The new cut of “The Outsiders” aptly entitled “The Complete Novel” expands what existed before to such a degree that the framework of the novel is restored, so readers and fans of the book won’t be entirely disheartened to find certain scenes left out. And what is left out is placed elsewhere on this double-disc set which notes a lot about this new release, namely the skill and dedication of Francis Ford Coppola’s company, American Zoetrope, which unfailingly uses the DVD format to such a great advantage in unprecedented ways, especially in digging into Coppola’s archives which are of aged video quality, but invaluable as a wide-reaching journey into the making of what will now be and should be considered a small classic because what once was thought of as excess has now been thrown away.
The joy of Coppola’s works is all that is going on in his camera’s frame, depending of course on how much power he wields on the set. “The Outsiders”, in its story of the ongoing fight between the Greasers and the richer, well-to-do Socs, has so much going on not only with its characters, but what the frame contains outside of a character’s viewpoint. Ponyboy Curtis (C. Thomas Howell) is the main beacon here, living in the dumpy part of Tulsa while the Socs, led by Bob Sheldon (Leif Garrett), have their Mustangs and their clothing without personality. Living around Ponyboy are his brothers, Darrell (Patrick Swayze) and Sodapop (Rob Lowe). Darrell was forced to assume the head role of the family after their parents were killed in an unpleasant car accident (filmed in typical Coppola-style, in a dream sequence where the image becomes uncomfortably inverted as the train crunches further into the car), and he does his damndest to keep it all together, lest Ponyboy and Sodapop are put into a boy’s home. In their lives are also the other Greasers, populated by actors who, even in some of their small amounts of screen time, give proper characterization to what the Greasers are about. They’re only tough when they need to be, against the Socs, who constantly drive around in their Mustangs, looking to upheave them further, engaging them in rumbles whenever possible and hassling ones who walk alone, such as Ponyboy at the beginning, walking home from the movie theater. However, they are together because they need to be, as evidenced in their lifestyles.
The Curtises have each other. Dallas Winston (Matt Dillon), the head of the Greasers, looks tough, and acts tough, but clearly sees Johnny Cade (Ralph Macchio) as the innocence he doesn’t have, so much so that Cade affects him to such an extent late in the movie. Speaking of Johnny, he doesn’t have a home life, being a Greaser because it’s all he has. His parents constantly fight and he sadly says that it’s not the same being with the Greasers as it would be having parents who actually love him. Two-Bit (Emilio Estevez) is the jokester of the group, drunkenly and happily cavorting about the drive-in movie theater, where Ponyboy and Johnny spend time with two Soc girls, Cherry Valance (Diane Lane) and Marcia (Michelle Meyrink). Steve Randle (Tom Cruise) works with Sodapop at the local gas station, and is more than happy to show off gymnastics in front of the group. They all make their own kind of family, necessary in their barren lives.
Within this time allotted to all these characters, Coppola tries out some fancy-schmancy stylistic exercises while Ponyboy and Johnny are put into situations impossible for their young ages. After blood invades the fountain where the Socs are drowning Ponyboy, he finds out that Johnny killed Bob. Here, Coppola not only has the camera fix its upside-down angle when Ponyboy comes to, but also uses a split-diopter, keeping Johnny’s panic in full attention while Bob’s body is in focus as well. The boys are told by Dallas to head to Windrixville and the abandoned church on top of Jay Mountain until the news of the murder blows over. In one of the moments at the church, Coppola allows a beautiful sunset to invade our vision before switching over to the idealistic sunset set forth by rear-screen projection, while Johnny and Ponyboy observe the sunset and Ponyboy talks about a Robert Frost poem.
There was never any time before this when I saw the original version of “The Outsiders”, but from Coppola’s disappointing commentary where he starts repeating himself halfway through, it appears there wasn’t much to miss. But from what can be gathered by his talk about where the original film began, where it ended and what it didn’t have, this new version of “The Outsiders” takes nothing away from the original, but adds to what’s already there. Truly these were actors just starting out. Diane Lane looks stunning, making more of an effort than she does in some of her movies today. Ralph Macchio, before he became Daniel LaRusso a.k.a., another Rocky Balboa, can’t do some scenes in this movie, but there are others where he is quiet and poignant, just the right combination for a character that’s been beaten down enough by life.
Thus, “The Outsiders” can be considered in a number of ways. It’s first a way to see how some of the actors of today, including Matt Dillon, Tom Cruise, Patrick Swayze, Rob Lowe, started their years all the way back then. Secondly, it’s good for Coppola scholars to see the stylistic ways in which their master uses the camera and the many other effects afforded him. Third, it works in an unassuming manner, fully encapsulating the story of this gang who may be against the Socs for matters of survival, but it’s nothing like “Romeo & Juliet” or “West Side Story” where two sides are against each other because one’s bothered the other to such an extent where blood must be shed. The Socs bother the Greasers because with having everything in their life, they have to find something to do. So what better way to spend your days than grounding your heel in the faces of those less fortunate than you? For the Greasers, it’s about keeping their side separate from what Ponyboy perceives to be “white trash with Mustangs to match”. Whether these two sides could actually blend together has a tiny promise when the new head of the Socs talks with Ponyboy, but the ending says otherwise. Social mores take over the brains of those following them. Individual thought cannot be condoned in the confines of a group.
