Available via Warner Archive;
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.
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.