Thursday 5 January 2017

Smile [1975]

SMILE is an American satirical comedy that was produced and directed by Michael Ritchie and originally released in July 1975 by United Artists.  It stars Bruce Dern, Barbara Feldon, Annette O’Toole, Joan Prather and Geoffrey Lewis.  It centres on the preparations for and staging of a Californian beauty pageant, intertwined with the domestic lives of those involved.

It’s easy to forget now that the Miss World beauty contest was huge business back in the day, being an annual live broadcast on the scale of major sporting events.  Here in the UK it disappeared from TV screens back in the 1980s (although has been intermittently revived on smaller channels) because of the unstoppable tide of public opinion against the sleaziness and sexism  and vacuousness of it all.  As such, the beauty pageant is the perfect vehicle for examining broader themes about modern life and popular culture and that’s exactly what Michael Ritchie did in SMILE.

If I could sum up the film’s premise in one word it would ‘exploitation’.  Everyone’s at it; the scale is breathtaking.  From the contestant looking to win favour with the judges by emphasising that she grew up without a father; to the head judge’s son who is looking to make a few bucks selling nude photos of the girls; to the “Hollywood” professional choreographer who would rather ruin the girls routines than give up $500.  And the girls are being exploited by everybody.  But as long as you keep smiling there’s no limit to what you can try to get away with.

Similarly, most of those involved – and seemingly the entire population of Santa Rosa is involved – define themselves by the annual pageant.  Second-hand car dealer ‘Big Bob’ Freelander (Dern) is honoured to be head judge; chief fixer Brenda (Feldon), a past winner, has devoted her life, not to say her entire persona, to the contest; producer Wilson Shears (Lewis) is determined to bring the event in on budget, even if it puts the girls in danger.  Of course there are the girsl themselves and, ironically, it is they who, in general, seem the least invested in the enterprise.  They want to win, certainly, but some of them seem half-hearted about it, probably because the Young American Miss contest is but one of many they enter.

Big Bob reacts badly when Andy tells him he IS a Young American Miss.

What Ritchie’s focuses on above all is the staggering importance with which the event is invested by those caught up in it.  He shows us not simply that the pageant is nothing more than superficial entertainment but that even though that’s all it is, it nevertheless draws remarkable energy and emotion from the participants.  It isn’t until Big Bob starts quoting from the pageant programme, believing it to be a sound philosophy of life (“All it takes is a drop more perseverance, a drop more optimism and a drop more energy!”) that his alcoholic friend Andy (husband of Brenda) tells him that “I finally figured out what you are.  You know what you are?  A goddamn Young American Miss!”

The crucial point about SMILE is that Michael Ritchie is not satirising the concept of the beauty pageant but rather how such a concept can stand as a reflection of society more broadly.  The superficiality – the primacy of the first impression, the way something looks being a measure of its quality; the way glib statements that are staggering in their vapidity can actually influence the way others think of you (“I want to be a veterinarian… or a nun.”); and the way any endeavour – even one as a meaningless as a beauty pageant – can be reduced to a money-making exercise.  On this last point, there is a profound exchange between Robin (Prather) and Doria (O’Toole):

“Boys get money and scolarships for making a lot of touchdowns; why shouldn’t a girl get one for being cut and charming?”

“Yeah… but maybe boys shouldn’t be getting money for making touchdowns.”

Joan Prather (L) as Robin and Annette O'Toole (R) as Doria, discussing how to earn big bucks

The only character who exhibits any sort of awareness of reality is Andy and he has been reduced to alcoholism by that awareness – which he has acquired via his monstrous wife, who has a portrait of herself over their fireplace.  At one point he shoots her, causing a superficial (naturally) wound to her shoulder but feels safe in the knowledge that she would never press charges and bring scandal to the pageant.  While in temporary custody he confides to Big Bob that he feels pretty damn good and wants to leave Santa Rosa.

Michael Ritchie at work
SMILE is not unlike Ritchie’s earlier film THE CANDIDATE which presents a similarly jaundiced view of American life in its depiction of an election campaign.  From the late 60s to the end of the 1970s  Ritchie turned out a series of pictures in various genres which display a remarkable level of consistency.  They were also properly adult pictures in the sense that they were for intelligent, grown up people.  Unfortunately, all that came crashing down in 1980 when he made THE ISLAND, an adaptation of golden boy Peter Benchley’s novel about pirates in the modern day Carribbean.  It was a critical and commercial disaster and while Ritchie continued to work regularly, his glory days were over.  He had another 17 years of his career to run but in that time only FLETCH [1985] and DIGGSTOWN [1992] were any cop.

Bruce Dern as Big Bob Freelander

SMILE is an ensemble piece so it’s not possible to comment on star performances.  The biggest name actor involved is Bruce Dern who was cast so often as misfits, weirdos and downright psychopaths that to see him in a relatively straight role is something of a rarity.  He’s an oily character here, a man who believes his own hype and chases success for its own sake.  He has a dark night of the soul after Andy confronts him about his shallowness but, by the time the film ends, we see him back to his ‘best’, flogging recreational vehicles and handing out balloons.

Geoffrey Lewis as Wilson Shears

Geoffrey Lewis is another character actor who specialises in oddballs and it’s hard to separate that from his character here, even though, like Dern, he plays a relatively normal guy.  I kept expecting him to wipe his nose on the back of his sleeve, so many times have I seen him play dumbasses in overalls.  I gather Barbara Feldon was a big TV star Stateside in GET SMART but since I’ve never seen that show I can’t reall comment on her career; suffice it to say she plays the awesomely efficient Brenda very well.  The two standout beauty contestants are Joan Prather, who again I know nothing about, and Annette O’Toole, who I do.  

Annette O'Toole (C) and Joan Prather (R)

The latter always struck me as someone who should have been a huge star but success on that level eluded her.  It’s a shame because she’s terrific here and a memorable presence in a couple of other good movies, Walter Hill’s 48 HRS [1982], a massive hit in its day but not a film you hear much about recently, and Paul Schrader’s CAT PEOPLE [1982], a remake of the Val Lewton / Jacques Tourneur horror picture which eschews the subtley and shade of the original in favour of wild explicitness.  Also worth a mention are Melanie Griffith (whom you can see in the title picture at the top of this article, on the right) as a fellow contestant and Dennis Dugan, the unlikely hero of Joe Dante's THE HOWLING [1981].

Behind the camera was Conrad Hall who shot a tremendous number of tremendous US films in the 60s and 70s.  When he was making ELECTRA GLIDE IN BLUE in 1973 he apparently argued so strongly with director James William Guercio about how the film should look that they agreed Hall would shoot the interiors and Guercio the exteriors, which says something about the art of compromise.  As you might expect, Guercio did a terrific job of shooting the impossibly photogenic Monument Valley while, somewhat surprisingly, the interiors are all rather dark.

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