Contemporary documentarians, adrift without historical recordings to help illustrate their case, too often try and pass off stock shots from vintage black-and-white studio releases as the emmes. Michael Almereyda’s docu-biography Escapes never once attempts to fool the gullible into thinking the footage assembled is anything but fictive. Though in the mind of the film’s subject, Hampton Fancher, his life and his work are inseparable to the point where one might just as easily speak on behalf of the other.
Hampton Fancher. The name has a nice country-club ring to it, right? It took a minute or so into Escapes for the face and filmography to sync up. Fittingly enough, the first image that came to mind was that of an impeccably groomed sniveler taking rich daddy Karl Malden’s side against Troy Donahue in the ’60s class-warfare sudser Parrish. It was a role he was born to play, both on and off camera.
Having flunked third grade twice, pursuing a college education was never really an option for young Fancher. Mother was a former dancer, father a retired prizefighter who once pranced around the ring for a living, and a future in stripping awaited big sis. It was only logical that the 15-year-old lad would pull up stakes and follow in his his family’s fidgety footsteps. But an escape to Spain to pursue a career in flamenco dancing proved fleeting.
Fancher is the first to admit that in a career spanning 50 film and television appearances, he “played a lot of dumb guys” and that when it came to acting, “I thought of it very provisionally.” He became the most expensive day-player in German film history when, in 1969, he appeared opposite Hugh Hefner’s then-girlfriend Barbi Benton in the never-released How Did a Nice Girl Like You…. The $10,000 he “earned” for the role was promptly misplaced. Not a dime of it made it back through customs. He hasn’t acted before a camera since 1975, but he’s done plenty behind it.
Who knew that Blade Runner was financed in part by Flipper’s TV dad, Brian Kelly? A major star on the rise, Kelly vanished in an instant due to a freak fall from a motorcycle. His finances rapidly dwindling, Kelly managed to acquire the screen rights to Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? And it was Fancher who would later turn the material into the screenplay for Blade Runner. Bonus trivia question: where was the first page of the script penned? At the Hotel Del, where Fancher stayed as guest of his then-galpal Barbara Hershey during the shooting of The Stunt Man.
Fancher loves to talk, so much so that Almereyda frequently resorts to intertitles — “Extensive experience with alcohol and narcotics” or “I tried to get her to read Sartre” — to both advance the narrative and rein in the rambling recollections. (The Sartre remark is in reference to Lolita star Sue Lyon, who at age 17 made Fancher a real-life Humbert Humbert when she married the 24-year-old actor.)
Throughout the picture, Fancher’s is the only newly recorded voice we hear. Almereyda keeps things fresh by empowering each one of the film’s seven chapters with a style and look all its own. The opening segment details Fancher’s involvement with Terri Garr, an actress the hungry, young, and borderline homeless actor admired based on her ability to make a living in Hollywood. Pieces from their various films are perfectly fitted to match Fancher’s narration. When no footage of an actual character exists — say, Garr’s ex-boyfriend — the director will substitute shots of Donahue from Parrish to represent him. When cut together, the meticulously researched bits and pieces of Fancher’s various appearances limit his all-star cast’s ability to respond to the voice of the characters they once played.
Original fears pegged this as an extended featurette intended to herald the October release of Blade Runner 2049, for which Fancher shares screenwriting credit. But while there’s that, there’s also so much more. Be it divine intervention or just pure dumb luck, Fancher never lost his foothold on the fringes of cinema. He lived his life as if it was a movie waiting to be made.