Time once again for another entry in our ongoing series, GLORY OF THE EIGHTIES. Every week, I highlight the films that were released to theaters on the corresponding weekend 35 years before. It should be noted that this series also has a companion, a thorough look at the films of the 1970s, which Jesse Hoheisel has started on his own page.
RATING SYSTEM AND CRITERIA
- What was the film trying to accomplish and how well did it meet those goals?
- In addition to (or sometimes despite) that, how does the film hold up on sheer entertainment value?
The Best – Reserved for the absolute cream of the crop.
Highly Recommended – Very good. Far better than your typical film and one that I will remember for some time.
Recommended – Just what it says. This is a good film and earns a recommendation. Don’t think that because it’s not one of the top two categories that these films aren’t worth your time. The “recommended” tag is a winner and nothing to sneer at.
Barely Recommended – The middle of the road. Those films where I didn’t feel it was a complete waste of time, but it didn’t set my world on fire either. Not bad, but leaves me feeling bored and/or apathetic.
Disappointing – Close but no cigar. Does a few things right but is ultimately a whole lot of wasted potential. Not recommended.
Awful – A bad movie. Pure and simple. Not worth your time.
The Worst – The Britta Perry of ratings, though not as entertaining. The bottom of the barrel.
The films opening on the weekend of Feb. 8, 1980 offered an array of options. John Ritter took his nice guy image to the big screen in the superhero comedy, HERO AT LARGE. Otto Preminger adapted Graham Greene’s taut espionage thriller, THE HUMAN FACTOR. And then we have the odd link shared by three of this week’s movies, in that our remaining films all deal with love and marriage. THE LAST MARRIED COUPLE IN AMERICA looks at the then-rising divorce rates in the United States while Sidney Lumet’s JUST TELL ME WHAT YOU WANT dealt with a couple that probably should stay as far apart from one another as possible. And then, there’s A SIMPLE STORY in which love, infidelity, abortion and suicide all come together in a collision of misery. Sounds like fun, right? Well, then let’s look at this week’s flicks…
HERO AT LARGE – Steve Nichols (John Ritter) is an actor who can’t seem to catch a break. Right now, he’s appearing in front of local theaters as Captain Avenger, a comic book hero who is the subject of a reportedly terrible film. It’s not the role everyone dreams about, but even with his dead-end job and everyone taking advantage of him, Nichols doesn’t mope around. He’s a nice guy. In fact, he’s an incredibly nice guy, the type of person people should look to as an example on how to maintain a positive attitude. If Steve Nichols were any more earnest and sweet, he’d be a dog.
One night, he stops a convenience store robbery while still dressed in his Captain Avenger outfit. He becomes an overnight sensation as the news media begins reporting that a man dressed as the hero is fighting crime in New York City. New York is of course in need of a hero and the corrupt and unscrupulous local politicians are aware of that. They seduce Nichols into turning his act of benevolence into an ongoing, scripted marketing stunt, promising to fulfill all his dreams but at the cost of his self-respect.
HERO AT LARGE is not your typical ha-ha, rolling in the aisles comedy. Instead, it has much more in common with the great Frank Capra films of years’ past, the films where a naïve and benevolent little guy is almost chewed up by the big machine but remains defiant and teaches everyone else to hope. This was the era of Ed Koch, when the mayor tried to spearhead a “clean up New York” campaign in the face of a garbage strike, drug epidemic and ever-rising crime rate. So, the tactics of distracting the populace from the problems the city faces (as well as the rotten apples in its own tree) was something not completely unheard of. In the Capra tradition, HERO AT LARGE shines a mirror on the cynicism of New York and paints a happy face on it.
John Ritter, still in the middle of his THREE’S COMPANY run, is great as the thoroughly affable Steve Nichols. Anne Archer also turns in a good performance as his more pessimistic, world weary neighbor who is the girl of Nichols’ dreams. HERO AT LARGE didn’t send me into fits of hysterical laughter, but it did make me smile and that’s worth a lot. Recommended.
