A CROWDED ROOM: THE ABANDONED
ANALYSIS OF THE UN-PRODUCED
In 2010, after Avatar
was already cemented as the highest-grossing movie of all time, James Cameron
was asked by a fan whether he was interested in doing a smaller movie. Cameron
responded, “I've had a few projects over the years that have fallen by the
wayside for various reasons. But frankly, I like big productions. I'm not
particularly interested in doing a little film just for the sake of doing a
The one “little film”
that Cameron probably came closest to actually directing was A Crowded Room,
a psychological drama set in the 1970's. As we'll get to briefly, the story was
based off of a book, The Minds of Billy Milligan, which was, in turn,
based off of a true story. The screenplay tells of the realization and
diagnosis that a serial rapist had extreme multiple personality disorder, which
caused (according to the believers) twenty-four different, independent
personalities to exist inside his brain.
As salty as that
material sounds, the real-life story of why the picture was never made is also
interesting in its own right.
This article will detail
why the movie never got made, then summarize Cameron's story and screenplay for
A Crowded Room.
The book The Minds of
Billy Milligan was apparently published in 1981, just about a year after the
events in the book – Billy Milligan's various court cases – were completed. It
was written by successful author Daniel Keyes who, at the time of the real-life
Billy Milligan controversy, was teaching in Ohio, the same state where Milligan
committed the rapes. The rights to make the book into a movie were apparently
purchased by a woman named Sandy Arcara (who has been described as an “East
Coast independent producer” and “a New York-based restaurateur” by various
journalists and who, to this day, has just one TV movie on her film industry
resume`.) At some point in the late 1980's or early 1990's, Arcara got in
contact with James Cameron and he became very interested in the rights to the
book. Cameron says, “I was looking for a small drama after the 'most expensive
movie in history,'” referring to Terminator 2's reported cost. Just days
before Terminator 2 was released, Cameron definitively and
enthusiastically said that it was going to be his next movie. Speaking to a
group of science fiction fans, Cameron described the story and then playfully
teased them, “I know you science fiction guys are like 'That's bullshit!' But I
don't care, that's the movie I'm making.”
Cameron said, “To do all
those characters and externalize the drama that was playing out in that guy's
head would have been as big a challenge, in its own way, as making The Abyss.”
Cameron met with Billy Milligan himself, describing him as “very interesting”
and saying “We kind of got to be friends.” Although only Cameron's name was
attached to the screenplay (which is available on numerous internet sites), it
was reportedly co-written by Todd Graff, who had acted in the role of “Hippie”
in The Abyss for Cameron. Graff said, “Writing for Jim, the only rule
was to not edit your imagination - acting for him was the same but with worse
hours. Instead of 'If You Build It, They Will Come.' Jim's motto is 'If You Can
Imagine It, They Will Build It.' And for Jim they always do - or else.”
With the screenplay
completed, pre-production apparently hummed fruitfully along. Cameron said,
“....We'd cast John Cusack to play the guy, and I was in pre-production. I was
ready to go shoot.” He had also spoken with cinematographer Russell Carpenter
about being its director of photography and, reportedly, a budget of $11 million
was set for the movie.
But then....the lawsuits
started. Cameron and Arcara had “joint control of the material.” Arcara, very
probably witnessing the colossal success of Terminator 2, thought that
she deserved more money. She filed a lawsuit which reportedly claimed that her
salary should be raised from $250,000 to $1.5 million. Arcara was also
apparently frustrated by Cameron not communicating regularly with her. She was
quoted as saying, “Jim's a guy who works to the beat of his own drum. He's also
very secretive. He's not the same person he was when I brought him this project
three years ago.”
Arcara was then joined
in her lawsuit by Billy Milligan himself. Milligan was said to be seeking $9
million from Cameron because, he claimed, preparation for the movie had caused
him to move to Los Angeles. One reporter described Milligan's lawsuit as “a
thinly disguised effort to keep Cameron from making True Lies,” and,
therefore, force him to make A Crowded Room. James Cameron said,
“[Milligan] ultimately contributed to the downfall of the project. …. He got in
the middle of this whole thing because he wanted his story told. He was running
around creating more chaos, filing lawsuits. It turned into madness.”
Milligan and Arcara's
lawsuits had the exact opposite of their apparent intended effect on Cameron.
