1977 in Review

In 1977, Jimmy Carter was inaugurated as President of the United States, Apple went into business, and punk rock became commercially widespread. It was a time of unpredictable change. Peter Finch, Joan Crawford, Groucho Marx, Bing Crosby, and Charlie Chaplin died. Jessica Chastain, Michael Fassbender, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Tom Hardy were born.

But as impressive as that may sound, I have no idea what compelled me to introduce this blog by covering this particular year. Though it produced its share of classics like any other, it’s not regarded as a particularly good year for movies, nor a particularly bad one. However, it was definitely worth covering. I began doing yearly retrospectives as much as an education for me as an outlet for my boredom, and I saw a bunch of great movies for the first time, as well as seeing some I already knew in a new light.

But let’s get down to the listicles:

Seven Movies I Should Have Reviewed

1. The Turning Point
Like most of the movies on this list, The Turning Point, directed by Goodbye Girl auteur Herbert Ross, was simply unavailable to watch in any format; not from any streaming services, not from Netflix DVD, not even from the library, and not through YouTube piracy. This is astonishing, as The Turning Point was nominated for nine Academy Awards, including Best Picture and two separate nominations for Best Actress (Anne Bancroft and Shirley MacLaine), and notably introduced America to the legendary, recently-defected dancer, ballet choreographer, and actor Mikhail Baryshnikov. There are a lot of movies that have surprised me with their inaccessibility but this is the most shocking (except maybe Soldier of Orange).

2-3. Homage to Chagall/Who Are the DeBolts?
Five films were nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary feature of 1977. Two of them, Union Maids and High Grass Circus, had theatrical releases in 1976, and two more are simply unavailable for public viewing. Harry Rasky’s Homage to Chagall: The Colors of Love was the only feature documentary produced about Chagall before his death in 1985, and I found frustratingly little information about it. The winner of the award, John Korty’s Who Are the DeBolts? And Where Did They Get Nineteen Kids? explored the lives of a couple of notable adoption activists. Both films received DVD releases at some point, but the hell if I could find them.

4. You Light Up My Life
You Light Up My Life was especially frustrating. Even without seeing it, there was a lot to talk about. From the 1970s-1990s, having a big, radio-friendly original song in your movie was a major way to make extra money and promote the film. Taking this to its logical extreme, writer/director/producer/songwriter/serial rapist Joseph Brooks created You Light Up My Life purely as a delivery vehicle for the song of the same name, which went on to win the Oscar for Best Original Song (one of a couple of dubious categories) and become the biggest single of the entire 1970s, which nobody born afterward has heard, and which anyone who was there at the time absolutely hates.

5. I Never Promised You a Rose Garden
1977 offers a surprising amount of Jewish-centric movies, as the Jewish-dominated Hollywood studio system has historically been uncomfortable about alienating their mostly gentile American audience. It’s telling then that most of the Jewish-themed movies of 1977 were foreign offerings, while I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, schlockmaster Roger Corman’s foray into prestige cinema, managed to adapt a book about antisemitism by removing all references to antisemitism. Accordingly, it lost a great deal of credibility with critics– you know, in addition to being Roger Corman’s foray into prestige cinema.

6. The Last Wave
Did you know Peter Weir made a movie in between Picnic at Hanging Rock and Gallipoli? Maybe you did. I didn’t.

7. Billy Jack Goes to Washington
Doing these reviews, I try to be comprehensive; that means checking out the best of the best and the worst of the worst. Into the latter category should go Billy Jack Goes to Washington. Largely forgotten today, Tom Laughlin’s Billy Jack films were blockbusters in their own times, coinciding nicely with the bizarre intersection of sensitive lefty activism and adolescent white-boy rage that defined the Nixon years. Like many angry white boys, Laughlin was convinced that every ill of society was part of an overarching problem, and so offered up a bizarre manifesto of world peace through Native American land rights, Montessori education, and Hapkido. With Watergate and Vietnam in the rear-view mirror, Billy Jack’s brand of self-indulgence was deeply unfashionable, and the final film, Billy Jack Goes to Washington, couldn’t find a distributor. Laughlin naturally claimed that the government, and particularly Senator Vance Hartke, quashed the movie, apparently unaware that Hartke was retired by this point. The movie has a rare 0% rating on RottenTomatoes.

Ten Worst Movies of 1977 (That I Saw)

Dishonorable mentions: Equus, Bobby Deerfield, Suspiria

10. Pumping Iron
The most popular documentary of 1977, Pumping Iron is a jarringly uncritical, almost hagiographic exploration of the world of bodybuilding that comes off even worse than a hatchet job.

9. The Sentinel
A bizarre, derivative follow-up to several New Hollywood horror classics, The Sentinel misses the humanity in what its ripping off, and presents a convoluted, unthreatening menace.

8. Airport ’77
Following the lead of the movies the original Airport inspired, Airport ’77 is sluggish beyond words and struggles to find a core story.

7. Damnation Alley
Badly written, badly directed, badly acted, and gifted with extraordinarily bad special effects, Damnation Alley was meant to be the big summer sci-fi hit of 1977, but misses the mark so completely that one has to wonder what the studio saw in it to begin with.

6. Looking for Mr. Goodbar
Totally convinced of its own self-importance, the sexploitation-morality tale Looking for Mr. Goodbar is endlessly meandering, confusing, and just plain gross.

5. Orca
A movie about a whale hunting people out of vengeance. Do I need to say any more?

4. Exorcist II: The Heretic
John Boorman’s spite-sequel to the excellent The Exorcist throws out the original’s style and emotional substance for an incomprehensible exploration of mirrors, locusts, and stupid demon names.

3. The Other Side of Midnight
Like Damnation Alley, The Other Side of Midnight was highly anticipated as a massive summer blockbuster. Like Damnation Alley, it is borderline unwatchable in every way. But at least Damnation Alley doesn’t bring poor, beleaguered history into the mix.