THE HUMAN FACTOR (1979) – Based on the novel by Graham Greene, THE HUMAN FACTOR takes a look at the bureaucratic back channels of the British secret service. Maurice Castle (Nichol Williamson) is a by-the-book employee in MI6’s Africa branch. He spends his days fielding phone calls from operatives and filing paperwork, so he can return home by train to his wife and son. He’s so ordinary that no one suspects that he is a double agent, sending secrets of little account to the Soviet Union. Castle doesn’t do it out of any loyalty to the party, he has no politics. Rather, he does it out of loyalty to a friend who helped him and his wife out of a tough spot years before. But when the higher ups start sniffing around, things become much more difficult. After all, in MI6, even murder is standard operating procedure.
Greene’s novel is a masterful achievement and one I would recommend to anyone. But like so many adaptations of novels such as this, what pops off the page simply sits on the screen. The main culprit here is director Otto Preminger. This was Preminger’s last feature film, produced after he had lost favor with the big studios. Hence, the film was under a tremendous amount of stress and scrutiny. Word has it that the production kept running out of money and at one point, Preminger had to sell pieces of his own art collection to cover costs.
And maybe it was the influence of these outside pressures which lead to the film looking so drab and shoddy. The film is told almost entirely in master shots and standard medium close-ups, with only the occasional, semi-professional handheld tracking shot attempting and failing to disrupt the mediocrity.
The film is well stocked with British veterans and a few novel casting choices, such as the compelling screen debut of Iman as Castle’s wife, Sarah. And as I said, the material is such that it still has quite a bit of spark. It would take a concerted effort to sap the story of all its life. Still, THE HUMAN FACTOR winds up being stiflingly dull and uninvolving, of a quality much lower than even your standard BBC production. Disappointing.
JUST TELL ME WHAT YOU WANT – Comic legend Alan King plays Max Herschel, a nasty, angry, materialistic, braggadocios, lecherous, racist, lying, cheating, conniving, no good son of a bitch. Herschel views everyone around him as his employee and therefore his own personal property. He uses his money, influence and brusk personality to bully everyone around him, including his mentally ill wife. And yet, if you’re going to believe this movie, he continues to attract the love and admiration of attractive younger women.
The main mistress in Max’s life is Bones Burton (Ali MacGraw), a TV producer who works for Herschel both on and off work hours. She wants to take the relationship in a more permanent, respectable direction but he’s not ready to budge. Bones meets a young, idealistic playwright, Steven Routlidge (Peter Weller, in his second theatrical film). She tries to nurture Steven’s talent while he urges her to get out from under Max’s thumb. Unfortunately, in this film that doesn’t mean striking out on her own and realizing the wealth of options and opportunities available to her. No, it means marrying Steven, who in turn begins to sell out when he tastes success.
If I sound like I’m getting on a soapbox, it’s because JUST TELL ME WHAT YOU WANT is an infuriating film. It’s not a film about a woman learning to think and act for herself. Instead, it’s presented as a love story between Bones and Max. But why would we want to see any woman wind up with any of the guys this film throws at us? Max Herschel is a vile, venomous creature who drops the “C” word on at least one occasion while Steven begins to show signs of his own conceitedness. These are the only two options given in a film that tells women they are going to end up chained to some worthless prick and their only choice in the matter is which one. The entire film floats for nearly two hours on this premise alone and it’s an ordeal to sit through. If I sound like I am confusing my personal feelings with the film’s quality, it’s only because the film allows you no breathing room in its endless barrage of hatefulness.
JUST TELL ME WHAT YOU WANT was directed by Sidney Lumet, a talented filmmaker that in the 1970s experienced one of the most enviable runs of any director – SERPICO, DOG DAY AFTERNOON, SERPICO, etc. That all derailed with the colossal bomb, THE WIZ. JUST TEL ME WHAT YOU WANT is the follow-up to that misfire and it doesn’t fare much better. Thankfully, he would rebound nicely within the next couple years.
In truth, JUST TELL ME WHAT YOU WANT isn’t a complete waste. The performances are very good, even if the characters leave a lot to be desired. King and MacGraw work very well, as do Keenan Wynn and Myra Loy in her final performance. But this is only one saving grace in a film that feels like an abusive relationship condensed to 112 minutes. Awful.
