In an industry where the actors get the limelight, writer and director Quentin Tarantino has become a celebrity in his own right, despite predominantly working behind the camera.
What makes him stand out from other directors are his personal touches: the extensive conversations on pop culture, eclectic soundtracks, the stellar performances he brings out of his actors, and of course, the witty, memorable dialogue.
Tarantino’s films are so renowned that his latest film The Hateful Eight bills itself as “The 8th film by Quentin Tarantino.” This has been a trend with Tarantino films since the Kill Bill movies, and has started a debate among his fans: Is Tarantino’s earliest film, My Best Friend’s Birthday, truly his first film, or does that honour belong to Reservoir Dogs? While these taglines indicate that Reservoir Dogs is definitely “the 1st film,” hardcore Tarantino fans should definitely check out the origin of his filmmaking career.
Filmed between 1984 and 1987, Tarantino made this film with fellow Video Archives employees and friends from acting class whenever he had the funds and time to do so. This situation could be compared to David Lynch’s first film Eraserhead, except Tarantino’s film is unknown and incomplete.
Being an employee at Video Archives at the time, Tarantino was not able to work with a big budget. My Best Friend’s Birthday is the closest Tarantino’s ever come to making a straight comedy film, himself describing it as a “Martin and Lewis kind of thing.”
The plot revolves around Mickey (Craig Hamann) whose girlfriend dumps him on his birthday. His best friend Clarence (Tarantino) decides to hire a hooker named Misty (Crystal Shaw Martell) to show him a good time, and all sorts of shenanigans ensue.
My Best Friend’s Birthday has a gritty black and white look, probably more so because of its low budget of $5,000 than any desired affect. Tarantino’s co-writer and co-star Craig Hamann has since said that they filmed the movie on an “even then ancient 16mm Eclair, using a car battery to power the camera”.
The film was originally 70 minutes long, but allegedly the remainder of the film was destroyed in a fire. However, contrary to legend, Tarantino’s former collaborator Roger Avary claims, “Had we ever finished the film it would have looked something like a sloppy version of She’s Gotta Have It; a miracle considering the budget. Contrary to legend, the rest of the film was not ‘lost in a lab fire’. It was simply never finished due to loss of steam.”
My Best Friend’s Birthday has resurfaced on YouTube at 36 minutes, and shows many of Tarantino’s trademarks, story elements, and pop culture references that made their way into his future films. Below are 9 ways My Best Friend’s Birthday foreshadowed Tarantino’s career.
1. The Protagonists are Named Clarence and Mickey
Before Tarantino became a household name, he needed money to merely get by. Tarantino has written many screenplays over the years, and like any aspiring screenwriter, Tarantino originally wanted to direct these movies himself.
Two such screenplays would later become the ‘90s classics True Romance and Natural Born Killers, but due to his financial circumstances, Tarantino sold his screenplays in order to fund Reservoir Dogs.
What does that have to do with My Best Friend’s Birthday? The two best buddies played by Tarantino and co-writer Craig Hamann are named Clarence Pool and Mickey Burnett. This will seem obvious to Tarantino fans, but Clarence is the name of Christian Slater’s happy-go-lucky Elvis fan in True Romance and Mickey is the name of Woody Harrelson’s mass murdering romantic in Natural Born Killers.
The Clarence and Mickey in My Best Friend’s Birthday aren’t the wackos we know through Tony Scott and Oliver Stone’s respective versions of the characters, but the words that come out of their mouths are pure Tarantino. My Best Friend’s Birthday provides an alternative origin story for these hopelessly romantic men.
2. The Pulp Fiction Poster Replicates a Scene from This Movie
Like True Romance, Pulp Fiction was also influenced by My Best Friend’s Birthday. Misty goes to Mickey’s apartment and waits for him to get ready for their night out on the town. While he’s taking a shower, she strips to just wearing a shirt and panties, and she practices sexy poses to use when Mickey comes back. In one such pose, she lays on her stomach on Mickey’s couch.
Observant viewers will realise that this is the same pose Uma Thurman does on the poster for Pulp Fiction. Clearly, this image of a seductive woman lying down on a bed was thought up by Tarantino long before Pulp Fiction came into fruition.
3. The Protagonists Work at K-Billy Radio
Clarence works at K-Billy radio, where Clarence is talking to the head of the Southern California chapter of the Johnny Cochran fan club.
Besides being a funny scene with a typical Tarantino pop culture rant, it is also a precursor to Reservoir Dogs. K-Billy is the same radio station that plays “the hits of the ‘70s” heard throughout Reservoir Dogs that the gang of thieves reminisce over in the film’s opening diner scene.
4. Clifford is Drexl and Jules as One Character
Many screenwriters out there will be familiar with the term “composite character,” which is when two characters are morphed into one character for the sake of tightening the script. This often happens when adapting a novel into a screenplay.
However, the very opposite thing happened in this case. Clifford (Al Harrell) is an African-American pimp who talks jive and takes no shit, especially when you mess with his girls. Long after My Best Friend’s Birthday was made, Clifford became two separate characters in two very different Tarantino scribed films.
First off is Drexl, the wigga pimp in True Romance played by Gary Oldman. He doesn’t just act and talk like one of the boys from the hood, he genuinely believes he’s black. He’s furious when he learns Alabama decides to bail on him to spend the rest of her life with Clarence, because Drexl beats up his girls when they don’t pay him.
