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The Right Stuff
Hollywood's Most Atypical Epic

Philip Kaufman’s adaptation of Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff is a movie that defies categorization: too recent and contained to be a historical epic, too funny to be a drama, too reverent to be a satire, too family-friendly to be hip, too mystical to be biographical, too Earth-bound to be sci-fi, and too damn special to have been a commercial success. The film is a big, beautiful, inspiring story about men who pushed the boundaries of what human beings were capable of. It’s also a takedown of American Exceptionalism and an exploration of the fleeting nature of fame, glory, and achievement. Based on Wolfe’s best-selling book, published in 1979, the movie The Right Stuff (1983) follows the lives of Air Force test pilots and Navy and Marine Corps aviators who became the seven Project Mercury astronauts selected for NASA’s first space program. This highly anticipated picture was a major box-office bomb that ultimately bankrupted the impressive but short-lived Ladd Company. The movie received a mixed critical reception, though it had many champions. (Both Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert named it the #1 film of 1983 and one of the 10 best movies of the decade.) It was nominated for eight Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Supporting Actor, winning Best Film Editing, Original Score, and both sound awards. The film went on to be a massive success on home video. In 2013, it was inducted into the National Film Registry alongside Mary Poppins and Pulp Fiction. Twelve-year-old me would have loved seeing this in the theater, but I guess, like most people, my parents didn’t think it was worth spending the time on, so we didn’t go as a family. But I’ll never forget renting the double VHS box in my local video store sometime around age sixteen and watching it on the 32” TV in my mom’s living room. I probably ran it three times that weekend!

The book got its start when Rolling Stone assigned “new journalism” pioneer Tom Wolfe (The Pump House Gang, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test) to cover the launch of NASA's final moon mission. The writer became fascinated with the astronauts. After publishing a four-part series in 1973 titled "Post-Orbital Remorse," about the depression that many astronauts experienced after returning from space, Wolfe began researching the whole of the space program. He planned to write a book that would be a complete chronicle of America’s adventures in outer space. He interviewed all the surviving astronauts and their wives, young and old test pilots, psychologists, and many others. But once he’d written up through the Mercury program, he felt his book was complete because it captured what made astronauts unique—they all believed they had (and proved they had) “The Right Stuff.” This was the unspoken ethos of stoic yet cocksure bravery that compelled the men, like the pilots of the earliest years of flight, to take insane risks for low pay just to be one of “the best of the best.” It also described their wives, who had to watch their husbands leave for work, knowing there was a solid chance the men would not return.

During Wolfe's extensive research phase, he met several times with Chuck Yeager, the legendary sound-barrier-breaking test pilot. Yeager had never participated in the space program because of his height and the fact that he lacked a college degree, but he was still revered by all branches of the armed forces and the space program. Wolfe saw Yeager as the personification of his book's title, and he crafted his lengthy volume around the iconic pilot so that his exploits would overshadow every unprecedented mission undertaken by the astronauts.

The was optioned in 1979 by the savvy independent producers Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler (They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, Raging Bull, the Rocky movies), who outbid Universal Pictures for the movie rights. They hired legendary screenwriter William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Stepford Wives, All the President’s Men) to adapt the book but were unhappy when Goldman turned in a script that lacked Wolfe’s cynical edge and focused entirely on the astronauts, cutting Yeager out. (Goldman was despondent about the state of the US in the wake of the Iran hostage crisis and wanted to write something patriotic. He ended up working on a project about the hostages financed by future independent presidential candidate Ross Perot that never got made). Next, Chartoff and Winkler tried to interest the irreverent director Michael Ritchie (The Candidate, Smile, The Bad News Bears) as a counterpoint to Goldman’s red, white, and blue script. After Ritchie fell through, they tried to bring on their Rocky director, John G. Avildsen, but he also eventually passed on the project. When they approached Philip Kaufman, the director was thrilled to take over, but only if Goldman or Wolfe would rewrite the script. When his pal Goldman quit the project, and Wolfe showed no interest in screenwriting, Kaufman dashed off his own screenplay, following the epic book’s structure as much as possible, using as much of the author's dialogue as he could, devoting a great deal of time to the astronauts’ wives, and keeping Yeager as the spiritual touchstone that impacts every other character. With impressive command of tone and nuance, Kaufman’s script captures the balance of cynicism and admiration the book has about its subject.

