Deciphering the Code of Cinema From the Center of Los Feliz by Peter Avellino
Tuesday, February 23, 2021
Questions We Can't Ask
Change is inevitable, like it or not. Even now. Especially now. If we’ve learned one thing over the past year it’s that eventually everything goes away. People and place disappear, and there’s no going back to the way it was. So when it comes to the future, figuring out what to hold onto is never easy. And when it comes to the past, understanding how much certain things actually mattered can make little sense. If only I could have figured it all out sooner.
The 1979 romantic comedy STARTING OVER is a reminder of this, a look at middle-aged angst and the struggle to hold onto some kind of hope, to not give into the way you think it has to be. A well-received box office hit at the time with a couple of Oscar nominations, for the most part it’s an enjoyable film with fairly sharp dialogue and well-drawn characterizations even if it does feel a little soft for this day and age. Looking at the film again recently it’s become the sort of ‘70s comfort food which has been nice to have around for late night viewings, maybe as some sort of primal return at this point in time to what I once thought adult life was supposed to be and maybe deep down still wish really was. Even watching the film now there are bits and pieces around the edges of the frame, department stores and the like, that provide a late ‘70s nostalgia rush of what the world looked like through my eyes back then that would be nice to live in for a few minutes. These days we wish for a lot of things.
When Phil Potter (Burt Reynolds) splits with wife Jessica (Candice Bergen) after she has an affair he leaves New York and heads up to Boston, taking an apartment near welcoming brother Mickey (Charles Durning) and wife Marva (Frances Sternhagen). Setting up his new life which includes attending a church support group for divorced men, Phil finds himself at Mickey’s for dinner one night which turns out to be a setup with schoolteacher Marilyn Holmberg (Jill Clayburgh). After their extremely awkward introduction Phil displays his interest but wary of how recently he’s been separated Marilyn turns him down when he asks her out. He finally talks her into it and their relationship begins but just as it gets going Jessica, now achieving success as a songwriter, reenters the picture leaving Phil to decide which way he really wants his life to go.
STARTING OVER was directed by Alan J. Pakula, more than several steps removed from his paranoia-infused trilogy of KLUTE, THE PARALLAX VIEW and ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN earlier in the decade, but it’s likely more notable now as the first feature screenplay by James L. Brooks, coming after a long stretch in television that most famously included being one of the creators of THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW. Looking back at the film over 40 years after it was released there are echoes here of the sitcom dating world that Brooks had already explored but it’s clearly intended to move things into a more grownup, therapeutic vein, ready to take advantage of the R rating even if the closest it comes to earning it is a couple of f-bombs. But when it does use them it’s memorable, especially during the unexpected meet cute between the two leads that plays a little as something that Brooks had dreamed of writing for Mary Richards all those years so with that along with a more relaxed pacing away from the sitcom world the film is able to take its time through the language used by the characters as they try to figure each other out. It’s done in a style that now feels like an early version of some of the films Brooks would later make whether TERMS OF ENDEARMENT or BROADCAST NEWS all the way up to his final film (to date) HOW DO YOU KNOW, with the neuroses of the characters always apparent but not as intentionally quirky as they would later become.
As for Pakula’s directing style, he’s clearly working in a more relaxed key than what he’s famous for with a sense of control to the filmmaking that feels like he’s dipping his toe into an unfamiliar style while trying not to upset things too much. The year before this film he directed the western drama COMES A HORSEMAN (one of many first time viewings from this past year during quarantine) which has a certain Sydney Pollack quality to its romantic sweep but STARTING OVER is closer to the the ‘70s Neil Simon-Woody Allen vein while taking a quieter, more mannered approach to the material, taking its time with the one liners about the singles world and viewing that battle of the sexes through the insecurity everyone is fighting. Based on the novel by Dan Wakefield, the film is grounded and feels like part of the real world, or at least a relatively plausible late 70s romantic comedy real world, one where Phil Potter writes articles that appear in airline magazines for a living, which sounds like a movie job if there ever was one, and even if his ex-wife is in the process of becoming a successful singer-songwriter it still manages to feel somewhat relatable.
This is also a mustache-free Burt Reynolds, clearly part of an attempt to branch out from car chases even toning down his laugh so the result is likely the most subdued performance the actor ever gave during his superstardom period or at least the most successful example of displaying a more sensitive side to that star persona. It’s not the only time he went clean shaven for a movie but here it feels like watching a man who has had his armor removed so it causes his entire body to droop, not quite knowing how to move himself anymore and he uses that for the character, uncertain how to sit down or at times even talk to another person. It’s felt in the way he seems to crumble in a few key moments when his charm doesn’t work, finding a love letter to his wife that includes the word ‘evermore’, and you can feel everything in him collapse. Those bastards probably always include the word ‘evermore’ in those letters. It’s a discomfort that is even felt in the divorced men’s church group he tries to connect with as they all talk around each other, fighting off the women’s group waiting for the next hour in the hall, the sense of fear of what’s out there coming from everyone always around.