2. Tentacles
A complete waste of a movie. A waste of a fine cast, a waste of 35mm film, a waste of the Italian government’s money; Tentacles is unequivocally the worst of all the Jaws ripoffs.

1. Empire of the Ants
Same as above, but with ants instead of an octopus.

Ten Best Movies of 1977

Honorable mentions: The Duellists, Capricorn One, High Anxiety

10. Saturday Night Fever
Unfairly maligned for decades, Saturday Night Fever is an incredibly stylish but also uncompromisingly dark movie that makes for an unforgettable whole.

9. Smokey and the Bandit
What you might expect to be a low-down good ‘ole boy movie is actually a taut, heartfelt, and funny action-comedy in all the right ways.

8. The Gauntlet
Clint Eastwood’s talents behind the camera have never been clearer than in The Gauntlet, a thrilling chase movie that took action-comedy tropes to a dizzying new level.

7. A Special Day
Ettore Scola’s haunting recollection of life under Mussolini hones in on a single day for two of fascism’s biggest and least visible outcasts.

6. Soldier of Orange
Paul Verhoeven’s gripping, lived-in account of the travails of the Dutch Resistance in World War II unapologetically demonstrates the importance of justice and loyalty over youthful friendship, and offers a startling recommendation for those who may have to choose between one and the other.

5. Sorcerer
Maligned as an overindulgent mega-flop, William Friedkin’s Sorcerer is a gorgeous, endlessly intense picture that deserves nothing less than a popular revival.

4. A Bridge Too Far
The most expensive movie of 1977, Richard Attenborough’s star-studded, no-holds-barred portrait of the Allied failure to invade the Netherlands in World War II is a spectacle for every sense.

3. Annie Hall
Often regarded as his best movie, Woody Allen’s scatterbrained relationship comedy is an uproarious achievement in the melding of humor and the unique qualities of film as a medium.

2. Star Wars
An energizing throwback to a time when heroes were allowed to defeat villains, Star Wars was a massive leap that would come to redefine science fiction, the family film, and the movie business.

1. Close Encounters of the Third Kind
The most passionate of Steven Spielberg’s passion projects, the only film which he alone conceived, wrote, and directed, Close Encounters of the Third Kind is a pure cinematic experience, a heretofore unknown fusion of sci-fi extravaganza, creative allegory, and biblical epic that must be seen by anyone with a budding interest in filmmaking.

I have no idea what compelled me to do a review series on 1977. Despite the achievements especially of Star Wars, 1977 did not mark a turning point in movies as either an art form or (especially) as a business.

hat would come in 1978. Less than a month into the new year, actor-director Robert Redford inaugurated the first annual Utah/US Film Festival in Park City Utah. Renamed the Sundance Film Festival in 1991, it was intended to showcase filmmakers that would otherwise have been overlooked by the Hollywood studio system. Though no one would be able to tell for decades, this plan would work all too well, as the major studios would begin producing fewer of their own movies from the mid-90s onward and rely on independent films to make up for the loss. At the end of that same year, the producers of Michael Cimino’s Vietnam War epic The Deer Hunter attempted to circumvent public squeamishness about the movie’s subject matter by releasing the film in such a way as to meet the minimum requirements for an Academy Award nomination, get a nomination, and use the awards buzz as a marketing tool, and Oscar Bait was born.

But that’s a story for another day. Next time, I’m going to get more recent, and review the single greatest year in film history…

High Anxiety (1977)

high_anxiety

High Anxiety
Dir. Mel Brooks
Premiered December 25, 1977

Alfred Hitchcock loved the 1970s. His favorite movie at the end of his life was Smokey and the Bandit, after all. And it makes sense. As soon as he came to Hollywood in the early days of the Second World War, Hitchcock constantly fought with the studios, constantly testing the limits of violence, sexuality, and creative control. He didn’t always succeed, and sometimes he had to go outside the studio system entirely, but he almost always came out on top, creating a model for the auteur theory that would usher in the New Hollywood. His last film may have been behind him in 1977, but he was loving the ride.

So it makes sense that the definitive Hitchcock parody should come out at this time, and that it should come from Mel Brooks, an auteur in his own right fresh off of Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, and Silent Movie. And yet High Anxiety isn’t as well remembered as those. I don’t know why.

The story begins when renowned psychologist Dr. Richard Thorndyke (Brooks) takes a new job as head of the Psycho-Neurotic Institute for the Very, Very Nervous. But Thorndyke has a secret that could cost him his job: he suffers from High Anxiety, and seeks treatment from mentor-turned-colleague Professor Lilloman (Howard Morris).

What the hell is High Anxiety? What isn’t? Thorndyke is afraid of everything. He’s afraid of heights, naturally, which sends him into a completely dysfunctional state. He’s afraid of everyone around him, of sudden plot twists, and of music cues (provided, Blazing Saddles-style, by a passing orchestra).

But Thorndyke has much the be scared about. His predecessor at the PNIVVN died under mysterious circumstances, as does another doctor (Dick Van Patten) soon after. His prissy rival (Harvey Korman) and sadistic nurse (Cloris Leachman) are clearly up to something– besides their clandestine BDSM relationship– as patients at the PNIVVN never seem to get better, or, seeming fine already, can’t leave. Things get even stranger on a visit to San Francisco, where he’s cornered by Victoria Brisbane (Madeline Kahn), the ravishing, perpetually mildly aroused daughter of one of the institution’s patients who’s convinced of a grand conspiracy that only the two of them– and Thorndyke’s shutterbug comic relief sidekick (Ron Carey) can untangle.

