15 Peachy Facts About Face/Off

Paramount
Paramount

Face/Off is a marvel: two of our hammiest actors impersonating each other, under the guidance of one of the world’s most visually fluent action directors. Let’s not kid ourselves, the movie (which was released 20 years ago today) is incredibly dumb—but darned if it isn’t the kind of incredible dumbness that goes down smooth. Here are some things you might not have known about the epic battle between Sean Archer and Castor Troy.

1. IT WAS CONCEIVED IN 1990 BUT DIDN’T HIT THEATERS FOR ANOTHER SEVEN YEARS.

Mike Werb and Michael Colleary, both UCLA film school grads, set out to write something together in the summer of 1990. They sold Face/Off to Warner Bros., but as Werb put it, “I don’t think that they ever understood the script ... Stallone was attached to Demolition Man, and we were over there with our movie, and they saw the two movies as being too similar, so they made one, and ours got shelved.” When WB’s rights to Face/Off expired, someone at Paramount who knew about the screenplay pounced on it. Werb and Colleary thus had the rare pleasure of selling the same screenplay twice.

2. IT WAS WRITTEN WITH SYLVESTER STALLONE AND ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER IN MIND.

Separately, they were among the top action stars of the day (the day being the early '90s), so teaming them up was an irresistible idea. Moreover, they were both really famous, and as Colleary once said, “The movie doesn’t work unless the actors have a well-established persona” so audiences can appreciate them impersonating each other. (Editorial note: there’s no way Schwarzenegger and Stallone could have imitated one another’s mannerisms as well as Cage and Travolta do.) The two didn’t make Face/Off, but they did eventually make Escape Plan, in which they escape from a futuristic, off-the-grid, middle-of-the-ocean prison very much like the one in Face/Off.

3. ORIGINALLY, THE FILM WAS FUTURISTIC SCIENCE FICTION—WHICH IS WHY JOHN WOO DIDN’T WANT TO DIRECT IT.


Paramount

The writers’ first version was set in the future, mainly to justify the face-transplanting technology. But Woo wasn’t interested. "I just felt I hadn’t learned enough to make a great sci-fi movie," he said in a Blu-ray featurette. He told another interviewer, "I want more character, more humanity. If there is too much science fiction, we lose the drama." As the project evolved at Paramount, the writers stripped away the extraneous—and expensive—futuristic elements, bringing the focus back to the characters. With that settled, and with Woo having made Broken Arrow with Travolta in the meantime, the director was approached again and took the job.

4. THE MAN WHO WAS ORIGINALLY GOING TO DIRECT IT MADE DRAGONHEART INSTEAD.

That would be Rob Cohen, who also went on to make The Fast and the Furious. He was signed for Face/Off when the project went into “turnaround,” i.e., limbo. With Face/Off’s future uncertain, Cohen went and made the dragon movie.

5. THEY CONSIDERED A WHOLE BUNCH OF WAYS OF PUTTING CASTOR TROY INTO A COMA AT THE BEGINNING OF THE FILM BEFORE SETTLING ON THE JET ENGINE BLASTING HIM THROUGH THE WIND TUNNEL.

He was supposed to be frozen in liquid nitrogen, but Paramount didn’t like it. Screenwriters Werb and Colleary suggested Troy climb an air traffic control tower and fall, which John Woo didn’t like. Electrocuted by high-voltage wires? Nope. How they arrived at the solution they eventually went with is lost to the mists of time.

6. THE EPILOGUE, WHERE THE ARCHERS ADOPT CASTOR TROY’S ORPHANED SON, ALMOST DIDN’T HAPPEN.


Paramount

It was part of the writers’ original story and survived all of their many rewrites, but Paramount didn’t think audiences would like an ending where the hero adopts his enemy’s son. Woo’s alternate idea was for the film to end with some ambiguity about whether or not Eve Archer had her real husband back. When a test audience found that unsatisfying—and, moreover, wanted to know what happened to Castor Troy’s kid—the studio ponied up the money to get the necessary cast members back to film the original ending. According to Werb, “The next time we tested, the numbers went through the roof. There was spontaneous and thunderous applause at the end."

7. IT WAS THE FIRST PARAMOUNT MOVIE RELEASED ON BLU-RAY.

In 2008, after having initially backed HD-DVD in the high-definition format wars, Paramount saw the tide turning and shifted to Blu-ray. The first batch of films the studio released in that format were recent theatrical hits Next and Bee Movie, plus good ol’ Face/Off.