That body language matches up well with Jill Clayburgh, two years after she and Reynolds starred together in SEMI-TOUGH (another first time viewing during quarantine) and coming one year after her performance in Paul Mazursky’s AN UNMARRIED WOMAN the actress is perfect for Reynolds here in the way she’s ready to challenge him, playing what is in some ways an extension of that character while fighting against the heartbreak she figures is inevitable. In one scene Phil shows up at her place to find Marilyn essentially in the middle of a date with herself and there’s the feeling of a life fully lived off camera where she has fought to become her own person, a single woman with her own valid viewpoint that has nothing to do with what the male lead is going through, even determined to stay home in her glasses and robe rather than go out there and have the same bad night one more time.
The fall-winter setting as photographed by Sven Nyquist takes the story through Thanksgiving and into the Christmas season giving the film an undeniable coziness, a feeling so prevalent that if this had been made during spring or summer it might have been a totally different movie. Shots only call themselves out on occasion, one moment circling around the despondent men in the support group the most impressively cinematic flourish of all, but the element that sticks out more than anything is the prevalent sense of quiet through the film, the way it holds on Phil’s nervousness or the half empty restaurants where the camerawork gradually becomes more intimate through the scene. This also includes the whisper Candice Bergen seems to speak in as the ex-wife whenever she shows up, the movie half-treating her newfound success as a joke, a bored, aimless woman who cheated on him and doesn’t want anything more than what she’s grabbed for herself. It’s as if the character got the idea to pursue music from a few viewings of ANNIE HALL but still wants to use him for her songs and, I suppose, the vaginal orgasm she proudly tells him about in one scene. But the film also knows how to use the intensity of Bergen’s very presence to let us believe how much Phil is drawn to her so she becomes more than just a running gag even as it builds to her big scene, likely the reason for her Oscar nomination, where she overdramatically belts out her latest song to her ex-husband’s astonishment. It’s one of the best moments of the film thanks to the fearlessness of that performance, not holding back and doing it all for him while still taking no notice of him in that moment at all, with the stunned look on Reynolds’ face making it just about the biggest, most rewarding laugh in the entire film.
One scene at a nursery school shows Clayburgh’s Marilyn working there, showing her kids the best way to let out some anger and this is also a film about people who sometimes need to be reminded that they aren’t kids anymore while still trying to understand the best way to reveal their feelings. The look at the dating world is very much a product of that decade with the always welcome Mary Kay Place turning up ready to pounce on Reynolds as soon as she meets him for their blind date but unlike AN UNMARRIED WOMAN, which Roger Ebert seems to spend much of his review comparing this to, it doesn’t seem interested in making some all-purpose grand statement about the period or the singles world, let alone feminism, as much as just the individual insecurities of the various characters. Even with a valium joke that feels as late 70s as it gets and probably got the biggest laugh at the time, the focus is more on the inner workings of the characters, the things they are drawn to and what causes those neuroses. It’s not all that far removed from the world of Brooks’ TV work but it is an expansion of those themes with the extreme mellowness of the Marvin Hamlisch score that I can never quite get out of my head feeling like it’s from a lost MTM sitcom because of course it does and Marilyn hooking up late in the film with a basketball player also feels like something Mary Richards or Rhoda Morgenstern would have spent an entire episode on.
But it really does feels like the first step in the direction that the films later directed by Brooks would take, the specific nature of all the quirks becoming more pronounced and comical later on. Maybe the biggest difference in the Pakula directing style is that this filmmaker seems inclined to underplay things at key moments and brings to it a sense of low key class that permeates the overall feeling, some of the most cutting dialogue in the film spoken no louder than a whisper. Other directors might have gone for a broader Neil Simon style but here the sense of quiet becomes so prevalent with the feelings playing as that much more intense; oddly, while watching Pakula’s THE PELICAN BRIEF recently for the first time in ages this very same type of whisper coming from the performances in a few scenes stood out to me but here it feels more surprising in looking for a way to find what the characters are holding back, what they’re afraid of and the dumb mistakes they’re always trying to keep from making yet again.
Maybe that’s why some of the moments that always stick with me aren’t jokes so much as simple bits of behavior whether Clayburgh during some of the moments when she thinks no one is looking, the completely genuine warmth of Charles Durning, Reynolds sitting awkwardly at the start of his date with Mary Kay Place (“The place we’re going specializes in duck,” he tells her in a moment I always enjoy) or Bergen’s aside about a song while she’s in the middle of singing it. Since the characters are more than just types there’s an unpredictability to them that keeps the movie alive and it goes by in the blink of an eye even if the way it keeps the plot spinning longer than it needs to, whether plausible or not, becomes a little frustrating. If it has to be compared to AN UNMARRIED WOMAN, then I think of the clarity of the deadness in Jill Clayburgh’s face as Michael Murphy makes his confession to her, but STARTING OVER is more about talking its way through all that uncertainty so it’s not as angry, instead trying to look for that connection while afraid to find out if it’s actually going to be there.
