Saturday, August 15, 2009

Be Yourselves And Keep Smiling

Michael Ritchie is a tough director to pin down in an auteur sense, since his career moved from genuinely interesting, biting films in the 70s (THE CANDIDATE, PRIME CUT, THE BAD NEWS BEARS) to a long stretch of star vehicles in the 80s and 90s (FLETCH, THE GOLDEN CHILD, FLETCH LIVES) that seemed to include every comic actor working during that time. Mixed in there were also a few oddball titles that included the long-shelved film version of THE FANTASTICKS, which finally got a small theatrical release not long before the director’s premature death from prostate cancer in early 2001. Possibly his best film, the 1975 satire SMILE feels like a key work from that decade which has gotten lost in the shuffle when that era is discussed. Bitingly funny yet at the same time strangely empathic towards its characters it takes a look at a suburban America which is too familiar to be exaggerated. There’s barely a laugh in the film that doesn’t catch in the throat somewhat as we realize the sentiment behind it really isn’t a joke. Written by Jerry Belson, certain elements that seem to be barely there on first viewing somehow are able to stay in the head days later. And it should be mentioned that there are so few comedies which trumpet “Starring Bruce Dern” on the poster it seems like one that does deserves as much special attention as it can get.

The loosely plotted film focuses on the California finals of the “Young American Miss” beauty pageant held in the Northern California town of Santa Rosa, after which the winner will move on to the national show. A number of the contestants are focused on (including the likes of Melanie Griffith, Annette O’Toole and Colleen Camp) but so are the pageant’s executive director Brenda DiCarlo (Barbara Feldon), her terminally depressed, alcoholic husband Andy (Nicholas Pryor), pageant producer Wilson Spears (Geoffrey Lewis) as well as famed choreographer Tommy French (Michael Kidd) but much of the focus is on Miss Antelope Valley, Robin Gibson (Joan Prather) a fresh face to this cutthroat world and local hot shot Big Bob Freelander (Bruce Dern), mobile home salesman and head judge of the contest with a self-imposed sunny outlook on things which begins to get some kinks in it as the week proceeds.

Bitingly satirical yet never too nasty, SMILE gets its darkness not from nasty humor but from the blandly bleak look at this lifestyle, a suburban California back in the 70s where people seem to be doing everything they can to put off thinking about the realities of their day-to-day life. The contest is a charade of optimism, pretending to put these girls on the road to “a bright tomorrow” but all they’re doing is setting them on the path to the life the adults are miserable in—not to mention the matter of parading teenage girls in skimpy clothing in front of everyone, something a few pre-teen boys around seem determined to take advantage of in one of the numerous subplots. “I went to Julliard for this?” “We all went to Julliard,” goes an exchange between two musicians playing “Spring is Here” for one of the numerous tone-deaf singers. “It’s a depressing thing to see one person be mean to another person,” is another key line and the bitterness in SMILE may linger throughout but it stays light by never being too mean to anyone. The movie avoids cheap shots by not making the girls standard ditzes and even those who don’t seem all that sharp are never spotlighted for ridicule—they’re just too young and na├»ve to be subjected to all this and the film doesn’t hold back in showing off how utterly lacking in talent a few of them really are.

Contestant Joan Prather is petty much the audience surrogate, wide-eyed but never too unknowing, open to doing the best she can but clearly someone who wants to keep her own identity intact—it says a great deal how much this is communicated through Ritchie’s direction and the actress’s performance, not from written dialogue. Believably, she’s not aware enough yet to put these things into words but we can tell it’s what she’s feeling. Bruce Dern’s Big Bob provides the moral compass as someone with a cheery exterior who “learned a long time ago to accept a little less from life” but is now beginning to find the flaws in this approach catching up with him. In just about the key scene of the whole film he tells of a date he once had long ago with Elizabeth Taylor that never happened, an event that seems to have shaped the way his life turned out. Dern is amazing here, just about as good as he ever was and by the end of the film he seems like a man without an answer to anything. He doesn’t know how to help his alcoholic friend Andy (despondent partly over turning 35—jeez, now I’M depressed) beyond just offering, “You gotta get out there and start having some fun,” and when confronted with a psychologist that his son has to see he seems to think that the whole thing is a waste of time. One of his mottos to his customers –“We don’t worry about credit, why should you?”—has affected his attitude towards things and now he seems to be reacting as if all his credit is suddenly used up.