8. MICHAEL DOUGLAS EXECUTIVE PRODUCED IT.

The legendary actor had produced a dozen films before this, including One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Starman, plus a few that he also starred in (like Romancing the Stone). Don’t go looking for a pattern, though. When The A.V. Club asked Douglas if there was any connection between the movies he stars in or produces, he said, “Not really, except they’re all contemporary. I mean, even the ones like Face/Off or The Rainmaker, that’s the only thing I’ve ever seen that ties everything together. Except for one or maybe two exceptions, they’re all kind of contemporary.”

9. THE CINEMATOGRAPHER WOULD HAVE SHOT BROKEN ARROW, BUT HE BROKE HIS ANKLE WORKING ON CUTTHROAT ISLAND.

Oliver Wood had been the director of photography for Die Hard 2 and more than 50 episodes of Miami Vice, and he was approached by Woo’s people to shoot Broken Arrow. In his own words, Wood hobbled into a pre-production meeting on crutches, still recovering from the ankle injury that had forced him to resign from Cutthroat Island (a blessing in disguise, perhaps). "John [Woo] just smiled and said, ‘Maybe next time.'" True to his word, Woo hired Wood for Face/Off the following year.

10. DESPITE HIS FONDNESS FOR GUNS IN HIS MOVIES, JOHN WOO HAS NEVER FIRED ONE IN REAL LIFE.


Paramount

Or he hadn’t in 1997, anyway. While discussing his films’ abundant use of firearms, he told an interviewer that he didn’t own any guns himself and that he had "never fired a real gun. I just like the look." In particular, he favors the Beretta. “The good thing I like—how many bullets can it fire? Seventeen bullets? You can fire 17 bullets. When you continue firing it’s like ... the drumbeat. Like music.”

11. IT TOOK FOUR WEEKS TO FILM THE CLIMACTIC SPEEDBOAT CHASE.

Woo said so. That includes footage shot by the second unit (involving stunt personnel and not the lead actors).

12. THE JOKE ABOUT TRAVOLTA’S “RIDICULOUS CHIN” WAS TRAVOLTA’S OWN IDEA.

He said, “Nic [Cage]’s character is such an egomaniac. He loves himself—the way he talks, acts, walks, everything about himself. So, we just figured that it follows that he would hate being in my body, having my face. So I added a lot of lines where he makes fun of the way I look—like ‘this ridiculous chin,’ things like that.”

13. IT WAS GINA GERSHON AND NICK CASSAVETES’ IDEA FOR THEIR SIBLING CHARACTERS TO KISS INAPPROPRIATELY.


Paramount

The behind-the-scenes features on the Blu-ray make it clear that, as methodical and efficient as Woo is, he also gives his actors a lot of leeway with improvisation and alternate ideas. (The Troy brothers’ prison reminiscences of childhood traumas were Alessandro Nivola and Nic Cage’s words.) For whatever reason, Gershon and Cassavetes wanted to give their characters an extra layer of weirdness. And Woo let them go for it.

14. THE EVOCATIVE IMAGE OF A LITTLE BOY LISTENING TO “SOMEWHERE OVER THE RAINBOW” WHILE A DEADLY GUNFIGHT UNFOLDS AROUND HIM WAS A LAST-MINUTE IDEA.

It was just a straightforward action sequence before, with the FBI raiding Sasha’s loft and shooting up the place. In the process of filming it, Woo realized he’d like to balance the destruction and mayhem with something less depressing. He had to persuade the producers to let him do it—not just because it’s uncommon (and potentially controversial) to show an innocent kid surrounded by such mayhem, but because they feared the last-minute adjustments would make the day’s shooting run long. Woo promised he’d finish on time, and did. (He got to keep his trademark doves in the climactic church shoot-out by likewise promising it wouldn’t slow things down.)

15. FOR THE FACE-TRANSPLANTING SCENES, SPECIAL EFFECTS WIZARDS MADE UNSETTLINGLY REALISTIC LATEX DUMMIES OF CAGE AND TRAVOLTA.

Not only did they look just like the actors (right down to the painstakingly sewn-in body hair), they were animatronic, with facial muscles that twitched and chests that rose to simulate breathing.

Additional Sources: Face/Off Blu-ray bonus features

Ira Aldridge: The Black Shakespearean Actor Who Broke Theater's Color Barrier

Ira Aldridge as Othello circa 1830
Ira Aldridge as Othello circa 1830
Henry Perronet Briggs, Wikimedia // Public Domain

It's easy to forget that before the dawn of film, stage actors were power players; many of them carried just as much clout as modern Hollywood stars. In 1880, Sarah Bernhardt earned $46,000 for a month of performances on her first New York tour alone (which would be well over $1 million today). In 1895, English actor Henry Irving made enough of a name for himself to become the first actor in history to receive a British knighthood. And way back in 1849, two rival Shakespearean actors, William Macready and Edwin Forrest, caused such a stir with their competing productions of Macbeth that their fans ended up rioting in the streets of Manhattan.