Rather than bowing to the legal and financial pressures and simply making the
movie, Cameron withdrew from it entirely. He said, “[Arcara] turned out to be
someone I couldn't work with and who felt that they couldn't work with me. ….I
sort of didn't want to tell his story anymore, you know?” Years later, speaking
more flamboyantly, Cameron said, “I don't negotiate with terrorists or
extortionists, so I told her to take a flying fuck and I collapsed the project.”
(This was in 1992.
Around this time, James Cameron was also working out a very complex new
production deal with Twentieth Century Fox, and it's also very possible that he
was in the early stages of forming Digital Domain, the special effects company
that he would co-found in 1993. So, it can be inferred that Cameron was, very
possibly, losing interest in A Crowded Room because (a) he might have
been seeking a more financially promising movie with which to inaugurate those
two business deals, and (b) he was so busy juggling these various pursuits that
a low-budget psychological drama began to seem underwhelming. However, this is
all speculation, and Cameron has only cited the difficulties in dealing with
Arcara and Milligan as the cause of his departure from the project.)
didn't collapse the project, he just collapsed his involvement with it: Milligan
and Arcara withdrew their lawsuits with the term that Cameron relinquish his
rights to the story. So, for some years afterward, there were numerous
reports of various stars and directors who wanted to make the picture. As this
is being written in 2010, however, it never came to fruition. As we'll see
below, one of the major reasons that it was never made might well be that the
most interesting and innovative idea in the story – its method of visualizing
complex psychological problems – was rendered somewhat passe` when at least two
other successful Hollywood movies beat it to the punch.
The basic story of A Crowded Room is
A rapist has assaulted three women at the
Ohio State University campus, causing a massive police investigation and a minor
panic at the university. The victims' descriptions of their assailant all
appear to be the same man, but there are also some confusing differences in how
they describe him. Eventually, the police arrest Billy Milligan for the crimes.
While in police
custody, Milligan is routinely beaten and insulted by the cops. Milligan's
behavior while jailed is very erratic and bizarre: sometimes he's aggressive,
other times docile, sometimes he writes left-handed, other times right-handed,
etc. He's eventually interviewed by a number of psychologists, one of whom
deduces that Milligan has “multiple personality disorder.” The story reveals
that there are a number of different personalities in Milligan's brain, and they
often emerge when they're most useful, thus explaining the wild changes in
diagnosis, Milligan's public defender attorney eventually gets Milligan
committed to a mental hospital, where the diagnosis is confirmed, and so he's
then acquitted of the rape charges by reason of insanity. This causes
significant public debate and consternation about both the validity of the
diagnosis, with some people even saying that the disorder itself doesn't exist.
After the verdict is
rendered, the story transitions into a series of flashbacks which form a
biography and show the genesis and form of his multiple personality disorder.
His biological father was a failed comedian who Billy loved but who committed
suicide. Soon after, his mother moved to Ohio with her young child in tow,
where she married a man. Billy's step-father abuses him both sexually and
physically, in extremely sadistic and depraved ways. To escape these abuses,
Billy began forming alternate personalities. These alternate personalities are
wildly different from one another, and many of them are absolute experts in
various crafts, such as painting, martial arts, and historical knowledge. One
personality will possess Billy's body by going into “the spot”, which is
visualized as a spotlight on a stage where the active personality resides.
As Billy matures,
these different personalities began to harm him: most notably, he loses a job
and a relationship because he can't remember various people and information from
one day to the next. In righteous anger, some of his alternate personalities
plot to assassinate his step-father for the abuses he committed years prior.
However, Billy can't follow through with it. Finally, he's financially broke
and emotionally distraught, and his various personalities begin raping the coeds
at Ohio State.
The story soon
returns to the present time, where Billy Milligan is incarcerated in a mental
hospital after the rapes. With the help of some of the physicians at the
institution, Billy has sadly, but cathartically, identified most of his
alternate personalities and understands his illness. Because of this, he's
scheduled to be released from custody. However, when news that the rapist will
be again walking the streets breaks out, there's a public outcry. A politician
(who's both grandstanding and yet still sincere) jumps to the public forefront
to make sure that Milligan remains incarcerated. This results in a pair of
dramatic courtroom speeches by the prosecutors and then Milligan's attorney. At
stake is whether he will be freed outright or whether he'll be imprisoned in an
institution that's considered extremely dangerous and abusive. Despite a
heartfelt argument from Milligan's attorney, the judge sides with the
prosecution and he's sent to the harsh prison.