Kaufman is an interesting character in film history. A Harvard Law dropout, he left his native Chicago and moved to San Francisco, where he became a mailman and counterculture radical, befriending the likes of Henry Miller and Francis Ford Coppola. He made several acclaimed small films before landing his first major Hollywood gig as writer/director of the magnificent Clint Eastwood western The Outlaw Josey Wales in 1976. However, he was fired from that film two weeks into production due to artistic, political, and procedural differences with Eastwood—not to mention the two men’s mutual pursuit of actress Sondra Locke. After firing Kaufman, Clint took over the reins of the film, which led to the Director's Guild passing "the Eastwood Rule," prohibiting an actor or producer from firing a director and then taking on that role themselves. This DGA bylaw is an important union rule that stands today. In 1978, Kaufman directed Invasion of the Body Snatchers from W. D. Richter’s adaptation of Jack Finney’s 1954 novel. Though not a remake by my definition (since it’s based on a novel, not a film), it is widely considered one of the greatest remakes in Hollywood history. Kaufman also contributed "The Lost Ark" to Raiders of the Lost Ark when he was developing that project with George Lucas and hit upon the idea that the Ark of the Covenant would make the ultimate MacGuffin. He had his biggest success with his adaptation of Milan Kundera’s novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being, for which he was nominated for the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar in 1988, and he co-wrote and directed the first ever NC-17-rated feature Henry & June in 1990.

But The Right Stuff is Kaufman's greatest achievement. Looking back on its 40th anniversary this year for a Vulture interview, he jokingly referred to it as "Probably the longest movie ever made without a plot.” Indeed, the film's approach of telling many small stories with many different tones is likely a major factor in why the picture didn’t do well at the box office in the early ‘80s. (Modern viewers weaned on long-form TV dramas will not find The Right Stuff plotless.)

Many critics who loved the movie blamed the national press’s fixation on the fact that John Glenn, one of the seven Mercury astronauts, was then the senior Democratic senator of Ohio and considering a run for president. As the picture was about to be released, Newsweek ran a cover story with the text, "Can a Movie Help Make a President?” emblazoned over a close-up of Ed Harris, who plays Glenn in the film. It was assumed that many Americans resented the idea that a popular movie was being used to boost a candidate for office. This assumption may be based on fact, as reps for Warner Bros., which was distributing the film, did polling at theaters in different parts of the country. Folks in red states considered the film propaganda; folks in blue states viewed it like homework. Wolfe tells a story about pollsters speaking with people coming out of The Big Chill, which was released a couple of weeks prior to The Right Stuff and still doing great business.  When asked why they chose to see The Big Chill (sometimes for a second time) instead of The Right Stuff many said something akin to, “Oh we’ll see The Right Stuff for sure, ‘cuz we know it’s important for understanding the upcoming election, but tonight we just wanted to watch something entertaining.”

Kaufman also blamed the studio for bungling the marketing of the movie, saying, “We've got a picture with all these sexy young guys riding horses, flying planes, driving around in convertibles with leather jackets and sunglasses, and these idiots have commercials and posters with seven stiffs in puffy space suits and helmets on their heads, obscuring their faces!” The film boasts an impressive cast, all of whom would go on to spectacular careers. In addition to Ed Harris as John Glenn, we get Dennis Quaid as "Gordo" Cooper, Scott Glenn as Alan Shepard, Fred Ward as "Gus" Grissom, Scott Paulin as "Deke" Slayton, Charles Frank as Scott Carpenter, and Lance Henriksen as "Wally" Schirra.

Ed Harris was a virtual unknown at this point. His prior film roles were a lead in the little-seen George Romero picture Knightriders (1981) and a tiny role in Romero’s hit anthology film Creepshow (1982). Looking back now on his career of playing hard men, cops, and Navy Seals, it’s perhaps surprising that the role that made him a star, the squeaky-clean John Glenn, was so opposite to the screen persona he became known for. Dennis Quaid had been one of the breakout stars of the coming-of-age drama Breaking Away (1979), an Oscar-winning surprise hit, but the ultra-confident young star had yet to capitalize on his visibility in Hollywood. Like every other young American actor, he was up for a part in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Outsiders, but rather than wait for Coppola to make up his mind on who would play those coveted roles, he jumped at the chance to play Gordo. The part led to Quaid becoming one of the biggest stars of the mid-‘80s and ‘90s.

