Halls of Anger, 1970, United Artists
Director: Paul Bogart
Writers: John Herman Shaner, Al Ramrus
Stars: Calvin Lockhart, Janet MacLachlan and Jeff Bridges
“Halls Of Anger” was intended as a smash hit for United Artists. It starred Calvin Lockhart as Quincy Davis, yet another Wonder Teacher from that era who achieves the impossible in a biracial setting, this time a Los Angeles High School. Black and white grownups would like it, black and white kids would like it, U.A. would make a fortune, the careers of the cast would be assured and the charismatic, handsome and talented Mr. Lockhart would be the next Sidney Poitier, right? Wrong, never wronger.
From the start, there was extreme hostility on the set and why wouldn’t there be? Whose brilliant idea was it to make the black kids the unmitigated villains of the piece? John Shaner and Al Ramrus received screenwriting credit, but clearly they had a lot of help from the producer Herbert Hirschman and television director Paul Bogart, then 51. Since there had already been movies about black discrimination, why not make one about the discrimination white students face when they’re bussed to a predominantly black high school? Positive black role models? Only a handful are mentioned, including O.J. Simpson. Moreover, white principal Boyd Wilkerson (John McLiam) acts like he’s actually the Warden of San Quentin. Now this already looks like a terrible idea on paper. Imagine how it played out when the mostly unknown cast members realized that making “Halls Of Anger” might be all the careers they would ever have.
In a better movie, James A. Watson’s smoldering portrayal of a black ringleader might have led to stardom and he has, in fact, sustained a lifelong career as a character actor in films and on television. Still, it’s been light years away from the stratospheric career that fellow cast member Jeff Bridges has enjoyed since “Halls Of Anger.” The first question you’re likely to hear about Bridges is, ‘When is he going to win a much-deserved Oscar?” It’s unlikely you’ll hear that about anyone else anyone else connected with “Halls Of Anger.” The young Bridges stands out in the cast, because his focus on his role is like a laser beam. He pours 100% of his energy into making his character believable and it is. The making of “Halls Of Anger” might be a more riveting experience than the film itself. As the star, Calvin Lockhart fought with Paul Bogart constantly and then talked about it to the press. After that, no one talked about him being the next Sidney Poitier anymore. He continued working (you can see him as King Willie in “Predator 2” and as Reginald Sula in David Lynch’s “Wild At Heart,” both released in 1990), but his big chance to have a crossover breakthrough had passed. This was sad both for him and the audience.
Calvin Lockhart could have brought his own unique style to the edgy, contradictory roles which led straight to award-winning stardom for black actors of the nineties. His co-star Janet MacLachlan, too, was an interesting and intelligent presence in theatrical features of the seventies and eighties who never quite received her due as a fine actress, although everyone saw her work certainly realized her the value of her contributions.
When you look at the cast list of a movie like 1982’s “Fast Times At Ridgemont High” and realize that just about everyone went on to bigger and better things, the waste of talent in “Halls Of Anger” is surreal. Besides Jeff Bridges, only Edward Asner and Rob Reiner are household names today. Barry Brown as white student Winger made a few other pictures, including “Daisy Miller” opposite Cybill Shepherd, and killed himself at the age of 27. Dewayne Jesse, Roy Jenson, Ta-Tanisha (of television’s “Room 222”) are among the better known names among the large cast, but they may have deleted “Halls Of Anger” from their resumes’. Director Bogart, who had already made “Marlowe” with James Garner, went on to make a second feature with him, “The Skin Game” (costarring future Oscar-winner Louis Gossett), followed by “Cancel My Reservation” with Bob Hope, “Class Of ’44,” “Oh God, You Devil” with George Burns and “Torch Song Trilogy.” He was clearly an unlikely choice to helm “Halls Of Anger,” but only insomniacs and graveyard shifters will remember that. – M Sullivan