With Mel Brooks, a lot of people find it hard to get into as adults, requiring repeat viewings, so I’m not sure how fair of a shake I’m giving High Anxiety. I certainly liked it. It got Hitchcock right, it got Brooks’ own unique style of humor right, the two work together, I just don’t know what else to say without just quoting the movie or describing scenes from it. Sadly, generally liking something doesn’t make for the most interesting review.

Except blonde Madeline Kahn, whoo.

7f17333536a84ea4bcd3d26178419a76

Signs This Was Made in 1977
Victoria in one scene has a matching Louis Vuitton purse, pantsuit, and car.

How Did It Do?
High Anxiety grossed $31.1 million against a $4 million budget. Critics were generally if gingerly positive, mostly calling the film uneven or flawed but overall good, earning a 75% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes. Probably the biggest endorsement of the movie came from Alfred Hitchcock himself, who called its main Psycho homage “genius” and sent Mel Brooks some wine.

And that was 1977.

Next Time: 1977 in Review

The Gauntlet (1977)

45c7aba39eac8f665a2521876d0c83c3

The Gauntlet
Dir. Clint Eastwood
Premiered December 21, 1977

It’s a cliché that a troubled production will either result in a total disaster or a crowning achievement, but what about a troubled development? How many times has a studio tried to make a movie, gone through multiple directors and casts trying to do so, and then finally put out something good?

In fact, it has happened at least once, and it is called The Gauntlet. Originally meant to star Marlon Brando and then Steve McQueen, producer Robert Daley finally got Clint Eastwood to take the project on, on both sides of the camera. Today, Eastwood is best known as a filmmaker of occasionally good prestige drama, and his persona in front of the camera has long overshadowed his reputation as a filmmaking renaissance man. The Gauntlet, however, is proof positive at the man’s ability to make the most out of what should have been a piece of sleazy ephemera.

Detective Ben Shockley (Eastwood) is a perpetually drunken Phoenix police detective whose straitlaced new commissioner (William Prince) sends him to Nevada to pick up a mafia witness named Gus Mally. Arriving in Las Vegas, Shockley is surprised to discover that not only is “Gus” short for “Augustina,” a local prostitute (Sondra Locke), but that there’s a bet going around town that she won’t make it to testify in Phoenix. The reason they’re so certain of her failure is that the gangster she’s set to identify is Shockley’s very own commissioner, who’s set them both up for a fall and will stop at nothing to keep them from getting back to Phoenix.

The Gauntlet works really hard to be cool, and succeeds through sheer production value. After watching movie after movie– particularly action movies– shot with cameras with dirt in their gates, it’s shocking to see a crisp, clear image that rivals the very last days of 35mm Hollywood. The late-period jazz score by frequent Peckinpah collaborator Jerry Fielding oozes cool in a middle-aged sort of way. Eastwood and Locke have terrific chemistry with a darkly comedic edge, appropriately since they were a couple in real life at the time.

But The Gauntlet’s real triumph is its special effects. I know the timing makes it impossible, but I can’t help but imagine Eastwood watching Grand Theft Auto and thinking “challenge accepted.” The majority of the movie’s budget was spent crafting elaborate, borderline-comedic action setpieces that make the movie feel like the missing link between the Dollars trilogy and Die Hard. The Gauntlet is a fascinating window into Clint Eastwood’s unique style and influences behind the camera. It’s also a loving tribute to how completely you can destroy shit using just bullets.

Signs This Was Made in 1977
Just as in Grand Theft Auto, Las Vegas is a respectably midsized city of about 150,000. Meanwhile, Phoenix is in that late-boomtown phase where it’s already a big city but doesn’t look like one yet.

How Did It Do?
The Gauntlet was (probably) the 13th-biggest movie of the year. Grossing $35.4 million against a $5.5 million budget, it was Eastwood’s most successful directorial effort to date, just edging out the previous year’s The Outlaw Josey Wales. Critics were deeply polarized at the time, with the consensus criticism being that the plot was too bland. In retrospect, however, critics have been overwhelmingly positive, earning the film a 78% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes.

Next Time: High Anxiety

Capricorn One (1977)

7aef4e52742f01bc070f2e43ed0f0152-capricorn-one-cinema

Capricorn One
Dir. Peter Hyams
Premiered December 17, 1977

I have a problem with conspiracy thrillers.

It’s not just the fact that idiots take them seriously. God knows how much time was spent debating the “merit” of The Da Vinci Code, a pulp novel never meant to provoke the kind of pseudohistorical rumination that it did.

Rather, much like the dreaded Chosen One narrative beloved by hack YA novelists, conspiracy thrillers are easy to write but difficult to make compelling. This usually leaves you with a conspiracy that is (a) implausibly all-powerful and infallible, (b) needlessly complicated, (c) makes no sense, and/or (d) isn’t explained at all, but merely shifts the burden of responsibility onto a vague Other. For the latter, see 1974’s The Parallax View, which expects you to cower in terror before a mildly threatening enemy whose identity, motivations, and goals are never known.

Capricorn One feels my pain, and comes up with the perfect solution: a conspiracy that’s a total cock-up. The reality of spurious government conspiracy theories, such as those revolving around the Apollo program which inspired this film, is that they would be impossible to keep secret given the sheer number of people involved, and basically not worth the effort. It is this understanding that drives the story. It’s also entertaining as hell.

It’s launch date at Cape Canaveral, as the astronauts of Capricorn One (James Brolin, Sam Waterston, and O.J. Simpson) prepare for the first manned mission to Mars. But there’s a problem; the men are rushed out of the craft and onto a charter plane while the launch mysteriously continues without them.

Secreted away to an abandoned World War II airbase, NASA’s flight director (Hal Holbrook) explains to them that NASA was ripped off by the company that made the life support system for the mission, rendering an actual Mars landing impossible. But Congress and the general public have sadly lost their taste for the historic importance of space exploration, so to avoid the risk of losing funding, they decide to fake the entire eight-month mission on a soundstage. It’s a passionate, even sympathetic offer, and one the astronauts can’t refuse, as NASA is willing to go to some surprising lengths to keep the hoax secret.

