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Movie Review: King of the Gypsies

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King of the Gypsies. Unfortunately, it’s everything young heir to the title Dave doesn’t wanna be. Dave wants to live among the Gadje (non Gypsy) people, to have a blond girlfriend, to educate himself, and work an honest job. Fate however, has a way of calling to us despite our urgent efforts. So fate keeps reaching out to Dave in this film about a centuries-old tribe adjusting to a modern world.

As the film begins, two factions are drinking, dancing – and fighting. A wedding is or isn’t to take place very soon. A bride price has been agreed upon, but the child bride’s family joins her in her intense dislike of the putative groom – adolescent Groffo. The would-be groom’s father (actor Sterling Hayden), who is King of the Gypsies for the Eastern seaboard, is furious the deal is being reneged. A council is called, which rules in the girl’s family’s favor. Too bad no one told her not to stand off alone afterward, stoking a campfire while the rejected suitor drove by…

And fast forward to a baby prince being born. This is Dave, who will become the tribe’s great hope. The reluctant teen bride Rose has grown into wise, curvaceous Susan Sarandon; pudgy, whiny abductor Groffo morphed into a less pudgy, still crass buffoon (Judd Hirsch). Groffo is putative heir at the point of his son Dave’s birth, but Groffo is the 'Fredo' of this tribe. And oh, does his dad the King know it…

As a result, Groffo seethes with jealousy from the moment Dave is born. Dave can, you see, grow up to supplant him. Groffo never lets up in his oafish treatment of family, nor Dave, nor in his loud claims to the ring and medallion. The ring and medallion are the crown and throne to the Gypsies. “It doesn’t matter if you wear ‘em or don’t wear ‘em, you’re still King” says Rose at one point. The dying King can make anyone his “shadow on this earth” she says. And so, whoever he makes his successor has little choice.

King of the Gypsies is a 1978 film by Frank Pierson from a Peter Maas (Serpico) book. It has, at times, a gritty feel and yet the Dino DeLaurentis over-production makes it feel floaty, as if it’s losing its moorings. Top cinematographer Sven Nykvist’s cinematography is gorgeous, but in the new DVD release, “pan and scan” (zoomed in) editing amputates at times the very most crucial imagery. “Look at this!” King Zharko barks at one point, and all we can see is part of his arm. Dave looks off screen at something we’re told is the medallion. But we can’t see it. This is a crucial moment in Dave’s character development and the film’s plot turns on this scene. And we can’t see the crucial item. I can’t think that was intentional in the cinematography – the film (here) loses something visually as a result. Also, on a smaller screen, the gypsies’ world pulls us in a bit less. The almost-constant music, the color schematics, seem easier to ignore – even trite on the small screen, than when it’s all whirling ten feet tall before your eyes. A letterbox format option would’ve gone a long way to reducing the visuals being lost in translation.

As for what we do see – we see glimpses of a culture that’s fast being eroded by what surrounds it. The outside world is moving faster than any nomad could. Dave, based upon a real life counterpart whose story this tells, wants the tribe to modernise and educate themselves. He wants them to not feel compelled to cling to “the old ways”. All his life he’s been told not to learn to read or write, although he and his sister (played as children by Albert Ingalls and Stephanie Mills, er, I mean Matthew Laborteaux and Danielle Brisebois, two 1970s child actors) want to badly. Boorish Groffo, of course, drags them away from a schoolyard they gaze wishfully at. “Do you want to be a Gadje now?” he growls – and punishes the two by forcing little Dave to drive their car across New York City streets, nearly killing them all.

As the years go by Groffo has bartered his daughter, Dave’s little sis Tita (Brooke Shields) for a poker bet. Women in this culture “are the moneymakers” we hear again and again in the film. They grow up to be “Boojo women” roping in gullible Gadje for thousands in fear-filled fortune-telling and other con-artist schemes. So they command a big dowry or ‘bride price’. It also seems the girls are married off while barely into their teens. Dave of course, is horrified and responds with fury when Rose and Tita call to him for help. Seems Tita, like her mother before her, has been sold to a repugnant oaf.

You can almost imagine Dave screaming ‘just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in’ as one calamity after the other demands his attention. Not only King Zharko (Hayden) and his Queen (the superlative Shelley Winters in a scraggly wig) but the entire tribe recognizes Dave’s place in line to be King. And they expect him to help and rule when needed. He’s shacked up with a strawberry blond, and would rather not know. Would you rather sip cocoa and go ice skating with Annette O’Toole, or would you rather have a soused Groffo throw you on your mother’s bare breast screaming “F her!”? I don’t have to say much more, do I? Dave’s choices aren’t that obviously compelling. Still…

What does the tribe have to offer him? Tradition, family… but most of all they are him and he’s made up of them. The blond could never understand that, could she? And if she’s horrified, it calls up all Dave’s loyalty to what he professes to hate. Eric Roberts as the tormented Dane, er, Dave, vibrates with anguish. It is a sensitive performance and bespoke of a huge career to come. Roberts at that time was the next big male star, as handsome as movie stars get, with nerves so raw you could almost see them being plucked and clanged upon every frame he’s in.

Huge Pity Puppy eyes, begging to be understood, knowing no one will. By contrast, his loping urban gait and his tough New York City accent. Roberts had audience and critics’ hearts racing. It’s nearly painful to watch him in some of the scenes – defending against Groffo, the Freudian nightmare. Or King Zharko who won’t let go (Is that a good or a bad thing?).

Roberts reminds me of a very young Montgomery Clift. Tragically, like Clift, Roberts had a horrible car wreck on the way from a friend’s house soon into his career. Soon after this movie was made. The effects of necessary facial surgery may have diverted his career direction, from leading man to villain. It’s poignant to watch this portrayal knowing that this young, sensitive actor would soon be stuck playing “baddies”. (Not that he hasn’t adapted; but those of us who remember when the one Roberts was Eric will ruminate, I think.)

For those who have never seen this movie – perhaps even heard of it – please try a view. True, it may not be perfect; its portrayal of Gypsy culture seems to amount mostly to fortune telling, drinking, and dancing – I think I learned as much from an old Bonanza episode in some ways. But this film succeeds in sharing its wistful feeling even while it shows you these things. Will the Gypsies follow a new King, and modernise? Will Groffo usurp the throne, and the warring destroy them? Your curiosity will hold you fast. And that’s a good place for the King of the Gypsies to keep you.

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