Thursday, February 16, 2023

As Far As You Can

Until shortly before I wrote about it some years back, I’m not sure I’d even heard of Claudia Weill’s GIRLFRIENDS but the cult seems to have grown since that time which likely comes from airings on TCM which is where I first saw it, rep screenings at places like the New Beverly in L.A. and Metrograph in New York, a Criterion Blu-ray loaded with special features as well as every time someone on Film Twitter discovers Stanley Kubrick was a big fan. This newfound rep is well deserved, since GIRLFRIENDS is a wonderfully insightful look at female friendship and having to sometimes keep going on your own that still feels relatable forty-five years after it was released. See it if you haven’t. So far there hasn’t been the same level of appreciation for IT’S MY TURN, the one and only other feature directed by Claudia Weill which followed in 1980 and is probably now best known for giving the world the adult contemporary staple that is the Diana Ross song of the same name. In the years following, Weill continued to work in television and theater along with teaching at various universities but there haven’t been any other features, which seems at least partly due to a horrible experience with producer Ray Stark on this film, as discussed by her in the 2021 Vanity Fair article “Promising Young Women”. This of course is unfortunate for all sorts of reasons, not the least that it would have been nice to get more films along the lines of GIRLFRIENDS if on a larger scale and while IT’S MY TURN never becomes as effective as that debut, it does display its own kind of potential in a lightly enjoyable way that now plays as an early version of the sort of thing the likes of Nicole Holofcener would go on to do. The difference is this one was made by a big studio and produced by people who would maybe be more at home with, say, a plot driven script of the sort someone like Ray Stark was probably used to. As a result, the film that came out of this feels like it’s fighting against any semblance of high concept in the story line and maybe plays as most comfortable when it’s in no rush whatsoever. Running only about ninety minutes, the film never quite surpasses the feeling of being a little too slight but is still quietly satisfying in a modest, hopeful way.
Mathematics professor Kate Gunzinger (Jill Clayburgh) has reached a crossroads in her life, with a stable but not exactly passionate relationship with divorcee Homer (Charles Grodin) but when she travels to New York for a weekend for a job interview and to attend the wedding of her father she meets the son of his new wife, ex-ball player Ben Lewin (Michael Douglas). The two of them hit it off immediately but with so much of each of their own lives in flux Kate has to quickly decide if leaving the unrewarding stability of Homer is worth trying to make something with Ben work.
IT'S MY TURN is uneven, not to mention uneventful, a little too much of the time with a tone that never becomes consistent enough to settle down in but it’s always pleasant with a performance by Jill Clayburgh that holds much of it together by sheer force. The screenplay is by Eleanor Bergstein who later went on to write DIRTY DANCING which makes it easy to wonder how much autobiography can be found in both to pair them together. It’s a film loaded with character beats and dialogue that always seems to be searching for layers but the most effective and comfortable moments that come out of Weill’s direction seem to be when it simply breathes, just willing to linger on a close-up of Jill Clayburgh and do nothing else. Her innate relatability always has just the right effect and the actress was phenomenal at infusing tangible life into deceptively small character moments although when she has to go for more broadly comical bits here of the stumbling in her heels variety it can look like she’s trying too hard, causing the film to seem uncertain about its own tone as well. “Why are your clothes so dumb?” Michael Douglas asks her in one scene out of nowhere, referring to all those scarves she drops even in the opening shot and you can see in her eyes how upset this makes her as well as getting her to wonder why she makes things like that more complicated than she needs to. The film has a casual approach and it makes the people around her believable but it doesn’t always keep them complete fleshed out beyond those moments where they suddenly make sense, leading to dialogue that sometimes feels straining for the answer of what the scene is supposed to be about. The right elements are there and it maintains a lightly enjoyable, springtime vibe but still feels like an idea that isn’t completely formed yet.
In spite of such drawbacks, the film is so modest that it hardly seems like the sort of thing worth getting upset over but some of the critical response when it was released in October 1980 comes off as a little too nasty for something so small and sincere. The Razzie nomination for Worst Screenplay barely even seems worth acknowledging while Roger Ebert just seems mildly annoyed by the whole thing in his two star review and he’s not even wrong about everything he says but there is the feeling of going slightly overboard with the criticisms. All this aside, IT’S MY TURN plays like a charmingly low-key character piece that wants to be a commercial romantic comedy but the plot doesn’t quite have to juice to get it there. It’s a light piece of work, with a bouncy score by Patrick Williams (many film & TV credits, including for USED CARS and HERO AT LARGE around this period) that feels like it would be right at home as the theme to an MTM sitcom of the time but in this context feels like it’s straining a little too hard for a certain tone. There’s potential in the setup that maybe lacks a real narrative spine to go with the character approach and feminist thematic focus, so while there’s always a believably honest sense of inner life to the main character it still feels like something is missing.