But of course they go too far. When a technician (Robert Walden) raises questions about the communications readings, he’s disappeared, presumably murdered, and then methodically erased from the historical record. This is not without its loose ends, such as the man’s reporter friend Robert Caulfield (Elliot Gould, who, looks and talent nonwithstanding, could only have been a leading man in the 1970s), who is nearly killed himself when NASA sabotages his car. But he escapes his assassination, as do the astronauts, fanning out into the Mojave Desert. It’s then up to Caulfield to put the pieces together and find the men before they are claimed either by their government captors or the desert heat.

Capricorn One would be good just for overcoming my unease toward conspiracy thrillers. It’s even better for doing so in a way that’s sympathetically written, well-acted, good-looking, and downright fun. Every role in the film is played exactly as it should be, from Holbrook’s worn-down former idealist to Gould’s level-headed reporter, Waterston’s deadpan comic relief, and Brolin’s square-jawed determination. Jerry Goldsmith’s score is miles ahead of his previous work on Damnation Alley. Maybe he just had the sense to save his good stuff. The cinematography and editing are top-notch; an expertly paced thrill ride. That might seem like the bare minimum, but it’s amazing what most movies seem to get away with, and Capricorn One makes the absolute most of it.

Signs This Was Made in 1977

  • There’s a great deal of discussion about how the end of the Apollo program has caused America to fall behind in world leadership. Mind you, this is the late 1970s, so as much as I know it must have seemed that way at the time, it is fucking unfathomable from today’s perspective.

  • The Spy Who Loved Me asks, and Capricorn One delivers: “When does Allen Funt come out and tell us we’re on Candid Camera?”

  • Woodward and Bernstein get mentioned in the same sentence as Patty Hearst by Caulfield’s boss (David Doyle) who is a one-scene wonder if there ever was one.

Additional Notes

  • When astronaut Brubaker (Brolin) is presumed dead, his wife (Brenda Vaccaro) goes days without telling their children; maybe not until his memorial service. It’s only a movie, but it’s nevertheless amazing to me the lengths Americans go to avoid exposing their children to the very idea of tragedy.

  • There’s one major fuck-up in this movie, and it’s a weird one. Caulfield travels to Flat Rock, Arizona thinking it will lead to a clue, gets shot at by an unseen person followed by the sound of a car driving away, and appears back in Houston, all in the space of a single day (which is impossible), to no real purpose. It’s all the more bizarre for being in a film that is otherwise so tight and controlled.

  • I am aware of the irony of a conspiracy thriller prominently featuring O.J. Simpson.

How Did It Do?
Capricorn One was released December 17, 1977 in Japan. It would have to wait until 1978 for a US release, and even then was postponed until June to avoid competing with Richard Donner’s Superman. When it did come out, however, it did very well. I’m told it was the most successful independent movie of the year. I’m told that, but can’t be sure, because I couldn’t find any box-office receipts. I hope it did well.

It also did reasonably well with critics, with 61% on RottenTomatoes. Not that great, but pretty well. Criticisms of the movie are pretty diverse, so much so that I can’t really summarize them. It’s pretty much just a matter of personal taste.

In his excellent, short-lived series Laser Age, critic Keith Phipps called Capricorn One “a dumb movie made by smart people,” which seems just about perfect.

Next Time: The Gauntlet

Saturday Night Fever (1977)

saturday_night_fever_movie_poster

Saturday Night Fever
Dir. John Badham
Premiered December 14, 1977

It starts so simply. A panorama of Brooklyn, a rising beat, and then John Travolta, in his first starring role in a theatrical film, struts to the Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive,” a song that only exists because of this movie. It’s the start of a phenomenon, the encapsulation of an entire way of life, based on a story that wasn’t true, full of pain and unhappiness, whose attachment to a short-lived musical genre ensured that it would become an irrelevant joke for the next twenty years.

There’s a lot to unpack there.

Tony Manero (Travolta) is young, poor, and scrapes by at a hardware store in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. At home, he’s a lightning rod for the grievances of his unemployed father (Val Bisoglio) and wailing mother (Julie Bovasso), who now bemoan that their favorite son Frank Jr. (Martin Shakar) is leaving the priesthood. His friends are in a feud of their own making with a local Puerto Rican gang. A selfish, alienated person surrounded by selfish, alienated people, Tony can dream of a better life, but he can’t imagine getting there.

Tony’s only escape is through his neighborhood discotheque, where he is a legend, and women practically throw themselves at him, such as Annette (Donna Pescow), who, nursing her crush on Tony, offers to help him win the $500 prize at a local dance contest. Unfortunately, because Tony is a jackass, he dumps her the moment he sees Stephanie (Karen Lynn Gorney), a prettier, better dancer who also happens to be a pretentious namedropper with aspirations to leave Brooklyn firmly in her past.

This plot synopsis doesn’t get at the real meat of the story. It can’t without spoiling the film, which I don’t want to. All you really need to know is that Saturday Night Fever is a perfect depiction of self-loathing. As much as you can despise Tony’s words and behavior toward his parents, towards women, and towards anyone who isn’t Italian and from Brooklyn, you also feel deeply how he is constantly being worn down by the people around him, whom he allows to control his destiny until it reaches a breaking point. Of all the characters, it seems to be only Fr. Frank Jr. who understands this; although he only appears in Act 2, he’s the hero of the movie for showing Tony the possibility of being his own man.

