Unsung Auteurs: Martin Davidson

December 8, 2022
FilmInk salutes the work of directors who have never truly received the credit that they deserve. In this installment: the ridiculously under-appreciated Martin Davidson, who helmed Eddie And The Cruisers and The Lords Of Flatbush.

With two major cult favourites to his name in the superb The Lords Of Flatbush and Eddie And The Cruisers, Martin Davidson should be lauded and celebrated as a rock’n’roll true believer in cinematic circles, yet his name remains largely unknown. Perhaps it’s due to the fact that Davidson has worked principally in episodic television and TV movies, and though delivering a small but often strong and entertaining body of work, he has never come close to bettering or equaling his most high profile films.

Martin Davidson was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1939. He graduated from The American Academy of Dramatic Arts, and then spent five years as an actor in off-Broadway productions and in summer theatres, directing several productions as well. Martin Davidson made his big screen debut in 1974 with the gritty, low budget comedy-drama The Lords Of Flatbush. Now bundled in with the 1970s’ strange kick of 1950s nostalgia (which reverberated through the likes of American Graffiti, the pop group Sha Na Na, the pop phenomenon of Grease and the huge success of TV’s Happy Days), The Lords Of Flatbush is more a wonderful slice of New York City life.

A scene from The Lords Of Flatbush.

Also erroneously tossed in with later gang pics like The Wanderers and The Warriors, The Lords Of Flatbush is far more low key and way, way less violent than those two classics. Proving himself a master talent-spotter, Davidson cast a pre-Happy Days Henry Winkler, a pre-Rocky Sylvester Stallone, a pre-lots-of-weird-telemovies Perry King, and a pre-not-much-else Paul Mace as four New York teens who form a gang, but don’t get up to much of anything, mainly just hanging out and chasing girls. Working with great, honest, unaffected dialogue (penned by Davidson, along with Stephen Verona, Gayle Gleckler and an uncredited Stallone), the four leads are sensational, and the film stands as a terrific coming of age flick. “It’s a really good movie,” Quentin Tarantino says simply in his book Cinema Speculation on why major studio Columbia eventually picked up and released this gritty low budgeter.

Davidson followed up The Lords Of Flatbush with a decidedly different teen flick in the form of 1978’s largely forgotten Almost Summer. Pre-dating Alexander Payne’s masterpiece Election by, well, decades, this smart, funny little comedy follows the machinations of a high school student body presidential campaign in which the Machiavellian Bobby DeVito (a great early turn from the late, great Bruno Kirby) backs a left-field candidate (John Friedrich) just to spite his ex-girlfriend (Lee Purcell), who is considered the certain winner. A cut well above most teen flicks of the era, Almost Summer (it deserves a better title) is a strong example of a much (and often unfairly) derided genre. To top it off, Didi Conn (Frenchy from Grease) also appears, as does Tim Matheson.

A scene from Hero At Large.

Davidson shifted gears with his next effort, which came super charged with modest charm. The ever engaging John Ritter (then starring on the popular TV sitcom, Three’s Company) is Steve Nichols, a struggling New York actor who takes a job posing as comic book hero, Captain Avenger, at comic stores and conventions to promote a new movie. Steve finds unlikely fame when he stops a grocery store robbery while wearing his costume. Suddenly a real life superhero, this put upon nice guy (he gets bullied by a pre-Footloose Kevin Bacon!) is then exploited by New York’s incumbent mayor during a political campaign, which sees him quickly fall from grace in the eyes of his once adoring public, upon which Steve has to reach within to find his real inner hero. “People pretend like Kick-Ass was the first superheroes-without-powers movie, when that’s obviously the classic John Ritter film, Hero At Large,” director James Gunn said when Super, his own superheroes-without-powers movie was being constantly compared to Kick-Ass. A real winner, the sadly forgotten Hero At Large is well deserving of rediscovery, particularly in this current age of cinematic superheroes.

