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11 Expert Facts About Léon: The Professional

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It's been over two decades since writer/director Luc Besson’s Léon: The Professional hit theaters, and we’re willing to bet that you’ve yet to shake off how the movie made you feel. The crime thriller that launched Natalie Portman’s career, and put French actor Jean Reno front and center in Hollywood, Léon tells the story of a professional assassin who takes in his pre-teen neighbor after her family is murdered. The two then develop a friendship so close that you might still find yourself fearing it could cross the line of appropriateness (even if you've seen the film 100 times and breathed a sigh of relief at its outcome). With its boundary-pushing plot and expert direction, the film is widely (and rightly) regarded as one of Besson’s best works.

1. NATALIE PORTMAN’S PARENTS WERE COMPLETELY AGAINST HER PLAYING MATHILDA.

It was an extremely complicated role for an 11-year-old: Not only would she have to deal with a broken home and violence, but she’d also have to deal with the unwanted sexualization of a young girl. In Starting Young, a documentary about Portman that’s included on the 10th anniversary DVD edition of Léon, the actress admits that after she read the script, she was so moved to tears by the film that she knew she had to have the role. Her parents weren’t as convinced. “My parents were like, ‘There is no way you’re doing this movie. This is absolutely inappropriate for a child your age ... and I was like, ‘This is the greatest thing I’ve ever read! You’re gonna ruin my life!’” she shares in the doc. “[I] was basically just fighting with them so much.”

2. IN THE ORIGINAL SCRIPT, LÉON ACCIDENTALLY WALKS IN ON MATHILDA WHILE SHE'S IN THE SHOWER.

Portman’s parents were understandably not comfortable with this scene. In Starting Young, Portman notes that her parents scaled the sexual undertones way back. It was a point they made sure to detail in their daughter’s contract.

3. RENO AND PORTMAN WEREN’T ALLOWED TO REHEARSE THE FILM’S MOST CONTROVERSIAL SCENE, WHERE MATHILDA PUTS ON A DRESS GIVEN TO HER BY LÉON.

Up until the moment of the dress scene—which was deleted in the original U.S. theatrical version for its racy content (it would be restored a decade later)—it’s easy to believe that Léon acts as a person stuck between childhood and adult male. It isn’t until this turning point that one begins to worry. Here, Mathilda makes Léon tell her he likes her dress and whispers to him the importance of a girl’s first time having sex. He rejects her advances, but the tension is evident in his expression.

As Reno puts it in the film’s DVD commentary, it’s “the beginning of the perversity.” Reno often asked the director when they would read the part, and Besson would avoid the question. Not being able to read the scene helped Besson and his cast genuinely capture the awkwardness the characters felt at that moment. “[Léon and Mathilda’s] relationship was very connected and very strange,” Reno concluded.

4. PORTMAN’S PARENTS ARE THE REASON WHY MATHILDA QUITS SMOKING IN THE FILM.

As per the agreement Portman’s parents outlined with Besson, the actress was allowed five fake cigarettes in her hand during the entire film shoot, and she was never allowed to inhale a single one of them. If you pay close attention to her character, you'll see that she only puts the cigarette to her lips, but never blows smoke out. Additionally, her parents demanded that her character quit smoking at some point in the movie. In the film, Léon scolds Mathilda for smoking, and later you see her throwing her unfinished cigarette away when she’s alone.

5. PORTMAN’S MARILYN MONROE IMPRESSION IN THE FILM WAS INSPIRED BY MIKE MYERS.

During her audition, Besson asked Portman if she could do any celebrity impressions; what you see in the film is the entire arsenal that she presented to the director. While she was obsessed with Gene Kelly and Madonna as a kid, her Marilyn Monroe impression was done without having seen any of the legendary bombshell’s work. “I had never seen the original Marilyn tapes at all,” Portman says in Starting Young. She goes on to admit that her impression was informed by a vague memory of Mike Myers impersonating Monroe in Wayne’s World.