Scott Glenn had spent eight years in Los Angeles doing TV stints and playing small roles for the likes of Francis Coppola, George Lucas, Jonathan Demme, and Robert Altman. In 1980, he scored a major success playing John Travolta’s rival for Debra Winger’s affection in James Bridges’ runaway hit Urban Cowboy. Fred Ward had actually been in the Air Force, as well as working as a boxer and a lumberjack before he started acting. His first major role was as one of Clint Eastwood’s fellow prison-breakers in Escape from Alcatraz (1979). His first starring role was in the goofy sci-fi western Timerider: The Adventure of Lyle Swann (1982). In addition to The Right Stuff, he had memorable turns in both Silkwood and Uncommon Valor in 1983. Though Ward (who died in 2022) never became a traditional leading man, he remained an A-list actor for the rest of his life. 

Playing the wives are Veronica Cartwright as Betty Grissom, Pamela Reed as Trudy Cooper, Kathy Baker as Louise Shepard, and Mary Jo Deschanel as Annie Glenn. Kauffman considered Veronica Cartwright his good-luck charm after the success of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. She had also worked with such heavy-hitting directors as William Wyler, Alfred Hitchcock, Delmer Daves, Jack Nicholson, and Ridley Scott. While her star shined the brightest in the ‘70s and ‘80s, she’s never stopped working in movies. Pamela Reed had won an Obie Award in 1984 for "sustaining excellence in performance in theater" and made the successful transition to movies in 1980 with The Long Riders and Melvin and Howard. Her career peaked in 1990, with lead roles opposite Robin Williams in Cadillac Man and Arnold Schwarzenegger in Kindergarten Cop, but she also continues to appear in films to this day.

Mary Jo Deschanel, married to The Right Stuff cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, made her big screen debut portraying Annie Glenn. She would go on to supporting roles in 2010: The Year We Make Contact, The Patriot, and other films, as well as in David Lynch and Mark Frost’s groundbreaking TV series Twin Peaks. Kathy Baker made her acting debut in The Right Stuff and went on to acclaimed roles in Street Smart, Edward Scissorhands, The Cider House Rules, Cold Mountain, and Take Shelter, as well as winning three Emmys, a Golden Globe, and the Screen Actors Guild Award for her work in the CBS drama Picket Fences.

On top of that main cast, Jeff Goldblum and Harry Shearer contribute amazing and unexpected supporting turns as NASA recruiters, making a mismatched comic duo. Donald Moffat supplies an over-the-top take on LBJ. Scott Beach plays the German head scientist at NASA (based loosely but oh-so-clearly on Wernher von Braun). And the great Levon Helm plays US Air Force mechanic Jack Ridley. Helm, the iconic drummer and one of the three lead vocalists for The Band, had stepped into a side career as an actor playing Loretta Lynn's daddy in Coal Miner's Daughter three years prior. Casting him as Chuck Yeager's buddy and the narrator of the movie's introduction and conclusion was quite possibly the most inspired casting choice in a movie packed with inspired casting choices.

Just as the picture masters its odd blend of genres and tones, the casting represents both the Hollywood ideal of discovering young, relatively unknown actors who will soon become movie stars and outside-the-box choices stemming from Kaufman’s years in the San Francisco counterculture. To capture how Wolfe described the press in the book as being like boll weevils, Kaufman hired the five-man, San Francisco-based Commedia dell'arte troupe Fratelli Bologna (or the Bologna Brothers) to embody the press corps in every scene involving a pack of journalists. Without speaking a single line of dialogue, these actors add a level of comical chaos to every press conference. Sound designers Mark Berger, Tom Scott, Randy Thom, David MacMillan, and mixer Jay Boekelheide added the element of locust hordes into the mix whenever the press is on screen. These sound FX were not the subtle audio enhancements that won them the Oscar—that was their clever mixing of animal noises into the sounds of the rockets firing. The locust sound was an audible cue, letting the characters and the audience know that the press was about to rush in and make life difficult.

One of the reasons this lengthy film never feels long is that every role is impeccably cast and inventively integrated into the story.  No extended sequence or small storyline ever feels repetitive or even expected. A key example is the wonderful sequence (one of many poorly copied in the 1988 blockbuster Armageddon) of the astronauts undergoing the initial series of physical and mental tests in a hospital. Cincinnati Bengals offensive tackle Anthony Muñoz plays the hospital orderly, Gonzales, who sets Alan Shepard straight in a scene that humorously but pointedly exposes the casual racism in the military and the popular culture of the era. And administering all these tests is the hilarious Jane Dornacker, as Nurse Murch. Dornacker was a member of the San Francisco rock band The Tubes who was also a dancer, stand-up comedian, and traffic reporter. (Dornacker was killed in a helicopter crash while giving a traffic report just three years after shooting this movie.)