This is the exact same reaction Clifford has when Misty leaves him for Mickey, though in this case it’s because Misty thinks Clifford is “a lousy pimp. He’s a hell of a nice guy, but he’s a lousy pimp.”
On the other hand, Clifford is also an early incarnation of Jules Winnfield in Pulp Fiction, the badass Bible-quoting hitman gloriously played by Samuel L. Jackson.
Everything about Clifford screams Jules: the bad ass attitude, the suit, the thick 1970s style moustache, and of course the jheri curl. Clifford’s most bad ass line: “Your ass is grass, and I’m the lawnmower!” Surely this is something Jules would say.
5. The Influence of Kung Fu Films on Kill Bill
When Mickey and Clifford are fighting over Misty, they get into this ridiculous kung fu fight, intentionally played for laughs. It even makes fun of the stupid bird and crane move Ralph Macchio made famous in The Karate Kid when Clifford tries to it, but Mickey punches Clifford in the face with ease.
Kung Fu films from the 1970s were a huge influence on Tarantino, most obviously in Kill Bill: Volume 1 in the climatic fight scene between Uma Thurman and the Crazy 88. There is absolutely no doubt that same influence inspired the fight over Misty.
6. True Romance’s “I’d Fuck Elvis” Speech
Who could forget the classic opening scene of True Romance where Christian Slater’s Clarence is chatting up with a girl at the bar by ranting about Elvis Presley, how cool he was, and how if he had to have sex with another man, it would be Elvis. There’s a very similar scene in My Best Friend’s Birthday, where Tarantino’s Clarence is buying a birthday cake for Mickey and starts discussing both Elvis’s music and film career.
It’s nearly word for word the same speech that is heard in True Romance, except he’s preaching to Bill, the burly guy at the cake store. Just imagine what he thought of some dude telling him he’d be willing to have sex with The King. Tarantino’s hairdo in this film is basically a 1980s version of Elvis’s famous hairdo.
7. Aldo Raine Reference
Clarence calls Cecilia, the girl he’s seeing, despite her having a boyfriend. Cecilia is on the phone to her psychiatrist, but gets a second call with a phone operator saying that Aldo Ray wants to talk to her.
Hearing the name of a movie star from the 1950s gets her attention, so she takes the call. It is Clarence playing a prank on her, who adds, “Who were you expecting, Aldo Ray?”
Although this is a very brief moment, it is very telling that Tarantino chose Aldo Ray out of all the names he could have picked, as Aldo Raine is the name of Brad Pitt’s character in Inglourious Basterds. Aldo Raine is a combination of Aldo Ray and the character Charles Rane, a war veteran in the 1970s action film Rolling Thunder.
A popular theory is that in the Tarantino Universe, Raine is the great-grandfather of Floyd, the stoner in True Romance, who was also played by Brad Pitt.
8. Extensive Pop Culture Discussions
What makes Quentin Tarantino’s films truly stand out is the distinctive dialogue. Those familiar with his films will immediately recognise this style of witty dialogue and the extensive discussions on pop culture, and My Best Friend’s Birthday is no exception.
When Clarence is interviewing the head of the Johnny Cochran fan club, he states that the day Cochran died, his three-year-old self suddenly felt depressed for no reason and wanted to kill himself. He said he decided to watch an episode of The Partridge Family that cheered him up.
In the aforementioned scene where the original version of the “I’d fuck Elvis” speech appears, Clarence and Bill compare Elvis’s music to the Beatles’ many hits. They argue over whether Elvis was a good actor, with Clarence thinking he was great, whereas Bill thought his acting was “a lost cause.”
Later on, Clarence asks Misty why she became a callgirl. She explains that when she was younger, she had no idea what she wanted to do with her life, until she watched the film Dressed To Kill. After she and Clarence talk about how much they loved that film, Misty says she was specifically inspired by Nancy Allen’s performance as a callgirl in it, and that is what made her decide to pursue that line of work.
9. My Best Friend’s Birthday was the Basis for True Romance and Natural Born Killers
Despite having elements of various future Tarantino movies, My Best Friend’s Birthday is mostly similar to True Romance, because True Romance was based on this film. After he gave up on finishing My Best Friend’s Birthday, Tarantino decided to rewrite his screenplay, which ended up becoming True Romance.
In My Best Friend’s Birthday, Clarence hires a hooker named Misty for his best friend Mickey’s birthday, although Clarence ends up getting together with Misty himself. But in True Romance, Clarence’s boss at the comic book store hires a hooker named Alabama to spend the night with Clarence, and they fall in love. They decide to become a real couple, which pisses off Misty’s pimp Clifford, much like Drexl in True Romance.
Tarantino wanted to film True Romance himself, but did not have the means to do so, so he sold the screenplay to Tony Scott, the director of Hollywood blockbusters such as Top Gun and Beverly Hills Cop II. Tarantino used this money to fund Reservoir Dogs. Scott also wanted to purchase Reservoir Dogs to film as well, but Tarantino said he could only buy one screenplay.
My Best Friend’s Birthday also inspired Natural Born Killers, another action film about a hopelessly in love couple facing violent circumstances. After Tarantino also sold that screenplay, director Oliver Stone rewrote it to make it a dark, psychedelic satire on the media’s glorification of serial killers. Tarantino did not approve of these changes, but he had no say in how that movie was made.
Although Reservoir Dogs is the film that truly started not only Tarantino’s career, but exposed his signature style of filmmaking, it is My Best Friend’s Birthday where Tarantino honed his craft and started his journey.
Originally published here at tasteofcinema.com on Tuesday 8 March 2016