Things never stay the same, even if they should which is something we know now more than ever. In many ways STARTING OVER is a nice film about realizing that, moving away from the cynicism which might have been more apparent if the film had been made earlier in the decade to actually finding an answer to the question of why they need to change in the first place. Both sides are afraid. And, as the movie seems to think, it will never work if they’re not afraid. The trick is to face that fear and take the risk to be happy, not miserable, to refuse to let yourself stay at home forever, having dinner with yourself. By the time Brooks got to BROADCAST NEWS some years later, this formula be perfected, but the way it plays here still in development is rewarding in itself. It says something about the time it was made that the last line of the film isn’t so much a joke as a warm payoff to a crucial plot thread. It almost feels like that final moment, and maybe the rest of the film, needed something a little punchier to drive the point of it all home. But it’s still nice. That’s ok, too.
If the film is in some ways a star vehicle for Burt Reynolds then it’s also about showing just how vulnerable he can be onscreen. He embraces that, fully invested in every moment while taking his insecurities and trying to find the likability in all that. The chemistry he shares with Jill Clayburgh is perfect for this, allowing him to carry each scene but also giving her the chance to take what he’s doing and make it even better, as if challenging the script just as much as her character is challenging him. Her moments are the most genuine in the film with a naturalism to those quirks and it makes everything between them matter that much more so we want it all to work out with them, even as we don’t know why he doesn’t automatically see that. The intensity of Candice Bergen’s ice queen mode mixed with her own awkwardness around Reynolds adds to what is happening between the two of them and gives her performance a gravity; even if she’s funny in a scene it’s never just a joke. It’s a terrific supporting cast with the always smiling face of Charles Durning, the way Frances Sternhagen spits out “Why? Because she doesn’t have large breasts?” when Phil hesitates on asking Marilyn out along with the intimidating energy that Mary Kay Place brings to her few scenes. Austin Pendleton, who appeared with Durning the very same year in THE MUPPET MOVIE, is the most memorable part of the support group playing someone who has married the same woman four times but Wallace Shawn and Jay O. Sanders are in there as well and Daniel Stern, the same year as BREAKING AWAY, appears briefly playing one of Phil’s students.
On a personal level that feels extremely random, there are my own distant memories of when STARTING OVER was playing in theaters way back before I ever saw it even if they barely matter. I wasn’t old enough to see it at the time but I was also aware that I wasn’t old enough to see it yet something about the advertisements caused it to represent to my young mind what movies aimed at adults were supposed to be. The advertising campaign, including commercials that showed Burt Reynolds snapping Polaroids of a woman in the shower (probably the broadest moment in the whole movie), likely made an impression. This is what life is going to be like when you grow up, I must have thought. This is the way things are going to be. As you’d expect, this did not turn out to be the case. But since it’s a film partly about learning how to stop holding onto the past, thinking back to the past seems to matter somehow. And now I’m forced to face it as a film I’m watching now in the world of adults that really exists. And all the pain that comes with it. So much has changed in the past year and it’s not that I even wanted certain things to be the same but this was still a surprise. I’m not so sure what some of it is anymore, what it is about escaping to New England. Those answers never feel very clear.
In addition to Oscar nominations for Clayburgh and Bergen (sorry, Burt), the box office for STARTING OVER ranks among other 1979 hits such as MANHATTAN and THE IN-LAWS but now feels so forgotten that Pakula’s Wikipedia page doesn’t mention it outside of the filmography. It apparently even opened the same day as Blake Edwards’ “10”, that other film about white middle-aged dating angst which apparently was all anyone thought about back in the late ‘70s. This was a long time ago.
Burt Reynolds followed up the success of this film with the likes of SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT II and THE CANNONBALL RUN, then a few years later famously turned down the chance to reunite with Brooks, making his directorial debut, when he was offered the role of Garrett Breedlove in TERMS OF ENDEARMENT to work with Hal Needham yet again on STROKER ACE, likely the worst career choice he ever made. Hell, it’s probably one of the worst career choices anyone in Hollywood ever made. We still love Burt anyway. After all, everyone has that time in their lives when they turn down TERMS OF ENDEARMENT, if you know what I mean. And sometimes we just need to forget the past and accept that everything changes. And try to be thankful you knew some of those people, some of those women, at all. Which may be the only hope these days of ever actually starting over.