriller in which a man's wife and daughter are kidnapped during a
party and end up dying when the kidnappers' escape car crashes into
a gasoline truck and is immolated. The plot gets twisty when Robertson's
character takes a trip to Italy eighteen years later and sees a woman
who looks exactly like his late wife did the night she died. Revenge
and a queasy courtship are just a few of the gothic story elements that
follow. Track down the movie if you're curious.
The moment of the fatal crash comes early and serves as the first plot
point. The audience is on the edge of their seats, wondering if the
wife and child will get out of the chase alive.
Then the fiery crash.
The audience is shocked.
An on-location news reporter's face fills the screen, reporting on the
tragedy in a somber baritone.
The audience laughs.
Because the reporter is Rege Cordic.
Regis J. Cordic's face and voice were well-known to western Pennsylvanians
from his start at WWSW radio in 1948 and his later Cordic & Company
shows on KDKA radio and his WTAE-TV movie commentaries. My knowledge
of him is mostly from radio, with his cast of zany characters and the
way he touted his goofy imaginary products. The most famous was probably
Olde Frothingslosh, "the pale, stale ale with the foam on the bottom."
The Pittsburgh Brewing Company sold it as actual beer during the Christmas
season for many years. My research tells me that, because the label
showed that the foam was on the bottom, the cans and bottles were packed
in their cases upside down.
(Cordic's most brilliant creation was a book of sports statistics that
were all wrong. You memorized the bogus facts, and then made bar bets
where you proved you were right by showing the book.)
Cordic was popular in the Pittsburgh area until the mid-sixties, when
he moved to Los Angeles. There, in addition to radio work, he took acting
lessons and got small TV and movie roles. Which brings us to the audience
I have to believe that the people around me in the theater had seen
Rege Cordic in many bit parts in shows like Gunsmoke and Ironside,
so he was already known as an actor. But it was the dramatic jolt that
elicited the laugh. It was a release. Here's this moment of high melodrama
where a loving mother and her beautiful child had just met a horrible
death. Then we smash cut to a close-up of a Pittsburgh comedy legend
acting all serious.
In any other city, one viewer in a hundred might think "Oh, there's
that guy. He was in that thing." But in Pittsburgh?
Brian De Palma probably would not have appreciated the audience's reaction.
But I guarantee you we loved it.
Jay Speyerer has seen many movies, but he has never
been in one. He suspects a conspiracy.