Milligan resides in
the Hellish prison for several years, until it's closed down and he gets
released. The story ends with text saying that Milligan is now successfully
COMMENTARY & EXCERPTS
It probably comes across
in the summary, but A Crowded Room is not a particularly “plot-driven”
movie – not at all. James Cameron had said that the biggest challenge in making
the movie was going to be, “To do all those characters and externalize the
drama that was playing out in that guy's head,” and it seems fair to say
that that challenge was also the emphasis of the movie, much more so than its
modest, sequential narrative. Beyond that, the goal of the story appears to be
to show a man behaving horribly, and then, after the audience has developed a
prejudice against him, to pull the rug out from the audience by showing that the
man actually deserves sympathy. Thus, the reader is apparently intended to
journey from one end of an emotional continuum (outrage and incredulity) all the
way to the other end (sympathy and compassion).
The screenplay opens
with a highly abstract montage of animated paintings (presumably the opening
credits would be overlayed on this). The various images will become somewhat
significant later on, but the recurring motif of Billy Milligan painting is a
somewhat odd one: it has very little correlation to his disorder, and it's
relevance to either the story or to his life's problems is explained hazily, if
The story then cuts
right to the three rape victims giving their statements to police detectives.
Their highly differing accounts are overlapped with each other in a way that,
although somewhat confusing in the screenplay format, would probably be easily
understood on screen. Nevertheless, the intercut statements and the bizarrely
varying accounts of the women (for example, one victim saying that the rapist
had a mustache, the other saying he was clean shaven) start the story off on a
One of the rape victims
definitively identifies Milligan from a mug shot, and the police then raid his
house. Before they enter, however, the cops hear various “people” arguing with
each other, and mistakenly believe that there are others inside. Of course,
these are just Billy's various personalities arguing out loud, which then leads
to a small plot hole: at no other point in the screenplay do the personalities
debate out loud, it's always just inside his head. (On another small note, the
screenplay reads, “ONE COP steps on a [Lego] fort – crushing it.” Fans
of Cameron might observe that a similar visual was used in both Terminator
As noted in the summary,
the cops' treatment of Milligan after he's been arrested for the rapes is
brutal: they're shown to be bigoted thugs who enjoy taunting and beating
prisoners. One example of this comes in this incident:
The GUARD starts to
turn away, but BILLY gets up. He comes to the bars and reaches for the cup.
The GUARD grabs his wrist and pulls.
Hey, you think we
oughta tattoo this
Yeah. Put some
numbers right there.
BILLY pulls his arm free as the GUARDS laugh.
Here ya go, Rembrandt.
He throws the drink onto BILLY'S picture, ruining it.
Instantly, BILLY changes. His eyes, his gait. His chest expands and his
adrenaline flows a mile a minute as he gets up and walks over to the toilet
bowl. He squats and grabs hold of it. The GUARDS give each other a look, then
eye him warily. Sweat pours down as he focuses his strength till it's like the
pinpoint of a laser. Then, with a mighty heave he rips the toilet from the
wall, stands and hurls it at the GUARDS in one impossible motion. It smashes
into a million pieces –
porcelain shards fly into the GUARD'S faces, cutting them to ribbons.
portrayal of cops as thugs squares directly with Cameron's consistently harsh
portrayal in both Terminator movies as well as Titanic, where the
thug bodyguard is an ex-cop himself.
In addition to the
Herculean display of strength there, the police also discover that Milligan is
an escape artist that would make Houdini blush and that his apartment had so
many guns that it's referred to as an “arsenal.” These wildly divergent
skills and attributes – any one of which would take most individuals years to
master – really stretch the story's plausibility.
After Milligan displays
one behavioral contradiction after another, one of the numerous psychologists
who interviews him, a woman named Dr. Hubbard, finally diagnoses him as having
multiple personality disorder. This, then, leads to the introduction of
Milligan's attorney, Gary Schweickart, who's initially very incredulous about
the diagnosis, in part because he's a public defender with enough on his plate
that he initially doesn't want to have his time wasted by a phony. When he
first meets Milligan, his new client rapidly shifts back and forth between
personalities. It's through Gary's questioning of Milligan that the various
personalities are first introduced. Among others, we learn of a “Ragen,”
“Tommy,” “Arthur,” and “Danny.” (Billy's eyes go into REM mode when he
transitions. In order for it to have not come across as preposterous and silly,
this scene probably would have taken some exceptional acting.)