But don’t let the darkness scare you away; it’s exactly what makes the dancing scenes land. Any economically precarious young man worth his salt finds something nice in life to hold onto. For Tony, that’s dancing. He knows it can’t be his future, whatever that may be, but for the moment it makes him happy, and deservedly so for the skills he presents. Not only is the choreography and Travolta’s natural ability great, but the music, cinematography, editing do their utmost to pump you up and make you want to join in. The energy is infectious. And lest that make the movie sound completely schizophrenic, it is that very contrast that makes the movie relatable, that elevates it from the typical dance movie into a lasting piece of culture.

Signs This Was Made in 1977
Tony rides the RR, one of the double-lettered weekend and shuttle service routes on the New York City subway which ran from 1961 to 1985. He owns the Farrah Fawcett poster with the nipples. He also has a poster of Al Pacino circa Serpico, and takes great amusement when a girl at the disco mistakes him for the considerably older, richer, less pretty movie star. Last of all, He has a poster of Rocky, which seemed appropriate considering the similar DNA of the two pictures, but it’s no coincidence, as Saturday Night Fever was originally meant to be directed by Rocky’s John G. Avildsen.

How Did It Do?
The third most popular film of 1977 worldwide, Saturday Night Fever grossed a whopping $237.1 million against a $3.5 million budget. Interestingly, it was one of the first US blockbusters to make more money overseas than domestically. Critics were thrilled. 87% on RottenTomatoes. Pauline Kael was in love with it. Gene Siskel considered it his favorite movie. English director John Badham, for whom this had been only his second film, became a staple of the 1980s. And John Travolta became the new biggest star in the universe. He was even nominated for an Oscar for his performance. I’m not even going to try to contextualize the soundtrack.

Saturday Night Fever captured the spirit of its age in a way that ensured its success but also doomed it to decades of mockery. Disco flamed out hard within just four years of the film’s release, and both the music and fashions depicted became so severely outré that you’d have thought there was a violent revolution in between. Somehow in this process, the movie got a sequel, Staying Alive, which embarrassingly missed the point and was widely panned as one of the worst sequels ever made. The dopey, outdated style was an easy target for lazy jokes by people who either hadn’t seen the movie or let cultural progress cloud their memory, and the movie wouldn’t regain recognition for its gritty realism and cinematic craftsmanship until the late 1990s. Basically, the same thing that happened to Miami Vice, but a decade earlier.

Next Time: Capricorn One

The Goodbye Girl (1977)

goodbye_girl_movie_poster

The Goodbye Girl
Dir. Herbert Ross
Premiered November 30, 1977

When Richard Dreyfuss won his first Academy Award for 1977. And it wasn’t for Close Encounters. It was, in fact, for The Goodbye Girl.

Actress Paula McFadden (Marsha Mason) has big plans to move to California with her sarcastic, foul-mouthed ten-year-old daughter Lucy (Quinn Cummings) when her deadbeat boyfriend Tony runs off to Italy to perform in a Bertolucci film. Stuck in New York, she discovers too late that Tony has already sublet the apartment to Elliot Garfield (Dreyfuss), a stubborn, self-absorbed actor who’s come to town to perform in an off-off-Broadway production of Richard III, only to discover to his horror that he’s playing the titular role as an embarrassingly over-the-top gay stereotype– and this is the ‘70s we’re talking about here.

Having just been dumped, Paula naturally has her defenses up, but Lucy’s affection for Elliot’s high-energy and sense of humor ensures he’ll be around long enough to develop some serious feelings for Paula.

With that kind of plot, The Goodbye Girl walks an impressive tightrope. It would have been really easy to make Elliot a pretentious douchebag. The man meditates and plays acoustic guitar, and bear in mind that Animal House is only eight months away. But he’s not a jackass. As Paula and the audience get to know him, we feel for his struggles, his ambition, and a mixture of tenderness and mutual respect he develops for the two women in his life that I don’t think we have a word for in English. It helps that he’s played by a guy who really has all of those things.

As a side note, the role of Elliot was originally going to be played by Robert DeNiro. Fine actor, but it would never have worked, and would-be director Mike Nichols saw as much before he too left the project.

Similarly, the character of Lucy ran the risk of being intolerably cloying and saccharine, but she’s written well, coming off much like a real kid of that age, and Quinn Cummings pulls it off. This was her first film role, and she was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. I wouldn’t go that far, but it’s clear why the Academy felt so strongly.

The Goodbye Girl is directed by Herbert Ross, but the original screenplay is by Neil Simon, which explains why it feels so comfortably familiar. Much like Simon’s defining work The Odd Couple, The Goodbye Girl revolves around a couple of housemates on the Upper West Side who can’t seem to get along. And while it’s not as funny as The Odd Couple, it’s certainly worth seeing if you like your romantic comedy with actual brains and a solid dose of grit.

Signs This Was Made in 1977
Paula gets mugged in broad daylight on a main avenue. Lucy owns a poster of the Fonz. CB radios get referenced.

Additional Notes
Composer Dave Grusin: still a total hack.

How Did It Do?
“If you ever win an Academy Award, I’ll be happy for you.”

Congratulations, Elliot: The Goodbye Girl got Dreyfuss his first and only Oscar. The film was nominated for four others; Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress, and Best Original Screenplay; and grossed a whopping $102 million to become the fourth highest-grossing movie of the year. Reviews were overwhelmingly positive (88% on RottenTomatoes), though Roger Ebert and a handful of others found Marsha Mason’s performance to be underwhelming, which I frankly agree with. But I’ll let it slide.

Next Time: Saturday Night Fever

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

f02a5630ac8d369e1db83b89c626abb0

Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Dir. Stephen Spielberg
Premiered November 16, 1977

I’ve waited all day to see this. Procrastinated. I don’t know why I end up here every time. Waiting until night means having to contend with the noise of four roommates, and probably one particularly pushy neighbor. I’m mostly lucky this time.

I play the video. We have a 60-inch smart TV. The motion smoothing is off, of course. We know our shit. The credits play, first in silence, but then John Williams’ score creeps into consciousness.