6. BESSON GOT THE IDEA FOR LÉON WHILE WORKING ON LA FEMME NIKITA.

In the 1990 film La Femme Nikita, Reno plays Victor the Cleaner, an operative sent in to salvage Nikita’s botched mission. According to the DVD commentary, Besson was so inspired to explore Reno’s character further that he developed a story around him, which became Léon. Fortunately (in retrospect) for the director, when filming of The Fifth Element was delayed due to Bruce Willis’s schedule, Besson was afforded the time to shoot The Professional as a passion project.

7. THE CHELSEA HOTEL WAS USED FOR THE INTERIOR SHOTS OF MATHILDA AND LÉON’S APARTMENT BUILDING.

Léon and Mathilda’s apartment building might look like a place where burnouts escape to cook some meth, but the spot is actually an iconic part of New York City history. The Chelsea Hotel was once a place where Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso enjoyed philosophical exchanges; Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, Charles Bukowski, Tom Waits, Patti Smith, Leonard Cohen, and Iggy Pop all called it home; Arthur C. Clarke wrote 2001: A Space Odyssey while staying there; Andy Warhol filmed Chelsea Girls within its walls; and Sid Vicious’s girlfriend, Nancy Spungen, was found stabbed to death there (leading to Vicious’s arrest).

8. THE CITY OF NEW YORK INSPIRED THE FILM.

While the film was shot in both Paris and New York City, Besson has noted that Léon is first and foremost a New York movie. “When it comes to Léon I feel comfortable in New York because for me, in New York, you can be invisible. You can see someone lying on the street and no one will stop,” Besson told Stumped Magazine. “If you have no phone and no credit cards, no one knows where you are … One more thing: you can’t shoot Léon in France because in France in every building you have a concierge and she knows everything. She is glue with the police all the time so you can’t be invisible in Paris.”

9. GARY OLDMAN’S CLASSIC DELIVERY OF THE LINE “BRING ME EVERYONE!” WAS PURPOSELY MEANT TO MAKE LUC BESSON LAUGH.

Never one to under-serve his characters, Gary Oldman—as Stansfield, the film’s drug-addicted DEA agent antagonist—gave Besson everything he had, creating one of the most memorable (and now classic) moments of the film. “What’s funny is that the line was a joke and now it’s become iconic,” Oldman told Playboy. “I just did it one take to make the director, Luc Besson, laugh. The previous takes, I’d just gone, ‘Bring me everyone,’ in a regular voice. But then I cued the sound guy to slip off his headphones, and I shouted as loud as I could. That’s the one they kept in the movie. When people approach me on the street, that’s the line they most often say.”

10. BESSON HAS SHUT DOWN RUMORS THAT A SEQUEL IS IN THE WORKS.

So stop asking. During his press tour for Lucy, Besson told The Guardian, "You can't imagine how many people ask me for a Léon sequel. Everywhere I go they ask me. If I was motivated by money, I would have done it a long time ago. But I don't feel it."

In an earlier interview with Cinema Blend, Besson elaborated on the topic, saying, “Natalie is old now, she's a mother … It's too late. If I got an idea tomorrow about a sequel, of course I would do it. But I never came up with something strong enough. I don't want to do sequels for money; I want to do a sequel because it's worth it. I want it to be as good or better than the original."

11. JEAN RENO PLAYED LÉON AS EMOTIONALLY REPRESSED TO MAKE SURE THE AUDIENCE KNEW HE HAD NO SEXUAL DESIRE FOR MATHILDA.

In the DVD commentary, Reno says he made a conscious decision to make Léon a little slow so that he didn’t come off as physically threatening to Portman’s character. “[Léon is] somebody who’s lost his parents, an immigrant, in fact ... If you’re not smart, it means no brain, means not a lot of words, so you have to put a lot of emotions. You defend yourself in that way, the instinctive,” Reno says about portraying Léon. “If you’re slow, [Mathilda] will control the situation."

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Check Out These 10 Fun Facts About Supermarket Sweep
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Thanks to a recent deleted SNL scene in which host Melissa McCarthy lost her mind on a segment of Supermarket Sweep, we started reminiscing about the heart-pumping, family-friendly game show back in early 2016. Back in the day, you couldn’t watch the show—which debuted in 1965—without fantasizing about reenacting it at your local grocery store. On it, pairs of contestants would race through supermarket aisles, attempting to pack their carts full of the most valuable items, in between quiz-style segments. Revivals of the series stopped filming in 2003, but there's good news for fans who can't let the dream of appearing on the game show die: Deadline reports that it's about to make a television comeback. Relive the high of Supermarket Sweep with these fun facts about the game show.