There is a “fourth” and that is this new DVD set which Warner Bros. merely had the good fortune to release. Letting Coppola re-jigger the film and pour his American Zoetrope and Zoetrope Aubry Production labels all over the DVDs nearly guarantees quality with slight exceptions. The most anticipated part of this kind of set is a commentary by Coppola. Remembering commentaries on the “Godfather” movies as well as “The Conversation”, there is an expectation that this track will also be rich in detail, making us feel as if we are on the set that Coppola once occupied. Don’t bet on it.
Fortunately, Coppola nearly sidesteps the pits in which other directors fall, in explaining action that’s happening on-screen. When he touches upon the characters appearing on the screen, he goes through the entire arc of each one, which seems to us to be a sign that he’ll use the time later to go through his techniques on “The Outsiders”, the act of putting this new version together, looking through all the old footage and deciding what he wanted, and suggesting this new version to the studio. He gives enough time to the technical details of his movies, as well as explaining his reasons for replacing his father’s score with rock-and-roll music, and talking about where the actors came from, but he falls into that exact pit that the name Coppola seems invincible from. Then he starts repeating himself and as the action happens on screen, he explains it, and it does not enrich what’s happening.
The second commentary by C. Thomas Howell, Diane Lane, Patrick Swayze, Ralph Macchio, Rob Lowe, and Matt Dillon (the latter two recorded separately but spliced in so perfectly it seems like they’ve been sitting on those couches in Coppola’s screening room the entire time) fares a whole lot better. They recall where they auditioned, when they were cast, what the experience was like on the set along with the most fascinating story, how the movie was shot entirely on video 3-4 weeks before production officially began in all the locations used. Through all the lively conversation which ceases only for a few seconds at a time, it’s a perfect segue into the second disc and the reason why the DVD format exists.
Naturally, DVDs are here to provide clear picture and sound, presenting what VHS couldn’t. But a DVD without extra features is simply the disc version of a VHS tape. Sometimes that’s good in the case of beloved movies where we don’t care if the DVD doesn’t have nothing, but this second disc shows why we have the DVD format. It’s the possibility to dig into the archives and mind of a director, either through commentary or documentaries. In the case of Coppola’s Zoetrope partner, Kim Aubry, her access to Coppola’s archives is staggering. In the main documentary, “Staying Gold: A Look Back at the Outsiders”, we are treated to a few of the scenes of that video version of “The Outsiders”. The actors explain what happened all that time before shooting, such as Coppola’s insistence that Macchio, Howell, and Swayze actually live together in what was anointed the “Curtis House”. There are copious amounts of on-set footage to be had, some parts showing scenes as they are being shot, not the itty-bitty nothings some other DVDs usually give us, just watching the scene for a few seconds after a director puts the scene to work. It’s a credit also to editor Serena Warner for putting all this together in such a way that makes this DVD feel like a comfortable, enlightening journey and also to director of photographer Eli Adler in the most attractive sequence of this documentary, a visit to the Coppola home, where C. Thomas Howell, Diane Lane, Patrick Swayze, and Ralph Macchio arrive to hash over old memories with Coppola and view the new cut. We see the view from outside, his kitchen, his dining room, and his screening room. It’s mesmerizing not simply because he’s Coppola, but because of this unprecedented access. It’s high quality too.
The first thought toward the “S.E. Hinton on Location in Tulsa” featurette might be that this is archival footage shot of Hinton when she was on set during the making of “The Outsiders”, acting as Rob Lowe puts it, “den mother, sister, and confidante” to the boys on the set. Instead, she was actually filmed in modern-day Tulsa, and points out the locations that were used in The Outsiders and what they look like today. Also on this outstanding disc is the casting for “The Outsiders” including footage of Kate Capshaw and Adam Baldwin, and even Anthony Michael Hall auditioning for a part before he would get involved in teen years in a different way. A number of the actors also read from different parts of the book; an NBC News Today segment profiles the librarian and students who petitioned Coppola to make “The Outsiders” and additional scenes are here for you to determine if the movie would have benefit from these also being in the movie. The opening is especially debatable.
A 1983 theatrical trailer rounds out this perfect look at everything that went on before, during, and after the making of this movie. Director’s cuts are sometimes suspect in today’s DVD market, but “The Outsiders: The Complete Novel” benefits from Coppola’s new touches not only as a new vision, but as a DVD that literally gives all it has. He doesn’t contribute a great amount in his commentary, but certainly gives a lot in other ways.