The film opens cold, disorientingly, not unlike The Exorcist. A cartographer named Laughlin (Bob Balaban) arrives in Mexico. Seemingly hired for no other reason than that he speaks French, to translate for the French scientist Lacombe (François Truffaut, who appears to have been cast purely because Director Steven Spielberg– and probably he alone– could get him). There, they come across a flight of fighter planes, empty, missing since the Second World War, and in perfect working order.

That’s when it happens. My 60-inch screen is now a 12-inch screen, the sofa becomes my parents’ bed. Boy Bands. President Clinton. Soon, President Gore? Boy Scouts, Harry Potter, Pokémon. Allison May, the origin of my redhead fetish. It’s not 1977, but it’s certainly a long time ago. My mother, who showed me my first movie, took me to my first movie in the theater, and has taken me to almost every movie since, has chosen for me a special destiny. To be an artist like her? Not the same kind, though. And she’s very emphatic that I see this now.

I thought I’d been too young to appreciate it. Before buckling down and pressing play in 2017, I struggled to remember the experience. But I needn’t have. I instantly recognize every shot.

It begins with the missing planes. Then a long-lost ship materializes in the Gobi Desert. People in India hear music from an unknown source. In Muncie, Indiana, the home of single mother Jillian (Melinda Dillon) is strafed by mysterious lights. Electrical devices come to life. Then the power goes out, and when electrician Roy (Richard Dreyfuss) is sent out to find the problem, an alien spaceship reveals itself to him, burning his face and leading him and the local police on the best chase this side of Smokey and the Bandit, but also leaving him, Jillian, and others around the world with a sound and an image in their heads. They obsess. Jillian moreso when the visitors take away her toddler son (Cary Guffey). Roy’s mania grows. He drives away his wife (Teri Garr) and children, singularly obsessed with bringing the picture in his mind into reality. He’s been chosen. This feels familiar. This feels good.

I think my mother is trying to tell me something. Star Wars made me want to become a filmmaker. Close Encounters of the Third Kind contends that I had always been one.

The parallels to filmmaking are clear. When Lacombe and Roy finally meet, Lacombe, the reasonable authority figure, envies the passion and sense of purpose that Roy has been given, much as one of Spielberg’s authority figures, Stanley Kubrick, envied him. The score, the sound, are like nothing else. Douglas Trumbull’s effects are masterful; even when the artifice shows, as in a handful of chroma key shots, the image is breathtaking– it’s easy to overlook the odd seam here. The better a movie is, the better it seems to be.

I don’t know what happens afterward. I do think the film is lost on me at that young age, but not for its themes or message. I must confess that the movie, and especially the climax, loses some of its weight on a 12-inch screen. But then the 12-inch screen becomes a 60-inch screen. The built-in speakers become a massive surround-sound system, the perk of living with fully-employed editors and cinematographers. And I see Close Encounters of the Third Kind as I should have that first time.

Signs This Was Made in 1977
Early in the film, one can hear a faint and apparently unauthorized radio broadcast of Boston’s “More Than a Feeling.” Contemporary music? What is this, a Scorsese film?

How Did It Do?
Close Encounters of the Third Kind was a global phenomenon. On a budget of $20 million, it grossed $288 million dollars, enough for Columbia to recoup the losses of Sorcerer eight times over. The third-biggest movie of the year in the US, and second-biggest worldwide. Critics were glowing. 96% glowing. Pauline Kael called it “a kid’s film in the best sense,” which is ironic considering her appraisal of Star Wars. Renoir compared it to Jules Verne and Meliès, essentially counting the film among the immortal canon of science fiction. Ray Bradbury thought it was the best film the genre had ever produced.

During Close Encounters’ development, NASA urged Spielberg to reconsider making the movie, fearing that it would spawn a rash of spurious UFO sightings and claims of alien abduction. Spielberg interpreted this as a vote of confidence in the movie’s success. They were both right. The alien designs, their craft, their abilities, and their mode of communication have defined the popular image of intelligent extraterrestrial life ever since, and both Close Encounters’ distinct imagery and its themes can be found anew throughout genre cinema up to today.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind was nominated for eight Academy Awards and won two: Best Cinematography for Vilmos Zsigmond, and Best Sound Effects Editing for Frank Warner. In an unusual turn of events, both Warner and Star Wars’ Ben Burtt, the only nominees that year, received the award, albeit this particular category is kinda squirrelly that way.

Essentially granted a blank check, Spielberg followed Close Encounters up with the disastrous though surprisingly profitable World War II comedy 1941. Faced with the end of his career, Spielberg reluctantly accepted an offer to direct the latest project from his friend George Lucas, who, as previously mentioned, renounced directing after the difficulties of Star Wars. The movie was Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Spielberg was saved.

Next Time: The Goodbye Girl

Pete’s Dragon (1977)

petes_dragon_ver1

Pete’s Dragon
Dir. Don Chaffey
Premiered November 3, 1977

In 1984, the Walt Disney Company produced Ron Howard’s comedy film Splash. It was a first for the company: a Disney film in all but name, released under the more adult-sounding label “Touchstone Pictures.” It had been a long time coming.

With Walt Disney dead, and the leaderless corporation operating on vague, increasingly childish ideas of “what Walt would’ve done” (so much for “keep moving forward”), the types of films the company released were more and more constrained. At times, they tried following the lead of New Hollywood, but could never provide the budget– imagine, Disney the poorest studio– or willingness to cede creative control to live up to cinema’s new titans. And with equal frequency, such as with 1977’s perennial midday afternoon favorite Pete’s Dragon, they went full retrograde.

The film is set in Maine during the 1900s– at least, a version of the 1900s where commercial ships are still 50 feet long, made of wood, and use sails. In the woods, young Pete (Sean Marshall) runs and hides from his hillbilly captors the Gogans (Shelley Winters, Charles Tyner, Gary Morgan, and Jeff Conaway) who have purchased him as a slave.