Both Gary's skepticism
and some of Milligan's traits come across in this exchange between Gary and one
of his assistants after the initial meeting:
BILLY alone in his
empty cell, eyes half-closed, lips moving silently.
He's facing hard time.
He's got one right
Lots of people are
Ragen speaks and
So do ten million
Arabic and Swahili.
Having a facility for
make you one
hand short for bridge.
The escape artist, the
eyes, the electronics
GARY and JUDY.
All of that can be
All by one person?
With a hundred
I.Q.? From a small
farm in Ohio?
You're looking for
some kind of
inexplicable "thing" to
prove this to you
beyond a shadow of
a doubt. Well, it's
Gary... not a magic
trick. And I
Milligan is then
admitted to a decent mental hospital where he's eventually given an “EEG” test,
which measures his brainwaves. At separate times, he exhibits brainwaves which
are unique to children, and then at another time standard adult brainwaves.
Because of this, the doctors there confirm the diagnosis of multiple personality
disorder, and Billy is found not guilty of the rapes by reason of insanity.
Throughout all of this, various people – nurses, reporters, cops, etc. –
continue to believe that he's faking his illness. In fact, only select few main
characters, like his attorneys, are shown to believe this at all.
It is after that verdict
is rendered that the story then transitions to an extended series of flashbacks
which, collectively, form a biography of him and “reveal” that he's not faking
and that his disorder is even more severe than what's been shown thus far.
The flashbacks begin
with young Billy watching his father fail miserably as a stand-up comedian.
However, Billy is just a toddler and so, to him, his dad is a hero. As he
watches his dad on the stage performing, lit by the spotlight, we're being
subtly introduced to the very visual metaphor that Billy (and the screenplay)
will later use to show how the various personalities commandeer his brain.
Further, we're introduced to some people who, later on, will become inspirations
for Billy's alternate personalities. For example, at the comedy club, Billy is
helped by a large Eastern European busboy who saves him from some chastisements
of another busboy.
Very soon after this,
Billy's father commits suicide by inhaling carbon monoxide, and Billy and his
shell-shocked, emotionally distant mother move to Ohio. His mother is clearly
anxious to get married again and so she's entirely blind to the creepy things
that her new husband does around her son (including trying to have sex with her
right in front of him) and the extreme abuse he later inflicts upon him.
The first alternate
personality emerges after Billy has been raped by his step-father. Billy is
tied to a piece of farming equipment after the rape (the scene cuts in
afterward) and then his eyes and face start to make the contortions described
earlier when the adult Billy was shifting between one personality and another.
This first personality, “Tommy” is a teenage boy and he's able to dislocate his
thumb to free himself from his bindings. The revelation comes when Billy walks
over to a place where he'd earlier painted his name and, beneath it, now paints
“Tommy.” Soon after, other personalities emerge, including a young girl, “Christene,”
and the tough Eastern European inspired by the busboy, “Ragen.”
Very quickly, the story
jumps ahead from pre-adolescent Billy to an age twenty-one Billy. It's quickly
made clear that Billy's having a hard time controlling his life: he's broke, and
one of his personalities is clearly a drug dealer. For money, Billy (as Ragen)
soon becomes hired muscle for some local drug dealers. To get the job, he again
exhibits absolute mastery of yet more crafts that, frankly, would probably take
years of dedicated study to master in real life: marksmanship and martial arts.
The story discusses how no one man could know so much about so many different
things in support of the multiple personality diagnosis, and yet it's never
seriously shown how one body could ever have the time or physical
aptitude for all these different crafts. This problem persists throughout the
entire screenplay and is never given anything more than a perfunctory
In keeping with a
concept throughout many of Cameron's movies, when Billy is hired to be a thug,
he says, “Except one thing. I do not hurt people unless my life is in
danger, and I do not hurt womans.” Throughout all of Cameron's movies
before Avatar, the protagonists never killed anybody (with the exception
of True Lies which was obviously more of a comedy romp than a serious
Somewhat confusedly, the
story then has flashbacks within the flashbacks: it shows Billy as a middle
school student, when a guidance counselor suspects that he's got some weird
variation of schizophrenia and he's respectfully admitted to a mental hospital.
