Surfing's most shameful episode!
When I was a kid, sitting at home there in a gloomy suburb hours from the beach, I’d get my surf kicks via TV. One day, mid-summer, midday, no parent around to deliver me to the water, an old Hollywood surf movie called Big Wednesday came on.
I knew nothing about it. Didn’t know the hype. Didn’t know the praise (not much) nor the criticism (much). And it swallowed me completely into the romance of three men growing up, on the beach, as surfers around Malibu.
I ain’t the only fan. On the new Anderson Paak album Malibu, if you listen between tracks you’ll hear samples from this epic.
The great surf historian, Matt Warshaw, has a totally different take. Matt regards it as one of the most shameful episodes, ever, in surfing.
BeachGrit: When I saw this, on TV, as a kid, it painted the surfer’s life, for me, poignantly, beautifully. Better than anything before or since. What’s your take? Did John Milius nail it for you too?
In the surf media, the Big Wednesday built up was like nothing you’ve ever seen. Cover stories, making-of features, endless gossip and chatter. This was going to be the one! John Milius gets it! He surfs! Greenough was onboard, Bud Browne, PT, Ian, Bill Hamilton, Greg MacGillivray, on and on and on. This movie could not fail! And it was a piece of shit. Worse than Gidget. Worse than Ride the Wild Surf. It was a message film. Some heavy-handed bullshit about friendship, and growing up, and blah blah.
Fuck you. You crazy!
No, actually the first 20 minutes were good. The party scene. The part where LeRoy makes that kid at Malibu give his board to Jan-Michael Vincent, who’s too hung-over to walk. “I’m going to drown, and all you’re going to find is this shitty board.” That was a great line. Most every scene with Gary Busy was worth watching. Did you know he made The Buddy Holly Story the same year he made Big Wednesday?
Got an Academy Award for that one, didn’t he?
Nominated, but didn’t win.
It was a piece of shit. Worse than Gidget. Worse than Ride the Wild Surf. It was a message film. Some heavy-handed bullshit about friendship, and growing up, and blah blah.
Didn’t the surf media shit on Big Wednesday when it was released?
They lined up and took turns, yeah. Surfer called it “mediocre” and “self-indulgent” and “embarrassing.” And said Jan-Michael Vincent was horribly miscast as a drunk, which is sad and ironic but also kind of funny, given that he was on his way to becoming a total crash and burn alcoholic. Surfing said the only good thing about Big Wednesday was that it sucked so hard that Hell would freeze over before Hollywood touched surfing again.
Paint the narrative arc for me…
Three friends rule the Point, grow up, grow apart. One of the friends gets punched in the face by another one of the friends. Vietnam brings comedy and tragedy. There is a lemon next to a pie — I’m not sure what that means. In the final act, the ultimate big swell comes, and Gerry Lopez is there, and the three friends reunite at the Point, Lopez gives LeRoy a knowing smile, and the friends charge forth. Matt takes a header on the reef, the other two save him. Back on the beach, there is hugging, and vague promises to keep in touch. Cut.
Tell me the back story of Big Wednesday. It’s Lance Carson and so forth, yeah? The Malibu gang?
The party stuff in the beginning came from “No-Pants Mance,” a great short story written by Denny Aaberg, brother of California point-surf style king Kemp Aaberg. Lance was the inspiration on that one, yeah. Denny then wrote the book version of Big Wednesday, along with John Milius, and apart from the party stuff I don’t think there was much back story. Mostly just Milius having a sentimental wank about his days at Malibu. Before he went full fascist with Red Dawn and Conan the Barbarian.
Oh, the tragedy of the scene where Matt, now just slightly over the hill, takes his daughter to see him in a movie and the crowd quiets during his section and then lights up during the new hotshot Gerry Lopez part.
Yeah, the backside of the mountain. Tough. Five years later, it’d be Lopez in the theater looking noble and deflated as Tom Carroll comes onscreen and drives ‘em wild.
Y’got a favourite scene?
LeRoy during his military physical, playing the nutcase, bumming cigarettes from the shrink.
Tell you though, I hated, hated, hated Jack. Reminds me of every teacher, every lifesaver, every cop. Goes to fight yella man in Vietnam, becomes a lifeguard, a ranger.
Jack actually makes all the right choices, the sane choices, but yes he is mouthful of castor oil.
Jan-Michael Vincent. God I wanted to be that stud with his freewheeling harem. How’s he doing these days?
Drunk, broke, angry, and missing a leg. Don’t watch the video interview with him from a couple years ago. He was a bastard back in the day, I’ve heard, but jeez nobody deserves to be in the shape he’s in. Big Wednesday was Jan Michael Vincent’s greatest moment. He never looked better, and was still on his way up.
Were you surprised when the movie became a cult favourite?
Never underestimate the power of Baby Boomer self-regard. Big Wednesday was retro when it came out, and ten years later when it went big as a rental, it was retro-retro. Double-dipped nostalgia. Boomers wore their VHS machines out playing that turkey, wallowing in their imagined past. But at the time, yeah, I was surprised.