For those keeping score, this is the second Disney movie of 1977 to involve child slavery.

Protecting Pete is a mysterious dragon he calls Elliot (voiced by Charlie Callas), who often turns invisible. Escaping to the cheerful harbor town of Passamaquoddy, Elliot is spotted by drunken lighthouse keeper Lampie (Mickey Rooney), and later taken in by him and his daughter Nora (Helen Reddy), who’s recently lost her fiancé at sea.

Soon after, traveling flim-flam man Dr. Terminus (Jim Dale) comes to town, and though he initially laughs off rumors of a dragon in the area, he discovers the myriad ways dragon parts can be used in patent medicines through a musical number that is as catchy as its lyrics are unexpectedly graphic, and hatches a plan with the Gogans to ensnare both Pete and Elliot.

The first thing you notice is the production values. The one thing Pete’s Dragon does really well is Elliot. Immense technical lengths are reached to make his presence feel real, but the animators never fool themselves into thinking they can make him look real and go for pure traditional animation, not unlike Song of the South. Unfortunately, the aspect ratio is the only sign that this isn’t as old as Song of the South.

And it’s not just the datedness. This would have been as bad in 1947 as 1977. It’s not that Sean Marshall can’t act; it feels as if he was directed to fail. The musical numbers feature ADR so bad that it looks as if the actors were overdubbed from another language, Sergio Leone-style. The cinematography constantly calls attention to it, the choreography is ever so slightly sluggish, and, except for the aforementioned vivisection song, the connection between lyrics and overall story are tenuous. The signature song, “Candle on the Water,” comes out of nowhere and grinds the film to a halt.

About that story…there’s a place for darkness in children’s entertainment; I grew up with that stuff, I love it, it’s great. But Pete’s Dragon never gives its darker content any heft, which is unfortunate, because there’s some pretty fucked up shit here. Not only are the Gogans child-slavers, though that would’ve been enough, they’re feral sociopaths who dream of drowning Pete for fun and argue over which of them gets to rape Nora. And the movie’s presentation of this is comparatively competent; less so an overlong scene in which Pete is beaten by his teacher (Jane Kean) for Elliot’s invisible escapades just so Elliot can fly in and save the day, confirming his existence, only for Nora and Lampie, apropos of nothing and with no effect on the plot, to suddenly deny ever having seen or believed in Elliot just to give Pete an emotional low point for the second act break.

And this gets at the central flaw in Pete’s Dragon, the one ensuring that, despite its popularity at the time, it would never be adopted as an icon of nostalgia or “Disneyana.” Leonard Maltin places the movie as the last of a long run of attempts by the studio to recapture the success of Mary Poppins. That makes a lot of sense, and explains why it doesn’t work. Mary Poppins is ultimately about a father learning to reconnect with his children and rediscover the enjoyment of life before it’s too late. Likewise, the first Mary Poppins knock-off, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, is about children learning to be brave in the face of the Second World War while still holding onto the magic in life, giving that bravery purpose.

What is the point of Pete’s Dragon? Pete has no arc, he doesn’t change. He finds a family who loves him, but he does that on his own, Elliot is just window dressing. And the validation Pete gets at the end of the movie is rendered futile when Elliot leaves to “help” other kids in need. It’s the pointlessness of the endeavor that renders what might have been a piece of cult ephemera into a lifeless, short-lived mediocrity.

Signs This Was Made in 1977
The word “internship” is pronounced slightly differently, with the emphasis on “tern.” Nora wears bellbottoms, and they do amazing things to her ass.

Screen Shot 2017-06-20 at 7.14.58 PM

How Did It Do?
Pete’s Dragon grossed $35.5 million in its first run against a $10 million budget, making it the 12th highest-grossing film of 1977 and Disney’s biggest success of the year. Critics were divided. Positive reviews mostly regarded it as a welcome throwback to Disney’s live-action crowdpleasers in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Negative reviews found it hollow, unmotivated, and overlong. Even hardcore Disney nerds seem to be iffy on it, with a 1984 re-release yielding just $4.1 million. However, the movie did get two Oscar nominations: Best Original Score and Best Original Song for “Candle on the Water.”

Normally, that’s where the story would end, but out of nowhere, Disney decided to give Pete’s Dragon a new-and-improved remake, Ocean’s Eleven-style, with no songs, a CGI Elliot, and David Lowery at the helm. Released in 2016, it was far more positively received by critics and made way more money than the original could’ve dreamed of, but still barely broke even, the studio system now having become ridiculously top-heavy. I promise I’ll get to it someday.

But for now, it’s time for one of the big ones.

Next Time: Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Madame Rosa (1977)

81xuvr5ggml-_sy550_

Madame Rosa
La Vie Devant Soi
Dir. Moshe Mizrahi
Premiered November 2, 1977

Paris as we know it is not very old. Beginning in the 1860s, the city was demolished piece by piece and rebuilt bigger, cleaner, and easier to get around, this was the beginning of the wide avenues, circles, and monuments we know today. But it was never finished. Go to the Marais, just north of the Île Saint-Louis, and suddenly you are not only in a version of Paris that has disappeared, but an entire way of life in Europe. Preserved in this one corner of the continent is a perfect image of the Old Country; the close cobblestone streets, bars, bookstores, and bakeries of the Jewish ghetto; here alone lives the world of ancient photographs and tragicomic Yiddish tales of life before the Holocaust. Madame Rosa doesn’t take place in the Marais, it takes place in Belleville, and it is set in the 1970s, just as it was filmed, but it is very much in the spirit of such tales.