Due to the book’s popularity and the film's high profile, the cast fell easily into place. Everyone wanted to be in this film, and casting legend Lynn Stalmaster was able to assemble the ensemble quickly. But the one major role that seemed like it might be difficult was Yeager. While writing the script, Kaufman felt the only choice was Sam Shepard, the rugged, soft-spoken, hyper-masculine avant-garde playwright of True West, Curse of the Starving Class, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Buried Child. Chartoff and Winkler were dubious about Shepard’s abilities as an actor for such a key role. He had played lead parts in three major films, Days of HeavenRaggedy Man, and Frances, but the producers felt he was more of a presence in those films rather than a thespian. Upon hearing this, Kaufman reportedly went home and rewrote the shooting script, cutting 70 percent of Yeager’s lines. It satisfied the producers and benefitted the movie. Yeager looms like a shadow over every character in this picture, and his sparse dialog only enhances his mystique. To this day, the legacy and influence of the real Chuck Yeager hangs over the military, over NASA, over the billionaires attempting to create a commercial space flight industry, and seemingly over all people who go into aviation.

Once Shepard was cast, the producers turned to what they thought would be the simpler task of finding someone of equal weight to play Yeager’s wife Glennis. They saw hundreds of actresses, but not one seemed an ideal fit with Shepard or embodied the qualities of the devoted woman Yeager had been with since they were both eighteen. Just days before shooting was to commence, Barbara Hershey wrapped work on The Entity and became available. The young actress, who had been kicking around Hollywood for decades doing TV parts and leads in exploitation pictures like The Baby Maker, Boxcar Bertha, and Last Summer, had just transitioned to more serious roles in 1980 with Richard Rush’s The Stunt Man. The filmmakers made a deal with Hershey without a screen test, and she was shooting the key opening scenes of The Right Stuff within days. It was serendipitous. Hershey followed Glennis with a trifecta of acclaimed roles in The Natural, Hannah and Her Sisters, and Hoosiers.

While the story literally plays out all around the world, the production was limited to locations in San Francisco and Edwards Air Force Base in the Antelope Valley of California's Mojave Desert. Edwards was the home of the Air Force Test Center, Air Force Test Pilot School, and NASA's Armstrong Flight Research Center. It was the actual place where Chuck Yeager first broke the sound barrier and later where the Space Shuttle made its first landings. While depicted as a rather bleak area in the movie, for the cast and crew, Edwards was a thrilling location for the film company. Production Designers Geoffrey Kirkland and Gene Rudolf recreated The Happy Bottom Riding Club, the local watering hole that had been in existence from 1935 till it burned down in 1953. Also known as Rancho Oro Verde Fly-Inn Dude Ranch, this was a restaurant, hotel, and club operated by aviator Florence "Pancho" Barnes (wonderfully played by Kim Stanley in the film).  A similar “Panchos bar” was created for the cast and crew to hang out and get to know each other. Early on in the shoot, the full company, as well as Chuck Yeager, who served as a technical advisor and has a cameo in the film, and the Aboriginal Australians brought there to shoot a scene meant to take place in the outback, were all staying together in this desert location. By all accounts, it was a fantastic way to start production on a movie, and the spirit of camaraderie formed there carried on for the duration of the shooting.

The Right Stuff takes a few important liberties with the facts, which serve the story well. Each main astronaut character represents a specific type of mid-20th-century American male. Yeager is the quiet, stoic, capable cowboy. Cooper is the cocky high school football star hotdog. Glenn is the pious, clean-cut, camera-ready politician. Grissom is the plainspoken, blue-collar workingman. Slayton is the beta male who has the back of each member of his team at different key stages. How exact these depictions are to the actual men is not all that important; this is not a documentary. In fact, one of the things that make The Right Stuff so unique (especially for an ‘80s movie) is how irreverent it is. It never stops pointing out that these are manufactured "heroes” whose images and life stories were created by the American PR machine but that they were smart enough to harness the small amount of power that this myth-making publicity gave them. The US government needed men in space in order for the public to support the massive amount of tax dollars that would be spent on beating the Russians into space. So, those men who would go to space knew they had enough leverage to get some of the things they most wanted. "No bucks, No Buck Rogers!”