The relaxed style of SMILE seems to tonally fall between Altman and Ashby—there is probably more specific focus in individual scenes than how Altman would have approached it (his version would probably been a little nastier as well) and the comical tone is slightly more exaggerated than what Ashby might have done. Ritchie’s style at times feels invisible but when studied closely it becomes clear how strong a hand he had in shaping this film. Even an almost bizarrely nightmarish sequence involving the local lodge and members kissing a raw chicken never feels like it goes too far in its outlandishness. Like much of the rest of the movie there’s a mundane feel to these idiotic things that people are doing which always grounds he movie in a believable reality. Despite the bitterness and dark turns it takes late in the game there are no real bad guys in the film with the exception of Geoffrey Lewis and even he seems to be more of an uptight prick doing an impossible job. Even Barbara Feldon’s character is given a moment of peace as she silently watches the final ceremony in tears and the movie respectfully lets her have this moment.

In the end it says something that the character who winds up doing the absolute worst thing is the one who may have come the farthest in the course of the film and, though the film never shows us, may be one of only one of them in at better place when the credits roll (who wins the pageant, as it turns out, is completely incidental to things). The world of SMILE is one where everyone is in the same boat, looking in the wrong places for what might enrich their lives and without a clue how to fully express what they need to do. Early on Feldon’s pageant director tells the girls to remember two things, “Just be yourselves and keep smiling.” It’s pretty blatantly the theme of the film and almost no one is able to do one without the other. Dern’s Big Bob comes to realize that he doesn’t know what the first half of that sentence really is if he’s not smiling for the world and without that knowledge to fall back on, he doesn’t know what he has.

Dern really is fantastic in the role all the way down to the smallest gestures of his character (the last moment the movie focuses on him is just beautiful) and Prather silently seems to bring the focus on herself more and more as the film goes on with a particularly great moment revealing her lower lip quivering as the contest nears its end. Tommy Kidd (mostly a real choreographer but also one of the leads in IT’S ALWAYS FAIR WEATHER) is simply fantastic as the harsh but fair-minded choreographer—in a lesser film this might have been a film-stealing performance but here he fits in perfectly with the ensemble and his character displays a huge amount of dignity which no one but us ever really knows about. Griffith and Camp are around throughout in fairly small roles but Annette O’Toole has a bright presence as Prather’s roommate and Maria O’Brien is very funny as Maria Gonzales, determined to use her half-Mexican half-American heritage to her advantage at every turn. Feldon, Lewis and Pryor are each excellent as well under Ritchie’s direction but so are numerous performances throughout even from bit players. Fans of the director’s FLETCH will probably want to know that actor William Traylor, that film’s Mr. Underhill (he’s also in THE TOWERING INFERNO for those keeping track of such things), has a sizable role here as the pageant’s band conductor and is very funny in the part.

With the film coming second on the bill following THE ‘BURBS at opening night of the recent Dante’s Inferno festival at the New Beverly, Bruce Dern appeared before this film with Joe Dante to discuss both films. Dante basically asked him, “What do you remember about making SMILE?” which was followed by Dern in hugely entertaining fashion talking about seemingly everything under the sun for the next half-hour or so (isn’t anyone going to post this on Youtube?). Dern talked about how the role of Big Bob was such a departure for him since he was usually cast as villains, fondly recalling Ritchie (they worked together again years later in DIGGSTOWN) and, as I wrote about in my piece on THE ‘BURBS, compared him favorably to Dante in how each would work closely with their actors to continually try new things in scenes. He also praised cinematographer Conrad Hall who came onto the film and shot the 104 page script in only 28 days, sometimes with as many as 61 setups done in a day. It was a huge thrill to be in the man’s presence and think about how valuable he has been to so many films over the years.

This year’s Dante’s Inferno festival is over now and in addition to this night it consisted of a Corman double bill (a beautiful Scope print of THE ST. VALENTINE’S DAY MASSACRE), an end-of-the-world pairing of Dante’s own MATINEE and the astounding MIRACLE MILE (as well as the full version of MANT!, the film-within-a-film in MATINEE), the 60s comedy night of COLD TURKEY & THE PRESIDENT’S ANALYST and the festival closed out with a double feature of two lesser known films scored by John Barry, THE LAST VALLEY and ALICE’S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND (lots of great, random trailers shown most nights as well). And of course, the festival also included the return of THE MOVIE ORGY, a little longer this time, closer to five hours, and still just about the most enjoyable time anyone lucky enough to see it will ever spend in a movie theater. But maybe more than anything, a chance to see SMILE in a theater with an appreciative crowd is what this festival is really about. It’s a film that has never received the attention A film which has never really received the praise it deserves being paid tribute to by one of its stars in the most affectionate way possible: a modest movie theater in Los Angeles where the people who show up are there because they love movies. Maybe that’s why I feel a little at sea this weekend—as was the case at the end of the first Dante festival, I have very little interest to go out and see the new stuff, most of which will be forgotten about within a few weeks. For the people who care, SMILE isn’t forgotten, MATINEE isn’t forgotten, MIRACLE MILE isn’t forgotten and I look forward to the next time Joe Dante returns to the New Beverly, to give us a few more reminders of why movies like SMILE deserve to be remembered and why we love them as much as we do.

“…and that girl had a wooden foot.”


le0pard13 said...

Mr. Peel, what a great post of this movie, Dern, Ritchie, the Dante series, and naming one of my all-time favorite 'L.A.' films, Miracle Mile. Bruce Dern is one of my favorite villains (though, he's so much more than that)--and is one of the best things in Black Sunday (no pressure ;-). It's been a long time since I've seen Smile, and I'm going to have to rectify that situation. I would have loved to have taken in so many in this year's Dante/Beverly Cinema series, especially another big screen view of Miracle Mile. [but wife and kids do take precedent, at times] As I write this, I've just finished watching Sunday Morning's piece on Quentin Taratino, and they mention the fact of his purchase/rescue of the New Beverly Cinema. All good stuff. Thanks for this.

Griff said...

Put it this way -- when the Academy honored Michael Kidd with a special Oscar, my wife asked, "Who's that?"

"It's Michael Kidd, the great choreographer. He choreographed such films as THE BAND WAGON, 7 BRIDES FOR 7 BROTHERS, GUYS AND DOLLS, LI'L ABNER, HELLO, DOLLY! and STAR!"

"Impressive. Anything else?"

"Well, he played the beauty contest choreographer in SMILE," I replied.

"He deserved an Oscar for that all by itself," she exclaimed.

Mr. Peel said...


Thanks very much, glad you liked the piece. It was pretty great to see MIRACLE MILE again, but yes, family does come first sometimes. I saw that CBS Sunday Morning piece and while I'd heard rumors about Tarantino's ownership of the theater is was pretty cool to see it discussed on national television. That's a great thing he's done.


Your wife is absolutely right. He really did.

Cholmondely Featherstonehaugh said...

Mr. Peel -

Nice post.

Question: when Tommy French leaves town, did you happen to see who is in the motel room with him? (Turned up the brightness on my TV as high as it would go, still couldn't make out the face. Thought it might be the Barbara Feldon character.)

BTW, Did you like the movie "Serial"? More outlandish, certainly, but similar to "Smile" in its satirical-but-sympathetic attitude towards its characters.

Interesting to revisit it many years later - so many of the goofy new age phrases in the dialogue have subsequently found their way into common parlance.