Romancing the Stone (1984) Directed by Robert Zemeckis.  Michael Douglas, Kathleen Turner, Danny DeVito (106 min).

Women don’t usually get to be Indiana Jones.  But, here, a timid romance novelist, who usually keeps her adventuring between the pages, is swept up in a treasure hunt with a cynical and sexy soldier of fortune wearing a very familiar hat.  Evoking the jungle adventures of a less critical era (and I mean the 1930s, not the 1980s) Turner and Douglas banter and bargain as they endeavor to trade her kidnapped sister for a treasure map hotly desired by Columbian scoundrels.  “In this cracking jungle-set treasure hunt, director Robert Zemeckis spices up a deliberately old-fashioned matinée adventure with tongue-in-cheek gags, unpredictably clever touches and top-of-the-range action” (Radio Times).

Romancing the Stone was the eighth highest grossing film of 1984, 37 years ago from when I am writing this.  Here are the top ten films of that year:  Beverly Hills Cop, Ghostbusters, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Gremlins, The Karate Kid, Footloose, Romancing the Stone, Star Trek III: The Search for Spock and Splash.  Can you imagine? Before this film, Douglas was considered to be a tv actor, because he starred as a cop in The Streets of San Francisco, at a time when there was a gulch between tv and film actors.  This film role rocketed him to the top of the leading man game.

The script was by a first time screenwriter, Diane Thomas.  Although some critics slammed it as a pale imitation of Raiders of the Lost Ark, the scenario preceded the release of that film by five years.   The phrase “Romancing the Stone” is how a jeweler refers to the process of deciding how to cut and facet a gem for use in jewelry.  Thomas went to UCLA, and had been working as a waitress in Malibu.  Although some sources say Douglas came into her restaurant, and she pitched him her script, it seems more likely that she gave it to an agent, and it eventually found its way to Douglas.  “I was looking for something that would be fun and lighter than the other things I had produced.  I thought it had elements of romance and action and comedy, and I liked the idea of shooting something in the jungle, or down in Mexico” (Eliot 112).

Douglas was criticized for paying $250,000 for a first time screenwriter, and a woman, at that.  ‘Well, I don’t care if it was the first time or the tenth time, if the material is good, then the material finds its own value” (Variety).  Nobody wanted to play the role of Jack Colton, so Douglas decided to do it himself.  He had avoided roles that reminded him of characters his father might have played, but he liked what a rascal Jack was.  But, the script was in development for a long time, and Douglas acted in other films before Romancing the Stone bubbled to the top of the pile, again.  He wanted a young director, for budget reasons (the film had to be made for under $10 million) and settled on 33 year old Robert Zemeckis, whose first two films, I Wanna Hold Your Hand and Used Cars had been well reviewed, but weak at the box office.  Zemeckis couldn’t get any studio interested in his script about a boy who time travels in a DeLorean. Douglas wanted Deborah Winger to play Joan Wilder, but the studio didn’t think she was glamorous enough, and it was important that the actress not be temperamental, since the location would be demanding.

Michael Douglas was the oldest son (of four, from two different wives) of Kirk Douglas, a legendary film star of the 1950s and 60s.  He was not close to his father, and was rebellious, always trying to evade his father’s shadow.  He went to the University of California at Santa Barbara where he did not often attend class, but smoked copious amounts of pot and for a while, took daily doses of LSD.  He lived on a commune, grew his hair long and rode a motorcycle.  Eventually, he took his schoolwork more seriously and when he graduated, decided he wanted to be a Broadway actor.  But his stage career didn’t work out, and the films he made were undistinguished, and eventually he ended up on tv in The Streets of San Francisco, a police procedural where his main task was to supply some youthful energy and not upstage the star, Karl Malden.  In the middle of the series run, he produced the wildly successful film version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.  Kirk Douglas owned the rights, he had briefly starred in an unsuccessful Broadway version.  He passed the rights on to Michael, who found a producer and then worked to assemble a coherent script, an inspired director (Czech New Wave powerhouse Milos Forman) and cast.  At the 1975 Academy Awards, the film won the top four awards, Best Actress, Actor, Director and Picture, the first since 1934’s It Happened One Night.  Michael Douglas returned to his tv stint with an Oscar.  His subsequent film roles were serious, like Coma and The China Syndrome.

Kathleen Turner was the daughter of a US Foreign Service Officer; she was born in the US, but lived in many different countries and attended high school in London.  Her upbringing was conservative Christian, and her desire to perform was discouraged by her parents.  After her smashing film debut, as a sultry siren in Body Heat she was trying to avoid type casting, by pivoting to comedy, and had acted opposite Steve Martin in The Man With Two Brains.  Douglas said, “‘Yeah, okay, she’s sexy and she’s funny but can she be insecure and demure?’ So, then you go in with cut-offs, baggy clothes and no makeup and prove to them that you can be. But it takes so much to convince them.”  She described making the movie as “really fun. It was really a boy’s club, but they let me in because I’m a tomboy.” (Variety).  Pauline Kael raved in The New Yorker, “Turner knows how to use her dimples amusingly and how to dance like a woman who didn’t know she could; her star performance is exhilarating” (Wikipedia). One of her most famous roles was as a voice actor, as the slinky Jessica Rabbit in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?  In her late 1930s, her career was slowed by painful rheumatoid arthritis; modern treatments have eased the pain, and today she works mostly on stage.

