Elements of cool

Tom Donahue on Dean Martin: King Of Cool

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Dean Martin: King Of Cool director Tom Donahue: “I worked with a really brilliant story producer, author, professor, named Ron Marasco. And Ron really wanted to break down the elements of cool and did it in such an interesting way.”
Dean Martin: King Of Cool director Tom Donahue: “I worked with a really brilliant story producer, author, professor, named Ron Marasco. And Ron really wanted to break down the elements of cool and did it in such an interesting way.”

What is the mystery of cool? What about Dean Martin makes him the epitome of cool and so irresistible to so many different types of people? Food and style and how all the parts relate is what Tom Donahue untangles through interviews, ranging from Dean’s daughter Deana to Jerry Lewis’s son Scotty. There is former assistant choreographer Tommy Tune speaking about Dean’s dancing prowess and Angie Dickinson, Florence Henderson, Peter Bogdanovic and Alec Baldwin singing his praises. Jon Hamm reads excerpts from a poem in his honor, Henry Jaglom quotes Orson Welles on Dean’s genius, and the owner of his favourite restaurant talks about him as a dinner guest.

Tom Donahue with Anne-Katrin Titze on Dean Martin in Howard Hawks’s Rio Bravo: “If you look at the way he reacts and he speaks to John Wayne in the film, there’s such love and joy in that performance.”
Tom Donahue with Anne-Katrin Titze on Dean Martin in Howard Hawks’s Rio Bravo: “If you look at the way he reacts and he speaks to John Wayne in the film, there’s such love and joy in that performance.”

Leonardo DiCaprio, an executive producer of Dean Martin: King Of Cool and producer Danny Strong (of Danny Strong Productions) know the importance of cool. A longtime Martin and Lewis collaboration and a successful solo career - Dean Martin’s life was a full one and the Hemingway definition of cool as “grace under pressure,” applies perfectly.

From Los Angeles, Tom Donahue joined me on Zoom for an in-depth conversation on Dean Martin: King of Cool (a highlight of the 12th edition of DOC NYC) before the World Premiere.

Anne-Katrin Titze: Hello Tom, nice to meet you! Where are you?

Tom Donahue: Hi, nice to meet you. I’m in Los Angeles, in Plummer Park in West Hollywood.

AKT: And you’re outside because the weather is so nice.

TD: Yes, and I’m heading to New York, our premiere is Sunday.

AKT: Dean Martin: King Of Cool - as somebody who asks a lot of questions, I particularly loved two of the questions that you posed to the people in your film. The first one: What makes him so cool? And the second one is about what is Dean Martin’s Rosebud. These questions are structuring the film.

TD: We’ve always had the idea that the film would be called The King Of Cool. So when you name a film that, then you have to define what is cool, what is American cool. And I worked with a really brilliant story producer, author, professor, named Ron Marasco. And Ron really wanted to break down the elements of cool and did it in such an interesting way. You can see Ron throughout the film breaking down cool into its components, whether it’s spontaneity, authenticity, etc.

John Wayne and Dean Martin in Rio Bravo
John Wayne and Dean Martin in Rio Bravo

We kind of imagined that the film would not just be about Dean Martin but could kind of be a guidebook to American cool. Like, watch this film and you get a sense of what the meaning of cool really is. That was our first topic. Then for the fanboys of Dean Martin we have: What was his Rosebud? If you were not a fan or didn’t know who Dean Martin was, you still want to watch the film because this guy was cool and I want to have some of that cool rub off on me.

AKT: I love the Hemingway definition as “grace under pressure.” Later you have his daughter saying, if Elvis thinks Dad is cool … And then comes the highest level: Luck means that God finds you cool!

TD: That’s a great line, isn’t it?

AKT: It’s wonderful. We don’t want to give away the Rosebud, but did you cook it?

TD: I have. I actually had Deana (Martin, Dean’s daughter) cook it for me too. With the secret ingredient. I will say that it blew me away. We’re having an afterparty after the premiere where we actually serve it. This is all very cryptic to your audience.

AKT: Perfectly so! Cannellini beans are on my shopping list and the secret ingredient I have. You have a lot of interesting people talking about Dean. I didn’t know, for instance, that Tommy Tune was the assistant choreographer on his TV show. There’s Bogdanovich and another moment I particularly liked: Henry Jaglom quoting Orson Welles as saying, it’s all about Dean Martin. He’s the genius and not Jerry Lewis. How did you find all those people?

Tommy Tune was the assistant choreographer on his television show and speaks about Dean Martin’s dancing prowess.
Tommy Tune was the assistant choreographer on his television show and speaks about Dean Martin’s dancing prowess.