Unquestionably his best-known movie, Davidson delved ingeniously into the world of rock-n-roll myth with 1983’s Eddie And The Cruisers, which plays brilliantly into the “no, he’s still alive” conspiracy cults that have long sprung up around dead rock stars like Elvis Presley and Jim Morrison. In this case, Davidson creates his own (via P.F Kluge’s novel) in the form of Eddie Wilson (played with staggering, volcanic charisma by Michael Pare, again proving Davidson’s genius with casting), a rock star on the verge of superstardom with a Brian Wilson-like masterpiece album awaiting release who apparently dies in a car crash just as he’s about to make it big. As a journalist (Ellen Barkin) and Eddie’s former bandmate (Tom Berenger) investigate the swaggering singer’s death many years later, it becomes clear that Eddie is almost certainly still alive…which is wholly proven in the rather disappointing 1989 sequel Eddie And The Cruisers II: Eddie Lives, which Davidson did not direct. One of the great rock’n’roll movies, Eddie And The Cruisers is a true delight.

Tom Berenger and Michael Pare in Eddie And The Cruisers.

Despite highlighting his many strengths as a director, Davidson followed Eddie And The Cruisers with a long run of television work, directing the likes of Law & Order, Chicago Hope and Heart Of The City. He did deliver a strong telemovie with 1987’s Long Gone, which starred William Petersen (CSI, To Live And Die In LA) as the player/manager of a struggling minor league baseball club. Modest but rippingly entertaining, it’s further proof (not that any is really needed) of how many excellent telemovies were made during the 1970s and 1980s.

Dotted in amongst all of the television movies were the now apparently retired Davidson’s final two feature movies. Boasting an excellent female triumvirate in Ally Sheedy, Virginia Madsen and Phoebe Cates, 1989’s affecting but slightly middle-of-the-road Heart Of Dixie follows three college girls dealing with the social upheaval that surrounds them in 1957 segregationist Alabama. Wearing its heart on its sleeve and offering up three great female roles, Heart Of Dixie is an earnest and admirable work, but not exactly an overly exciting one. The same could be said for 1991’s romantic comedy-drama Hard Promises, in which William Petersen tries to win back ex-wife Sissy Spacek. Again, it’s all charming and entertaining enough, but when compared to the energy and excitement of his earlier work, it’s just a little underwhelming.

If you liked this story, check out our features on other unsung auteurs Fran Rubel Kuzui, Elliot SilversteinLiz GarbusVictor FlemingBarbara PeetersRobert BentonLynn SheltonTom GriesRanda HainesLeslie H. MartinsonNancy KellyPaul NewmanBrett HaleyLynne RamsayVernon ZimmermanLisa CholodenkoRobert GreenwaldPhyllida LloydMilton KatselasKaryn KusamaSeijun SuzukiAlbert PyunCherie NowlanSteve BinderJack CardiffAnne FletcherBobcat GoldthwaitDonna DeitchFrank PiersonAnn TurnerJerry SchatzbergAntonia BirdJack SmightMarielle HellerJames GlickenhausEuzhan PalcyBill L. NortonLarysa KondrackiMel StuartNanette BursteinGeorge ArmitageMary LambertJames FoleyLewis John CarlinoDebra GranikTaylor SheridanLaurie CollyerJay RoachBarbara KoppleJohn D. HancockSara ColangeloMichael Lindsay-HoggJoyce ChopraMike NewellGina Prince-Bythewood, John Lee HancockAllison AndersDaniel Petrie Sr.Katt SheaFrank PerryAmy Holden JonesStuart RosenbergPenelope SpheerisCharles B. PierceTamra DavisNorman TaurogJennifer LeePaul WendkosMarisa SilverJohn MackenzieIda LupinoJohn V. SotoMartha Coolidge, Peter HyamsTim Hunter, Stephanie RothmanBetty ThomasJohn FlynnLizzie BordenLionel JeffriesLexi AlexanderAlkinos TsilimidosStewart RaffillLamont JohnsonMaggie Greenwald and Tamara Jenkins.