“One of the most memorable moments during filming had nothing to do with the movie, but it also had everything to do with the movie. There was a rumor that President Nixon was going to resign. [On that night] we stopped filming. We were onstage at the auditorium and we wheeled in a TV. Everyone watched it and there was a profound silence. It wasn’t a time for cheering. But there was a feeling that we were really doing something, in fact, that was about what this country had gone through.” – Michael Ritchie on his movie Smile
There’s a scene in Michael Ritchie’s satire Smile that fills me with such unexpected emotion, such sympathy, that it stays with me all the way until the end of the movie. It involves Bruce Dern playing a “good” guy – or a guy who prides himself on being a “good” guy in that way people who think they’re good often do. You know, the kind who boast about “helping others,” and encourage everyone else to do the same, and you wonder, do you? Do you really help others? The kind of people you usually don’t trust if you’re a cynic, and nod your head while they offer you endless bromides of encouragement. His name is Big Bob Freelander and he’s a successful RV salesman in the town of Santa Rosa California. His son (Eric Shea), naturally, goes by Little Bob. He’s also the lead judge of a national beauty pageant called The Young American Miss, an event that descends on his town every year and something he takes quite seriously. When he’s handed a gold nametag to honor his top judge status (all other judges get silver) he is genuinely proud of this distinction. His profession, the pageant, his name, his values, the décor of his home – these are things that in many comedies, would constitute for a bullseye painted on Big Bob’s back. “Mock me.” But Ritchie (with writer Jerry Belson) isn’t interested in easily demeaning this very American man with his very hopeful American ideals (who, in fact, is trying to help his friend), even as Ritchie’s gently ribbing everything surrounding this man’s life. Instead, he finds it quietly heartbreaking.
The scene I mentioned involves his best friend, Andy (Nicholas Pryor) who has spent most of the movie in a dipsomaniacal state, disgusted with his life, sick of the town, sick of his wife, Brenda (Barbara Feldon) and hateful of the beauty show. He isn’t buying any of the banalities dished out to him or his suburban existence where, as the camera catches in a perfect shot, a freezer full of TV dinners. He’s not really down with tradition, like creepy rituals involving a chicken (just watch the film), and most especially his wife’s obsession with the beauty contest. Since his wife is the pageant’s crisp, professional Executive Director, this is extra vexing, as his entire life, one he does not want, is centered on this spangled entertainment. And, he makes trophies for a living, if that’s not driving his depression home any further. He’s in the middle of an existential breakdown and he’s turning 35 – that time you start humming along with Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is?” with zero irony.
Andy is an intriguing character because, in many ways, we’re supposed to relate to him most – we can see why he’s going crazy in this town, we can see why he can barely stand his wife who won’t sleep with him (we can also see why she’s not turned on by a guy who is wasted all the time). He’s the town drunk screaming for us all – what is wrong with you people? But, Smile is not that easy. It’s not using Andy as simply all-knowing shorthand, digging into the banalities of everyone else’s secretly sad lives. What makes him or us so better? Filled with such human characters – from the various judges to the personalities of the teenagers competing in the pageant, to the horny little boys trying to sneak a look at the girls, Smile studies people within this milieu with a kind of documentary detail that humanizes even the most overt assholes. The picture has been compared to both Robert Altman’s masterpiece Nashville and to Christopher Guest’s great Waiting for Guffman, but it’s less ambitious than Nashville, and a lot nicer and deeper than Guffman. It’s also something that feels distinctly Ritchie – the Ritchie of Prime Cut, The Candidate and The Bad News Bears – movies that are alternately funny and pessimistic, joyously profane (like The Bad News Bears) while being brutal, adult and smart. You feel that Ritchie gets these people – and he did – he once judged a beauty pageant himself.
But back to Andy and that scene. Near the end of the movie, Andy’s had it, his wife has had it with his drunken self-pity, and he threatens to kill himself – he’s gonna blow his brains out, possibly ruining the fine carpet in their well-maintained home. He shoves the gun in his mouth but Brenda’s contempt causes him to change his mind – he shoots her instead. She isn’t injured badly, and she’s not going to make a thing about it because this should be kept out of the papers! But Andy is placed in a jail cell and he’s talking to Big Bob about his predicament. Bob counsels him:
Bob: Andy it’s very simple. All it takes is a drop more perseverance. A drop more optimism and a drop more energy. Simple.
Andy: Hey. Hey wait a minute. I’ve heard that before.
Bob: Heard what before?