Still, it has Jill Clayburgh so maybe not much more is needed. At the very least it’s always her movie, letting the actress own the screen as someone you want to follow while hoping Kate makes the right choice. Michael Douglas, during the period when he was still getting his movie star sea legs by playing supporting to female leads in films like this, THE CHINA SYNDROME, COMA and even ROMANCING THE STONE, matches up well with her playing someone equally at sea in his own life—we don't know the full extent until near the end—looking for something that makes him feel as good as when he played ball. He brings a welcome energy and you can always feel Douglas trying to make the scenes work, as if trying to needle Clayburgh in character to add chemistry to their relationship. This is especially spotlighted during a stretch of the film that goes on for roughly ten minutes with the two of them in her hotel room, doing little more than flirting, kissing, talking, bickering, then agreeing to table things and the patience the film displays at times is admirable with a flow to how these moments are just allowed to happen. If it had kept this going for much of the running time, maybe even turning that one night into the entire film like the Richard Linklater BEFORE series did much later on, instead of getting bogged down in side issues and characters who get introduced then disappear, it might have been something really special. Some of those scenes end practically before they’ve even begun, abruptly cut short before there can be any real emotional effect, making one wonder why the film bothered with them at all unless it was simply to get the movie to feature length. It’s the inner workings of the chemistry between Clayburgh and Douglas that the movie feels like it wants to explore, one which is worth exploring with a tension to it all as he challenges her but it still feels effortless and could likely support the entire movie if it wanted to spend that much time with them.
It does make sense that the main character in a film who is a math professor would be meant to represent some sort of metaphor for how all those complex equations related to how screwed up their life is, that no matter how expert they are in mapping these things out they’re still going to be groping in the dark like everyone else when it comes to actual life. An early shot of Clayburgh traversing an overly complicated garage layout just to get home to the loft she shares with Homer work perfectly as a symbol for how much she’s making her life a little more complicated than they need to be, just like how much mater on she keeps offering more suggestions on how she and Douglas can rearrange their flights home, always looking for the logic and numbers more than anything that emotionally makes sense. All of this feels like it’s trying to tie into the questions of how can a woman have it all in the feminist discussions of the time, the inherent awkwardness in these relationships, especially when she brings up the question of how many people are really in the bed she’s sharing with Douglas. When the film is willing to stay with them, in no rush to get anywhere else, it has a life. The lack of effort apparent in their chemistry matches up nicely with the scenes she shares with Charles Grodin, playing it charming but charming in the style of someone on cruise control, who doesn’t need to try any harder beyond making the unwanted jokes before going back to his own stuff, never wanting things to get too serious since that would cause everything to change, all coming out of the realization that a lot of space in a relationship isn’t the most fulfilling thing.
Among the prominent New York locations that appear (Marshall Brickman’s SIMON can be spotted playing at Cinema II across the street from Bloomingdale’s) is an extended sequence set at Yankee Stadium where Ben takes Kate to what turns out to be an Old Timer’s Day featuring the likes of Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris and Whitey Ford among many others which would likely be a treat for any longtime New Yorker/Yankee/baseball fan--according to imdb, filmed at the actual old-timers day on June 21, 1980 when I was likely across town being taken to see the Broadway musical BARNUM for my birthday. The ex-ballplayer played by Michael Douglas is right there alongside them, of course still looking pretty young and trim (a shoulder injury ended Ben’s career, so we’re told). Kate asks someone how old you have to be to be an Old Timer and she’s told, “Not old. Just finished,” which is a little on the nose but still a reminder of how you have to decide if you want to be finished or not. The sequence goes on much longer than necessary since it doesn’t really serve any real purpose past a certain point—again, it feels like stretching things out to get to the 90-minute mark—but it does tie into the overall theme of Ben being someone who was forced to give up his career but still has to live the rest of his life. It all doesn’t necessarily have to be etched in stone for Kate who still has the power to change things. What’s missing is a way to somehow firm down the concept beyond various scenes that serve as little more than casual get-togethers and dinners where people get acquainted. In spite of what the basic logline sounds like it might be it never becomes a movie centered around a wedding or even the weirdness of two kids of an older married couple falling for each other. “I love you, sis,” is a pretty good line that goes by fast so the whole thing is basically a nonissue and even when the actual ceremony comes the sequence is over with pretty quick. The film is more about the chemistry that quickly develops and the question of whether their lives will allow it to keep going. Through all this, moments of sensitivity stick out even if they don’t feel quite connected to the whole, like Steven Hill and Beverly Garland excusing themselves from their wedding when she sees he’s feeling tired, a small moment where something goes unspoken that becomes much more effective than all the conversations whether it’s not entirely clear what dialogue is specifically referring to and what we’re supposed to take from it.
