White Palace is a film that came out in 1990 and has since been completely forgotten. It’s somewhat understandable, as it’s fairly unremarkable. However, it marked the beginning of James Spader’s career as an adult actor after working almost exclusively in teen films and other films about young people in the ‘80s. He had just done Sex, Lies and Videotape, which was one of the 80s films that spearheaded the independent film boom to come in the ’90s.
Spader plays the successful Jewish advertising executive Max Baron, who is in his early 20s and still trying to overcome the death of his young wife. He goes to a friend’s bachelor party and gets some burgers from “White Palace,” but six are missing. He wants to get his money back, and even though his friends ridicule him for being so petty he goes because of “the principle” of it. He meets the older Nora Baker (Susan Sarandon), gets his money back, and returns to the party, but then a slideshow triggers memories of his wife. He then heads to a local bar and Nora is there. Soon they trade their traumas: Nora’s son lost his battle with leukaemia. Soon they are sleeping together, and a unlikely relationship blossoms between the two.
The film is a relatively decent exploration of the class divides between Max and Nora, a working-class woman who is obsessed with Marilyn Monroe. He is initially ashamed to introduce her to his family, but eventually does, and it doesn’t go as well as planned. It also shows the pure hypocrisy of rich “liberals” who think they are in touch with the common man in a key scene.
The title is obviously a pun on White Castle, the burger place that is an American institution, with restaurants mostly located on the east coast and in the midwest. International audiences will of course know of it because of Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle, retitled Harold & Kumar Get The Munchies overseas because they thought international audiences wouldn’t know about the restaurant but obviously the film changed that since it was a central part of the plot. The book by Glenn Savan has the restaurant as a real White Castle, but the company refused to let the filmmakers use any location or reference their restaurant—I assume maybe the sexual content troubled them, but obviously 14 years later that wasn’t an issue.
Martin Scorsese was offered the film but turned it down, and it ended up being directed by Luis Mandoki. He is a Mexican director who worked in Hollywood in the late ’80s and throughout the ’90s on fairly unremarkable films, but he has since moved back to Mexico and is still very active. Besides obviously Spader and Sarandon, it features a fun turn by Kathy Bates, who plays Spader’s boss and steals the scenes she is in. Bates would also appear in Misery the same year, for which she of course got the Oscar.
Overall, it’s an interesting film about class division in the Midwest, with perfectly good performances from two of Hollywood’s more underappreciated actors, both of whom have moved into TV work in recent years. It seems that for certain actors, and especially female actors of a certain age, that’s where the juicy work is today. It should also be congratulated for being a rare example of a film about a relationship between an older woman and a younger man when it’s normally the other way around… just watch a Woody Allen film. They obviously tried to sell it as that year’s 9 1/2 Weeks, but it’s a more serious film and less overtly “sexy.”