“You’re a Big Boy Now” was Francis Ford Coppola’s first film for a major studio. He had previously made “Dementia 13” for Roger Corman and a couple of nudies (Tonight for Sure). Coppola wrote the screenplay which was based on a novel by David Beneditus. Having had his first big success as a screenwriter (Is Paris Burning, This Property is Condemned, Reflection in a Golden Eye) he was able to make a deal with Warner/Seven Arts to direct as long as the cost remained low.
The film is a coming of age story of a klutzy sexually inexperienced nineteen year old boy named Bernard (Peter Kastner) who works as a book retriever (for lack of a better term) at the massive 42nd Street/Fifth Avenue branch of the New York Public Library where he and co-workers, like Raef (Tony Bill) retrieve books for patrons traveling the long rows of books on roller skates. Coppola was so fascinated by this real life job function that he changed Bernard’s job from shoe clerk in the book. Bernard’s father works in the same library, in charge of rare books, his prize possession a Guttenberg Bible.
Bernard whose entire life has been controlled by his parents experiences his first taste of freedom, though his parents still attempt to control his life by having Miss Thing, his landlady, spy for them. On one hand Bernard is lured toward the freedom of the porn shops along 42nd street and the freaky and sexually free Barbara Darling (Elizabeth Hartman), a go-go dancer and Off Broadway actress. On the other hand, we get the notion Bernard is uncomfortable with the “wild” life and prefers a real relationship and honest love with the fresh-faced Amy rather than a walk on the wild side. What Bernard cherishes the most is his freedom from his parents, the ability to be in control of his own life.
Barbara Darling who the innocent Bernard falls for responds to a fan letter he wrote while dictating her memoirs to her close friend and dwarf, Richard (Michael Dunn). It turns out Barbara has a hatred of men that stems back to a time she was once attacked by a one legged albino hypnotherapist whose wooden leg she steals and kept as a souvenir. Barbara views the virginal and innocent Bernard as a potential victim enticing him into moving in with her, then quickly tossing him out only to entice him to come back, eventually dumping him again for the more attractive Raef (Tony Bill), Bernard’s co-worker.
Coppola could not afford any big names so he managed to fill the cast with quality known names. For the role of Bernard, Coppola hired Peter Kastner who had one film to his credit, a small well received Canadian movie called “Nobody Waved Goodbye.” The role of Amy went to then newcomer Karen Black in her first film. He then the hired the great Julie Harris to play the spinterish Miss Thing, Rip Torn and Geraldine Page as Bernard’s parents, Tony Bill as Bernard’s antagonistic co-worker at the library. For the role of the cruel but sexy Barbara Darling he got Elizabeth Hartman whose parts up to that point consisted of reserved or timid roles like the blind girl in “A Patch of Blue.” All of this casting was pretty much going against type. Hartman, a thin waif like woman is not your typical looking sexy wild child. Filling out the cast was Dolph Sweet as Francis, a cop and another tenant at Miss Thing’s apartment house, who views Bernard as an agitator and has the hots for the sexually repressed landlady. The fragile life of Elizabeth Hartman would be a short one, in 1987 despondent over her career and a failed marriage she committed suicide by jumping out of a window.
The film was shot all over New York, in Central Park, the Village, 42nd Street, Times Square and May’s department store. Much of the exterior filmmaking was shot in cinema verite style. One of the film’s highlights takes place in May’s department store. It was a weekday morning and suddenly these actors started chasing each other through the store amongst the bewildered everyday shoppers. The cameras hidden from view. Most prominent though is the main branch of the New York Public Library on 42nd and 5th Avenue. Coppola received permission to film inside the library, a feat that had rarely happened especially since the library did not like the idea in the script that they had a secret pornography collection within its doors. Permission was eventually granted with the assistance of then Mayor John Lindsay who was attempting to lure Hollywood filmmakers to come to the Big Apple, that and the fact that scenes with the secret “porn” vault were filmed somewhere else.
The film was released in March 1967 (in New York at the Baronet Theater where I first saw it) nine months prior to “The Graduate.” I mention this only to note that Coppola’s film is the first in its use of a rock music soundtrack. Before “The Graduate” and way before ‘Easy Rider”, John Sebastian of the Lovin’ Spoonful wrote the songs which included the title tune, “Amy’s Theme” and the hit song “Darling’ Be Home Soon” all integrated into the film fitting Coppola’s frantic camera and editing which is especially nicely done during the discotheque scene where among other objects and blinking lights we see quick visuals of Coppola’s “Dementia 13” flashing on the wall.
“You’re a Big Boy Now” is a frenetic absurdist sometimes surrealistic romp that encompasses the craziness of the 60’s. Coppola admits that his style here was influenced by Richard Lester’s work in “A Hard Day’s Night.” As a result the film is somewhat stuck in a time capsule, still the film is nothing more than a coming of age story, a tale of a young boy obsessed with sex and getting laid. The film contains elements that we will see in greater detail in later Coppola films like the conflicts that occur with family, a theme more fully explored in The Godfather films.
“You’re A Big Boy Now” was selected to be shown at the Cannes Film Festival that year eventually opening up to the public in March 1967. The film was only given a limited distribution and was not a financial success but it did give Coppola another notch on his belt with the film studios.