THE LAST MARRIED COUPLE IN AMERICA – Jeff and Mari Thompson (George Segal and Natalie Wood, respectively) have a seemingly great marriage. They love and care for each other and if things have settled down into a sense of domesticity, well that’s the way it’s supposed to work. But don’t bother telling that to the Thompsons’ friends. When one of them gets divorced, it starts a domino effect and suddenly, everyone is splitting up and experimenting with a swinging singles lifestyle and all of its trappings. Jeff and Mari try to navigate this dangerous field, staying loyal to their friends until finally their own marriage is jeopardized.
Since this film boasted the great Natalie Wood (the last film she completed before her tragic death), it was often compared to her earlier classic, BOB & CAROL & TED & ALICE. There are similarities in plot, but the overt comedic tone is more in tune to a film like SERIAL, a less successful 1980 relic we’ll be looking at in the next few weeks. This is not to say that THE LAST MARRIED COUPLE IN AMERICA doesn’t closely examine the nuances of married life. There is a wonderful scene where Mari has felt trod-upon and neglected over a terrible day. Jeff consoles her and honestly tells her everything he loves about her. It is a wonderful and true scene that ends with a blunt, funny but cathartic punchline.
Around the time of BOB & CAROL & TED & ALICE, there was this new focus on examining every portion of your life, a notion that continued throughout the 1970’s and into the 1980’s. And while honesty and improving oneself are important things to strive for, it’s possible to be a bit too open. And more importantly, it’s possible to be a bit too selfish.
THE LAST MARRIED COUPLE IN AMERICA isn’t going to change the world. But it’s a fun look at a turbulent time that retains its heart without getting preachy. There’s a supporting cast, some of which shine (Valerie Harper, Dom DeLuise) and some who seem to be trying a bit too hard (Richard Benjamin). It’s a fun flick that espouses a general truth: the unexamined life may not be worth living, but the over-examined life will make you miserable. Recommended.
A SIMPLE STORY (a.k.a. UNE HISTORIE SIMPLE) (1978) – Marie (Romy Schneider) is a woman who has grown tired of her lover Serge (Claude Brasseur). In a one-two punch for the record books, she casually informs him that she has aborted their baby and is now breaking up with him. Marie tries to piece her life together again and even entertains a relationship with her ex-husband Georges (Bruno Cremer). But Marie proves herself to be as indecisive as Anna Karenina as she flip flops between lovers and life paths in a sense of mild detachment. And just like that classic story, we deal with Marie’s friends and lovers who are strung along and become suicidal.
It’s hard to even describe what goes on in A SIMPLE STORY. Every scene is infested with the same sense of casual moroseness and melancholy. Major events do little to change the lives of the self-involved, self-loathing cast of characters. The film won the Cesar Award for Best Picture and was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, losing out to Volker Schlöndorff’s THE TIN DRUM. But surely there must have been better, livelier and thought-provoking films than this to choose from.
The film goes on for far too long. Even though it deals with subjects are far-ranging as infidelity, abortion, suicide, spousal abuse and corporate layoffs, it never seems like there is very much happening. And as the miserable souls of this film drift from scene to scene, they give us even fewer reasons to care about them.
There is no real focus in Claude Sautet’s downbeat film. I kept asking what I did to deserve a film so boring, so uninvolving as A SIMPLE STORY. It is a film that is thoroughly unpleasant to sit through and once it’s done, you’re tempted to start fresh and seek out more enjoyable forms of entertainment. A cinematic enema. Awful.
NOTE: The only version of this film available to me was dubbed. Hence, while I have tried to judge everything else, I have refrained from including any opinion regarding the quality of performances, since I do not feel I could accurately judge them at this time.
That’s it for this week, but I still need your help! If you have any newspaper ads, clippings or information about 1980’s release dates in some area of the country, please send me an email at email@example.com. I will try to incorporate them in the series. Remember, we only have data on a couple of areas of the United States but are always looking to get as clear a picture as possible. You can help!
COMING NEXT WEEK!
- It’s showtime!
- Al Pacino gets into leather!
- Kirk Douglas and Farrah Fawcett fight a killer robot!
- Gary Busey uses his typical charm to break into high society!
- A group of teens try to one-up each other in an all-night scavenger hunt!
- An up and comer decides that religion is where the money is!
ALL OF THIS AND MORE, NEXT WEEK IN GLORY OF THE 80’S!