Sunday, June 21, 2009
Happy Birthday Dear Somebody
I doubt that Blake Edwards’ S.O.B. was ever a particularly believable look at the goings-on of Hollywood. Of course, that’s not at all the point of the film. Instead, it’s clearly meant to be an exaggeration, but more importantly it’s supposed to be as bitter and angry as cinematically possible. Released on July 1, 1981 we don’t need to know much of the history of the director’s career to guess that the Hollywood portrayed probably made more sense in the context of the early 70s, when the events that inspired this pitch- black farce occurred. That the film is set slightly out of time doesn’t hurt it now. If anything, it makes the film seem more fanciful than ever since compared to the film industry portrayed in ENTOURAGE this film feels set on Mars in comparison. I’ve always loved multi-character comedies like this, the ones that demand a full cast-recap of the main players at the start of the closing credits. It’s arch, it’s dark and it’s not without its own problems but it shows Blake Edwards as writer and director more confident and fearless than he ever was before or since.
NIGHT WIND, the new big-budget family film from producer Felix Farmer (Richard Mulligan) and starring wife Sally Miles (Julie Andrews) has just opened to universal disdain and record low box office. As Sally leaves the house with their kids intent on separation, Felix cracks up. With Capitol studio head David Blackman (Robert Vaughn) unable to reach Felix, some of his closest friends such as NIGHT WIND director Tim Culley (William Holden in his final role), publicity man Ben Coogan (Robert Webber) and physician Dr. Irving Finegarten (Robert Preston) make their way to his Malibu home just as Felix is interrupted in a suicide attempt, accidentally drives his Rolls-Royce into the Pacific. After yet another attempt which results in Felix falling and landing on gossip columnist Polly Reed (Loretta Swit), Felix is knocked out into catatonia by the good doctor and when Felix wakes up in the middle of the party/orgy in his own house that his friends are throwing he is struck with an inspiration—reshoot NIGHT WIND to turn it into “$40 million pornographic love epic” starring the normally clean-cut Miles, which will make it the biggest money maker of all time.
Mostly remembered today as the film where Julie Andrews goes topless (the trailer on the DVD includes an offscreen voice exclaiming, “You want America’s G-Rated sweetheart to appear in the nude?” which is never actually heard—it’s a key part of the film, but it’s still only just a part of it) S.O.B. is much more, a full-on nuclear assault on the nature of Hollywood but though it is obviously extremely personal, based on battles that Edwards himself went through (reportedly mostly involving Paramount and 1970’s DARLING LILI) he never makes it an autobiographical piece like 8 ½ or something where the lead is the one noble voice in a sea of sleaze (like how the Paul Mazursky version would have gone). Richard Mulligan’s Felix Farmer isn’t Edwards since he’s the producer of NIGHT WIND for one thing and neither is Holden’s Tim Culley, a hack director being more interested in being “shacked up with a sixteen year-old and a case of Jack Daniels”. None of these characters can be considered tortured artists or auteurs. They’re just in the game for the money, glory and power, like everyone else in Hollywood. It’s not always easy here to know exactly who’s being skewered but knowing that the film is essentially about Paramount (who ironically released the film produced by Lorimar) at the least it’s not too difficult to figure out that Vaughn is supposed to be Robert Evans and negotiations to have girlfriend Marisa Berenson star in a film with a hunky leading man played by David Young appear to be based on what resulted from Evans’ wife Ali MacGraw starring with Steve McQueen in THE GETAWAY. That’s what I’m guessing, anyway. One thing that I’ve always been attracted to about S.O.B. is that not only is there no one single lead, someone that an audience can “identify with”, the film is ruthless in making an audience work to figure out who all these people are. NIGHT WIND has already opened when the film starts and the characters are never really even introduced—they’re all immediately present and accounted for in their first scenes, with a few people who make vivid impressions when first turning up are rarely or even never seen again. Nobody is let off the hook in its pursuit of all-out condemnation, not even the characters (like Andrews’ Sally Miles) who you would expect to behave nobly and everyone, down to the bit player cops who offer to give Farmer some great cop stories for a movie (“And none of that SERPICO crap. The real cops.”) is desperate to claw there way into some sort of power position.
