For Art’s Sake

Have I ever watched a whole Robert Benton film? Maybe BAD COMPANY? It’s not from any great antipathy, honest.

THE LATE SHOW is, in Sarris’ useful kiss-off phrase, Lightly Likable. I was trying to work out who should have been cast. They must surely have wanted some RESONANCE, since it’s a variant of THE LONG GOODBYE’s gimmick of 40s P.I. meets 70s L.A. (Altman was a producer on it). But who was around who would have been good — Mitchum would have seemed too cool and tough, no matter what you did with him. His hangdog perf in THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE is great, but it relies on a dopey melancholia that’s different from the quality needed here — a tough old scrapper on his uppers. in fact, Art Carney is perfect. He just doesn’t call to mind 40s movies, which is a shame. Burt Lancaster wouldn’t have worked, Kirk Douglas didn’t think he was old, Tony Curtis was still trying to look like the kid with the ice-cream face, only the cream had not only melted but curdled. Everyone else was dead (Bogart), drunk (McGraw) or just wrong (Elisha Cook Jnr.) Art Carney is perfect.

But the normally magnificent Lily Tomlin isn’t perfect. I think they got the wrong one by mistake — I think they thought they were hiring Goldie Hawn. Tomlin can’t play scatterbrained, or she can, but she doesn’t make it in any way charming. It took me half the movie to work up a tolerance to her. By the end, I was OK with her, but I never had that kind of difficulty with the Divine Miss T before.

Best perf in the film may be Bill Macy, but Eugene Roche and John Considine make good baddies, and Joanna Cassidy confirms her status as a queen of neo-noir. Howard Duff, making a brief cameo at the start (he’s the Inciting Incident), is the only one with actual resonance from golden age Hollywood.

As director, Benton never gets excited by his own material, which makes it feel a bit Rockford Files — not a bad thing, if it were a piece of television. He milks outrageous suspense with a corpse in a Frigidaire, before blowing the pay-off in disappointing fashion. And the generational clash depends on caricaturing both leads in unconvincing ways (the way he keeps calling her “doll”) which would maybe work better if the film had a handle on how to behave or look like a film noir.

Still, I picked up a copy of Benton’s vampire-free TWILIGHT in Bo’ness a year or two ago, maybe I’ll finally watch it — this was enjoyable enough.


5 Responses to “For Art’s Sake”

  1. The thing I love most in “The Late Show” is when Lily tells Art Carney “Oh we’re just like Nick and Nora Charles!” and he says “Who?” and she says “Oh, you know — Peter Lawford and Phyllis Kirk.”

  2. GSPegger Says:

    I agree completely. Lily Tomlin is so annoying in this movie. I, too, kept thinking this may have been a classic if Goldie Hawn were in it. Seemed to be written with her in mind. Or, how about Sally Field? Benton worked with her later in Places in the Heart, and she was in her Gidget, Flying Nun period at this time.

    I don’t know if I have ever seen a poor performance by Art Carney. He was the best thing in The Honeymooners, is amazing in the Twilight Zone episode Night of the Meek, and he is brilliant in Harry and Tonto, a film that looks at aging without sentimentality and with great poignancy.

  3. Looking at it from Tomlin’s POV, she faithfully portrays what that person would be like. Whereas Goldie or Sally would make grating stupidity seem charming. Tomlin’s version is more honest.

    Yes, David E, I kind of choked with laughter at that point too. I’d forgotten there was such a TV show — this line retroactively justified it.

  4. bensondonald Says:

    I remember it as being an okay film; Tomlin’s casting worked for me because she was still known (to me, at least) as a more narrowly defined comic. It’s only when you’re really aware how little of her is being used and / or how far she is from the character it seems off. A little like early Phil Silvers, when he plays an idiot instead of the joyful con artist.

    I keep conflating this with “Goodnight, My Love”, a 1972 television movie that paired Richard Boone and Michael Dunn as cheap 40s gumshoes. That was a small scale and slightly downbeat comedy, with such throwaways as Boone running a pencil over a notepad to find an impression of the last note, and it was for the milkman.

  5. I love Michael Dunn! I must try to see that.

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