Mel Gibson as Dale “Mac” McKussic, retired drug dealer
Los Angeles, Summer 1988
Film: Tequila Sunrise
Release Date: December 2, 1988
Director: Robert Towne
Costume Designer: Julie Weiss
Following his success as a screenwriter—credited and uncredited—on some of the most memorable movies of the ’70s, Robert Towne intended for his sophomore directorial film, Tequila Sunrise, to be something of a spiritual follow-up to Chinatown, which… it isn’t.
Don’t get me wrong, I did get some enjoyment out of Tequila Sunrise and there’s no denying that it’s refreshingly original—almost to a questionable degree—but I would argue it’s not even close to the same league as Chinatown, let alone Bonnie & Clyde, The Godfather, The Last Detail, Marathon Man, or the other excellent films that benefited from Towne’s contributions.
Several had recommended Tequila Sunrise to me for its style, and I’ll admit the name intrigued me, so I mentally scheduled to watch it and write about it in time for #NationalTequilaDay, celebrated annually on July 24… so happy National Tequila Day!
Before watching the movie, I did some Googling to see what kind of looks I’d be covering, assuming that today’s post would either be about Mel Gibson’s blue aloha shirt or perhaps one of the sharp suits that Kurt Russell wears as part of his Detective Pat Riley cosplay. Unfortunately, the aloha shirt only shows up for a fleeting scene at a phone booth, and Russell doesn’t tipple any tequila while wearing those natty suits… which leaves us with a pretty slapdash look as Gibson’s character turns to his loyal Herradura.
Gibson doesn’t try to conceal his natural Australian accent while portraying Dale “Mac” McKussic, a surprisingly sensitive cocaine dealer (yes, you read that right) who’s trying to go straight, if tempted by the occasional opportunity to help friends like his thickheaded lawyer out with their fledgling drug deals. He enjoys a convenient childhood association with Nick Frescia (Kurt Russell), the slick-suited and even slicker-haired homicide detective just promoted to lieutenant of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department narcotics division, though their hot-and-cold friendship devolves into romantic rivalry for the affections of the stylish restauranteur Jo Ann Vallenari (Michelle Pfeiffer).
The complications of the messy love triangle result in one afternoon where Jo Ann storms onto a beach to confront Mac, who is watching his son compete in a surfing competition. Just as Jo Ann’s temper flares, Mac’s son gets into an accident and catalyzes Mac’s parental instincts as he rushes into the waves. Back at his condo, he tucks his son into bed and recovers with shots of straight tequila, which steel his nerves enough that he finally asks Jo Ann out.
What’d He Wear?
When Jo Ann finds Mac on the beach, he’s understandably dressed in just a set of polyester swim trunks, loudly patterned with gold aquatic birds overlaid against double sets of red vertical stripes, all against an ivory ground.
After Mac rushes into the water to attend to his son, he pulls on a long-sleeved polo to dry off. The navy cotton shirting looks somewhat faded, the likely result of hard-wearing and multiple washes that has rendered it into the role of beach cover-up. The shirt serves this purpose well as it’s also somewhat oversized, which would be more comfortable when pulling on over wet skin.
The long-sleeved polo has a two-button placket worn open and a ribbed collar that Mac keeps “popped”, though this was likely due to the hasty context that called for him to put on rather than any adherence to any unfortunate fashion trends of the ’80s. Split with a vent on each side of the hem, the shirt also has a breast pocket.
Given the context of the scene, Mac wears neither the black Reebok sneakers nor his gold Rolex Submariner that both feature so prominently elsewhere in Tequila Sunrise.
What to Imbibe
Look no further than the title. If nothing else, Tequila Sunrise certainly lives up to its name, featuring plenty of tequila enjoyed both on its own and as the base spirit in the eponymous cocktail.
But before we get to that point, since today is National Tequila Day in the U.S., let’s take a step back to define tequila. Distilled from blue agave, tequila originated during the 16th century in Mexico, where laws limit its production primarily to the state of Jalisco. Based on its age at bottling, there are three primary varieties: the clear blanco (young), the “rested” reposado (aged between two months and a year), and the golden añejo or extra añejo (aged 1-3 years or longer.)