TD: Well, I would argue that both of them were geniuses in their way. And the genius was the alchemy in the pairing of the two. It was so amazing. I’ve been doing movies about Hollywood for more than a decade now and I’ve made a lot of great connections. We’ve been able to exploit those connections for a movie like this to get to the people we need. We have a track record that we’re going to make a good movie, that it’s worth being interviewed by us.

AKT: It seemed that many of them were very interested in speaking about him. There are many hidden fans out there.

TD: Josh Homme, RZA from Wu-Tang Clan, big fan of Dean Martin and the Rat Pack. It’s cool to talk to people from all over the place about this man. He’s one of those subjects where you interview people who knew him and everybody uniformly loved him, including the man Jerry Lewis whom he broke off with and didn’t speak to for twenty years loved him. Even Jerry Lewis’s son [Scotty] in the film cries, because he loved Dean so much.

AKT: And you don’t love him any less after seeing this film.

TD: Good. We wanted to make sure of that. The thing about Hollywood stories is, especially in this day and age, and especially for issues around masculinity, you can easily vilify a man like this or the Rat Pack in terms of their approach to race, to sex. And we wanted to make sure not to do that. To bring out what is special about Dean Martin and not the obvious salacious story of the Rat Pack.

Montgomery Clift, Marlon Brando, and Dean Martin in Edward Dmytryk’s The Young Lions: “People always say he doesn’t get enough credit as an actor and I think that’s true.”
Montgomery Clift, Marlon Brando, and Dean Martin in Edward Dmytryk’s The Young Lions: “People always say he doesn’t get enough credit as an actor and I think that’s true.”

AKT: A great point in that context is the JFK inauguration and the fact that Dean Martin actually said: Sammy Davis Jr. is my friend, I’m not going if he is not invited.

TD: Yes, you have to explain that Sammy campaigned for JFK and then JFK said he’s not invited to the inauguration because he’s married to a white woman. Dean refused to go to the inauguration because of that and Frank [Sinatra] did go. Frank had a lot at stake and that wasn’t important enough for him to not go to the inauguration. Dean did not agree. That’s probably the most surprising fact that I learned about Dean Martin that made me love and admire him even more.

AKT: I like how many details you uncover about his childhood in Steubenville, Ohio. About the mother being a seamstress, the clothes-making that explains some of his elegance and sartorial style. His father, by the way, he looks like Salvador Dali in some of the footage.

TD: He does! You’re right! Oh, my god, he should have played Salvador Dali! That’s funny. I loved the family as a set-up also about Italian culture and the importance of food. Also the broomstick with the pasta hanging down. When Betty (his first wife) first walked into the house, she saw pasta hanging off a broomstick because they were making their own pasta.

AKT: So it can’t be bad, that household.

TD: I weave food throughout the entire film and I love that about the film.

Walter Brennan, Dean Martin, Ricky Nelson, and John Wayne enjoying My Rifle, My Pony, and Me in Rio Bravo
Walter Brennan, Dean Martin, Ricky Nelson, and John Wayne enjoying My Rifle, My Pony, and Me in Rio Bravo

AKT: You quote Dean as saying “I had a bike, we had a car and good food.” What else do you need? That’s an idyllic childhood in his definition.

TD: Absolutely. His whole life goes back to that idyllic childhood. He wants to recreate that and tries to recreate it. All his families: the Rat Pack, his relationship to Jerry Lewis, the families he created at home, etc.

AKT: Christmas is another link throughout your film. And then he dies on Christmas Day!

TD: You know what I don’t say in the film and maybe should have said? His mother died on Christmas Day exactly 30 years before.

AKT: Wow. This cool life is also filled with tragedy. The death of his son. He led an extremely full life.

TD: I agree. It’s a challenging life to tell in less than two hours. I’ve never made a film over 90 minutes, actually my last film was 95 minutes. Even that feels like I’m making Gone With the Wind.

AKT: Which one are you referring to?

TD: This Changes Everything was 95 minutes, a lot of story to tell in that. This is even longer at 1 hour and 47 minutes.

Cannellini beans for tonight’s Pasta e Fagioli
Cannellini beans for tonight’s Pasta e Fagioli Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: This Changes Everything - how did you of all people get to direct that?

TD: I didn’t get to direct it, I made it.

AKT: It was your idea?

TD: Yes, we came up with the idea and worked for a year without financing, doing interviews in 2015. Then I brought in Geena Davis as a strategic partner and having her around really helped us getting the big names and it expanded the reach of the film. I was making all these films kind of at the same time. I interviewed Bob Newhart about Dean Martin and the issue of women in Hollywood. Norman Lear, women in Hollywood and Dean Martin.

