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I Watched the 2003 Rudy Giuliani Movie So You Don’t Have To


The presenters at the 2003 Emmy Awards seem to have spent most of the evening repeating the words “Everybody Loves Raymond,” because your stepdad’s all-time fave sitcom collected 10 nominations and four trophies that year, including “Outstanding Comedy Series,” “Outstanding Supporting Actor,” and “Outstanding Supporting Actress.” 

Supporting Actor-winner Brad Garrett was also nominated for his portrayal of Jackie Gleason in Gleason, CBS’s made-for-TV biopic of the 1950s comedian. Joining him in the “Outstanding Lead Actor in a Miniseries or a Movie” category were eventual winner William H. Macy, Paul Newman, Tom Wilkinson, and James Woods, who got a nod for playing Rudy Guiliani in Rudy: The Rudy Giuliani Story, which the USA Network aired after the Law & Order reruns and before the commercials for compression socks. 

The four makeup artists who turned Woods into Giuliani were also Emmy-nominated for their work—including Matthew Mungle, who was credited with designing “Mr. Woods’ Bald Caps—and if those potential accolades were all you knew about the film, you might assume that it was a better-than-average TV movie. But, as Twitter learned late last week, that was so not the case. Considering the real Giuliani seems to land in headlines weekly for some stunt more ridiculous than the one that came before, the movie is worth revisiting 17 years later. 

Film producer Marie Bardi shared a 71-second clip from Rudy last week, and it quickly racked up more than 2.8 million views. In the painfully awful scene, TV Giuliani walks on a Florida beach with his eventual second wife Donna Hanover (Kindergarten Cop‘s Penelope Ann Miller). “I’m not much of a cuddler,” he volunteers, before aggressively explaining that Sheep Meadow is in Central Park. The moon illuminates his widescreen forehead as he tells her about his heroes, the problems with democrats, and why he changed political parties. Then they share the most clinical onscreen kiss since Dr. Grant gave CPR to the kid who got electrocuted in Jurassic Park

“Surely that’s taken out of context,” you may or may not be saying to yourself. “It can’t all be shit.” Yes, you beautifully stilted literary device, yes it is. Rudy: The Rudy Giuliani Story is currently streaming on Amazon Prime, and I spent 89 excruciating minutes watching it, all in the name of journalism. 

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As a result, I can tell you that in the scenes preceding Rudy and Donna’s slow walk on the sand, he appeared on the Miami news program that she hosted, berated her about the details of US immigration policy, and then asked her to dinner when the cameras stopped rolling. “There are three really important things in my life,” he tells her mid-meal. “The law, the Yankees, and opera.” She asks what happened with his first marriage—yes, the one with his cousin—and then they step carefully onto the sand. 

Forty-five minutes later, he’s sharing glasses of wine and watching VHS tapes of baseball games with his communications director Cristyne Lategano, who he may or may not have had an affair with, depending on who you ask. A couple of awkward transitions later, Donna confronts him, he breaks up with Lategano, he chats up his eventual third wife Judith in a bar, he holds a press conference to announce that his second marriage is over, Judith nurses him through his cancer diagnosis, there’s another 9/11 montage—the entire thing is held together with 9/11 montages—and it’s done. “God, how I love this city,” he says, as the credits mercifully roll. 

Rudy: The Rudy Giuliani Story was released in 2003, and if you only know Rudy as the eternally gurning potato that he’s become—the one who was DTF with Borat’s daughter, who has spent the entire month trying and failing to Lawyer, who pretended that he meant to go to that Four Seasons, and who started leaking gravy from his head on live television—then you need to consider how he was seen in the months and years that immediately followed September 11. 

The former New York City mayor was Time’s Person of the Year in 2001, and they unironically called him the “Mayor of the World” too. Queen Elizabeth gave him an honorary knighthood, for his “outstanding help and support to the bereaved British families in New York.” And in a still-unparalleled wankfest, Cigar Aficionado suggested that he would be considered a great leader on par with Abe Lincoln, Winston Churchill, and John F. Kennedy.

By the end of 2001, Giuliani had already been the subject of two biographies, and both of them were quickly optioned by film companies. USA picked up Wayne Barrett’s Rudy! An Investigative Biography, dropped the exclamation point, and cast James Woods. All of those things might’ve been mistakes.

Although Oliver Stone collaborator Stanley Weiser was officially credited with Rudy‘s script, the word is that Woods pushed back against most of it, and that Lionel Chetwynd was called in to make it both more conservative and more Rudy-friendly. “I just want to make sure there was no spin, because liberals think the liberal position is the center and conservatives think the conservative position is the center,” Woods said at the time, adding that he was like a terrier on the set, trying to round up the “liberal sheep.” 

Woods had a lot to say, actually, about the film and about the man whose combover he wore for several months. In an interview with the New York Times before the film’s premiere, he called Rudy “an American hero,” shrieked about “the feminist jihad,” and complained about Hillary Clinton, who was then a US Senator. In the dark years before Twitter, you had to just listen to him… say all that shit. 

“Our business is notorious for being almost lunatic liberal,” he griped. “There’s sort of a loony fringe that’s way over the top and out of step with mainstream America. If they were interested in presenting the liberal jihad against Rudy, then I wasn’t really interested in participating […] But he can rest assured of this: I fought tooth and nail to play him as the genuine hero that I unequivocally believe him to be.” (According to the director, Woods’ fight against the “liberal jihad” included removing a derogatory comment about George W. Bush and ad-libbing a line so he could call a Village Voice reporter a “panty-sniffer.”) 

But despite the ‘Mayor of the World’ stuff, the movie itself wasn’t praised as effusively as its subject had been. The Los Angeles Daily News called it “a mess, sometimes visibly so,” while the Buffalo News wrote that “[Woods] may even be more charmless as an actor than Giuliani is as a politician.” Slate called its Canadian-filmed reenactments and use of 9/11 as a framing device “a swindle so amateurish and witless that one wonders what USA Network takes us for.” And in a takedown headlined “James Woods, USA Network, and Canada All Suck,” the University of Miami student paper wrote the whole thing off as a “waste of a combover.” 

Seventeen years later, watching this remains the opposite of self-care—and I guess there’s always the chance that’s what the filmmakers were going for. “How ’bout that,” Woods-as-Giuliani says in the opening scene. “You’re a beautiful fish, so you’re the one who gets eaten. It’s like politics, isn’t it? I swear to God.”

I swear to God, indeed.

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