LUCK CAST AND CREW
Director: Michael Mann
Episode 2 Review of HBO’s Luck
Episode 1 of Luck ended with Chester (Ace) Bernstein telling his driver Gus “I don’t trust anyone, not even myself.”
In episode two, the pace quickens as several simultaneous plots pick up steam and begin to intersect. Episode 2 of Luck opens with Bernstein having to pass inspection for his parole officer. This scene is like so many in this series—the camera shots tell more than the words.
Bernstein sees a picture of Malcolm X on the wall of the African-American Parole Officer’s office. The parole officer sees Bernstein looking at it. Something passes between them. A bond of some kind is formed, though on the surface nothing is said.
Later, when the parole officer accompanies Bernstein to the john to have him pee in a bottle, he turns the water on for Bernstein because he is having difficulty starting.
“I have difficulty (peeing) if someone is watching,” Bernstein says.
“What’d you do inside? [the joint]”
“People made adjustments,” Bernstein says.
Some guys need to hear the sound of water to get started. The point is, the parole officer has compassion for Bernstein. It is a scene that tells a lot about the kinds of human transactions taking place in Luck.
Leave nothing to chance is the tagline. Bernstein is not on drugs, so he will pass the pee test, but he is knee deep in dirty business already, and he has to have the parole officer on his side. The parole officer needs to bust Bernstein if anything illegal is happening, but for the moment, they are allies of a sort.
HBO’s Luck and The Sopranos
People have compared Luck to The Sopranos—I say yes, but not in an overt manner—only in way manners are at the heart of the action. The Sopranos relied on family dynamics, a business code and overt violence. Luck is setting up a different dramatic flow–how losers and winners are both con men sharing a common space. Luck is the space in between.
It is all about planning and manners. Sopranos was about “family” and the code of order among criminals. At its core, The Sopranos was a HR story–when you got made, it basically meant you got a promotion.
There will be violence in Luck, but not just yet. Right now, Bernstein’s driver is only considering a “hypothetic” revenge against those who crossed his boss, in his words.
In Luck, Ace is reconnecting with the mob, sorting out what is real and how he fits back in. In a scene where Bernstein pitches a new casino, the air is filled with the tension of a debt not yet repaid.
“Mike sends his best,” is what Bernstein hears, but he knows “the best” is probably not a good thing.
In the first episode, the pick six crew were riding high based on a $2,700,000 win. In this episode, each of the newly bankrolled losers are rapidly spiraling back to earth. Jerry is losing his shirt at a casino. Lonnie shows up in a new suit, “putting on airs,” and gets jumped by two women who beat up him for bailing on an insurance scam they all had previously planned. Another one of the pick six crew wants to go legit and become a horse owner, but is unsuccessful. The ringleader, the acerbic, wheelchair bound Marcus, is bitter and unable to find any joy because to announce his newfound fortune is a betrayal of the code that he is bound by.
The scenes with Jerry are all about manners. He is playing at higher limit tables, losing and getting increasingly baited by the player across from him. Questions hang in the air about where his new money came from (he mentions a recently deceased aunt; a lie no one believes). The drama is about why he is still gambling. Why is he there? What we find out about the casino scenes between Jerry and the guy he is playing is that it isn’t who is ahead along the way; it is who is ahead at the end. Everything up to that point is window dressing. This is how a bettor needs to think to survive.
One trainer, Walter Smith (Nick Nolte) is trying to avenge the morbid, insurance-driven death of a horse he used to train by turning the horse’s sire into a champion. On the other side of the coin, the shady trainer, Toro Escalante, is using a whole series of decoys to set up odds and mislead bettors to enrich himself.
The action in Luck is in the setups, the head fakes, the cons, and yes, the luck each person is manipulating.
The second episode ends on a simultaneously hopeful and ominous note.
“Please tell me I didn’t let you down,” Gus says to Ace.
“I wouldn’t bullshit you,” Ace said.
“Then let’s go get these cocksuckers,” Gus says.