1. THE MEAT WAS FAKE.

In a special for Great Big Story, former host David Ruprecht confirmed, “All the meat was fake.” Former contestant Mike Futia reaffirmed the fact to The A.V. Club saying, “Everything that was meat, cheese—all that was fake because they’d get the meat juices on their sweaters. And that’s not telegenic, so they wanted to get rid of that.”

2. A LOT OF THE FOOD WAS EXPIRED.

“We shot for about five months every year and they used the same food over and over again,” Ruprecht admitted to Great Big Story. “A lot of the food, having been thrown in and out of the carts for three, four months had gotten pretty beaten up.”

3. WINNERS DIDN’T GET TO KEEP THE FOOD.

Given what Ruprecht said above, contestants were probably thankful that they didn’t get to keep the food. And according to Great Big Story, they didn’t get to keep their sweatshirts either. “They got $5000 but they didn’t get their sweatshirts,” said Ruprecht.

4. BEAUTY PRODUCTS COULD WIN YOU THE GAME.

Pro tip: Heading for the beauty aisle instead of the meat freezer could very well have won you the game. “Those who [used this strategy] won,” Ruprecht told Great Big Story. “Instead of five hams and five turkeys that load up your cart, you ... get five hair colorings ... get five of all these expensive health and beauty products. With one cart, you could beat everybody.”

5. FOR CONTESTANTS, PERSONALITY WAS KEY.

Supermarket Sweep was a TV show, after all, and vibrant personalities have always made for good television. “When we were going through the process, they put you in a room with a few other people and ask you sample questions,” former contestant Mike Futia recalled to The A.V. Club. “And you could sense it was because they wanted to see if you were slouching and things like that ... I felt pretty confident that we’d get the callback to have a taping.”

6. WINNING DURING THE TAPING DIDN’T GUARANTEE YOU’D ACTUALLY COLLECT YOUR WINNINGS.

“It was a syndicated show,” Mike Futia explained to The A.V. Club, “so they taped all the episodes, and you didn’t even know if you were going to get the money if you won unless it aired, which could be six months later, because they then had to sell it.” On the bright side: Even if you didn’t collect, at least you could always say you played Supermarket Sweep.

7. SHOOTING DAYS LASTED 12 TO 14 HOURS.

Most of that time consisted of waiting around. “We literally got in a room when we got called back for the actual taping, and they said, ‘Be prepared to be here. It could be a 12- to 14-hour day because there are three pairs of people on each show,’” Futia explained to The A.V. Club. “That day, I want to say they were taping something like eight shows. So you had 48 people just in a room, and the first thing they tape is your introduction where you run down to the camera and everybody gets introduced to [host] David Ruprecht ... Then they call you back and you tape the first segment.”

8. CONTESTANTS WORE DICKEYS.

Talk about dated fashion: “By winning, we didn’t get to keep the sweaters because we got paid,” Futia recalled to The A.V. Club. “But if you lost, your consolation prize was that you got to keep the sweater—but you didn’t get to keep the dickey.”

9. CONTESTANTS GOT TO MAP OUT THEIR ROUTES.

To prevent contestants from looking like chickens running around with their heads cut off, the show allowed them some time to strategize. “When you’re taping the show before the …  Supermarket Sweep round, you get about 10 minutes or so to walk around the supermarket so you can see the prices,” Futia told The A.V. Club. “Everything has a price on it, so ... you map out what you’re going to do. And it’s the weirdest things that were expensive, like hoses.”

10. THE “SUPERMARKET” WAS REALLY, REALLY SMALL.

“A little bit bigger than a bodega in the city” was how Futia described the supermarket set that was built for the 1990s revival of the series. “It’s very tiny. It looks huge, but it’s small. Even in the aisles, you had to be careful if you and your cameraman were running and another group was coming down that aisle. You had to make sure you were all the way to the side or there could have been an accident.”

