Clearly imagined as a Godfather-style epic set in the colorful subculture of modern-day gypsies, this Dino De Laurentiis production features an impressive cast, splashy production values, and a vivid storyline filled with betrayal and violence. Yet as with many of De Laurentiis’ pulpier offerings, a general atmosphere of tackiness pervades King of the Gypsies—instead of treating its characters with respect, as Francis Ford Coppola did with the Corleone family in the Godfather movies, writer-director Frank Pierson presents gypsies as one-dimensional primitives. King of the Gypsies is filled with arranged marriages, incessant shouting, quasi-Biblical domestic strife, physical abuse, and willful ignorance. Very much like Pierson’s directorial debut, the much-maligned A Star Is Born (1976), King of the Gypsies occupies a queasy middle ground between legitimate cinema and outright exploitation—both movies are too campy to take seriously, and yet both are made with meticulous craftsmanship. (Oddly, most other highlights in Pierson’s career feature greater nuance, from 1975’s Dog Day Afternoon, for which he wrote the Oscar-winning script, to various telefilms Pierson directed, including 1992’s Citizen Cohn.)
Adapted from a book by Peter Maas, King of the Gypsies tells the life story of Dave Stepanowicz, a young man who inherits a position of power in the gypsy community but rebels against inhumane gypsy traditions. The narrative begins with an elaborate prologue that explains how Dave’s parents became involved with each other. Dave’s grandfather, Zharko (Sterling Hayden), is the king of an East Coast gypsy empire circa the 1950s. He arranges to buy a gypsy teenager, Rose, as a bride for his ne’er-do-well son, Groffo. When Rose’s family tries to back out of the deal, Zharko abducts Rose at gunpoint. Years later, Rose (played as an adult by Susan Sarandon) and Groffo (played as an adult by Judd Hirsch), give birth to children including Dave (played as an adult by Eric Roberts, in his cinematic debut). During episodes that depict Dave’s childhood and adolescence, friction grows between Dave and his abusive father, so once he’s in his 20s, Dave leaves home—thereby shunning his role as a prince in Zharko’s monarchy. Dave tries to make it on his own, even dating a non-gypsy (Annette O’Toole), but when Zharko’s health declines, Zharko summons Dave back into the family fold. A struggle for control then emerges between Dave, Zharko’s choice as the next king, and Groffo, who resents being pushed aside.
Because the story covers so much tawdry narrative terrain, King of the Gypsies is never boring. The movie also looks great, with crisp images by master cinematographer Sven Nykvist, and the soundtrack features vibrant acoustic music by David Grisman. In fact, much of the movie works. Roberts is strong, delivering a James Dean-style performance as an angry young man, while Hirsch and Sarandon complement him well (despite playing underwritten characters). Hayden is a joy to watch, as always, even though he’s hilariously miscast, and Pierson wisely keeps the screen time of scenery-chewing Shelley Winters (playing Zharko’s wife) to a minimum. (Rounding out the flashy cast, Annie Potts plays a gypsy woman who gets a crush on Dave, and Brooke Shields plays Dave’s little sister—a poignant role that far exceeds her dramatic powers.) The intensity of King of the Gypsies rises steadily from start to finish, especially since the story concludes with a suite of violent scenes. Furthermore, the research Maas did for his book provides Pierson with abundant colorful details, such as the rituals of gypsy life. King of the Gypsies is overwrought and silly, but within its lowbrow limitations, the movie is also an entertaining ride.
King of the Gypsies: FUNKY