HBO’s Luck is Based on the Short Story, Leading in Luck, by William Faulkner
“My wife’s father was a “degenerate” [a nickname for a regular gambler], and my wife went to the track with him when she was 6 years old. My wife has told me everything I have to know about the track, because as a child, she’d learn it from her father. When my wife was 5 or 6 years old, she went out to Santa Anita every day with him, and she held a piece of paper and she would look at her dad and say, “See that horse? Write down KS,” and she knew that stood for “kidney sweat” [a sign of a nervous or sick horse], and that was her job for about three years.
At first glance, William Faulkner seems an odd choice for a modern day series about the world of LA horse racing. What does a southern writer born in 1897 in Oxford, Mississippi know about LaLa land and the intricate waters of training, riding and betting on horses? Hell, even the people who are supposed to know the horse business are wrong most of the time. The fact that acclaimed writer David Milch (Deadwood, NYPD Blue) is the creative writing force behind Luck helps to connect the dots. Taking a closer look at “Leading in Luck,” also sheds light on why Faulkner’s unique moral vision is a good lens for the simultaneously degenerate and hopeful world Luck encompasses. After all, they don’t call it southern California for nothing.
I live in Chicago now, but LaLa land is where I was raised. Back then, LA was a place where anything was possible, a penny arcade dreamland, where my mom, dad and half-brother Will arrived in 1955. We landed in LA in a busted up station wagon from Florida so the old man could escape the FBI. Harry, aka Bud, aka Jack Ray Maddux, aka Guy Tamburo, aka James Saint James, was dodging the feds for faking a railroad injury in Florida. So much for get rich quick schemes. We aimed for a fresh start in LA, where mom and dad spent many vodka soaked afternoons losing their shirts at Hollywood Park.
Like millions of others, our family came west to chase the American dream, and for a while we had it going on. The old man broke the one-month record for selling Shick razors. My artistic, blond bombshell mother went to acting auditions. I remember once she landed a role on a pilot game show as an up and coming singer/actress. Back then a young actress could do this. You could chase your dreams in between beach parties and sand filled movie magazines. This was a more innocent time in Hollywood, when LA was a place where nobodies could still be somebody.
Nowadays in Hollywood, it has gotten so competitive, it seems like you have to be a somebody just to be a nobody.
This was back in the day when game shows like “I’ve Got a Secret” featured nameless “stars” like Bill Cullen and Gary Moore smoking Winstons and making semi clever banter, and no one thought the worst of them for it.
As a young boy, I remember wandering away from our hocked up house in North Hollywood, getting lost. I literally did not know where I was, but I ended up on a back end street somewhere where a crew was filming scenes for the old TV series, The Fugitive, which starred David Janssen (see left). I was lost but felt no hurry to get home. I hung out around the production food truck, probably ate a donut, watching for a glimpse of the “stars.” At some point I told somebody that I was lost and the cops took me home. Back then, a young 10-year-old kid could get lost and turn it into an adventure. Nowadays, I probably would have ended up in some pervert’s trunk somewhere. Ironically, years later they filmed the remake of The Fugitive in Chicago.
Leading in Luck Faulkner’s First Published Story
Leading in Luck was Faulkner’s first published short story, and like my childhood adventure on the set of The Fugitive, the story takes you into places you don’t expect. I have always been leery of Faulkner as a writer, as my fiction tastes run more towards Hubert Selby, ala Last Exit To Brooklyn, rather than The Sound and The Fury.
But there is a reason David Milch chose Leading in Luck as the basis for this TV show. (Note: Milch is signed to exclusive HBO contract to develop other TV properties based on Faulkner stories.)
Leading in Luck introduces you to Cadet Thompson, a young military trainee who is trying to pass his first flight test, so he can fly solo. The story revolves around the relationship between Thompson and a gruff, cigarette smoking instructor named Bessing. The story begins with Bessing dressing down Thompson for taking so long to learn how to fly on his own.