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15 Fascinating Facts About Candyman
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Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen) is a Chicago graduate student with a deep fascination with urban legends, which she and her friend Bernadette (Kasi Lemmons) are using as the basis for a thesis project. After they stumble across the local legend of Candyman, a well-to-do black artist who fell in love with a white woman in the late 1800s and was murdered for it, Helen wants to learn more. When she’s told that Candyman still haunts Chicago's Cabrini-Green housing project, and that his spirit can be summoned by repeating his name into a mirror five times, Helen does just that … and all hell breaks loose.

What began as a low-budget indie film has morphed into a contemporary classic of the horror genre, and essential Halloween viewing. In 1992, English filmmaker Bernard Rose—who got his start working as a gopher on The Muppet Show—turned Clive Barker’s short story “The Forbidden” into Candyman, which was released in theaters 25 years ago today. In honor of the film’s anniversary, here are 15 things you might not have known about Candyman.

1. EDDIE MURPHY WAS CONSIDERED FOR THE LEAD.

Though the role of Candyman turned Tony Todd into a horror icon, he wasn’t the only actor in consideration for the film’s title role: Eddie Murphy was also reportedly a contender for the part. Though it’s unclear exactly why he wasn’t cast, sources have reported that it had to do with everything from his height (at 5 feet 9 inches, he wouldn’t seem nearly as intimidating as the 6-foot-5 Todd) to his salary demands.

2. AN UNEXPECTED PREGNANCY LANDED VIRGINIA MADSEN THE LEAD.

Virginia Madsen stars in 'Candyman'
PolyGram Filmed Entertainment

When asked by HorrorNewsNetwork about how she got the role of Helen in Candyman, Virginia Madsen shared that it was almost by accident: She was supposed to play Bernie, Helen’s friend and classmate, the role that eventually went to Kasi Lemmons.

“I was actually very good friends with Bernard [Rose] and his wife Alexandra,” Madsen said. “She is a wonderful actress, who actually brought Clive Barker’s short story ‘The Forbidden’ to her husband. She thought this would be a great film, and he could direct her. She was supposed to be Helen. I was going to play [Kasi Lemmons'] part, until they made the character African American. Then I was out.

“Right before shooting, Alexandra found out she was pregnant. It was great for me, but it was so sad for her because this was her role; she found this story and really wanted it. So when I was asked to step in I felt like ‘I can’t take my friend’s role.’ She actually came over one day and said ‘It would just kill me to see someone else play this role, you have to be the one who plays it.’ So with her blessing I took on the role. I really tried to work my butt off just to honor her.”

3. IT COULD HAVE STARRED SANDRA BULLOCK.

On the film’s DVD commentary, producer Alan Poul said that had Madsen been unable to step into the role of Helen, the part would have likely been offered to Sandra Bullock, who was still a relative unknown actress at that point. Though she had played the role of Tess McGill in the television adaptation of Working Girl, she was still a couple of years away from Speed (1994), the role that launched her into stardom.

4. ITS OPENING SHOT WAS GROUNDBREAKING.

The film’s opening credits feature a great aerial view of Chicago, which was pretty revolutionary for its time. “We did that with an incredible new machine called the Skycam, which can shoot up to a 500mm lens with no vibration,” Rose told The Independent. “You've never seen that shot before, at least not done that smoothly.”

5. NOT ALL OF THE FILM’S CREEPY DETAILS SPRUNG FROM CLIVE BARKER’S IMAGINATION.

While investigating one of Candyman’s crime scenes, Helen and Bernie discover that the design of the apartment’s medicine cabinet made it a possible point of entry for an intruder. This was not a made-up piece of horror movie fiction. While researching the film, Rose learned that a series of murders had been committed in Chicago in this very way.

