A Little Romance

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Available via Warner Archive;
Warner;
Drama;
$21.99 Blu-ray
;
Rated ‘PG.’
Stars Laurence Olivier, Diane Lane, Thelonious Bernard, Sally Kellerman, Arthur Hill.

It was spring of 1979 when 12-year-old Diane Lane made the cover of Time magazine back when that really meant something — ostensibly as part of a cover story on “Hollywood’s Whiz Kids” but spurred primarily by her utterly beguiling screen debut opposite Laurence Olivier in A Little Romance, the first film released, albeit through Warner Bros., by the then brand new Orion Pictures. I can’t believe the pans the picture originally got, though I did just notice that Frank Rich provided a very enthusiastic blurb at the time, and Rich’s film criticism was always as dead-on as his political writing (his current Intelligencer column in New York magazine is never to be missed). But the movie has aged well despite all of its potential minefields, due in huge part to Lane, who was worthy of making the cover of almost any magazine that comes to mind, including Civil War Times, Just Jazz Guitar and that White Castle’s monthly house organ (I actually have a friend who collected a consecutive run of the last for years).

Almost by definition, the picture sounds all but inevitably as if it’ll be plagued by a rampant “case of the cutes” — while Sir Larry’s performance is rather, uh, broad here (I won’t say hammy, though, because it’s too funny and besides, it’s in the spirit of the movie). Then and now, I always looked at Romance as a keen move by director George Roy Hill to develop some filmography “rhythm” after having just done Paul Newman’s Slap Shot, a hockey comedy that comes pretty close to being an all-timer but which also had what was probably the most profane script of any Hollywood film released up to that time. Of course, with 1964’s The World of Henry Orient, Hill had already done one of the best of all adolescent-centered comedies.

Per its title, the focus here is adolescent romance, as unaffected Lane’s child of privilege falls for the scruffy, street-smart 13-year-old son of an uncouth French taxi driver — a pleasing turn by another screen newcomer, Thelonious Bernard, who almost immediately gave up acting in real life and eventually became a dentist. His character is also a film buff (they, of course, know how to grow them in France), and the movie gets off to a rough start when we see a montage of his screen favorites that somehow finds room for True Grit and Hill’s own Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which doesn’t exactly suggest Bertolucci’s The Dreamers when it comes to that film’s more accurate portrayal of what a French student of film might be watching. The Bernard character (Daniel) is, however, enough of an auteurist to love Howard Hawks’ To Have and Have Not with Bogie and Bacall and knows an omen when he finds one upon discovering that the Lane character’s name is Lauren.

Sally Kellerman plays Lane’s toxically flighty thrice-wed mother at a time when Kellerman did “impossible” better than anyone. Her good-guy husband No. 3 and Lane stepfather (Arthur Hill) is work-stationed as an American executive in Paris, which is how the movie’s storyline comes to be. This, in turn, gives mom the opportunity to pursue a currently shooting film director (David Dukes), and one of the funniest gags here is that fact that while commercially popular, he’s a total hack. Bernard’s Daniel is, of course, movie-savvy enough to know this, compounding his total disdain for someone he’d dislike on sight for a number of other reasons. Another good gag is that Broderick Crawford, who looks as if he entered the wrong door on his way to the Highway Patrol set, plays himself in all ways but full literal moniker (here, he is “Brod”) as one who ends up cast in Dukes’s movie. Brod only has two or three scenes, but he gets some laughs, even though he probably agreed to do the picture for a couple pops.

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Lane’s Lauren is caught in the middle of all this (Dukes is as much of an aggressive pain as Kellerman), which makes credible what might have been a too-appealing-to-be-true characterization: an absolute seventh-grade dreamboat with all seventh-grader vulnerabilities but also a bookish one with literate-adult interests and reading taste at least half-a-decade beyond her years, at least for the era in which the movie is set. But she’s still a Romantic with a thing for Elizabeth Barrett, so it makes a certain kind of sense that she’d fall for a boy who loves handicapping and playing the horses and also sneaking out and into movies like one the young rascals in Francois Truffaut films.

