The other night, I had drinks with a hardcore film geek buddy of mine, and as we talked, we touched on any number of topics and ideas. At one point, we were discussing how to shoot film comedy, and I think we agreed that the best comedy directors are very similar to the best musical directors, guys who could stage and pace and shoot a scene so it could all play in a master shot. The more wacky camera angles and wacky montage cutting that a director throws at something, the less confident it seems to me. And I love directors who have the balls to shoot comedy in wide wide widescreen. If you want a great example of what I’m talking about, check out the work of Blake Edwards. And as much as I prefer some of Blake’s other films (“The Party” is pretty much a perfect film), as a fan, there’s something particularly interesting about the strange and angry cocktail of “S.O.B.”
Part of my attraction to the film is due to Richard Mulligan’s work in the lead. I’m a huge rabid fan of the ’70s TV series “Soap,” and Mulligan’s work is one of the main reasons. It’s mad genius. He didn’t play many leads in many movies, sort of like Christopher Lloyd, so when he did, it was special. Here, he’s been given a role that plays to his many strengths, and he runs with it to tremendous effect. He’s Felix Farmer, a distinctly Blake Edwards-esque Hollywood movie director who has just released his latest giant-budget epic movie musical “Night Wind,” starring his wife, beloved icon of purity Sally Miles, played by the real-life wife of Blake Edwards, beloved icon of purity Julie Andrews. The film has opened to catastrophic reviews, and no one is going. It’s a bomb of unheard of proportion. People are bailing out of responsibility for the movie, and Felix? Felix is suicidal.
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Actually, Mulligan starts the film catatonic, in shock from the nuclear force bombing of the film. When he finally wills himself up out of the bed, it’s not in response to a furious Sally telling him that they are finshed and she’s leaving him. It’s not seeing her walk out the door with the kids. It’s not anyone calling him. It’s simply the desire to find a good place and way to die. And when that attempt is interrupted to spectacular effect, he tries to find another way. And then another. And as he does, everyone around him swings into crisis mode, and that’s where Edwards stages the farce, in this buzzing swarm of sycophants and stylists and publicists and assistants and random strangers and estranged family and spoiled movie stars and smarmy studio execs. Mulligan doesn’t say a word for almost an hour of the movie. It’s an amazing move, so when he finally does speak, it’s an eruption, and it is obvious that even as he tried to destroy himself, he couldn’t stop thinking about why the film didn’t connect, and how it might be saved. And that realization, that lightning bolt aha! moment is enough to bring him back from the precarious edge.
But what if he’s gone from suicidal to raving mad? What if his big idea is completely insane?
I get the feeling when I watch the way Edwards stages Hollywood parties and development meetings and petty power struggles that this is the way it really was for Edwards. It’s a time capsule for us now, but when it was made, it must have been a really ugly mirror for Hollywood to look into. I think one of the most interesting things about it is how Edwards seems about 15 years late in some of the targets he picks for his wrath, which makes him seem even more Felix Farmer-esque. You see what a hall of mirrors the film is? Felix’s big idea to save the film is to reshoot key sequences and turn it from a family musical into an X-rated psychological fantasia, and in order to do it, he needs to talk his wife Sally Miles into taking her clothes off, which may well destroy that carefully cultivated family image of hers. And, of course, that means that Blake had to convince his wife Julie Andrews to take her clothes off, which risked destroying her carefully cultivated family image. I remember when the film came out in 1981, all anyone could talk about if the film came up was Julie Andrews and her tits. Just the idea of her baring her chest turned into the film’s marketing campaign, while in the film, there’s one big scene where they shoot the nudity, but other than that, there’s so much more to the film.
More than anything, it feels like Edwards raging against the end of the film culture he knew, while acknowledging that it’s always been venal and small and vaguely inbred. He followed this up with one of his very best films (“Victor/Victoria”), but even so, it feels like the end of an era for him, and that makes many of the laughs so bitter they hurt. That’s best reflected in a running subplot involving a jogger who drops dead on the beach outside Felix’s house in the film’s opening moments. For the rest of the film, no one notices that he’s dead, except for his dog, who sits vigil by the body. It’s a grim joke, but Edwards finds ways to continually tweak it, wringing fresh laughs and gasps of horror all the way through. The indifference shown to this dead man seems to be the thesis statement of the film. Because a dead man can no longer do anything for anyone, he’s of no value in a town where everyone’s worth is determined by how much money they can earn someone or what favors they can grant or what a mention in their column might gain you. It’s a terrifying world view, but Edwards earned it, and the honesty of it seems almost off-handed.
Mulligan and Andrews both do very good work in the movie, and Andrews in particular nails the scene where she does the big reveal, getting hopped up on goofballs to relax herself beforehand, then walking around the set with a foggy smile on her face asking everyone, “Did you come to see my boobies?” But I really love the supporting cast. William Holden plays Culley, an advisor and friend to Felix, part of a trio that includes Robert Preston as a sort of Dr. Feelgood and Robert Webber as Ben Coogan, a lower-level studio guy. Late in the film, they recreate a famous anecdote about John Barrymore and Errol Flynn, and the way it’s handled is both wistful and hilarious. It also ties a bow around the notion that this is a Hollywood in decline, a sun that’s setting, and “S.O.B.” is as close to an affectionate goodbye as Blake Edwards could manage. It’s rare enough for people to make comedies that are aimed at grown-ups, but it’s doubly rare for one to mature as well as this one has.
I’m going to be writing a special side-column later today, a sort of offshoot from this column, and it’s part of a new ongoing series we’ll do here at Motion/Captured, in conjunction with another site. You’ll see what I’m talking about soon. First, though, let me go put together a weekend read for everyone…
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