6. BERNARD ROSE SEES CANDYMAN AS A ROMANTIC FIGURE.

Tony Todd stars in 'Candyman'
PolyGram Filmed Entertainment

Viewers may think of Candyman as one of the horror genre’s most terrifying villains, but Rose said that “the idea always was that he was kind of a romantic figure. And again, romantic in sort of the Edgar Allan Poe sense—it's the romance of death. He's a ghost, and he's also the resurrection of something that is kind of unspoken or unspeakable in American history, which is slavery, as well. So he's kind of come back and he's haunting what is the new version of the racial segregation in Chicago.

“And I think there's also something very seductive and very sweet and very romantic about him, and that's what makes him interesting. In the same way there is about Dracula. In the end, the Bogeyman is someone you want to surrender to. You're not just afraid of. There's a certain kind of joy in his seduction. And Tony was always so romantic. Tony ties him in so elegantly and is such a gentleman. He was wonderful.”

7. THE BEES IN THE FILM WERE BRED SPECIFICALLY TO APPEAR ONSCREEN.

No, that is not CGI! The bees that play a key role in Candyman are indeed real. So that they looked appropriately terrifying, but were less dangerous to the cast and crew, the filmmakers used newborn bees—they were just 12 hours old—so that they looked fully grown, but had less powerful stingers.

8. TONY TODD WAS STUNG 23 TIMES, AND GOT A BONUS EACH TIME IT HAPPENED.

Photo of Tony Todd in 'Candyman'
PolyGram Filmed Entertainment

In addition to allowing the filmmakers to cover his face with bees, Todd actually agreed to film a scene in which he had a mouthful of bees—and that, too, was all real. He told TMZ that he wore a dental dam to prevent any bees from sliding into his throat—which doesn’t mean that he didn’t suffer a sting or two … or 23, to be exact, over the course of three Candyman movies. Though it might have been worth it. “I had a great lawyer,” he told TMZ. “A thousand dollars a pop.”

9. THE BEES WEREN’T GREAT NEWS FOR MADSEN, EITHER.

Madsen, too, had to get up close and personal with those bees—a fact that almost forced her to pass on the role. “When Bernie was first asking me to do the role I said, ‘Well, I can’t. I’m allergic to bees,’” she told HorrorNewsNetwork. “He said ‘No you’re not allergic to bees, you’re just afraid.’ So I had to go to UCLA and get tested because he didn’t believe [me]. I was tested for every kind of venom. I was far more allergic to wasps. So he said, ‘We’ll just [have] paramedics there, it will be fine!’ You know actors, we’ll do anything for a paycheck! So fine, I’ll be covered with bees.

“So we a had a bee wrangler and he pretty much told us you can’t freak out around the bees, or be nervous, or swat at them, it would just aggravate them. They used baby bees on me. They can still sting you, but are less likely. When they put the bees on me it was crazy because they have fur. They felt like little Q-tips roaming around on me. Then you have pheromones on you, so they’re all in love with you and think you’re a giant queen. I really just had to go into this Zen sort of place and the takes were very short. What took the longest was getting the bees off of us. They had this tiny ‘bee vacuum,’ which wouldn’t harm the bees. After the scene where the bees were all over my face and my head, it took both Tony and I 45 minutes just to get the bees off. That’s when it became difficult to sit still. It was cool though, I felt like a total badass doing it.”

10. PHILIP GLASS COMPOSED THE SCORE, BUT WAS DISAPPOINTED IN THE MOVIE.

When Philip Glass signed on to compose the score for Candyman, he apparently envisioned the final film being something totally different. According to Rolling Stone, “What he'd presumed would be an artful version of Clive Barker's short story ‘The Forbidden’ had ended up, in his view, a low-budget slasher.” Glass was reportedly disappointed in the film, and felt that he had been manipulated. Still, the haunting music is considered a classic score—and Glass’s own view of it seems to have softened over time. “It has become a classic, so I still make money from that score, get checks every year,” he told Variety in 2014.

11. MANY OF THE FILM'S SCENES WERE SHOT AT CABRINI-GREEN.

In 2011, the last remaining high-rise in the Cabrini-Green housing project was demolished. Over the years, the property—which opened in 1942—gained a notorious reputation around the world for being a haven for violence, drugs, gangs, and other criminal activities. While the project’s real-life history weaves its way into the narrative of Candyman, it only makes sense that Rose would want to shoot there. Which he did. But in order to gain permission to shoot there, he had to agree to cast some of the residents as extras.