But before all of them, there was Ira Aldridge. Born in New York in 1807, Aldridge made such a name for himself in the theaters of the mid-19th century that he went on to be awarded high cultural honors, and is today one of just 33 people honored with a bronze plaque on a chair at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. But what makes Aldridge’s achievements all the more extraordinary is that, at a time of widespread intolerance and racial discrimination in the U.S., he was black.

Young, Gifted, and Black

The son of a minister and his wife, Aldridge attended New York’s African Free School, which had been established by the New York Manumission Society to educate the city's black community. His first taste of the theater was probably at Manhattan’s now-defunct Park Theatre, and before long he was hooked. While still a student, Aldridge made his stage debut—at the African Grove Theatre, which had been established by free black New Yorkers around 1821—in a performance of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s adaptation of Pizarro. According to some accounts, his Shakespearean debut followed not long after, when he took on the title role in the African Grove Theatre's production of Romeo & Juliet.

These early performances were successes, as was the African Grove Theatre, which quickly proved the most renowned of the few theaters in New York staffed mainly by black actors and attended mostly by black audiences. But despite these early triumphs, both Aldridge and the Grove had their fair share of hardships.

Shortly after its opening, the Grove was forced to close by city officials, supposedly over noise complaints. The project was relocated to Bleecker Street, but this move took the theater away from its core black audience in central Manhattan and planted it closer to several larger, more upmarket theaters, with which it now had to compete. Smaller audiences, coupled with resentment and competition from its predominantly white-attended neighbors, soon led to financial difficulties. And all of these problems were compounded by near-constant harassment from the police, city officials, and intolerant local residents.

Eventually, the situation proved unsustainable: The Grove closed just two years later (and was reportedly burned to the ground in mysterious circumstances in 1826). As for Aldridge, having both witnessed and endured racist abuse and discrimination in America, he decided he'd had enough. In 1824, he left the U.S. for England.

The African Tragedian

Ira Aldridge in the role of Othello, 1854
Ira Aldridge as Othello in 1854
Houghton Library, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

By this time, the British Empire had already abolished its slave trade, and an emancipation movement was growing. Aldridge realized that Britain was a much more welcoming prospect for a young, determined black actor like himself—but what he didn’t know was that his transatlantic crossing would prove just as important as his decision to emigrate.

To cover the costs of his travel, Aldridge worked as a steward aboard the ship that took him to Britain, but during the journey he made the acquaintance of British actor and producer James Wallack. The pair had met months earlier in New York, and when they happened to meet again en route to Europe, Wallack offered Aldridge the opportunity to become his personal attendant. On their arrival in Liverpool, Aldridge quit his stewardship, entered into Wallack’s employ, and through him began to cultivate numerous useful contacts in the world of theater. In May 1825 Aldridge made his London debut, becoming the first black actor in Britain ever to play Othello

The critics—although somewhat unsure how to take a "gentleman of colour lately arrived from America"—were won over by Aldridge’s debut performance in a production of Othello at the Royalty Theatre. They praised his "fine natural feeling" and remarked that "his death was certainly one of the finest physical representations of bodily anguish we ever witnessed." Astonishingly, Aldridge was still just 17 years old.

From his London debut at the Royalty, Aldridge slowly worked his way up the city’s playbill, playing ever-more-upmarket theaters across London. His Othello transferred to the Royal Coburg Theatre later in 1825. A lead role in a stage adaptation of Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko followed, as did an acclaimed supporting turn in Titus Andronicus. To prove his versatility, he took on a well-received comedic role as a bumbling butler in an 18th-century comedy, The Padlock. Aldridge’s reputation grew steadily, and before long he was receiving top billing as the “African Roscius” (a reference to the famed Ancient Roman actor Quintus Roscius Gallus) or the renowned “African Tragedian”—the first African-American actor to establish himself outside of America.

Even in the more-accepting society of abolitionist Britain, however, Aldridge still had mountains to climb. When his portrayal of Othello later moved to Covent Garden in 1833, some reviewers thought a black actor treading the boards on one of London’s most hallowed stages was simply a step too far. The critics soured, their reviews became more scathing—and the racism behind them became ever more apparent.