AKT: Perfect combination. When it became complicated with Jerry Lewis, one of the reasons was that he didn’t even let him finish one song. You don’t do that either, because you couldn’t?

TD: There’s legal reasons, yeah. I can use the song if I use only a little bit of it. I use too much and it’s $20,000 and we didn’t have that. It’s sad we can’t play his music throughout the entire film, but it also lets you see Dean in a different way. People know the music, very few people know the man.

AKT: And people will go to his music after seeing the film, I’m certain. That clip from Rio Bravo and the song My Rifle, My Pony, And Me - it gets to me every time. There are also the fascinating and slightly absurd lyrics of the song. He sings about “my three good companions” Which are my rifle, my pony, and me! He is himself his own good companion, which goes well with your definitions of cool and the element of distance.

Tom Donahue on Rosebud: “It’s not the object that we say it is, but what the object represents, much like the sled in Citizen Kane.”
Tom Donahue on Rosebud: “It’s not the object that we say it is, but what the object represents, much like the sled in Citizen Kane.”

TD: That’s so brilliant, yeah, you’re right. I love that song, too. I didn’t love it when I first heard it, growing up and as an adult. But in really getting to appreciate Dean, the simplicity of the way he vocalizes that song is so beautiful.

AKT: Totally, it’s so emotionally potent. Also his acting, in The Young Lions there he is next to Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift and holds his own. He lives up to their standards.

TD: He really does. People always say he doesn’t get enough credit as an actor and I think that’s true. He’s under-appreciated because he was able to exist in the shadow of those great performers without upstaging them. And yet he gave them so much. If you look at the way he reacts and he speaks to John Wayne in the film, there’s such love and joy in that performance. You cannot not like Dean Martin, even if he’s playing the bad guy. I don’t know if that ever happened, but he’s so likable.

AKT: Jon Hamm you gave a poem [Mark Rudman’s The Secretary of Liquor] to read. How did that come about?

TD: My brilliant story producer Ron loved that poem and said, hey maybe we can have your actors read some excerpts? The first person we asked was Jon Hamm, we handed it to him at the end of the interview and said Could you read it? Jon said: “This is an essay, not a poem!” So we broke it down into some meaningful bites and Jon nailed it on tape, reading it for the first time. I didn’t need to ask anybody after that.

Tom Donahue on This Changes Everything: “I brought in Geena Davis as a strategic partner and having her around really helped us getting the big names and it expanded the reach of the film.”
Tom Donahue on This Changes Everything: “I brought in Geena Davis as a strategic partner and having her around really helped us getting the big names and it expanded the reach of the film.”

AKT: Another attractive man reading this makes sense, especially taking into account his role in Mad Men, which defined him. Of course you had to include the Labor Day telethon and the reunion. When you structured the film was it in thematic clusters?

TD: It’s a, I almost want to say, conflict, but you’re weaving between the personal and the professional, between the highlights of the career chronologically and how you want to express the personality and psychology of Dean Martin as you go. That’s ultimately what drove the structure. And holding back the Rosebud, bringing back the Rosebud in midpoint, if you remember, Deana goes “what was his Rosebud? I don’t want to be flippant about this, but he loved golf.” At that moment we pivot into the more psychological, the isolation of Dean Martin.

And then the third act really begins with the death of his mom, his brother, his father, as we head to the ultimate tragedy, the death of his son. That’s the death of four key family members. I always like to say every film can be boiled down to one or two words. For this film the word is family. We begin with family and we end with family, and that’s what this film is ultimately about. That’s what the Rosebud represents in the film, really. It’s not the object that we say it is, but what the object represents, much like the sled in Citizen Kane.

AKT: You are my third DOC NYC interview since yesterday. Yesterday I spoke to Alessandro Rossellini about his family and his film about them. Family is a big theme. My other interview was with the director of Objects and I brought up your film to him and the Rosebud question. Lots of overlaps already. Thank you for your beautiful film on the great Dean Martin!

TD: Thank you, Anne-Katrin, very much!

Dean Martin: King Of Cool screens on Sunday, November 14 at 4:40pm, an in-cinema Q&A with Tom Donahue, executive producer Deana Martin, producer Ilan Arboleda, and Lainie Kazan will follow at the SVA Theatre; Monday, November 15 at 4:00pm - IFC Center

DOC NYC 2021 in cinemas (IFC Center - SVA Theatre - Cinépolis Chelsea) runs from November 10 through November 18 with select films screening online in the US from November 19 through November 28.

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