Even though I am and will always be a huge Richard Lester fan, I would have to say that Rita Moreno is the principle reason for watching THE RITZ, directed by Lester in 1976 from Terrence McNally’s play. Not that it’s a bad film at all, it preserves the tight farce structure of the play, apart from a redundant opening-out at the very start, which does at least give us a George Coulouris cameo in which his character’s dying words set the plot in motion — at last George gets a CITIZEN KANE of his own, only his KANE plays in a gay New York bathhouse.
Jack Weston is a Cleveland businessmen (“I’m in garbage.”) on the run from his mobster brother in law (Ben Stiller’s dad Jerry) who hides out in what should be the last place anybody would look for him. The Ritz is a grand, multilevel set by Philip Harrison, projecting an aura of splendour even if the windows are boarded up and the partitions fall down at embarrassing moments. The movie’s action plays on the potentially off-colour idea — a comedy of mistaken identities in a gay sauna — while keeping all actual sexual activity offscreen/stage, with the only kiss being a hetero-on-hetero Italianamerican family bonding moment, given a spicy undercurrent and then swiftly undercut. So there’s a curious innocence about it all, which also comes from the movie’s pre-AIDS environment, where jokes about weekly blood tests and lines like “You’re lucky if that’s all you catch,” are meant to amuse rather than chill. The posters of young, departed movie stars, carry an air of melancholy which the strenuous knockabout does its best to dispel.
I had half an idea worked up about this being an interesting double feature to play with DIE HARD, but I was actually dreaming when I had the notion, so I’m no longer sure how it went. I guess the way Weston talks to himself as he flees from one level of the building to another is part of it. He has an excuse: he’s in a play and he almost knows it. I always choked slightly on Bruce Willis’s first monologue.
There’s also the progressively more disarrayed appearance of both characters, with Willis’s iconic darkening vest paralleled by Weston’s disintegrating disguise (Lester, bald since the age of 19, is always amused by toupees: Weston’s gets ripped in two early on) and steam-shrunken suit. Fiona declared several times that he looked like a cartoon, and he gets more and more cartoonish as the film strips him of his certainties.
I guess both protags are displaced blue-collar guys thrust into an effete multistorey world and imperiled by organized hoods. But there’s no equivalent of F Murray Abraham’s splendid camping, Treat Williams’ falsetto-voiced detective, or of course Rita Moreno’s delusional cabaret singer, Googie Gomez. On the other hand, Lester’s film has fewer explosions.
Gomez was a party piece worked up by Moreno who inspired the whole play/movie. Her total conviction of her own megatalent, and her multiple inadequacies as a performer combine to make her a very likable and funny grotesque. And she’s funny in specifically female ways which should do a lot to eradicate any arguments about “why women aren’t funny,” which still surface occasionally although nowadays generally spewed from the mouths of repulsive contrarian dipshits like Christopher Hitchens. Moreno is hysterical.
The old lady doing the accounts is Bessie Love, silent star (INTOLERANCE, THE MYSTERY OF THE LEAPING FISH.)
Lester, so far as we know a confirmed heterosexual, could have been on shaky ground here, like Donen directing STAIRCASE, but fortunately he lets McNally guide him, and anyhow the play is entirely devoid of self-loathing, self-flagellation and self-abuse. Casting British comedy faces like Peter Butterworth and Leon Greene is potentially dodgy, as they remind us that we’re on a sound stage at Twickenham Studios, but they’re welcome presences anyway. Is the movie is perhaps a little too afraid of letting any actual eroticism into the mix? Perhaps, but then it has a Felliniesque affection for the hopefuls and hopelesses of low-grade entertainment, and their inability to project the kind of sexual charge they aim for (Moreno is mistaken for a drag queen; “those now you see it, now you don’t, go-go boys” are pale and hairless geeks) is observed with unstated pathos.
THE RITZ is a nice way to pass an hour and a half, even if it never even tries to transcend its stagebound origins.