Enjoyable to shoot and quick to inebriate, tequila has gained a cultural reputation outside its home country as an agent of undress, often shot with a salt and lime chaser to reduce the burn, but higher-quality tequilas than that bottle of Tortilla Gold you shot in college can be a rewarding drink on their own, particularly those distilled with 100% agave. The traditional Mexican preparation for enjoying tequila is poured neat in a snifter, to be savored rather than shot.
Herradura Añejo stars as the tequila de la hora in Tequila Sunrise, from an extended closeup of the bottle as Mac drowns his sorrows to him muttering to Jo Ann that “I’ll have some Herradura” before pouring himself a series of shots following his son’s surfing accident.
Tequila Herradura was established in 1870 in the Jalisco city of Amatitán by Félix López, with ownership retained by his family until all assets were sold to Brown-Forman in 2007. Since its founding, Herradura only produces 100% agave tequilas, including the budget-friendly el Jimador brand that has been the top-selling tequila in Mexico since shortly after it was launched in 1994.
Given the prominence of its screen appearances—and how significant the spirit would be in a movie actually called Tequila Sunrise—one can only speculate as to the magnitude of the product placement deal that Herradura must have secured to be Mac’s tequila of choice.
Around the world, tequila has been popularized as the base spirit in a number of cocktails, including the classic Margarita, the Paloma, the Bloody Maria, and the hard-charging Tequila Slammer.
While never actually mentioned by name on screen, the appearance and ingredients used to of Mac’s favorite long drinks—not to mention the title of the movie itself—suggest that he’s a fan of the Tequila Sunrise, a characteristically unmixed concoction of tequila, orange juice, and grenadine syrup, poured into a highball glass in that order to allow the grenadine to sink to the bottom, creating the signature gradient “sunrise” effect.
Unlike some drinks, the circumstances around its development are well-documented. The modern Tequila Sunrise was created by bartenders Bobby Lozoff and Billy Rice at the Trident restaurant in Sausalito, California, resurrecting the name from a combination of tequila, lime juice, crème de cassis, and soda that had been sold by bartender Gene Sulit at the Arizona Biltmore Hotel decades earlier. When Bill Graham hosted a private party at the Trident during the Rolling Stones’ 1972 tour through the United States, Mick Jagger famously enjoyed his first of many Tequila Sunrises, requesting the drink across the country in what would become known as the “cocaine and tequila sunrise tour” according to Keith Richards’ memoir Life.
A year after the Stones partied their way across the country, introducing Lozoff and Rice’s concoction to the masses, the Eagles released their single “Tequila Sunrise”, which peaked at number 64 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1973. Within another year, the recipe officially debuted in the venerated Mr. Boston Official Bartender’s Guide—stipulating two ounces of tequila, four of orange juice, and 3/4 ounces of grenadine—and the Tequila Sunrise was here to stay.
In her celestially informed cocktail guide The Mixology of Astrology, Aliza Kelly Faragher includes a recipe for the Tequila Sunrise among her drinks ideal for those born under the sign of Leo, explaining that “each day marks a new opportunity for Leo to shine brightly, making the Tequila Sunrise a perfect cocktail for these vivacious fire signs… daylight lovers who receive their vibrant, glowing energy from the sun.” Indeed, it was a Leo—Mick Jagger, who celebrates his 78th birthday in two days on July 26—that loved the Tequila Sunrise so much that he introduced it across the U.S. and deserves some credit for its initial success. (As “Leo season” typically falls between July 23 and August 22, it’s also fitting that National Tequila Day falls annually on July 24!)
For what it’s worth… my favorite summer drink is a double shot of silver tequila on the rocks—my go-to is Hornitos Plata, which I consider the Dewar’s of tequilas, if that makes sense—with a lime wedge, for good measure.
How to Get the Look
Perhaps not as elegant as the shirts and swim trunks seen in productions like Thunderball or The Little Drummer Girl, there’s a serviceable simplicity to Mel Gibson’s oversized long-sleeve polo worn over swim trunks in Tequila Sunrise… if nothing else, the approach would be less fussy to change out of after a day and night spent drinking Herradura.
- Navy washed cotton long-sleeved polo shirt with 2-button placket and breast pocket
- Ivory polyester short-inseam swim trunks with a gold avian print overlaying double sets of red vertical stripes
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie.