Saturday, December 29, 2018

Practically The Same Thing

There I go again, trapped on the floor in a fetal position. That’s basically where I’ve been for the past year. It happens. So that’s where I am, wondering where this is all going. But I’m trying, I really am. We try to fight our way through these feelings, to somehow understand them and hopefully come out the other side in one piece. I’m getting doubtful of that happening by this point. There’s been too much pain, too many mistakes, too much regret. Too many things not said. I blame myself, partly. Not entirely, but of course we all need a little help to make the mistakes we have to live with.

Whatever else you want to say about the films he made, Burt Reynolds will always mean something to us. We’ll always dream of speeding off with him, whether he’s the Bandit or J.J. McClure, hearing that laugh of his as we evade another Smokey. But there’s that other Burt with the vulnerability we know is there, not too far down under the skin. The injured Lewis of DELIVERANCE who spends much of the second half of that film out of commission with his bravado no good against the elements, trying to begin his life anew after a divorce in STARTING OVER, even the look of anger on his face when that guy tells him off in BOOGIE NIGHTS and he can’t hold it in anymore. The 1983 Blake Edwards remake of THE MAN WHO LOVED WOMEN that Reynolds starred in came near the very end of his superstar run of several films a year, seemingly going back and forth between action, whether comical or hard-boiled, and attempts at something more sensitive. Two halves of the coin, almost as if one of them was the way he wanted to be seen, one was the way he really felt. Speaking as a Blake Edwards adherent, this is one of those movies I pull out again every few years hoping it will click into place but by this point I’ve accepted it as an odd anomaly as well as a film that comes off as strangely personal. It’s a difficult film to pin down, almost defiant in how it avoids making an actual statement about the truth of its main character but if anything, it has soul in how willing it is to acknowledge the pain that can sometimes come from just from walking down the street.

The funeral of sculptor David Fowler is attended by a wide array of women. One of them is his analyst Marianna (Julie Andrews) who tells us the story of David (Burt Reynolds) and his continual quest for women including an escapade down to Houston where he gets involved with the wife (Kim Basinger) of one of his benefactors, the former prostitute (Jennifer Edwards) who becomes his assistant and a woman (Marilu Henner) he tracks down as part of his never ending pursuit of what he believes are the perfect pair of legs. As David’s therapy sessions with Marianna continue, circumstances cause their relationship to shift and she finds herself willingly becoming another one of those women loved by him.

THE MAN WHO LOVED WOMEN is an odd film, a remake of someone else’s and yet an obvious continuation of themes explored by the director a few years earlier in “10”. The 1977 Francois Truffaut original of the same name is oddly not credited here although the way it’s billed as “A Blake Edwards Film” as opposed to the usual credit above the title (such as “Blake Edwards’ CURSE OF THE PINK PANTHER”) that so many of his films during this period featured is an indication of the lineage. It’s recognizable as a piece of work by Blake Edwards regardless, but one that feels like it has deliberately stripped away the energy they usually contain, possibly in an attempt to be faithful to the spirit of the original but also with an eye towards exploring these themes with more seriousness than he had done before. But it feels like something is missing, whether the sort of comic setpieces he’s a master in pulling off or the specific narrative goal towards something like seducing Bo Derek, almost as if it wants to deny us what a film directed by Blake Edwards should be in the first place. Always moving at a slow, gradual pace through the episodic storyline there’s no real momentum to the narrative and it’s the sort of film where you always feel like you’re a half-hour in, no particular rush to get to any sort of plot. You’d expect it to play as comedy, which is certainly how it was sold, and some of it does but that’s not really what the goals of the film are and it doesn’t even seem interested in exploring these possibilities anyway. At one point David picks up a prostitute (played by Jennifer Edwards, daughter of the director who appeared in several of his films) and takes her home but after some conversation instead of having sex with her she becomes his assistant only to be tracked down by her pimp later on in a supermarket where she knocks him out with a frozen leg of lamb. This last part sounds like a typical Blake Edwards setpiece but in this film we only hear about it afterwards—if it turned out something was shot and cut, I could believe it—and the film is clearly more interested in the drama of their initial encounter where he acts paternal towards her as they discuss one of his sculptures and she reacts as if no one ever asked her about such a thing before.

That subdued conversational mode continues throughout and it’s just about the quietest film I can think of, always focused on the tortured ponderings as David Fowler moves from one woman to another with occasional panic attacks, in some cases doing whatever he can to meet them. Maybe it isn’t accurate to say all of the dialogue in the film is spoken in a slow hushed whisper but that’s sure what it feels like, all set in a L.A. west side that is so hermetically sealed it’s like the air’s not getting in with a Blake Edwards vibe of wealth, white wine and valium, where people idly jet off to Switzerland for a few weeks, everyone is relaxed and no one is happy in spite of it all. Even the main theme by Henry Mancini feels more ominous than his usual light confections, as if more appropriate for a mid-70s thriller where somebody drives through the snow up to a haunted New England mansion over the credits, the feeling of dread for what’s coming always left hanging in the air. It wants to laugh at times but can’t get over the sadness of the inevitable. Shot by the great Haskell Wexler, it’s one of the few Blake Edwards films not in widescreen which alone gives it a different feel, a soft naturalism but also a much more visually straightforward look which would feel like it was draining the life out of scenes if everything wasn’t already so quiet. It’s almost as if the lack of that framing removes a tool from Edwards’ creative arsenal giving this film a lack of dynamism as the scenes softly move forward, connecting but just barely and the film almost evaporates while it plays.

Compared with the original where the lead played by Charles Denner worked a relatively normal profession in Montpellier, Burt Reynolds as David Fowler lives in the Blake Edwards version of the world so he’s a wealthy sculptor in Malibu or thereabouts. In the Truffaut film the main character attempts to write his memoirs in an attempt to make sense of his life but here that sculptor goes into analysis, the result of his insecurity and panic attacks. Therapy is a continuing theme in Edwards’ films even when the subject is Commissioner Dreyfus being driven insane by Clouseau in the PINK PANTHER series and THE MAN WHO LOVED WOMEN takes the concept further in that Edwards actually wrote the screenplay with his own analyst Milton Wexler along with son Geoffrey Edwards. It’s all done in very straight-faced fashion, taking this level of depression and insecurity seriously while always searching for the next available woman and the therapy becomes the driving force of the plot even while still somewhat episodic, occasionally drifting off into digressions like an actual therapy session would, then returning back to the home base of Julie Andrews’ couch. At one point the film pauses for him to go grocery shopping, one of the most relatable moments in there and I wish the movie had lingered a little longer in such touches but instead it moves on to the next conquest or just discussions about them. The dryness extends to the doctor played by Julie Andrews doctor consulting with her own analyst about him, which makes me think of Lorraine Bracco going to see Peter Bogdanovich in THE SOPRANOS only without any satirical archness, all purely analytical as they discuss his situation with great earnestness. Flashbacks to his childhood (including the de rigueur scene of losing his virginity to a prostitute which is all sepia tone and soft focus) are largely taken from the original film and the film doesn’t use that much from the original, but still enough to make for an interesting point of comparison.

Just as the film seems to be settling into its own groove the pace picks up on a trip to the opening of a commission in Houston where Kim Basinger turns up as Louise, the frustrated wife of a local benefactor, a sequence of events that actually has an equivalent in the original but it’s the section that feels most comfortably like a Blake Edwards film, the energy rising each time she turns up to always insist on having sex in the most daring place possible and this is where things come to life while also seeming dangerous enough that the film can’t entirely go along with the joke, knowing that this is one of many ways that the main character is playing with fire. Some of it still plays a little dry but Basinger provides a comic energy that almost seems out of another movie altogether and it’s also at times a reminder that Edwards, particularly when it comes to farcical bed hopping, always knows how to get the point of a scene across in one shot if necessary. Along with hiding in closets and getting his hand glued to his mouth, along with a dog glued to his other hand, the peak maybe comes when Reynolds has an encounter with a parking attendant played by Ben Powers munching on a snickers that builds to both men talking with their mouths full, making perfect sense to each other. The moment goes by fast but suddenly it feels like the film has come alive from the comic possibilities that Edwards has worked out with both actors, getting the timing just right and for a moment it actually gets me to laugh out loud. Even though Basinger turns up again later on (for a threesome, no less) this section is so isolated from the rest of the film that it could almost be part of something else altogether, as if for the director the parts involving the therapy were a film he felt he needed to make but this was the one he actually enjoyed making. Maybe that’s the difference between a Blake Edwards film and a film that belongs to Blake Edwards.

The original film acknowledges the pain that gathers from living this kind of life filled with connections that are only temporary and the main character even keeps a drawer full of letters from ex-lovers wanting to know what happened. But this one just has melancholy with a lead who is unable to give up the idea of more women while at the same time hating leaving the women he’s with but we never hear much about what they think of all this with a few brief appearances by Cynthia Sikes as someone who he’s ‘kind of, semi-living with’ and the character is presented as an equal to him in some ways but she moves through the film so fast the relationship barely seems clarified for him or her or us, the concept of commitment blithely accepted as impossible. Part of the point is that Reynolds loves these women and the way he sees them is as much his vision of the world as the sculptures he creates and even at his worst the film is never particularly critical of his behavior at all. His unrequited pursuit of them, bordering on stalking in some cases, means the film has more problems than it did even then 35 years ago but of course in every way this is a director and star coming at it all from a different generation and mindset although oddly in her opening narration when Julie Andrews discusses what he meant to all these women who loved him she then adds, “Well, yes, to me, too.” The film makes it clear that it’s about the poetry which comes from how he sees them and experiences them just as much as the sex but when her final narration talks about how they were all soft clay to be molded by him I wonder if that might not be the goal of some women out there, even if the molding is done by Burt Reynolds.

All those poetic descriptions whether coming from him or Julie Andrews’ narration shows off Edwards’ inherently literate nature to his word usage and it all feels personal, particularly when David is curled up on the couch, terrified to even move, as if this office is a womb that he doesn’t want to depart. He’s too desperate to uncover further memories of his mother who he still has more of an attachment to than any long gone girlfriend, immediately associating the memory of seeing her in the bath one day right after seeing up his analyst’s dress, an event which turns out to be the catalyst for his rejuvenation, their affair and, most importantly, being able to work again. This all seems to be holding back from a true revelation, maybe because it puts Edwards out of his comfort zone and the result is somewhat stifling as if he’s trying to analyze material that doesn’t have enough weight to warrant it. In some ways it feels like the movie never fully comes together because he’s holding back his instincts in favor of this strict therapeutic approach that he’s decided on, even as the relationship goes from doctor-patient to lovers. Edwards’ later SKIN DEEP released in 1989, which itself began life in script form as a direct “10” sequel, feels like a more broadly comical remake of this remake, also about a bearded creative type going through severe psychological problems and though it’s as episodic is also much more broadly comical as well as intentionally redemptive in its storyline, hitting on answers this film avoids and it that sense this allows the plot to actually build to something. All this makes me think about my own stabs at therapy and maybe it got me to stop drinking (although that’s another Blake Edwards film entirely) but I’m also aware of the limitations of where the process went, of what I didn’t talk about, what I didn’t admit to myself even while trying to. These were my fears of trying to confront what I wanted and where I screwed up, mistakes that I’m still brooding over now. This film acknowledges the screw ups and the limitations but narratively speaking feels like a dead end.

In some ways the film wants to take itself to the logical extreme of what Dudley Moore was pursuing in “10”, literally falling down a mountainside, before he came to his senses. THE MAN WHO LOVED WOMEN, a downer released by Columbia Pictures during Christmastime 1983, would be darker if it wasn’t so self-servingly morose, the lead character floating through the world in his private, wealthy bubble, unable to see past the periphery. Gallows humor is totally at home in a Blake Edwards film but this one puts too much emphasis on just the gallows. The broad comic stunt as Reynolds attempts to cross a street early on becomes something very different near the end, as if the message of the film is simply that life is funny, just as love is funny, in how far you may be willing to go to find that ideal...until it’s not. You have to pick a side of the street or, ultimately, it’ll be too late. And the film embraces the character a little too much as this truth becomes evident, unable to ever treat him otherwise. As quiet as it is, as out of touch as it feels (for 1983, never mind now), there’s still something genuine in those yearnings here, the film just isn’t able to arrive at any sort of answer. The film shows Blake Edwards trying to sort something out, even if he can only partly put it into words what it means to pass that next woman on the street. Maybe it’s just the mystery of being alive.

The more sensitive side of Burt Reynolds’ star persona will maybe always be underrated—possibly Alan J. Pakula’s STARTING OVER (a huge hit in its day, now sadly forgotten; see it if you haven’t) is the best example of it but however much THE MAN WHO LOVED WOMEN succeeds in what it’s going for is largely due to him as for is largely due to the pure ease he projects and I’m not sure who else at the time could have played this role in a way that was so truly, genuinely, emotionally naked. There’s something to his performance here (this came between STROKER ACE and CANNONBALL RUN II, his last films for Hal Needham), the way he reveals himself through his pure physicality that displays an enormous amount of freedom in how he desperately wants to curl up on that therapist couch and never leave, the way he relaxes when easing into scenes with one of his female co-stars during their first encounters. Plus how relaxed he is playing dialogue with Julie Andrews who maybe is playing a little of herself in the way she was with Blake and how much gravity she brings to the material from her innate sensibility. Even when the material isn’t entirely engaging, Reynolds’ connection with his co-stars is felt particularly with Marilu Henner (who mentions that she has a great memory which the actress somewhat famously does, adding to the intimacy of the whole thing) as well as Kim Basinger, who reteamed with Edwards a few years later for BLIND DATE, and here more than just about anyone is always doing something unexpected to add to the danger of what she’s getting him to do.

So there I am. At the end of a year when I saw Burt Reynolds speak after a screening of his latest film THE LAST MOVIE STAR then a few months later we all said good bye to him, before he got to film his role in the new Tarantino film that might have given him one last shot of glory. Once upon a time in Hollywood he really was the greatest movie star, after all. The framing device of The MAN WHO LOVED WOMEN sometimes returns to a shot of David Fowler considering a slab of granite and what to make of it, unsure how to proceed. The original film comes to a conclusion made by the main character’s editor as his book is being published that his search for happiness among all those women was misguided considering how much can be found in one person but in making his own film Edwards seems to disregard any such quest for a Rosebud and for him the real unanswered mystery comes from the quest of who those legs really belong to, who they ever belong to. And just like them we never get any answers beyond the complex and unreadable beauty of the sculpture that the film closes on, the one he was presumably pondering all that time, forever inspired by all those women. Of course, things never make sense. And when it ends it hurts, all the way down to the bottom. So I’m still on the floor, trying to remember that there are no answers. There’s no redemption. There’s not even an end. A year goes away and there’s nothing that can be done about what didn’t happen. There’s just you.


Roger said...

Thanks - I have also been weirdly obsessed with this mostly terrible film, partially because it seems to reveal something Edwards himself may not have know he was revealing about himself/ this subject.

It's one of those Hollywood insider films divorced from our reality, accidentally dread-filled, accidental therapy. He did this a lot later in his career.

Keep up the good work, Roger

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

Thank you! It was a difficult thing--I didn't want to make certain assumptions about Edwards' own life and how much of it informed this but there was clearly something going on. And I still feel somewhat conflicted about this messed up film. Very glad you liked this, I'll keep trying!