About 'About Last Night...,' the Chicago version

How an acerbic early play from David Mamet evolved into the 1986 movie

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The weekend of '80s remakes is upon us, with both 1981's "Endless Love" and 1987's "RoboCop" opening in theaters, plus one more that taps into a strange sentimental teenage memory for me: 1986's "About Last Night…"

Though fundamentally a similar story, the remake (which shaves off the original title's ellipsis) stars a black cast and shifts the location to LA. It's also being marketed as a romantic comedy, as distinct from the Chicago-set, Demi Moore-Rob Lowe version, which has its funny moments but always struck me as primarily a relationship drama.

I first saw the film when I was in high school, and I found it unexpectedly aspirational. It was all so appealing and grownup to my teenage eyes — representing a stage of life in your twenties before the stress of a mortgage, kids, midlife ennui, whatever sweeps in.

Something about the movie's rendering of young single life in Chicago stuck with me — the 16-inch softball; the beers afterward; the flirting in bars; the independence of having a job and living on your own. It was a world away from a life of "school nights," which ruined any thought of socializing in the middle of the week. But these people went out even when they had to work the next day. That was revelatory to me. And Demi Moore, pre-plastic surgery and enhancements, was just so unbelievably pretty.

Both the movie and the David Mamet play that inspired it are rooted in Chicago, though I didn't learn about the play itself until years later. Part of that ignorance stems from a change in the movie's title. (More on that in a moment.)

First staged by the Organic Theater in 1974, "Sexual Perversity in Chicago" is rarely produced. It is one of Mamet's earliest, and the only play he structured like a Second City show — short, punchy, acerbic snapshot-like scenes separated by blackouts. The influence is obvious; he was working as a busboy at Second City at the time.

In her 1974 review, Tribune theater critic Linda Winer wasn't impressed, calling it a "traditional, uneven, extraordinarily normal, and abnormally ordinary play" about four Chicago singles. (The title is deeply ironic; the perversity is in their inability to connect.) Danny and Bernie are pals, crass and always angling for a way in with the opposite sex. Deborah and Joan are the sometimes-eviscerating, equally baffled women with whom they collide.

The main relationship is between Danny and Deborah, but you get little if any sense of their time together in the play. It's Bernie and Joan whom Mamet has fun with, particularly Bernie, a big talker who spins elaborate tales about his sexual adventures. He's full of it, but these are arias of profanity and a baroque imagination. It's the kind of role you'd hire Danny McBride to play today — or, in the case of the remake, comedian Kevin Hart. (When it ran off-Broadway in 1975, F. Murray Abraham played the role of Bernie; a pre-"Animal House" Peter Riegert was Danny.)

"The play is considerably more pessimistic about the potential for human beings to connect," said Stuart Oken, who along with Jason Brett produced a 1979 revival of "Sexual Perversity" at their Apollo Theater on Lincoln Avenue, co-starring Jim Belushi as Bernie. (Belushi would be the only actor from that production to also appear in the film.)

Mamet had already sold the film rights to David De Silva (the producer behind "Fame"), but things had gotten tense. Mamet wrote a draft of the screenplay "but didn't change it much," said Oken. "He basically said, 'The play's the play and if you want to make a movie, just make a movie of the play,' more or less."

Within months, Brett (currently a Chicago-based Internet entrepreneur) and Oken (now a Broadway producer) bought the film rights from De Silva, and in the process acquired a dispute with Mamet "that we didn't even know about and that was not of our making," Brett said, referring to the issues between Mamet and De Silva.

"We wanted Mamet to work on it with us," Oken told me, "but he wasn't interested." (Mamet's representative did not respond to an interview request.) "And we had no choice at that point except to say, 'OK, got it. We're going to move on.' So, he got mad at us." Or as Brett put it: "He voted with his absence."

They embarked on what would become a years-long project to produce the movie, hiring two more Chicagoans, Second City veteran Tim Kazurinsky and writer Denise DeClue — the pair had previously punched up the script for 1980's "My Bodyguard" (also set in Chicago) — to work on the screenplay. The idea was to expand "Mamet's sparseness and fill in some of the blanks," according to Brett. Kazurinsky, who lives in Evanston, said they wrote 14 drafts in total. (During that period he also went to work on "Saturday Night Live.")

For the role of Danny, Brett and Oken envisioned a Chicagoan along the lines of Aidan Quinn. The studio chose Rob Lowe. And according to Oken: "As much as you might say, 'Oh, Demi Moore!' we didn't want her in the worst way. We didn't want to make a Brat Pack movie. But we screen-tested about five women, and she was so far and away the best with Rob.

"Remember, we had Jim Belushi and Elizabeth Perkins, who were Chicago. Rob and Demi made it kind of sexy for Hollywood." Brat Pack or no, the movie still had an outre title in "Sexual Perversity in Chicago."

Right, about that. At the last minute, bowing to pressure from TV networks and newspapers that balked at running anything with "sexual perversity" in the title, the studio changed the name (much to the creators' displeasure) to "About Last Night…," distancing the project even further from Mamet, who by this time was a Pulitzer-winning playwright.

All the exteriors, including the softball fields near Grant Park, and a handful of interiors were shot in Chicago (the rest was shot on a LA soundstage). Winnetka native Edward Zwick would direct (it was his first feature), with Perkins, a Chicago stage actor, memorably caustic as Joan. Another local theater actress, Megan Mullally (with blond hair), has a small part as a woman whose signature bar seduction is a "combination hair flip with the giggle," which Deborah and Joan score as if they're Olympic judges.

Meanwhile, Kazurinsky was out of the country when the movie was shot. "I was filming a 'Police Academy' sequel in Canada the entire time, so I was only on set for two days doing my scene. Debbie goes out on a really bad blind date, and I'm her bad blind date — or as my wife says, I'm everyone's bad blind date." (The original screenwriters and producers were not involved in the remake, but Kazurinsky and DeClue have a credit on the new film that they negotiated through the Writers Guild.)

Ahead of the 1986 movie's release, Richard Christiansen interviewed Brett and Oken for the Tribune. "Mamet calls all the transactions and transitions for his original work 'a mess of porridge,'" he wrote, "while Oken and Brett, noting Mamet's anger over the changes in his original script, point out that he had a guaranteed screenwriter's fee and that he still will be receiving half of the producer's share of the profits from the movie."

It's unclear, though, whether or not Mamet has seen any money from the film. Oken and Brett said they have not seen a dime. Mamet's deal was for half of the producer's share of net profits. "It's studio accounting," said Oken, "and on the studio side, the movie never went into net profits even though it cost under $8 million and grossed nearly $40 million domestically." Even after ancillary markets — cable, video, the works — "We've never received any net profit. No."

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