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Every young couple needs a Cupid, which is where Olivier fits in — a role that, top billing notwithstanding, initially looks like a small one (nearly an hour in before his second show-up but expands substantially in the second half). It all comes to be after the kids meet this courtly old-school French charmer of somewhat vague background after he is felled by a flying soccer ball. Inspired by romantic memories of his late wife, Olivier agrees to aid and abet the youngsters on their daring journey to Venice’s Bridge of Sighs, where the two plan to kiss at sunlight (though Lane lies about the reason for the trip). Their challenges have to do coming up with the money, the fact that as minors they’re way too young to travel legally without an adult, pursuing authorities who assume they’re looking at a kidnapping case, and missed train connections.

This is a movie that probably shouldn’t work, but it does for me, and it isn’t all Lane, though she’s the nucleus of this pure confection’s sleeper uccess. Adapting a Claude Klotz novel, Allan Burns’s Oscar-nominated script brandishes a TV series brand of humor, but it’s good TV (Burns worked on “The Bullwinkle Show,” “Mary Tyler Moore Show” and plus a lot of “Lou Grant” and “Rhoda”). The young actors who play the respective best friends of Lane and Bernard could have been throwaways, but their roles are not only well written but exceptionally well directed by Hill. Georges Delerue’s score took the Oscar, and cinematographer Pierre-William Glenn had previously shot Truffaut’s Day for Night for automatic street cred (DFN’s score came from Delerue as well). I used to think Arthur Hill was on the bland side, but the more I watch, I’m impressed by his malleability in playing sympathetic characters but also occasionally sinister types. His scenes with Lane are genuinely warm, and he keeps it under control when the kids get looped on champagne during what is otherwise not much of a birthday bash for her, which Kellerman has insisted be combined with a wrap party for Dukes.

This Warner Archive release has no real extras, but I didn’t really care because it was so much fun watching Olivier approaching the end of his career as Lane was just beginning hers. It’s been fun watching her grow up on the screen into a perfect woman, an assertion I base not just on her multi-level attractiveness but the fact that in Jay Roach’s Dalton Trumbo biopic, we see her having a normal backyard conversation while juggling.

Mike’s Picks: ‘A Little Romance’ and ‘Salesman’

Brewster McCloud

Director Robert Altman’s oddball Brewster McCloud has attained something of a cult status for its darkly comic tale of a boy living in the Astrodome who plans to escape with a birdlike contraption as Houston is besieged by a series of weird murders.

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Available via Warner Archive;
Warner;
Comedy;
$21.99 Blu-ray;
Rated ‘R.’
Stars Bud Cort, Sally Kellerman, Shelley Duvall, Michael Murphy, William Windom.

Sandwiched between two of its era’s landmark screen achievements — MASH and McCabe and Mrs. Miller — Robert Altman’s Astrodome fantasy Brewster McCloud is an oddball even by his standards, which indeed could get mighty eccentric on occasion, though this was more of a factor from the late 1970s until 1992’s comeback with The Player.

One has to wonder what then MGM chief James “The Smiling Cobra” Aubrey — with his background in the enormously popular but predominantly mega-crappy hayseed programming from his eventually stormy CBS tenure — really thought when he was plunking counter-culture-ish Brewster into 1970’s year-end holiday season (I saw it opening night in New York City, just before Christmas). Not that signs were all bleak: At year’s beginning, in what I’m sure was anything but an isolated incident, I had seen MASH get perhaps the deepest belly-laughs from a Saturday-night packed house that I have ever seen in my life (seeing the climactic football scene in a raucous football town was an off-the-charts experience). And now here was either the critic for Time or Newsweek (I forget which) stoking hopes by proclaiming that with his first follow-up, Altman had just become the first person ever to hit one out of the Astrodome.

Well, hardly. But in its defense, the movie, whose remastered Panavision visuals are easily up to Warner Archive standards, has mellowed, probably forever, into a solid double until it more or less gets picked off in late innings. And even then, it’s partially saved by a delightful end credits extravaganza, capped by one of the most uproariously twisted final shots in screen history (assuming you’re twisted as well). For a while, few qualifications are needed because the first half or more is real-deal Altman despite his having to work a script by Doran William Cannon, who not long before had penned Otto Preminger’s … Skidoo. (I can just hear someone saying to Aubrey: “Jim Baby, we know you spent all those years pandering to the Cotton Mather demographic with ‘Petticoat Junction’ and all that, but we’re hitting in the Bigs now, and we’ve got the same screenwriter who set the table for your old network colleague Jackie Gleason to drop acid on screen.”)