In one of the parts where it jumps back to showing twenty-one year old Billy,
the “rules” of how the various personalities share Billy's body are agreed on by
them. One of them, “Arthur,” a smart Englishman, explains:
rules. Everyone will
have specific duties
tailored toward their
talents. Tommy is an
genius, as well as an
Several of us are
painters. I excel
at foreign languages
and dabble in
girls do domestic
As a twenty-one year
old, Billy is quickly fired from a job at a manufacturing facility because he
can't remember what he's supposed to do as he shifts from one personality to the
next (although later on, he actually returns to the job when one of his
personalities doesn't know he's been fired). Soon after, he meets a sweet girl
named Francine who is attracted to him precisely because he does have a “dark
part.” When they first meet at a party, we also learn that, when he consumes
alcohol (and, presumably, other drugs) only the personality that did the
consuming is affected by it:
have you had to drink?
Me? What about you?
He looks at the beer in his hand, not knowing how it got there, and not feeling
the least bit drunk.
One minute you're
drunk, the next you're
gotta teach me that
one. So, are we
going to your place?
Although Billy and
Francine have a tender affair, through it all, the story makes clear that his
disorder is harming him with greater frequency and severity. There are several
points where Billy is doing one thing very briefly, then it reads, “BLACKOUT,”
then it shows him doing something totally different, “BLACKOUT,” and then
something totally different again, “BLACKOUT.” The two most prominent
alternate personalities, Arthur and Ragen, eventually identify that they're
losing control of him:
BILLY stands in the
middle of the living room talking to himself in an English accent.
It's getting harder
and harder to
keep control. The
mix-up times are
happening far too
personalities have been
stealing. And today I
He's holding a bail receipt.
Someone is doing
drugs. No one can
hold a job.
It's all slipping away...
There are three scenes
that especially show how Billy's disorder is, by now, making it impossible for
him to function. First, one of the drug deals that he's involved with goes bad
and he has to shoot somebody. Then, he somehow ends up at a highway rest stop
late at night and he viciously assaults a transvestite prostitute and a couple
of johns. Finally, after Francine sees him nearly commit suicide, she breaks up
the relationship. As all this progresses, the various personalities are shown
arguing about the events and who should control “the spot.”
Billy then takes a
trip to London (presumably as “Arthur”) where, funnily, he behaves like an
archetypal Englishman from the early twentieth century when, of course, the
reality of English culture had long shifted:
BILLY coming out of a fish & chips shop -- happily munching away. He passes a
BUSINESSMAN in a suit. Next to him, it's painfully clear how removed from
reality ARTHUR'S cliched vision of a proper Englishman is.
The BUSINESSMAN gives an odd look to this antiquated stranger as he passes.
When Billy is extradited
from England because he has no money or documents of any sort, the humiliation
causes his alternate personalities to funnel all of their rage into the plan to
assassinate his stepfather. (As this is being debated, Cameron's theme of
valuing human life again arises when Arthur says, “Killing is wrong. We only
protect ourselves if we are threatened.”) The scene plays out over several
pages, as the stepfather is leaving his house and Ragen has him in the
crosshairs of a rifle scope. The various personalities debate this heatedly.
Ultimately, a shot is simply fired in the direction of the stepfather, who
apparently doesn't even realize it, and there's no resolution.
It is then that the
screenplay jumps back to the rapes, playing them out, with two major
differences. The first is perceptual: at this point, the audience is clearly
intended to have a lot more sympathy for Billy than at the start of the story.
(Although, assuming this is accurate, it overlooks the reality that most people
automatically know to identify with, and have sympathy for, the main character
in any work of fiction, and so it seems highly probable that most viewers would
have been sympathetic at the start, anyway.) The second major difference is
that, rather than seeing Billy as the culprit, we instead see the bodies of his
various personalities ordering the rape victims around and then robbing them.
Interestingly, it's one of Billy's female personalities, “Adalana” who rapes the
women. (One critic who read the screenplay quipped, “Not sure how that
After he's arrested,
the flashbacks continue to show him in jail only, again, we now see the various
personalities themselves as the ones in jail, rather than Billy.
