Written by El Fangorio
Okay, this is what happens to the discerning viewer within the first 20 minutes of watching 1979’s King of the Gypsies:
Ethnic music starts to play. Sounds Italian. You may even say to yourself, “Kind of sounds like The Godfather.” Credits start to roll. Sterling Hayden (“Love that guy. Can’t be playing a gypsy though”), Shelley Winters (“Fat and awesome”), Susan Sarandon (“She’ll make a good bug-eyed gypsy”), Judd Hirsch (“No shit? I wish he was my shrink!”), Brooke Shields (“Dude. Some major star power going on here”), Annette O’Toole (“Another natural beauty of the ‘70s. Keep ‘em coming”), Annie Potts (“Ghostbusters!”), and introducing Eric Roberts (“I thought Star80 was his first”).
Fade-in to a gypsy camp during the 1950s while Eric Roberts’ heavy Brooklyn-accented voice-over describes the life of the gypsy. He says it’s great being a gypsy. You’re immune to a lot of laws because you have no birth certificate, therefore you don’t exist in the system. The world is pretty much yours for the taking. You’ll never know an honest day’s work and still live a rich man’s life.
A car bursts into the camp, causing quite the commotion. Out steps the self-proclaimed ‘King and Queen of the Gypsies’ played by…Sterling Hayden and Shelley Winters. He’s got a spray-painted dark beard that resembles burnt cat hair, while she sports long black locks and smokes a Sherlock Holmes pipe. This lily-white Colonel Sanders type is supposed to be King of the Gypsies? Is that a red flag I see?
The leaders of this camp approach the couple. More familiar faces as he’s from Godfather II and his wife is that creepy subway lady from Jacob’s Ladder. The two leaders bicker over the arranged marriage of their two children. Sterling and Winters’ son, Groffo, is to marry this couple’s daughter, Rose, but she does not want to marry him. A promise is a promise though. They will let the elders decide.
Cut to a gypsy bash later that night where the elders decide that the children do not need to get married. They also demand that the King needs to stop calling himself as such and haul ass back to New York where he belongs. The King resents being “fucked like a three-dollar whore” and drives off but not before kidnapping their daughter and running over a few gypsies in the process. Probably not the best way to handle public relations with future in-laws but gypsies are crazy.
The rest of the credits roll: Music by David Grisman (“Never heard of him”), edited by Paul Hirsch (“De Palma’s boy. Very cool”), Director of Photography Sven Nykvist (“Hoorah! I know I’m happy”), produced by Dino De Laurentiis (“Uh-Oh”), and directed by Frank Pierson (“Who is he?”). Better check the IMDB.
It is at the IMDB that you will learn the track record of Mr. Frank Pierson. Let’s see, he makes his first feature film in 1969, The Looking Glass War. It must have bombed because he doesn’t make another film until 1976, the remake of A Star is Born starring Barbara Streisand’s wardrobe, which despite being one of the biggest turkeys known to man, still made a katrillion-jillion dollars thanks to her fanbase alone. The film gods give Pierson one more chance and send him Dino. It is here, with King of the Gypsies, that you will notice his filmography ends, not to pick up again for another seven years (kind of like bad credit), where it will be limited to only TV work. Needless to say, this is red flag #12 and it’s only the prologue.
The arranged couple grows up to be Judd Hirsch and Susan Sarandon, who in turn have two children, David and Tita. These kids learn from an early age, the virtues of gypsy life, which is to lie, cheat, and steal anything that isn’t nailed to the floor. Sarandon (alternating between various accents) is the breadmaker in the family, usually conning the rich out of their money with her fortune telling. The father is a raging alcoholic that beats the kids for trying to attend school.
Soon little David is in on the act, accompanying his mother to a high-end jeweler where they put on a production involving the kid pissing on the floor and distracting officials long enough for him to swallow a big diamond. Cut to a close-up of the kid’s pooper sitting on a rusty saucepan, his hand scratching his butt cheek the entire time. A high-pitched fart is heard, followed by a plinking sound as the diamond shoots out of his ass.
It is now official: the King of the Gypsies, both literally and figuratively, is going to be a shitter.
But unlike most bad movies, Dino’s films are usually a blast to watch. For not only does the DEG logo come with the promise of high production values and star power galore, most importantly it comes with trash. His King Kong, Orca, Flash Gordon, White Buffalo are all shameless rip-offs of more famous films and King of the G’s is no different with its sprawling tale, covering three generations of a strong ethnic family and their struggle to retain power over all others. There are marriage montages, baptism montages, and crime montages. In other words, it’s a big fat Godfather rip-off.
We get one more incarnation of David at the age of nine, running away from the sordid drama of gypsy life and hitting the streets, before Eric Roberts enters the role. Though he is estranged from his family and their people, he still relies on scams to make a living (walking into traffic in the hopes of getting hit, feigning a spill at a supermarket). When he’s not on the make, he’s partying with the upper elite as “everyone wants to make it with a gypsy.” I assume so long as they don’t smell like one and they look like a young Eric Roberts. (Gypsies don’t have computers, right? Just making sure).
Finally, he decides to go legit and finds work as a singing waiter. It is here in the story that the family locates him in the hopes of seeing him return and taking up the role of King of the Gypsies. Grandfather has died and left the role of king to David. Sibling Tita has grown into the beautiful Brooke Shields (here wearing the worst black wig this side of October 31st) but she is still the victim of her father’s abuse. She has been sold, as is the gypsy tradition, to be married. Worse yet, she hates her future husband, as he is fat and ugly. Will David take up the crown and use his power to stop this arrangement? Will his father, already scorned for being passed over as the next king, let David stand in his way to make a buck from this marriage?
It’s interesting that few viewers point out how bad this film is. In fact, most fans seem to recollect this one with nothing but fond memories. Of course most of these people list the shot of Sarandon’s tits as the highlight of the film. Scary stuff considering said scene is the result of Hirsch’s character ripping open her blouse and forcing their grown adult son onto her, the whole time yelling “fuck her. Go on fuck her!” Classy.
I will agree that Eric Roberts (here looking even prettier than his famous sister) does a good job in the film. In later years, his straight-to-video roles would rarely allow him to display some of the raw emotion that landed him his next role in Star80. There is even some eerie foreshadowing to that film when, later on, we see his character brandishing a shotgun, his face splattered with blood. As for the rest of the cast, all have done much better work on other projects.
Fans will be doing a gypsy jig when they get their grubby thieving hands on Legend Films’ recent release. Taken from the vaults over at Paramount, the 1.78 anamorphic transfer does a great job at preserving an otherwise beautiful looking film. Nykvist’s tendencies to use natural lighting and soft-focus can make for a difficult transfer but not here as the results are excellent. There are a few moments of heavy grain but that was probably intentional as these are mostly during low-lit exterior scenes. We are given one sound option, that being its original mono audio track. Subtitles would have been beneficial as many of the actors sound like a cross between French vamp and Brooklyn vampire. Once again, Legend Films wisely uses the film’s original artwork for the DVD case. There are no other extras, not even a trailer so it may not warrant an actual purchase.