Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Three Films by Michael Ritchie (#1) SMILE (1975)

I decided to write a few posts about the work of a remarkable and very underrated American filmmaker, notable for some outstanding 1970s films: Michael Ritchie (1938-2001). Ritchie directed many popular movies such as Semi Tough (1977) Fletch (1985) and The Bad News Bears (1976), but there are a few that seemed to be overlooked. Last night I viewed Smile (1975) starring Bruce Dern, a razor sharp satire on beauty pageants.

Written by Jerry Belson (writer for The Dick Van Dyke Show and The Odd Couple, among others), Smile is a very wry and acerbic take on America's obsession with beautiful women and competition. Shot in the same documentary style seen in Ritchie's 1969 feature Downhill Racer, Smile is a portrait of the days leading up to the Young American Miss pageant, in which one of the judges, a chipper car salesman named Big Bob Freelander (Bruce Dern) is more than enthusiastic about. His buddy Andy (Nicholas Pryor) is his polar opposite: self pitying, depressed and disillusioned about his dull suburban life and dissatisfied with his wife (Barbara Feldon) a former beauty queen who is in charge of the pageant.

In the film's opening scene, a contestant is chosen after auditioning by demonstrating how to properly pack a suitcase. The judges cynically choose her for her tits and ass while scoffing at what she's doing on stage. When all the contestants are gathered in Santa Fe, where the pageant is taking place, we meet the usual suspects: the ultra bubbly, optimistic but dumb young girls who develop a fierce sense of competition, including one Mexican girl (Maria O'Brien) who bakes guacamole for the judges and is more than happy to declare her love for her new home in "Amereeca"

One contestant stands out: a quiet and unassuming brunette (Joan Prather) who despite patronizing from the judges, is actually quite bright and uncertain about how to present herself amongst all the cheery and showy young women competing with her. A fellow contestant (Annette O'Toole) confides in Prather's character and gives her tips to give her more of an edge: "Tell them you don't have a father!" she advises. When she is thrown questions by the judges, one of them, a Catholic priest, burdens her with a question about abortion: "I thought a lot about that." she replies, "Then I just thought that I'm so glad I'm too young to vote!"

Another standout character is the show's dance choreographer (Michael Kidd) a Hollywood has-been whose talent is only equal to his pessimistic attitude which provides some sharp laughs. In one scene, he exchanges some harsh words with the show's stuffy organizer (Geoffrey Lewis) "You and I got off to a shaky start. It doesn't have to stay that way." Lewis says; Kidd pauses to think it over and then replies, "No, let's keep it shaky."

Smile is a knowing film that shows 1970s America draped in garish polyester and artificial cheeriness. Almost everything in the film rings true and is more fascinating in a retroactive way since the idea of the 70s is now considered something of mythic relic. One scene involving Andy having a fight with his wife that leads to something unexpected seems too contrived, but with the exception of that scene, Smile is consistently believable and involving. Behind the curtains of this pageant there's a sense of jadedness and banality. Even happy old Big Bob can't sustain his happy go lucky outlook on the proceedings. There's a pageant every year and I doubt the following one brings forth anything new or surprising. Yet so many people involved take it very seriously. Why? I guess it makes them feel important.

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