So, in the end, what does IT’S MY TURN have? It has Jill Clayburgh, during that brief moment in time when ‘Jill Clayburgh movie’ qualified as a subgenre and her inherent likability is what carries it, the vulnerability she displays is what makes us root for her. It also offers a glimpse at the potential Claudia Weill displayed as the ‘70s turned into the ‘80s but there wasn’t going to be much of a place for this kind of movie for the next few years but she always seems focused on bringing a sensitivity to things, one series of silent looks between various characters displaying more sensitivity than all of those longer dialogue scenes. It even gives us a look at more relaxed versions of Michael Douglas and Charles Grodin than they got to do at other points through the years. The result may be too vague to fully connect so IT’S MY TURN feels mild and maybe a little small in the end, one of those films where just as it feels like things are beginning to build so they can pay off, that’s when the end credits roll. But it does contain an earnestness in the way it explores someone facing the need for change in their lives even when they don’t realize that’s what they need, the way Charles Grodin’s Homer is perfectly happy to remain in a cruise control status. People in your life are going to make changes, even if you’re not ready. And, by the way, you should too especially if you feel like you’ve been settling. Through all this it’s hard not to have the feeling that this film is compromised in a way that at least diluted the intended effect; in the Vanity Fair article Weill talks about a shadow cut being prepared at the same time without her knowledge during the editing process so it’s hard to know how compromised the release version might be. Of course, it’s always possible that the script wasn’t strong enough or Weill’s lack of experience working on a studio film was a factor but the lack of consistency makes it easier to believe in the possibility of things being messed with, whether by Ray Stark or the studio. Having said this, all we can really go on is the final film which has more than enough to defend it at least partway. It’s about that point in your life where you suddenly find yourself asking, “Is it over? Am I done? Is anything else going to happen to me or is it all set? Can I still do something to change things?” That’s one thing you realize. People in your life are going to make changes, even if you’re not ready and, by the way, you should too. Especially if it feels like you’ve been settling.
The material may not be there in the way it was for Jill Clayburgh in some of her best films like AN UNMARRIED WOMAN and STARTING OVER but even during moments where the plot seems to be straining to explain her feels she always feels so relatable that it elevates things closer to where it needs to be. Even when a scene doesn’t quite click what’s always most important is that sense of yearning in her eyes. Some of Michael Douglas’ character almost is played between the lines or in asides meant to explain him a little too easily, how he is looking for something to care about now since baseball is no longer there, while Charles Grodin in a more relaxed mode than he often is paints a fleshed out portrayal of someone who simply wants to be comfortable. The always dependable Steven Hill and Beverly Garland aren’t quite around as much as you’d expect them to be but they bring some added gravitas to the family relations. There’s also early appearances by Daniel Stern (like in the previous year’s STARTING OVER, playing a student in a classroom) and the recently departed Charles Kimborough (also briefly in, what do you know, STARTING OVER) plus Dianne (spelled Diane) Weist in her first film, introduced as a close friend and is allowed to make a nice impression but not much more than that, really one moment where she offers some boilerplate advice then that’s about it.
Based on the two movies we got it’s hard not to wonder what other films made by Weill might have been, something that combined the best of GIRLFRIENDS with the slicker production values of the second film and seeing that she placed PHANTOM THREAD on her recent top ten Sight & Sound list makes me wish even more that we’d gotten a streak of romantic comedies from her through the years. Plus according to Wikipedia she’s from Scarsdale so that makes me even more willing to defend her. To get back to the Ray Stark angle, in his recent book CINEMA SPECULATION Quentin Tarantino refers to him as “one of the town’s biggest bullies, and he was responsible for mangling more films than an El Paso drive-in movie projector” so one assumes he’s heard a few stories about the producer who died in 2004. Maybe some of them were even about this movie. Tarantino also refers to GIRLFRIENDS briefly in his book as part of a list of key titles of the era’s ‘New York low-budget aesthetic’ he would encounter during his formative years and a Claudia Weill double bill was part of the schedule at the New Beverly Cinema a few years back during a month devoted to female directors with IT’S MY TURN shown in 16mm, apparently the only print that was available. I was there that night and so was, among others, a certain Oscar nominated writer-director of a popular mystery franchise. The film doesn’t even seem to have done all that bad at the 1980 box office (taking in more than STARDUST MEMORIES, less than OH, GOD! BOOK II) but only that song has really survived in pop culture which makes sense considering how tough it is to get it out of your head. More recently the film has turned up on Tubi where a lot of buried and forgotten Columbia titles can be found. In the end, what IT’S MY TURN has along with the lead performance and sheer display of potential is that small glimmer of hope that can be found it those odd weekends when someone unexpectedly appears. Sometimes the answer is simpler than you realize. And that’s when the real work begins, if you’re lucky. Which doesn’t always happen. Hopefully it does. These days I'm trying to remember that.

1 comment:

Fred said...

Given the way Ray Stark meddled with Hal Ashby on THE SLUGGER'S WIFE, I'm guessing studio interference.