James Toback – Gambling Man
Where to begin with James Toback…? Perhaps a quick dash through his life is in order. Born in 1944, James Lee Toback is a Harvard literature graduate who underwent a “life-changing” LSD trip during his early twenties. The Oscar- and Golden Globe-nominated writer of Warren Beatty’s Bugsy, his screenwriting credits also include The Gambler, a loose adaptation of a Fyodor Dostoyevsky novella that, as you might recall, we at RightCasino recently championed as the greatest movie ever made about gaming.
It’s as a writer-director, however, that Toback is revered in filmmaking circles. No, his films have rarely enjoyed commercial success, but anyone with a serious interest in cinema will be familiar with pictures like Fingers (below) – the only film that could play on a double-bill with Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and survive the comparison. And as for fans of Robert Downey Jr fan, three of the Iron Man star’s greatest performances have come in Toback films – The Pick-Up Artist, Two Girls And A Guy and Black & White.
There’s more, of course – great documentaries about Mike Tyson and the horror that is film financing, an idiosyncratic biography of gridiron legend Jim Brown, a clutch of interesting acting turns. And then there are the demons, the addictions that have driven this highly intelligent man to the brink of personal and financial destruction; addictions to drink, to drugs, to women, to tobacco, and – of most interest to us – to gambling.
“If you want to talk about addiction, I’ve had most of them,” laughs the always-gracious, ever-garrulous Toback. “The thing is, if you have an addictive personality and you’re an extremist, it’s easy to quit most things since you’re just swapping one extreme for another. So with smoking, I used to smoke five packs a day. If I went to the beach, I’d get out of the ocean to have a cigarette, and then go back out in the ocean. I would favour girls who smoked because they knew that you could fit a pack of cigarettes into a romantic experience.
“But to go from 100 cigarettes a day to none was far easier for me than cutting down to two or three packs would have been – I was just substituting one extreme for the other. It was the same with drinking – I did it in a day. Abstemiousness just represents another extreme.”
But what about gambling? As a man who has been known to drop tens of thousands of dollars on sports fixtures, why can’t he apply similar logic to something that could easily have driven him to the brink of bankruptcy or made him the sort of enemies no man wants?
“Because…” he pauses and thinks for a moment, “… because gambling can occasionally have positive results. That makes it much harder to resist.”
To find out how gambling has impacted upon Toback’s career you need look no further than his relationship with his manager Jeff Berg. As the ICM Chairman explains in Nicholas Jarecki’s Toback documentary The Outsider, the first time he met the writer-director was when James came into the office and asked him for a loan of $275,000 so he could attend to some “pressing gambling obligations”.
Given his literary background Toback knows just the right names to drop when it comes to discussing his addiction to betting. “Dostoyevsky – my reverence for whom knows no bounds – says in Notes From The Underground, ‘Man maintains his sense of humanity by reserving the right to insist that two and two equal five even when it has been proven to him that two and two equal four.’ That is the kind of insanity that a compulsive gambler indulges in.”
And, as the man is only too happy to tell you, that ain’t where the madness ends. “What people don’t realise with gambling is that you do not need money to gamble. All you need is the will to gamble.”
Both this conviction together with ‘two plus two equals five’ conundrum appear front and centre in Toback’s script for The Gambler (see above). The film also demonstrates how, as the man himself puts it, “A real gambler ends up broke and in debt and if the cycle continues, it becomes the dominating fact in their life.”
All of which makes it sound as if our hero has everything figured out. But as Jeff Berg told Nicholas Jarecki, “It’s scary when you see a guy drop $75,000 on a football game and then you realise that that’s a moment that could also happen the week after and the week after and the week after that.”
Whatever the negative connotations of his association with gaming, it does lend some context to his most recent movie endeavour – a cameo role in Mississippi Grind, the indie American drama about a down-on-his-luck card sharp (The Dark Knight Rises’ Ben Mendelsohn) who strikes up an unlikely friendship with Ryan Reynolds’ handsome ‘lucky charm’.
Personally invited to appear in the film (below) by co-director and Gambler fan Ryan Fleck, one presumes the opportunity to sock one of the leading men in the face sweetened the deal for Toback.
“That might go down as one of the greatest punches in movie history,” he chuckles. “I think Ryan Fleck was convinced that I’d hit Ben Mendelsohn for real. What I don’t think Ryan knew is that I studied karate and so I know how to throw a killer punch. It does look absolutely devastating. The directors certainly thought so. I think they were really frightened that I’d broken Ben’s jaw.”
So that’s ‘karate master’ and ‘stuntman’ one can add to James Toback’s truly extraordinary resume. Are other filmmakers better known? Sure. Have other directors lived more moderate, less reckless lives? Of course. But when such contemporaries as Woody Allen (Annie Hall) and Barry Levinson (Bugsy) are happy to describe Toback as the most intelligent creative force they know, who are we to disagree? And if the point of life is to live it rather than just survive or endure it, our man is at the head of a field rammed with those people who have, in the words of Henry David Thoreau, “lived lives of quiet desperation”.
Oh, one last thing: If anyone’s interested to know what Toback made of the recent remake of The Gambler starring Mark Wahlberg, these comments from a deadline.com interview should remove any grey area – “Learning of the plan to ‘remake’ my movie at the same time and in the same fashion as any devotee of this [deadline.com] column, I suppose I should feel… what? That a tribute is being paid to a creation I left behind? But one doesn’t always feel what one is supposed to feel.”
Perhaps the people responsible for said atrocity should bear in mind something Robert Downey has long said about his friend and mentor – “The thing you have to remember is, James Toback is a revenge specialist.”