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Stars Paul Le Mat, Mary Steenburgen, Jason Robards, Pamela Reed.
To me, the three most generous filmmakers to their characters — and that is, to all of their characters all of the time — were Jean Renoir, Leo McCarey and Jonathan Demme in his comedies, which is one reason that their best films reward multiple viewings again and again and again. With 1980’s Melvin and Howard, Demme also had a great Oscar-winning script by Bo Goldman, which was voted the year’s best by both the National Society of Film Critics and the New York Film Critics’ Circle (as was, in the latter case, Demme as well). Jason Robards got a supporting Oscar nomination for an unforgettable cameo, Mary Steenburgen just about swept the boards in everyone’s supporting actress voting (Oscar’s included) — and yet despite all this, very few people went to see the picture. It brings to mind something that was pounded pretty hard into me by the time I was about 10 years old: The audiences who determine which movies are going to make it are the same ones who vote for president.
Despite all these other accolades, M&H might not even work were it not for lead Paul Le Mat as dreamer-to-a-fault Melvin Dummar — another case of an undervalued actor never getting the credit he deserved despite having given two indelible screen performances (speedster “John” in American Graffiti was the other one). Dummar, who died late last year, was the Utah chronic hard-luck case who claimed to have picked up an injured old derelict in the desert who turned out to be Howard Hughes — who, upon his 1976 death supposedly left 1/16th of his assets to Dummar in his will, This, of course, set off a predictable dog fight with other principals of interest.
Goldman and Demme treat the story as a fable that still has a small chance of being true, which was the best — and probably only — way to go. There’s not a sliver of guile in the Melvin they portray, an uncomplicated working Joe (though with a confused love life) whose life goals don’t usually extend beyond being named employee-of-the-month at one of his hard-scrabble jobs, which include delivering milk and running a service station out in the middle of nowhere. Meanwhile (and not counting any lonely women he might meet on the milk route), Melvin manages to get married to the same woman twice (Steenburgen) before settling down with another (Pamela Reed) as his kids get caught in the shuffle. Even at this, though, it’s obvious that he and wife No. 1 still harbor mutual affection. It’s just that the Steenburgen character (Linda) has had it with the kind of guy who, after they finally get financially even or ahead with a cash windfall, buys a boat when the family doesn’t even near live anywhere near water. And when confronted with the fact, says what every husband says when called on the carpet at home for foolish extravagances: “It’s an investment.”
This was only Steenburgen’s second movie (after the Jack Nicholson amuser Goin’ South), and she made a monster impression; I suspect her makeshift tap dancing to Satisfaction on the “Easy Street” TV show is what got her the Oscar. According to a Demme supplemental commentary here carried over from the old DVD (the universally beloved director broke a lot of hearts by dying in 2017), the filmmakers had to make up a fictional game show on a dime with cameras ready to roll after Monty Hall or his people noted profanities in Goldman’s script and nixed an agreement to have a Linda appearance on “Let’s Make a Deal” part of the narrative. Nice job, Monty: You could have been in a major awards winner and one of the best films of its era.
Creative stress aide, the snub worked out because actor Robert Ridgely turned out to be a scream as “Easy Street” host Wally “Mr. Love” Williams, a role that (one minor line of dialogue excepted), he apparently ad-libbed all the way. With all the sincerity of a dozen oil slicks, he’s the real game show item — one capable of making the salient audience point, when informed by Linda on the show’s opening patter that Melvin is a milkman responds that “were it not for milkmen, where would we get our milk?” Indeed.
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When the news comes about Melvin’s windfall, the expected leeches ascend, though in truth, a long court fight led to a jury decision it was a forgery. (Later, a 2005 book by a retired FBI agent unearthed some evidence that supported the subject’s story.) I can remember seeing Dummar on the campy old early ’80s syndicated TV show “Lie Detector,” the program on which host F. Lee Bailey himself submitted polygraphs to determine the truth or not in legal squabbles of varying controversies. (On the same half-hour, Ronald Reagan’s barber passed a test to determine that no, the then president did not dye his hair.) Melvin, on the other hand, flunked badly — and could be seen mouthing the full, longer version of the “b.s.” oath under his breath over the determination, with the sound muted out for tender ears. This may be as angry as any of the general public ever saw the real or movie Melvin get, so sweet and unassuming is Le Mat’s performance.
Joining Demme on the commentary is the great production designer Toby Rafelson, who brings very little to the party but then didn’t really have to when her credits also included Five Easy Pieces, The King of Marvin Gardens, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (but only a few more; what happened?). Her work is on the screen and includes that great shot of two tires leaned against each other on a revolving poll outside the gas station, an image I have never forgotten all these years. Demme regular Tak Fujimoto shot M&H, and like a lot of Universal titles of the era, it has a soft palate that dribbled all over the place on the old DVD. This Twilight Time Blu-ray is much, much superior to the earlier release, and Julie Kirgo’s accompanying essay ranks with her best. I really love this movie, and do I ever miss Demme. As for Goldman (Bo, that is, not the better known William), he also wrote the screenplays for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Shoot the Moon. So his reputation is set for life.
Mike’s Picks: ‘Bend of the River’ and ‘Melvin and Howard’