Campaigns were launched to have Aldridge removed from the London stage, with the local Figaro newspaper among his vilest opponents. Shortly after his Covent Garden debut, the paper openly campaigned to cause “such a chastisement as must drive [Aldridge] from the stage … and force him to find [work] in the capacity of footman or street-sweeper, that level for which his colour appears to have rendered him peculiarly qualified.” Fortunately, they weren’t successful—but the affair temporarily ruined the London stage for Aldridge.

"The Greatest of All Actors"

Portrait of Ira Aldridge by Taras Shevchenko in 1858
Portrait of Ira Aldridge in 1858
Taras Shevchenko, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Instead of accepting defeat, Aldridge took both Othello and The Padlock on a tour of Britain’s provincial theaters. The move proved to be an immense success.

During his national tour, Aldridge amassed a great many new fans, and even became manager of the Coventry Theatre in 1828, making him the first black manager of a British theater. He also earned a name for himself by passing the time between performances lecturing on the evils of slavery, and lending his increasingly weighty support to the abolitionist movement.

Next, he took his tour to Ireland, and on his arrival in Dublin became a near-instant star. With the island still locked in a tense relationship with Britain at the time, he was welcomed with open arms when Irish theatergoers heard how badly he had been treated in London. (In one flattering address in Dublin, Aldridge told the audience: “Here the sable African was free / From every bond, save those which kindness threw / Around his heart, and bound it fast to you.”)

By the 1830s, Aldridge was touring Britain and Ireland with a one-man show of his own design, mixing impeccable dramatic monologues and Shakespearean recitals with songs, tales from his life, and lectures on abolitionism. As an antidote to the blackface minstrel shows that were popular at the time, he also began donning “whiteface” to portray roles as diverse as Shylock, Macbeth, Richard III, and King Lear. When the notorious Thomas Rice arrived in England with his racist “Jump Jim Crow” minstrel routine, Aldridge skillfully and bravely weaved one of Rice’s own skits into his show: By parodying the parody, he robbed Rice’s performance of its crass impact—while simultaneously showing himself to be an expert performer in the process.

Such was his popularity that Aldridge could easily have seen out his days in England, playing to packed theaters every night for the rest of career. But by the 1850s, word of his skill as an actor had spread far. Never one to shy away from a challenge, in 1852 he assembled a troupe of actors and headed out on a tour of the continent.

Within a matter of months, Aldridge had become perhaps the most lauded actor in all Europe. Critics raved about his performances, with one German writer even suggesting that he may well be “the greatest of all actors.” A Polish reviewer noted, "Though the majority of spectators did not speak English, they did, however, understand the feelings portrayed on the artist's face, eyes, lips, in the tones of his voice, in the entire body." Celebrity fans were quick to assemble, including the Danish author Hans Christian Andersen, and the renowned French poet Théophile Gautier, who was impressed by Aldridge's portrayal of King Lear in Paris. Royalty soon followed, with Friedrich-Wilhelm IV, the King of Prussia, awarding Aldridge the Prussian Gold Medal for Art and Science. In Saxe-Meiningen (now a part of Germany), he was given the title of Chevalier Baron of Saxony in 1858.

Aldridge continued his European tours for another decade, using the money he earned to buy two properties in London (including one, suitably enough, on Hamlet Road). But by then, the Civil War was over and America beckoned. Now in his late fifties—but no less eager for a challenge—Aldridge planned one last venture: a 100-date tour of the post-emancipation United States. Contracts and venues were hammered out, and the buzz for Aldridge’s eagerly-awaited homecoming tour began to circulate.

Alas, it was not meant to be. Just weeks before his planned departure, Aldridge fell ill with a lung condition while on tour in Poland. He died in Łódź in 1867, at the age of 60, and was buried in the city’s Evangelical Cemetery.

After his death, several theaters and troupes of black actors—including Philadelphia's famed Ira Aldridge Troupe—were established in Aldridge’s name, and countless black playwrights, performers, and directors since have long considered him an influence on their work and writing.

In August 2017, on the 150th anniversary of Aldridge's death, Coventry, England unveiled a blue heritage plaque in the heart of the city, commemorating Aldridge's theater there. Even this long after his death, the extraordinary life of Ira Aldridge has yet to be forgotten.

8 Enlightening Facts About Dr. Ruth Westheimer

Rachel Murray, Getty Images for Hulu
Rachel Murray, Getty Images for Hulu

For decades, sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer has used television, radio, the written word, and the internet to speak frankly on topics relating to human sexuality, turning what were once controversial topics into healthy, everyday conversations.