Danny DeVito was born in Neptune, N. J. and grew up in Asbury Park, but loved his weekly visits to his grandmother in Flatbush, Brooklyn.  There were seven movie theaters there for him to enjoy, and although he wanted to be a movie actor, he thought that was out of reach for somebody who looked like him.  After graduating from high school, he worked at his sister’s beauty parlor.  The two of them though he should study make up, and he found an ad for a make-up program at the Academy of Dramatic Arts in Manhattan.  “One night, I was 18 or 19, I went down (to the Academy) and said I want to enroll in make-up.  They told me I couldn’t enroll just to learn makeup, I had to enroll as an acting student.  So, my dream was forced upon me!” (Eliot 48).  Danny DeVito met Michael Douglas at a National Playwrights Conference in the 1960s and they had an instant rapport.  They were opposites, Douglas was the spoiled son of a big movie star and DeVito working class and ambitious.  He had a small role in the Douglas produced One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, before he became famous as the irritable dispatcher on the tv sitcom, Taxi.  This film made him bankable, as both an actor and director, and he’s one of those character performers who improves everything in which he appears.  He has also had an extensive career as a producer, including Pulp Fiction, Get Shorty and Erin Brockovich.  “Indeed, the fact that he’s not conventional leading man material seems far from a touchy subject for DeVito. “It all worked out for me,” he says easily” (The Guardian).

The locations near Vera Cruz and Mazatlán, Mexico were challenging.  ““It was very, very tough,” said Zemeckis. “When the movie was over, I said to my agent who gave me the script, who is now my partner — Jack Rapke — if another script ever comes across your desk that has a slug line in it that says ‘Exterior. Jungle.  Night.  Rain.’ Never send it to me” (Variety).

The mud slide scene took two weeks to film.  Just above the on-screen mud slide a real mud slide occurred, fortunately missing cast and crew.  “We had about 200 gallons of water that we would dump behind the stunt people into a trough.  It would hit them in the back, all 200 gallons, and they would just take off.  We had to have cargo nets in place every once in a while so they could grab onto something because they couldn’t do the whole fall—it would kill them, they’d be flying down.  Kathleen Turner needed stitches after her stunt in that scene, even though her main stunt woman was Jeannie Epper, who doubled for Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman in the 1970s.  This stunt was copied in the Bollywood film Safari, with Sanjay Dutt and Juhi Chawla.  It makes one wonder how many films in other countries were inspired to imitate the scene!

Douglas had a run-in with a real alligator (needless to say, all the stunts here are practical).  The alligator who swallows the stone being pursued allegedly had its jaw wired shut, but that did not keep the creature from giving Douglas two powerful swipes and swimming away.  Unknown to the gator wranglers, the wires had snapped.  Pursuing the creature into the dark, the alligator snapped down on one trainer’s hand and dragged him under water.  “We got him to the hospital in time. His hand was pretty mauled, and he lost a lot of blood. I went to see him. He wanted to whisper something to me, and I leaned over, and he said, ‘My Rolex.’ It turned out he saved losing his hand because the alligator bit down on his watch. We went back to the location, dove in the water and we found this Rolex watch” (Variety).

Although Douglas was married and had never shied away from extramarital affairs (exactly like his father) he denied that he was carrying on with his leading lady.  Retrospective interviews also insisted that sparks never quite flew between Turner and Douglas.  “We’re in the jungle, and I was feeling rather romantic toward Michael, he was separated from his wife and I was single,” she said. However, things between the pair ended even before it could start after Michael’s wife, Diandra Luker, his wife of six years decided to come to the set”  and that settled that. ( But, Douglas’ biographer said they both later confessed to having had the affair.

The studio was not enthusiastic when the film was released, and scenes were added at the beginning to bolster Turner’s homebody character, which do act as a wonderful contrast to her adventurousness as the movie goes on.  Zemeckis was fired from his next project, Cocoon, which was handed to Ron Howard, freeing him up to do Back to the Future. Romancing the Stone won the Golden Globe for Best Comedy or Musical, and Turner won Best Actress in that category, as well as being the #8 top grossing film of the year.  Douglas did an extensive publicity junket, and even hosted Saturday Night Live to promote the film.

There was a sequel, Jewel of the Nile.  It’s plain old terrible, and also terribly racist!  The interviews on the 20th anniversary edition apologize for the attitudes against the Arab and Black African people stereotyped in the film.  The men who wrote the screenplay definitely did not have the same touch as Diane Thomas.  We should all consider ourselves fortunate that a remake with Katherine Heigl and Gerard Butler never came to pass.

The film was a huge hit, transforming the careers of all the people involved, although it is a bit of a Cinderella story with a sad ending.  Douglas asked screenwriter Diane Thomas if he could buy her a gift, to thank her for the film’s great success, and she said she had always wanted a Porche.  Her drunk boyfriend was driving it when the car slammed into a telephone poll and Thomas died in the crash, at the age of 39.  This is her only completed screenplay.


Michael Douglas: A Biography by Marc Eliot, (this link is broken),,,