I wanted to call my thoughts on Michael Ritchie and Jerry Belson’s SMILE (1975) by the title SMARM, in honour of one of the great essays of recent times, but Fiona insisted I use the inspirational anecdote delivered by Michael Kidd. Also, the movie is structured around the days of the week, as announced by what turn out to be Annette O’Toole’s panties.
Somehow I’d never seen this film until last week. Did I have some kind of trepidation about it? Maybe because it seemed like it would be an Altman copy. And though I love a good Altman, a bad Altman can wear out the will to live faster than a bad almost anything. Fortunately, the aspects of this which are Altmanesque (and the girl with the braces smiling at the start seems like something Altman himself lifted for A WEDDING) are really cool — the movie knows what it’s aiming at, and is scathing without being unwarrantedly vicious, altogether misanthropic, or self-important. When your subject is a beauty pageant, how outraged can you get? And even if you use that for a kind of state of the nation address, a bit of gentleness is warranted.
Also, much of the film doesn’t play quite like Altman at all — much of the footage has a sly, caught-on-the-hop quality, as if Ritchie really did set up a scenario, leave it to play out naturally, and capture it documentary-style. But I don’t think the dialogues is improvised — we have people like the great and insanely hot Annette O’Toole who ALWAYS seems to be behaving rather than acting, in anything she appears in. Anybody who can seem like they stepped off the street and into CAT PEOPLE or SUPERMAN III must have an in-built sense of truth, justice and the American way, a kind of faultless naturalism compass. And she smiles like Veronica Lake… sigh.
The film’s star is Bruce Dern, in a performance that supplies the centre of his career and screen personality, something I now realize I was missing all these years I loved him. (In Telluride, I nearly got handed his luggage by mistake, suggesting a potentially awesome alternative reality where I go on to live his life and collect an Oscar nomination for NEBRASKA while he slinks back to a tenement in Leith and a pitiful existence ranting on the internet about unbelievably obscure movies.) He plays a sort of happy idiot, a used car salesman who’s SINCERE, I suppose a guy who believes all the lies, and likes it. He’s unable to help his depressed friend (Nicholas Pryor, also great) except by making him laugh occasionally, and in fact the friend manages to chisel a chink in Dern’s armour of sunshine, and the poor man nearly withers on the vine as he suddenly sees beyond the veil of acceptable optimism and into an existential abyss. Being indefatigable and all-American, he soon slams the door on THAT unwelcome insight.
Michael Kidd plays the pageant’s choreographer — a great dancer and choreographer himself, he made intermittent movie appearances, including a star turn in the superb IT’S ALWAYS FAIR WEATHER, and so this is a relatively rare chance to see him act. Great face, great voice, and the greatest portrait of a hard-bitten, essentially decent, dogged professional in any profession that I can think of right now. Just superb work. You don’t get near-heroes like that in Altman.
Oh, and Geoffrey Lewis practically doing a Pangborn, something I never expected to see.
I think the other reason I never hurried to see this was that I got to know Michael Ritchie’s work via FLETCH (inoffensive but very minor) and THE GOLDEN CHILD (whaaaa?). One can’t judge a filmmaker by their worst projects, but it seemed from that perspective that Ritchie was minor, and already washed-up, a flash-in-the-pan kind of guy. But now I’m of a mind to try THE BAD NEWS BEARS, PRIME CUT, THE CANDIDATE, SEMI-TOUGH. From this fresh perspective, it may be that Ritchie enjoyed quite a nice little run.