The structure is even a little fascinating—the first fifteen minutes seem to ramp things up before taking off, then it does, with much of the first half happening over the course of a single day, followed by the madness of the NIGHT WIND reshoot, which leads to a third act that deals with the repercussions of something that causes the story to take a horrifically dark turn…but since this is Edwards’ jet-black comic look at things, not really. There’s so much going on in the film that it’s almost easy to take for granted how it contains some of the best, most biting and free-flowing dialogue of Edwards’ entire career—the best example of this is Robert Preston’s doctor, clearly a role designed to steal the movie and just about everything he says gets a laugh from his very first moment onscreen (“Why is it nobody ever asks how the doctor is first? Did it ever occur to you that I could be sicker than the patient?”). If there are any drawbacks on this viewing of S.O.B. for me it’s that much of the hysterical ravings by Felix Farmer about the state of the film industry almost get lost in all the madness. Farmer is kind of this film’s equivalent of Howard Beale in NETWORK (a Holden connection) but it’s tough to know how to read some of it since we never get a good enough look at Felix Farmer in his ‘normal’ state. Mulligan is amazing whether catatonic or ranting—he really dives head-first into this part—but there are times when as much attention appears to be paid to the sheer physicality of his performance and the Scope framing of Edwards at times takes in everything around him as well, so all of these worlds don’t quite register as much as they should. I can’t help but feel like we could use another long speech or two from Felix Farmer that would take things to another level that the film seems to resist, but even behind the ultra-archness in S.O.B. there is genuine anger felt towards all the people who once tried to screw Edwards over.
Of course, by the time this film that the director wrote a decade earlier finally opened, audiences were more interested in the likes of SUPERMAN and RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK so even taken as an exaggeration it was still considerably out of step with the times, an issue even brought up when Holden says, “It’s been my experience that each time I think I know where it’s at, it’s usually somewhere else,” when he and Mulligan agree on their mutual hatred of LAST TANGO, which the producer wants to emulate (the only mention of a writer in the entire film, which also seems significant considering what Edwards is saying about things). Not that the release date matters much now but thinking about that I can’t help but wonder exactly what we see of the new version of NIGHT WIND is supposed to say about who’s making it. Everything we see appears to be way too consciously symbolic considering what they’ve said but this is never commented on. Maybe these characters are aware of it, but they’re just cynically placing these elements in their film to give the illusion of actual substance. I don’t know if all of these elements hold together seamlessly, but there’s so much going on in the film that I’ve watched it numerous times over the years and I still haven’t gotten tired of it. The film is also loaded with the best of Edwards’s own comically cinematic style, from the fast-cut round-robin of phone calls around town immediately following Polly Reed’s visit to the beach house to the full-circle feel the person who dies in the first scene brings to the plot (no one ever expresses concern for someone in front of them but hearing about it faraway gives them permission to seem worried in Hollywood) to a pretty awesome Malibu party sequence (why haven’t I ever used some of Preston’s armadillo dialogue here myself?) to crazy car-chase slapstick as well as comically horrific injuries suffered by unlikable characters, not to mention what at times feels like more alcohol consumed than in any other film. The nature of the Henry Mancini score means that it really wouldn’t work as an album so it’s no surprise that there was never a soundtrack but he brings more variety to “Polly Wolly Doodle” than should ever be asked of anyone and the ultra-peppy version that plays over the end titles feels just right.
Listing all the dead-on performances would practically be a full cast list (and, interestingly for a film about the movies, a surprising number of people associated with television), but particularly good are Andrews, Holden (I love the moment when he admits to Mulligan that he has lied to him on a few occasions--incidentally, with this actor you could also link this film to SUNSET BOULEVARD), Mulligan, Vaughn, Berenson,Swit, Larry Hagman, Stuart Margolin, Robert Webber and Shelley Winters. It’s a fantastic cast. Rosanna Arquette and Jennifer Edwards are each very funny as the two hitchhikers picked up by Holden—Arquette was apparently displeased by being asked to go topless by Edwards in front of the crew, so maybe there’s a reason why she kind of disappears from the orgy. Benson Fong plays the petty stereotypical Chinese cook for the farmers—hey, at least it wasn’t Mickey Rooney. Larry Storch is the Guru whow delivers a particularly memorable eulogy at the funeral. Herb Tanney plays the key role of the man on the beach, the first person we see in the entire film, credited as “Stiffe” Tanney. For the first time ever on this viewing I realized that in a film that has a line referencing THE THING in a particularly funny moment, it’s Kenneth Tobey, that’s film’s star, who appears briefly doing sound on NIGHT WIND. At least, I think it’s him, since he’s not listed in the credits but there’s something about an actor who was a part of such an important film in Hollywood history playing such a bit part in this film which seems…well, like something out of S.O.B.
Even through all this, the final gesture by a few of the main characters near the end is one of friendship, of trying to cut through what S.O.B. stands for, that does in the end offer this film a small semblance of depth. Even in this town you can find friendship as well as loyalty and on a day like this, one I haven’t really been looking forward to, the ones I know that I can call friends really do mean something to me. S.O.B. is one of my favorite films about this town. Part of that is because of the Blake Edwards-Henry Mancini fantasy of how I would want it to be, part of it is the pure nastiness it reveals. But part of it is because of its ending, which acknowledges that you may resent the town much of the time but by a certain point you never want to be rid of it. With certain people, the ones who really matter to you and are in it as well, you can really know where you stand. And maybe that means something in the very end, even if you wonder where your own life is going in this very dark comedy. Happy birthday dear somebody, indeed.