Honky Tonk Freeway

Honky Tonk Freeway is a 1981 British comedy film directed by John Schlesinger. The film, conceived and co-produced by Don Boyd, was one of the most expensive box office bombs in history, losing its British backers Thorn-EMI anywhere from $11–22 million and profoundly affecting its fortunes and aspirations.[1][3][4][5]

Honky Tonk Freeway
UK DVD Cover
Directed byJohn Schlesinger
Produced byDon Boyd
Hawk Koch
Written byEdward Clinton
StarringBeverly D'Angelo
Hume Cronyn
Jessica Tandy
Teri Garr
Beau Bridges
Daniel Stern
Geraldine Page
Music byElmer Bernstein
George Martin
CinematographyJohn Bailey
Edited byJim Clark
EMI Films
Honky Tonk Freeway Company
Kendon Films
Associated Film Distribution
Distributed byUniversal Pictures
Release date
21 August 1981
Running time
108 minutes
CountryUnited Kingdom[1]
Budget$24 million[2]
Box office$2 million[2]


In a small Florida tourist town named Ticlaw, the Mayor/Preacher Kirby T. Calo (William Devane) also operates a hotel and tiny wildlife safari park. The town's major draw is a water-skiing elephant named Bubbles.

When the state highway commission builds a freeway adjacent to the town, Calo slips an official $10,000 to assure an off ramp. The ramp doesn't come, so the townsfolk literally paint the town pink to attract visitors.

Meanwhile, tourists from various parts of the United States, shown in a series of concurrent, ongoing vignettes, are heading to Florida and will all end up in Ticlaw, one way or another. They include a pair of bank robbers from New York (George Dzundza, Joe Grifasi) who pick up a cocaine-dealing hitchhiker (Daniel Stern); a Chicago copy machine repairman and aspiring children's book author (Beau Bridges), who picks up a waitress (Beverly D'Angelo), who is carrying her deceased mother's ashes to Florida; a dentist and his dysfunctional family (Howard Hesseman, Teri Garr, Peter Billingsley, and Jenn Thompson), vacationing cross-country in their RV; an elderly woman (Jessica Tandy) with a drinking problem and her loving husband (Hume Cronyn), who are heading to Florida to retire; two nuns (mother superior Geraldine Page, novice nun Deborah Rush); and a wannabe country songwriter (Paul Jabara) hauling a playful rhino and other wild animals to Ticlaw.




The film was the idea of British producer Don Boyd, based on his imagination of American life rather than knowledge. "I hadn't been to the United States since I was a child," he said. "My father worked for the British-American Tobacco Company and was assigned to New York for six months, but I didn't remember a thing about it." Boyd's New York agents put him together with Ed Clinton, an actor who wanted to write. The two of them toured the US for nine months, researching and writing the script. Boyd returned to London, showed the script to Barry Spikings of EMI films who agreed to finance.[6]

Boyd originally wanted to direct the film himself on a budget of $2–3 million but Spikings encouraged him to think on a bigger scale with a bigger name director.[7][8]

"We could have done a fast road movie and still sold toys," said Spikings. "But to do this film right it had to be vast and expensive."[7]

John Schlesinger, who was keen to try a comedy, agreed to direct in January 1979.[9] Schlesinger later said "some of the charm comes from Clinton’s naivete, which was one of my original attractions to the script. Clinton’s writing is fresh and completely original. He is highly imaginative. It is not a smug or knowing film at all. In fact, it’s very charming. It’s also quite intelligent."[10]

The director added, "If we had really wanted to make it totally surefire commercial, we would have hired six gag writers and I wouldn't have directed it. It would have been a series of gags, which is what the public seems to be oriented to...) I wanted to do an affectionate comedy that had a dark side, and yet had moments when you could be absolutely serious... The only way to make it work, as far as I was concerned, was to go for whatever truth you could find in it...to give whatever human thrust dramatically to each of those characters that I could."[11]

Schlesinger called it "the most complicated project I've ever attempted" adding that the film was "a comedy about characters, so it needs extremely fine care and acting. This is what appealed to me, because I’m mainly intrigued with the people in my films rather than with the plot. This is a comedy about people living on the brink, and that’s the way most people actually live, I think. Many scenes often have something else happening in the same frame, so the timing becomes extremely important. If some incident is a bit off, the sequence just won’t work. You use less close-ups in a movie of this kind, so you need to stand back a little and see it all happening – how two people are relating to one another while some other action is going on. So often, with these things in consideration, more takes are required."[10]

Schlesinger later said when he came on board they did "four or five" extra drafts. "I changed a lot about the town and the thrust of the town: I also tried to give a film with this many characters as much development as I could. I think it is important to let a film live, so we are constantly changing the script."[10]


Shelley Duvall was originally announced for the film.[12] The star part went to William Devane, who had been in Schlesinger's last two films. Other lead roles were played by Beverly D'Angelo, Beau Bridges and Teri Garr.[13]

Kay Medford was going to appear in the film but died of cancer before shooting began.[14]

Jessica Tandy did not like the script but agreed to do it because she wanted to work with Schlesinger.[7]


The film originally was going to take 83 days to shoot and cost $18 million, with 103 speaking parts. Filming began on 19 February 1980.[13]