The story starts off so conventional and straightforward—not what you expect from the author of lofty works like Absalom, Absalom!, As I Lay Dying, etc. You almost get the feeling the young author was dumbing the story down just to get published, sort of Readers Digesting-it, or Norman Rockwelling-it, you might say.
A man’s moral conscience is the curse he had to accept from the gods in order to gain from them the right to dream. William Faulkner
But then the story then takes a turn that explains its connection to Luck. Bessing send young Cadet Thompson up in the air for his first solo run.
I have found that the greatest help in meeting any problem is to know where you yourself stand. That is, to have in words what you believe and are acting from. William Faulkner
Thompson very nearly fails as a faulty take-off results in his plane hitting a cable that then causes the plane’s landing wheels to break off. Then Thompson is literally left to die in the air. Unless he can pull off a miracle landing, he will run out of gas and come to a crashing death.
This is a metaphor for Santa Anita, where dreams of a triumphant solo flight and the reality of losing walk hand in hand from the stable to the winner’s circle every day. Like gamblers betting on horses at the track, Cadet Thompson is trusting fate—and luck—to somehow land him safely on the ground. If he lands successfully, he will prove the instructor wrong and emerge a hero. If he crashes, he is a disgraced fool. And a dead fool to boot.
I remember another day, a few years later, when we were driving home from Longacres race track in Washington State. My younger brother and sister and I went up to Washington from Venice Beach, where my mother stayed behind to pursue acting dreams and the anti-war movement. Will stayed back in California as well, hiding out in a beaded shack behind the main house, smoking pot and listening to the Beach Boys.
Me, my younger brother Bud, and my sister Mary from California went from the acid fueled action of Venice Beach to the snow covered, rotten egg smelling town of Tacoma, Washington to live with my dad. We were fine with it, since it was another adventure and dad was fun. He got us guitars and pinball machines and banana seat stingray bikes. He was now selling guitars and drums door to door for 1 cash payment and 48 month financing to parents who believed their child should have the gift of music as part of their contribution to the American dream.
I remember it rained all the time in Tacoma and many days I shot hoops by myself on a blacktop court down the street while the old man drank cheap wine by day and hit the card parlors in Seattle by night. I went with him some nights and saw what the world of gambling was about.
But on that day when we were driving home from the race track, I was fifteen. I was driving his wide, grey battleship Olds 78 up a winding Tacoma road where we lived with dad’s pinochle playing buddies, Snook and Alice. We almost made it. Dad was passed out beside me in the passenger seat, and Bud and Mary were in the back seat. I remember seeing the red cherry top lights on the cop car as it pulled me over, and futilely trying to rouse the old man so we could “switch places.”
The cops arrested the old man, and took the three of us kids to a juvenile facility—one of the greatest places on earth—while dad went off to the tank to sober up. Juvie was a blast. I remember playing basketball with the other juvie kids, hanging out, feeling like home. It felt like we were away at camp.
Back to Landing in Luck—at one point, the young Thompson thinks he had cleared the cable, and it is only when he sees other planes frantically waving at him that he realizes he has lost his landing gear and he is heading to the ground, quite literally “a wounded duck.”
And it here that Faulkner’s story arc changes. Down on the ground, Bessing is called on the carpet by his commanding officer for possibly letting the young cadet take on flying solo too soon.
As the gasless planes spirals to the ground Bessing mutters, “If he only remembers to land on his left wing—the fool, oh the blind, bounding fool!”
Up in the air, Thompson is panicking, barely conscious, and “his fate was in the laps of the gods.”
Bessing was the first to reach him.
“Lord, Lord!” he was near weeping from nervous tension. “Are you alright?” Never expected you’d come through, never expected it! Didn’t think to see you alive! Don’t let anyone else say you can’t fly. Coming out of that was a trick many an old flyer couldn’t do! I say, are you alright?”