“I went to Chicago on a research trip to see where it could be done and I was shown around by some people from the Illinois Film Commission and they took me to Cabrini-Green,” Rose said. “And I spent some time there and I realized that this was an incredible arena for a horror movie because it was a place of such palpable fear. And rule number one when you're making a horror movie is set it somewhere frightening. And the fear of the urban housing project, it seemed to me, was actually totally irrational because you couldn't really be in that much danger. Yes, there was crime there, but people were actually afraid of driving past it. And there was such an aura of fear around the place and I thought that was really something interesting to look into because it's sort of a kind of fear that's at the heart of modern cities. And obviously, it's racially motivated, but more than that—it's poverty motivated.”

12. THE FILM’S PRODUCERS WERE WORRIED THAT THE FILM WOULD BE CONSIDERED RACIST.

During pre-production, Candyman’s producers began to worry that the film might draw criticism for being racist, given that its villain was black and it was largely set in an infamous housing project. “I had to go and have a whole set of meetings with the NAACP, because the producers were so worried,” Rose told The Independent. “And what they said to me when they'd read the script was 'Why are we even having this meeting? You know, this is just good fun.' Their argument was 'Why shouldn't a black actor be a ghost? Why shouldn't a black actor play Freddy Krueger or Hannibal Lecter? If you're saying that they can't be, it's really perverse. This is a horror movie.'”

13. STILL, SOME FILMMAKERS COMPLAINED THAT IT WAS RACIST.

In a 1992 story in the Chicago Tribune, some high-profile black filmmakers expressed their disappointment that the film seemed to perpetuate several racist stereotypes. “There’s no question that this film plays on white middle-class fears of black people,” director Carl Franklin (Out of Time, Devil in a Blue Dress) said. “It unabashedly uses racial stereotypes and destructive myths to create shock. I found it hokey and unsettling. It didn't work for me because I don’t share those fears, buy into those myths.”

Reginald Hudlin, who directed House Party, Boomerang, and Marshall, described the film as “worrisome,” though he didn’t want to speak on the record about his specific issues with the film. “I've gotten calls about [the movie], but I think I'm going to reserve comment,” he said. “Some of my friends are in it and I may someday want to work for TriStar.”

For Rose, those assessments may have been hard to hear, as his goal in adapting Barker’s story and directing it was to upend the myths about inner cities. “[T]he tradition of oral storytelling is very much alive, especially when it's a scary story,” he told The Independent. “And the biggest urban legend of all for me was the idea that there are places in cities where you do not go, because if you go in them something dreadful will happen—not to say that there isn't danger in ghettos and inner city areas, but the exaggerated fear of them is an urban myth.”

14. IT’S STILL THE ROLE THAT MADSEN IS MOST RECOGNIZED FOR (ESPECIALLY AT AIRPORTS).

Kasi Lemmons and Virginia Madsen in 'Candyman'
PolyGram Filmed Entertainment

Though she earned a Best Supporting Actress nomination in 2005 for Alexander Payne’s Sideways, in 2012 Madsen said that Candyman is still the role she is most recognized for—especially at airports.

“More people recognize me from that movie than anything I’ve done,” she told HorrorNewsNetwork. “It means a lot to me. It was after years of struggling. As an actor, you always want a film that’s annual, like It’s a Wonderful Life or A Christmas Story. I just love that I have a Halloween movie. Now it’s kind of legend this story. People have watched it since they were kids, and every Halloween it’s on, and they watch it now with their kids. That means a lot to me. The place I get recognized the most is the airport security for some reason. Every person in airport security has seen Candyman. Maybe it makes them a little afraid of me.”

15. THERE WAS AN ACTUAL CANDYMAN KILLER.

Though the Chicago-based legend of Candyman is a work of fiction, there was an actual serial killer known as “Candyman” or “The Candy Man.” Between 1970 and 1973, Dean Corll kidnapped, tortured, and murdered at least 28 young boys in the Houston area. Corll earned his sweet nickname from the fact that his family owned a candy factory.

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