Finally, after the
chaos of Billy's mindscape is displayed in one last flourish of “BLACKOUTS,”
the story returns to the “present day,” where Billy is in a mental hospital
after he's been acquitted of the rapes. Billy is visited in a hospital bed by a
nurse who, at a glance, sees that he's somehow purged of the alternate
personalities. She says, “Oh my God.” And he calmly states, “I'm
Billy.” The simple moment of peace is obviously meant to put a cap on the
confusing mania that had been increasingly building throughout the flashbacks.
Billy then has an
extended meeting with a doctor, where the two of them discuss how the alternate
personalities took control of him by viewing old videotapes of him being
interviewed as the personalities. It's shown that he's now on medication and,
seemingly, in control of himself, at long last.
Then, there's a cut
to a news broadcast breaking the story that the rapist is about to be freed a
mere ten months after the offenses. The public protest that follows inevitably
brings with it a grandstanding politician, who arranges for a new legal
hearing. What's at stake is whether Billy will be freed outright, at the
doctor's request, or whether he'll be assigned to “Lima” prison, which is
described as a “butcher shop” of a prison. Gary, still Billy's attorney,
says, “You send him to Lima and you're going to kill him..” One
interesting note is that the politician is shown to be both sincere and
knowledgeable in his actions. That is, he's not just the archetypal villain
seen in many political dramas (however accurate the archetype might be). Before
the hearing, he talks with Gary and he gets the last word in:
I know you, Schweickart. You don't
think you're on the right side
unless you feel like the underdog.
Well, this time your compassion is
misplaced. Try thinking about the
victims. Try thinking about their
families. I'm gonna stop you, Gary.
And I'm not gonna lose a night's
Billy's testimony in
the hearing explains (or at least rationalizes) questions that many skeptical
viewers might have of how one human being could do all that Billy did, and also
why Billy never sought any sort of treatment. Here are two parts of Billy's
testimony to questions that Gary poses to him:
Billy, before you were arrested and
Dr. Caul started treating you, did
you ever suspect that there was
anything wrong with you?
Sure. I knew I lost time and heard
voices in my head, but I thought
that happened to everybody.
Didn't you think it strange that no
one talked about it?
I was so scared and embarrassed, I
figured everyone else was, too.
Then, every once in a while, I'd
hear someone say "I don't know where
the day went" or "Did I have fun
last night?". I thought that was as
close as anybody came to discussing
And how do you feel now, after ten
months at Athens?
Well, I feel whole, like I'm one
person for the first time in my
life. I used to feel like a freak.
But then I got to thinkin' -- in my
life, I've learned to get out of
handcuffs and straitjackets, be a
righty or a lefty, control if I'm
drunk or sober, talk Arabic, Hebrew,
Yugoslavian, Japanese, learn martial
arts, play piano and drums, make my
eye shake, be an artist... And, I'm
no rocket scientist... my I.Q. is
pretty average -- so I got to
thinkin' if I could do all that,
then couldn't everybody? They just
don't know how to tap into it. But
if they have a brain, just like I
have a brain -- and it's made up of
the same muscle and stuff that mine
is, then maybe, just maybe, if they
went through what I went through as
a kid, they might have split up into
a bunch of different people like I
did. And then I didn't feel like
such a freak. I felt like someone
who got forced to open a door
everybody else gets to keep locked.
I felt like that but for the grace
of God go there.
The testimony of the prosecutors is equally illuminating
and, it's probably safe to assume, far more convincing for many people. Here's
the opening of the prosecutor's statement:
(reads from a book)
Multiple Personality Disorder is a
form of narcissism. A willful
disease. Cowardly. It is the five
year old child with powdered sugar
on his lips saying "I didn't eat the
He put the book down.
You have already heard the testimony
from his psychiatric resident at
Lima State Hospital, Dr. Frederick
Milkie, who, after examining the
defendant, concluded not only that
he did not suffer from M.P.D., but
that in all probability, the
disorder itself does not exist. The
defense has certainly offered no
physiological evidence to the
contrary. Only differing
professional opinion. But, your
honor, the validity of Mr.
Milligan's psychiatric claims is not
at issue here. What is at issue is
the safety of this community from a
convicted sex offender.
closing statements runs for a full two pages, with no breaks, flashbacks, or
visual aids of any sort. He starts out with a strong moral defense of Billy,
saying that he endured the most horrific forms of abuse as a child and, like
many children, he developed an active imagination to flee from it.