Hanging face downward from the cockpit, Cadet Thompson looked at Bessing, surprised at the words of this cold, short tempered officer. He forgot the days of tribulation and insult in this man’s company, and his recent experience, and his eyes filled with utter adoration. Then he became violently ill.
And then Landing in Luck ends with a scene of real (or imagined?) triumph, where Faulkner’s southern gift for shifting the moral compass emerges. Speaking to his fellow cadets of his heroic, miraculous landing, Thompson tells his fellow cadets how he had “planned” his downward landing all along.
The cadets are not buying it, save one maybe.
“Say, spoke one, a cadet but recently enrolled and still in ground school. D’you think he really did all that? He must be pretty good.”
“That guy? That guy fly? He’s so rotten they can’t discharge him. Every time he goes up there they have to get a gun and shoot him down. He’s the F out of flying. Biggest liar in R.A.F.”
And so, like the characters in Luck, the characters in Landing in Luck walk a fine line of reality and delusion, where it is hard to tell what is real and what is a pipe dream. In the end, as Bessing and Thomson walk off arm in arm, the reader is left to consider whether they have truly accomplished a miraculous landing, or if it is a con to save both of their reputations.
I remember one night a bunch of us juvie brats were all hanging around doing nothing and somebody asked me what me and my brother and sister were “in for.” I knew, even though I had never been in juvie before, that this was a critical question. It would not be enough to say I was simply driving my old man home from the track because he was drunk. That would be a pussy reason to be in juvie. That wasn’t exactly true anyway. I wanted to drive my old man’s car. But I needed something bigger to tell the other juvie kids. Something that showed I belonged. So I told them we were “in for” stealing a car, which was a lie. I once started up a tourist tram on Venice Beach and accidentally rammed it into a bench, but that could hardly be called stealing a car.
So I lied to the juvie kids. But it could have been the truth. We were in the juvenile detention facility in Tacoma, Washington, and the house where we eventually went back to was all wined up and dark and cramped and hardly seemed real at all. It took the old man two and a half days to come and get us out, and by then I knew if I was going to survive, I needed to build my reputation. So I told them we were “in for” stealing the old man’s car.
David Milch on HBO’s Luck
Says Milch: “I’m delighted to expand my longstanding relationship with HBO to encompass the adaptation of some of the most important literary works by any American writer into television films and series. As we embark on this ambitious project, our first commitment is to serve the material, and we look forward to identifying and collaborating with the best screenwriters and filmmakers to help each of the pieces find its ideal form onscreen.”
Milch brings first hand knowledge of the racing industry to table. As an owner and bettor, Milch comes from a racing family. Milch’s father owned horses at Sarasota Race Track, and as a young boy Milch got an inside view of the world there. Rumor has it that Filch’s uncles were bookies.
The genesis for Luck started with something called The Main Chance, which has since transformed into Luck.
Asked why he revisited “The Main Chance” five years ago, Milch said: “I figured that as long as I was getting my brains beat in [at the betting windows], I might as well try to make a few bucks in the process.”
Contributing writers for Luck include Jay Hovdey of Daily Racing Form and John Perrotta.
In spite of reported clashes on the set of Luck between David Milch and director Michael Mann, the two creative forces found a truce.
“You had two very strong-willed people, and there’s a lot of ego there,” a production source said.
HBO acknowledges that the two butted heads in the early going, when Mann closed the set while directing the pilot. “There were clashes on the pilot, although never about the content of the show or its vision,” HBO programming president Michael Lombardo said. “However, these two enormous talents, after viewing the pilot together, figured out a way to collaborate and make this work going forward on the series.”
The main conflict revolved around the editing process, which David Milch has previously had domain over in the writing process. In working with Mann, he had to yield ground in this area.
Mann and Milch issued a joint statement saying they are happy with the working arrangement: “We both have the highest admiration for each other’s work. After the pilot was finished and both of us liked what we did, we decided — as two men who have been around for a number of years — we ought to be smart enough to figure out a mechanism that would enable us to work together to our and the series’ benefit. And we did.”