"Owen Wilson: Class clown or ‘lost soul?'" wondered USA Today. "Tears of a Clown: What Happened to Owen Wilson?" asked ABC News.
Endless essays about the nature of Owen Wilson flooded the media in the aftermath of the actor's reported suicide attempt in August 2007, but lost in the scuttle to proclaim the affable character a sad clown was the fact that Owen Wilson was, at one time, one of Hollywood's more poignant writers. Along with co-writer Wes Anderson, who directed the duo's scripts, Wilson's Academy Award-nominated writing efforts portrayed the lonely lives of intensely solitary figures, trapped within their own quirky affectations and screaming inwardly for acceptance.
Take the overachieving and desperately alone Max Fischer, of Wilson and Anderson's film Rushmore; or Wilson's character in their script for the award-winning 2001 film The Royal Tenenbaums, sell-out novelist Eli Cash, who carries on an affair with the married Margot Tenenbaum (Gwyneth Paltrow) mostly because, as he puts it, "I always wanted to be a Tenenbaum."
The characters that live in Wilson's head are practically slumped-over with a desire to be liked that can never be truly sated. And he and Anderson debuted this quality with the enduring warmth of Bottle Rocket's extra-small-time crook, Dignan, whose forays into petty crime seem much larger in scale to him and his friends than to anyone else.
In an essay originally written for Esquire in 2000, and included in the delicately handled Criterion reissue of the film on DVD, Martin Scorsese describes Dignan as someone " … not innocent in the eyes of the law, but he's truly an innocent." The most remarkable quality of this DVD package is that its extras demote Scorsese's statement to a half-truth. Dignan wasn't really that innocent, and neither, we've come to learn, is Wilson.
Bottle Rocket's creation story is one of film-school legend: Anderson and Wilson made a thirteen-minute short film (beautifully restored here) that captured the attention of James L. Brooks, who previously shepherded a young Cameron Crowe and Simpsons creator Matt Groening. The short became a feature that initially flopped but grew into a cult favorite.
Only now, thanks to an in-depth featurette and a newly recorded commentary track with Wilson and Anderson, do we learn exactly how much influence Brooks had in the script development. "When we're writing," says Anderson, "I hear Jim's voice all the time." Only now is it clear just how subconsciously influenced the duo was by Reservoir Dogs, the indie-film darling at the time they shot the original. The black-and-white short feels surprisingly rough-and-tumble, "more gritty," says Wilson.
The treasures of the collection are the dozen or so deleted scenes from the feature release. In the theatrical version, the audience is wisely left to imagine what kind of second-rate crime movie Dignan believes he's in. But in the cutting-room footage, Dignan's simmering darkness pulls into disturbing focus: He stalks his friend, Anthony Adams (Luke Wilson), after a falling-out, half-heartedly plots to bomb another of his friend's cars to "teach him a lesson," and carries on an entire drug-related subplot. Aspects of this revealed temperament are reminiscent of Wilson's later, terrifying work in The Minus Man. Almost none of it, however, appeared in the light comedy that charmed movie-watchers, propelled the Wilson brothers (mostly Owen) into celebrity status and shot Anderson onto every "next Scorsese" list of young directors.
Dignan's dark side was there, however, only shielded for a decade and a half from the public because Dignan, like Wilson, must be loved. He must remain innocent so that someone's there to pick him up when he firstname.lastname@example.org