Monday, December 5, 2016

"Diggstown" and "The Idolmaker"

James Woods as a con man.
Diggstown (1992).  "A hustler has to get out of town as quick as he can. A good con man...he doesn't have to leave town until he wants to." Those words of wisdom are uttered by Gabriel Caine (James Woods), who--as you may have guessed--is a pretty good con man. Still, he's made mistakes, such as employing an artist that used acrylic paint on 18th century landscape forgeries. That landed Gabe in a Georgia County prison where he hatches the grand con that comprises Diggstown.

The root of the con is a million-dollar wager with the villainous John Gillon (Bruce Dern) that "Honey" Roy Palmer, a little-known retired boxer, can defeat ten men in the boxing ring in a single day. Gabe and Gillon both work hard to outsmart each other. They bribe people, spy on the competition, and manipulate the rules. It's like a chess game played by two grand masters of the "art of the con." In the end, though, only one of them turns out to be a good con man.

Gossett, Jr. as Honey Roy.
A recent viewing of Diggstown reminded me that James Woods was one of the best actors of the 1980s. He could turn on the charm in lighthearted films like this, while also delivering first-rate dramatic performances in Once Upon a Time in America (1984), Salvador (1986), and My Name Is Bill W. (1989). Of course, Woods gets a great assist in Diggstown from Lou Gossett, Jr., who injects his own subtle brand of humor as "Honey" Roy, who trades barbs with his old pal Gabe.

Woods and Gossett, Jr. are the primary reasons to see Diggstown, although this caper film also has an easygoing appeal in its favor. There is one misstep in the film's tone (an unnecessary death), but the script somehow manages to get back on track before the climax. The ending, which features a nifty little twist, will leave you with a smile on your face.

Ray Sharkey in the title role.
The Idolmaker (1980). This little-known sleeper starred Ray Sharkey, in what should have been a star-making performance, as a hard-working music producer who transforms two young singers into pop music idols in the 1960s. If the story sounds familiar, then that's because The Idolmaker was based on the life of Robert Marcucci, the man behind the success of singers Frankie Avalon and Fabian.

Marcucci gets a credit as "technical advisor," although his imprint is all over this slightly fictionalized biography. Part of the fun is figuring out which character represents what real-life person. Sax player Tommy Dee is obviously based on trumpet player Frankie Avalon. The perfectly-coifed Caesare is Fabian. Magazine writer Brenda Roberts is Rona Barrett and the hard-charging Vincent Vacarri is Marcucci.

Peter Gallagher as Caesare.
I'm a sucker for music biographies set in the rock 'n' roll era, whether fact-based (the excellent Buddy Holly Story) or fictionalized (the underrated Grace of My Heart). The Idolmaker is not as good as either of those movies, but it's still a diverting story about an ingratiating hustler who creates stars because he doesn't think he's got the talent to be one. One of the film's best scenes has Vacarri singing and dancing in the wings, in perfect unison with his pop idol performing on the stage.

Sadly, The Idolmaker didn't open many doors for the talented Ray Sharkey. He battled drug addiction through much of his career and died in 1993 at age 40 from complications due to AIDS. His best post-Idolmaker performance was as gangster Sonny Steelgrave in the excellent first season of the 1987-90 TV series Wiseguy.


  1. Sharkey is so good as Sonny Steelgrave in Wiseguy, that I thought they killed off the wrong character. Even though the show would go on to be entertaining, it was never as good as the opening Steelgrave story.

    1. That was a great story arc and the best one during WISEGUY's run. The Mel Proffit arc was next best and the first time I remember seeing Kevin Spacey.

  2. I was thrilled to see you commented on THE IFOLMAKER, Rick! I love it snd have seen it many times slthough not in a few years. Wonderful performance by Sharkey. WOW - now I want to see it again. I have it on DVD, but in 4:3, which is the only ratio I found it in way back when. Thanks for this!


    1. Sharkey is terrific (and sings pretty well, too). I also love the recreations of the musical performances from the time period.

  3. Sounds like great performances in both films.

    Sad to hear about Ray Sharkey's tragic end.

  4. The Idolmaker is one of my favorites: Ray Sharkey is most definitely missed. Thanks for bringing attention to it, and to James Wood's good work in Diggstown.

  5. And Joe Pantoliano makes an appearance here....and as Bob Keene in LA BAMBA....and as Perry Parker in THE IN CROWD...guess he just had the look of 50s /60s music men...