Skidoo also serves up Carol Channing in her underwear — easily as mind-bending as watching Ralph Kramden see electric pictures — but let’s not go there. So getting back to Brewster, the premise is this: Bud Cort’s Brewster lives in the Astrodome as he prepares to fly out of it via a constructed contraption, all under the influence of Sally Kellerman’s borderline incestuous mother figure (who once may have been a bird herself) adamantly urging the lad not to compromise his goals by indulging in sex with willing young women. So let’s see: Did I leave anything out? Oh, yeah: Houston has just called in ace San Francisco detective Frank Shaft (Michael Murphy) to crack a series of local murders whose corpses are all splattered with bird doody. What I wouldn’t give to see Jack Webb handling the interrogations.

Given all this, most people will have an idea from the description if Brewster is a movie for them, but thanks to a cast of familiar Altman casting collaborators — and this was Shelley Duvall’s screen debut — there are many chuckles along the way, most of them aimed at the idiots who populate its large cast of characters. One performer who was decidedly not an Altman stock company regular was Margaret Hamilton herself, cast as a wicked witch (in spirit, anyway) who shrieks the national anthem at Astros games while badgering the band whose uniforms she’s bankrolled. One can only imagine what she thought of her surrounding sound anarchy after having worked with Ray Bolger, but her Daphne Heap character is the first casualty here and thus isn’t around long, though the capper gag to her demise is one of the movie’s best and a must for Wizard of Oz completists.

An added high point is Murphy (another Altman regular) finessing a first-rate parody of Steve McQueen in Bullitt, down to the bluest eyes that Metrocolor can covey and a drawerful of high-end turtleneck sweaters in a wide array of pigments to make him look cool while burning rubber on the road. Another is MASH’s G. Wood (why didn’t he have a better career, and why didn’t Altman use him more?) as a cantankerous Houston police captain who resents Murphy and is generally as dyspeptic as Wood’s general in Altman’s greatest of all service comedies — a role he later repeated in the hit watered-down TV version, for which Altman had no use. Plus Bert Remsen as a cruelly loathsome wife-beating narc (even Wood hates him) whose young son’s skin problems appear to clear up overnight once dad joins the ca-ca’ed-corpse club. And Rene Auberjonois as a bird lecturer to whom the movie keeps returning, only to find him incrementally taking on the appearance of his subjects. Also Stacy Keach in a ton of latex makeup as a miser right out of Dickens; he gets his, too.

Altman fares less well with the women, aside from Kellerman’s casting perfection as the best-endowed ex-avian imaginable. Poor Jennifer Salt, in an impossible role, is a complete bust as a hot-for-Brewster apparent nympho who orgasms just by thinking of him, while the director hasn’t yet figured how to get the best out of Shelley Duvall (an actress I never “got,” though she has too many impressive credits for me not to give her her due). And, yeah — a big car chase in a Bullitt parody would have been de rigueur in 1970, but Altman can’t really figure out a way to do a novel one, and slow-motion to mickey-mousing music isn’t the answer). And yet: It has to be said that its capper gag is another one that arguably attains classic status, and that’s the thing: Just when you’re about to bail on the movie, something happens that is beyond the creative capability of normal, mundane minds.

Taking this further, I think a few minds might have gotten expanded during the filming of what ultimately had to settle for becoming a cult movie. Or to put it another way, per his well-known reputation, I don’t think it was oregano that Uncle Bob was smoking on the set when he shot this. Well, kids, it was a heady time. The same half-week, MGM also released Paul Mazursky’s hippy-dippy Alex in Wonderland, which was so “Fellini-esque” that Federico Fellini was actually in it. On balance, I think Alex comes closer to being a success (however qualified), due to Ellen Burstyn and its spot-on satire of Hollywood in the Vietnam era when no one had even a clue of what might cut it at the box office. Either way, Aubrey had to be thinking that there wasn’t as much to wrap his mind around when he was pushing The Lucy Show and Mayberry spin-offs. And though it’s just a guess, it’s unlikely Aunt Bea ever badgered some stagehand to score her a lid.

Brewster McCloud

Mike’s Picks: ‘Brewster McCloud’ and ‘Distant Voices, Still Lives’