Spiking later admitted the budget was not set until a week before production. "You can't put a false cap on some pictures," he said. "You've got to allow (the filmmakers) to grow, to break new ground."[7]

The budget increased to $23 million due to a combination of factors: the Florida weather, care for the Vietnamese orphans, and various animals in the film.[7]

This movie was filmed in the small central Florida town of Mount Dora.[15] The off-ramp filming took place at the I-75 and Palmer Road overpass in Sarasota, Florida. Most of the highway scenes take place on I-75 between Sarasota and Ft. Myers while the highway was still under construction. Dynamite crews blew up a wooden bridge built to look like the southbound lane overpass at I-75 and Palmer Road before the Tampa-to-Miami leg of the highway was completed in 1981. Many portions of Fruitville, Florida were painted pink to match the sets in Mount Dora and remained pink for decades afterward. Palmer Road never was designated for an I-75 exit because it is not a main thoroughfare. The exit for Fruitville is about two miles north of the filming location. Part of the film was also shot in Salt Lake City, Utah[16] and New York City.

The final scene cost $1 million.[7]

While the film was in post production, Boyd said "on the strength of a film that hasn't been released yet and which nobody knows will be a success or a flop, Ed Clinton and I are being buried in movie offers."[6]


The film was going to be released by American Film Distribution, but that company folded in February 1981 and it went to Universal.[17] An estimated $5 million was spent on marketing.[2]


Critical response

The film received negative reviews upon release, and was pulled from theatres after just one week. Variety wrote: "The overriding question about EMI's Honky Tonk Freeway is why anyone should want to spend over $25m. on a film as devoid of any basic humorous appeal...[Its] long-term commercial appeal appears to be almost nil."

Some have argued that the film can be viewed as a satire on the American way of life, and this contributed to its unfavorable critical reception at the time.[18][19]

"I thought it was the funniest movie I'd ever made," said Schlesinger shortly after the reviews came out. "I'm surprised at the hostility...I think it's been misperceived. The (critical) tone is 'how dare he? These characters are all monsters.' I'm amazed they find it misanthropic. I think whats happened is American comedy lately is either immensely middle class or very 'gaggy' with a lot of mugging...I couldn't make a 'gag' comedy."[20]

Box office

The film was a box-office disaster.[20] It was called "the unquestioned commercial disaster of the summer".[2]


The film was nominated for a Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Original Song for the song "You're Crazy, but I Like You."


  1. Walker, Alexander (September 2005) [1985]. National Heroes: British Cinema in the 70's and 80's. Orion. ISBN 0-7528-5707-X.
  2. Harmetz, Aljean (9 September 1981). "HOLLYWOOD IS JOYOUS OVER ITS RECORD GROSSING SUMMER". The New York Times. Retrieved 10 October 2017.
  3. "Greatest Box-Office Bombs, Disasters and Film Flops". Filmsite.org. Retrieved 21 March 2011.
  4. Tutt, Nigel (1985). Tax Raiders: The Rossminster Affair. London: Financial Training Publications. ISBN 0-906322-76-6.
  5. Gabbi Shaw (27 February 2017). "The biggest box office flop from the year you were born". Insider. Retrieved 20 June 2018.
  6. AT THE MOVIES; THE MAN BEHIND BAD TIMING New York Times 19 Sep 1980: C.6.
  7. CARNAGE OR FUN... IT'S A REAL BLOWUP Taylor, Clarke. Los Angeles Times 20 July 1980: p32.
  9. RODERICK MANN: 'Agatha' Not Out of the Woods Yet Los Angeles Times 18 Jan 1979: e16.
  10. "Interview with John Schlesinger". Film Comment. 1981.
  11. Study, John. "An Interview with John Schlesinger". NEW YORK REVIEW OF FILMS.
  12. MOVIES: SHELLEY DUVALL GETS THE CALL--FOR OLIVE OYL Mann, Roderick. Los Angeles Times 6 May 1979: t31.
  13. 'Freeway' Detours to Barney's Beanery: SCHLESINGER Lee, Grant. Los Angeles Times 9 Feb 1980: c5.
  14. Briefly Kay Medford dead of cancer The Globe and Mail; Toronto, Ont. 11 Apr 1980: P.15.
  15. Campbell, Ramsey (14 June 1998). "Mount Dora Gets Good Reviews By Starring In Movies". Orlando Sentinel. Retrieved 7 June 2015.
  16. D'Arc, James V. (2010). When Hollywood came to town: a history of moviemaking in Utah (1st ed.). Layton, Utah: Gibbs Smith. ISBN 9781423605874.
  18. Maslin, Janet (21 August 1981). "HARSH VIEW OF AMERICA IN 'HONKY TONK FREEWAY'". The New York Times. Retrieved 27 April 2011.
  19. Henninger, Mari. "Honky Tonk Freeway: When Mount Dora "Went Hollywood". PULSE The Magazine of Mount Dora, Eustis and Tavares. Archived from the original on 25 August 2011. Retrieved 29 April 2011.
This article is issued from Wikipedia. The text is licensed under Creative Commons - Attribution - Sharealike. Additional terms may apply for the media files.