Unfortunately, the products of that imagination, “didn't conveniently go away
when he grew up and no longer needed them.” He then points out that, while
it's possible that multiple personality disorder can be faked (or might not even
be real), “it's symptoms cannot be faked.” Thus, the various real
phenomenon that Billy displayed in the hospital's care are solid, substantive
evidence that his disease was real. Finally, he makes a strong moral argument,
and also creates a terrific analogy to justify Billy's release:
We all like to think of ourselves as
compassionate and caring human
beings and yet as soon as that
compassion threatens to demand
something real from us -- a
demonstration -- proof of its
existence -- we draw the line.
Please, your honor, let's use this
opportunity to take one small step
in narrowing the gap between our
potential for compassion and the
reality of its limits. If I have an
incurable disease, and I don't know
it, and I give it to you, and you
die -- can I to be tried as a
murderer? No. I didn't know I was
sick. So you decide to quarantine
me instead, which is only sensible,
since we don't want me to hurt
anyone else. But, if I'm then cured
to the point where I'm no longer
contagious... do you never let me
The judge determines that Billy is a danger to society
and must go to Lima prison. As a montage of Billy entering the prison and its
inner horrors are described on-screen (forced medication, electroshock therapy,
even an exorcism), a haunting voiceover then begins. It's revealed that Billy
is reverting to his multiple personalities to avoid the pain, just as he did
when he was a child. However, on a more hopeful note, Billy is shown painting
in his cell, “painting himself out of Hell and into a world of escape.”
Finally, in a cinematic
method common to “true” stories, title-cards were to appear on-screen. Billy's
case continued through to the Supreme Court, and he was eventually sent back to
the first mental hospital. It then says, “Today, after thirteen years in the
Ohio Mental Health System. Billy Milligan is a free man and supporting himself
as an artist.”
A FEW THOUGHTS ON 'A CROWDED
If my personal opinions didn't seep through enough in the
summaries, I'll say that, in my opinion, James Cameron is probably fortunate
that he never directed A Crowded Room, because I don't think that it was
either a very compelling story or even a particularly well-written screenplay.
For me personally, the biggest problem throughout was a simple disbelief that
multiple personality disorder could possibly be this acute and, more
specifically, it just seems impossible, with only eighteen waking hours in a
day, that anybody could master all the crafts that Billy's personalities
supposedly mastered. It seems almost like those adolescent delusions about
karate and tae kwan do, where many kids think that there are a few simple tricks
that can be learned that will, like magic, make them unstoppable physical
specimens, when the reality is a little bit less dramatic.
One other element that
probably might limit modern readers' (or viewers', if it ever gets produced)
enjoyment is that perhaps A Crowded Room's most unique and interesting
trick – visualizing Billy's mental disorder – has since been utilized by at
least two successful movies, Fight Club and A Beautiful Mind.
(Although the latter dealt with schizophrenia rather than multiple personality
disorder, it used the similar technique of filming delusions as if they were
entirely real-world events.) It seems likely that there are probably many other
movies and TV shows that used these tricks, even before 1992. But with the
success of those two movies, it would almost seem cliché and old-hat nowadays.
With all this said,
it seems a little weird that this came so close to actually being “A Film by
James Cameron.” It's possible that Cameron was uniquely drawn to this story
because he felt some personal connection to the Billy Milligan character. Like
Milligan, Cameron himself is a very talented figure artist and, clearly, he has
an extremely active imagination, too. Maybe, on some level, he saw Billy
Milligan as what he might have been if he had endured serious abuse. However,
this is entirely speculation on my part.
But, anyway it's analyzed, it seems fortuitous for
Cameron's career that it was never made. After the whole legal “madness,”
Cameron promptly made True Lies, (a movie that, ironically, was probably
his least personal movie. It was produced very quickly, was a re-make of
a French movie, and Arnold Schwarzenegger actually brought the project to him!)
Although True Lies wasn't necessarily a smash hit relative to its
budget, it was certainly enough of a hit that it helped to fortify Cameron's
track record as somebody who brought returns on big investments. That track
record, of course, had to have played a big part in Twentieth Century Fox
investing in Titanic in 1995 and the rest, of course, is history.
Written by David Brennan
JamesCameronBlogspot.com exclusively for
Copyright 2010, David