At age 90, Westheimer shows no signs of slowing down. As a new documentary, Ask Dr. Ruth, gears up for release on Hulu this spring, we thought we’d take a look at Westheimer’s colorful history as an advisor, author, and resistance sniper.

1. The Nazis devastated her childhood.

Dr. Ruth was born Karola Ruth Siegel on June 4, 1928 in Wiesenfeld, Germany, the only child of Julius and Irma Siegel. When Ruth was just five years old, the advancing Nazi party terrorized her neighborhood and seized her father in 1938, presumably to shuttle him to a concentration camp. One year later, Karola—who eventually began using her middle name and took on the last name Westheimer with her second marriage in 1961—was sent to a school in Switzerland for her own protection. She later learned that her parents had both been killed during the Holocaust, possibly at Auschwitz.

2. She shocked classmates with her knowledge of taboo topics.

Westheimer has never been bashful about the workings of human sexuality. While working as a maid at an all-girls school in Switzerland, she made classmates and teachers gasp with her frank talk about menstruation and other topics that were rarely spoken of in casual terms.

3. She trained as a sniper for Jewish resistance fighters in Palestine.

Following the end of World War II, Westheimer left Switzerland for Israel, and later Palestine. She became a Zionist and joined the Haganah, an underground network of Jewish resistance fighters. Westheimer carried a weapon and trained as both a scout and sniper, learning how to throw hand grenades and shoot firearms. Though she never saw direct action, the tension and skirmishes could lapse into violence, and in 1948, Westheimer suffered a serious injury to her foot owing to a bomb blast. The injury convinced her to move into the comparatively less dangerous field of academia.

4. A lecture ignited her career.

 Dr. Ruth Westheimer participates in the annual Charity Day hosted by Cantor Fitzgerald and BGC at Cantor Fitzgerald on September 11, 2015 in New York City.
Robin Marchant, Getty Images for Cantor Fitzgerald

In 1950, Westheimer married an Israeli soldier and the two relocated to Paris, where she studied psychology at the Sorbonne. Though the couple divorced in 1955, Westheimer's education continued into 1959, when she graduated with a master’s degree in sociology from the New School in New York City. (She received a doctorate in education from Columbia University in 1970.) After meeting and marrying Manfred Westheimer, a Jewish refugee, in 1961, Westheimer became an American citizen.

By the late 1960s, she was working at Planned Parenthood, where she excelled at having honest conversations about uncomfortable topics. Eventually, Westheimer found herself giving a lecture to New York-area broadcasters about airing programming with information about safe sex. Radio station WYNY offered her a show, Sexually Speaking, that soon blossomed into a hit, going from 15 minutes to two hours weekly. By 1983, 250,000 people were listening to Westheimer talk about contraception and intimacy.

5. People told her to lose her accent.

Westheimer’s distinctive accent has led some to declare her “Grandma Freud.” But early on, she was given advice to take speech lessons and make an effort to lose her accent. Westheimer declined, and considers herself fortunate to have done so. “It helped me greatly, because when people turned on the radio, they knew it was me,” she told the Harvard Business Review in 2016.

6. She’s not concerned about her height, either.

In addition to her voice, Westheimer became easily recognizable due to her diminutive stature. (She’s four feet, seven inches tall.) When she was younger, Westheimer worried her height might not be appealing. Later, she realized it was an asset. “On the contrary, I was lucky to be so small, because when I was studying at the Sorbonne, there was very little space in the auditoriums and I could always find a good-looking guy to put me up on a windowsill,” she told the HBR.

7. She advises people not to take huge penises seriously.

Westheimer doesn’t frown upon pornography; in 2018, she told the Times of Israel that viewers can “learn something from it.” But she does note the importance of separating fantasy from reality. “People have to use their own judgment in knowing that in any of the sexually explicit movies, the genitalia that is shown—how should I say this? No regular person is endowed like that.”

8. She lectures on cruise ships.

Westheimer uses every available medium—radio, television, the internet, and even graphic novels—to share her thoughts and advice about human sexuality. Sometimes, that means going out to sea. The therapist books cruise ship appearances where she offers presentations to guests on how best to manage their sex lives. Westheimer often insists the crew participate and will regularly request that the captain read some of the questions.

“The last time, the captain was British, very tall, and had to say ‘orgasm’ and ‘erection,’” she told The New York Times in 2018. “Never did they think they would hear the captain talk about the things we were talking about.” Of course, that’s long been Westheimer’s objective—to make the taboo seem tame.

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