Belleville in the 1970s was a hub for immigrants, mostly from North Africa, mostly Jews. But it is also near Pigalle, the red light district, and it is this unusual location that makes this story, based on the 1975 novel The Life Before Us, so fascinating. The titular Madame (Simone Signoret) is a deeply traumatized Holocaust survivor and retired prostitute who has made a habit of taking in the abandoned children of her younger colleagues. As a result, this is not so much her story as that of her eldest charge Mohammed (Sami Ben-Youb). With Rosa dying, her other children being sent off, Mohammed is the last person to truly care for her, an incredible burden on the boy as he wonders about his parentage, seeks guidance from an increasingly senile and blind imam (Gabriel Jabbour), and contemplates his nascent adolescence with a beautiful young film editor (Michal Bat-Adam).

Madame Rosa is deeply imperfect. It meanders frustratingly through its first half, and the editing always seems a bit off– in an at least refreshing contrast to badly edited movies from this year, scenes end slightly sooner than they should– but it is a touching and also somewhat disturbing story, anchored by Signoret’s performance and the odd characters around Rosa and Mohammed.

How Did It Do?
Madame Rosa grossed $5.2 million in the United States and around $4 million in France, depending on how much tickets cost there. The film also benefitted greatly from the timing of its release, coinciding as it did with President Carter’s sponsorship of peace talks between Israel and Egypt in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War. With a RottenTomatoes score of 83%, many critics openly gave Madame Rosa a pass for its questionably loose narrative and editing in favor of endorsing both its story and production as an example of Arab-Jewish cooperation.

Madame Rosa was the last film released to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, and it won. By my estimation it shouldn’t have, but there are a couple of reasons why it might have won. The first is political: Molly Haskell of New York Magazine strongly suspected that the award had been given thereto as a compromise for giving Best Supporting Actress to Vanessa Redgrave in light of her…contemporary efforts (That thing keeps coming back, though Madame Rosa’s Israeli director, Moshe Mizrahi, actually agreed with Redgrave). The second is that, while the award probably should’ve gone to A Special Day, the Academy, reflecting Old Hollywood’s longstanding paranoia about scaring away Midwestern Goyim, were spooked by that movie’s unapologetic gay themes, though the notoriously homophobic country of Italy interestingly had no problem submitting it. But I digress.

Next Time: Pete’s Dragon

Death Bed: The Bed That Eats (1977)

51p3gd0yfml-_sy445_

Death Bed: The Bed That Eats
Dir. George Barry
Premiered October 26, 1977

Breakfast

The year is 1977. After five troubled years of production, much like another film discussed in this series, director George Barry has completed his masterpiece: Death Bed: The Bed That Eats. But, unable to find a distributor, Barry abandons filmmaking before he’s truly started; he tries to put this labor of love behind him, and believes the film to be lost.

26 years later, he finds the film being discussed online. Someone has found a copy. Suddenly, the memories rush back, and Death Bed finally gets the theatrical release it deserves. Unfortunately, its time has come and gone, and it’s mostly regarded as a joke. It’s not. It is, in fact, the best American horror film of 1977.

Lunch

Divided into neat acts labeled “Breakfast,” “Lunch,” “Dinner,” and “The Just Dessert,” Death Bed is host to a wondrously complicated plot. Time and time again, travelers in what I think is Long Island find their way to an oddly fresh-looking and comfortable bed that then comes to life and digests them like a venus flytrap. Watching over the bed is the ghost of Victorian gothic illustrator Aubrey Beardsley (Patrick Spence-Thomas), trapped inside one of his paintings after becoming one of the bed’s many victims since its creation.

When young Sharon (Rosa Luxemburg) is curiously spared by the bed, later joined by her concerned brother (William Russ, the dad from Boy Meets World or American History X, whichever you saw first), we become party to the deeply intricate nature of its creation: in 1897, a tree-dwelling demon fell in love with a local girl (Linda Bond), unintentionally put her into suspended animation through their unnatural coupling, leaving her for dead, and cried tears of blood that brought the bed to life, since which it’s made a habit of luring unsuspecting victims. Beardsley can only bide his time until the bed and its demon father sleep (and dream of eating everyone in New York City), when he can tell the latest would-be victims how to defeat the bed once and for all.

Dinner

Death Bed: The Bed That Eats is, for lack of better words, joyously unpretentious in its pretension. It’s so thought-out, so in love with its own ideas, and just self-aware enough that you have to smile; possessing a dry wit and wondrous sense of imagination that, unlike a certain movie from 2016, isn’t just coasting on originality for originality’s sake. Its flaws are many, but only the product of a lack of funds and adequate casting (many of the cast are behind-the-scenes technicians rather than professional actors) rather than an absence of talent.

The Just Dessert

By only coming to light in the 21st Century, Death Bed: The Bed That Eats was doomed to be seen as a joke. Although the sole official review on RottenTomatoes is genuinely positive, most other reviews you find consider it to be of the so-bad-it’s-good variety. The AV Club’s Inventory listed the Death Bed itself as an infamously unthreatening horror villain, and comedian Patton Oswalt famously Charlie Rosed* the movie on one of his albums. Jack Shen, in a review that was even more positive than this one, praised the film as a psychedelic mix of Wes Craven and Ingmar Bergman, to which I would add perhaps the nascent DNA of Sam Raimi’s tongue-in-cheek style. It’s on YouTube, and I’d rather watch it for actual enjoyment a thousand times than sit through another screening of The Other Side of Midnight for shits and giggles.

As a side note: Jock Brandis, the classic Hollywood horror carpenter and propmaster who build the Death Bed and cameos in the film, continued his life as the hero of another story.

*Charlie Rose. Verb. To speak with the appearance of authority on a subject (usually a film), only to reveal one’s own patent ignorance of the subject, typically by confidently relating bogus details. Inspired by an apocryphal anecdote involving Charlie Rose interviewing Wes Anderson.

Next Time: Madame Rosa