Andy: That drip-drop crap. Brenda read that to me. That’s right out of the Young American Miss Program.
Bob: A good philosophy is good philosophy and I don’t happen to be a snob about where I get it from. And I can tell you one other thing, as your best friend talking to you right now. Quit wallowing around in all this self-indulgent, self-pity and get out there and start helping others.
Andy: Bob. I’ve finally figured out what you are. You know what you are? A goddamn Young American Miss.
This is the part of the movie where you might think: exactly. Andy has called out Big Bob. In a meaner, easier picture, we might think, good for Andy. Not with Smile. Instead, I felt for Bob. Not only because Andy hurt his feelings, but also because he made him think a bit more (not a bad thing) and sometimes people just don’t want to think, they’d rather escape in their glittering duties – and Dern shows that so beautifully. Bob suddenly turns very inward – we see Dern flinch and without saying a word, he just has this look on his face – of sadness, of emasculation, of offense. But mostly he just takes in what his friend has said, and you can see it got to him. Dern is so excellently layered in this movie, so suddenly afflicted by this conversation, that for the rest of the film he seems troubled and disbelieving of himself. In a previous, beautiful scene, he talks about a time before he was married, when he was nearly set up on a date with Elizabeth Taylor – it’s something he’s wistful about, a kind of glamour he’d never reach, a woman he’d never have (and, in a nice scene, he does talk to his wife about taking a vacation), but it’s not pathetic or silly, it’s just one of those bittersweet moments of a guy living a rather mundane life. So hearing Andy compare Bob to a pageant princess is one of those quietly devastating moments that, when watched in a certain kind of mood, will take you aback and make you think about much of Bob’s attempts to stave off … sadness. And you catch yourself a little, suddenly surprised by how moved you are by Bob. As Pauline Kael said of Dern’s character: “Big Bob speaks in homilies that express exactly how he feels. He’s a donkey, but he doesn’t have a mean bone in his body.”
The entire movie plays with your emotions like this – laughing at the comedic aspects of the flesh show (there’s a not funny, disturbing aspect of this in Richie’s terrific Prime Cut when he lingers on livestock and women), while feeling an undertow of sadness regarding these women’s hopes and dreams. You’re smiling while a girl warbles “Delta Dawn” and then honks her saxophone for her talent portion of the contest and you laugh as another instructs the audience how to pack a suitcase (I happen to think that’s a perfectly acceptable talent). But then you feel for a contestant trying to get through a question and answer session in which she’s told to be herself, but of course, that’s not what’s she’s being told at all. And you sense her stress. You are exhausted by Miss Salinas, Maria Gonzales (Maria O’Brien), who uses her Mexican-American heritage to get a leg up in every situation, and then you see how really shitty the girls are towards her. So what if she’s always making guacamole? What the hell is wrong with that? Joan Prather as Robin is the contestant we follow most closely (she’s Miss Antelope Valley), since she seems to mirror how we feel – ambivalent about it all, serving more as the audience’s eyes than drunken Andy’s. She also rooms with Miss Anaheim, Doria (Annette O’Toole), the teenage veteran who offers advice to Robin, like, say, how having a dead father (as Robin does) could help her in the competition. I love that these two really do become something like friends, and that Doria’s not painted as the pageant hungry villainess; she’s just trying to get through life like everyone else. Doria figures if boys can get scholarships for sports, why can’t women be prized for their charm and beauty? Robin, a little more philosophical and, likely, more political, wonders why boys should get scholarships for sports in the first place.
The pageant scenes are filled with amusing, acerbic observations (and young actresses like Melanie Griffith and Coleen Camp), chiefly with the star choreographer played by real life dancer and choreographer Michael Kidd who brings a wonderfully tough, often comically dyspeptic presence – too sophisticated for the town, his Broadway and movie career in the rearview mirror, he’s doing this just for the money. He’s perfectly fine not getting along with the harried, annoying pageant official (Geoffrey Lewis), and he’s late on the job all of the time. So what. He’s also nicer than we think – the hotshot hard-ass dance guy actually cares more about the girls than Lewis’s character does.
Ritchie (with cinematographer Conrad Hall) captures so many details – the TV dinners, the lodges, the caged mechanical bird in Bob’s house, the portrait in Brenda’s home (of herself) and in an especially well-crafted scene, the nude polaroid that slowly reveals itself while Bob’s son, Little Bob, swears he didn’t take that kind of a photo. Of course he did. That photo also ends the movie in a telling detail – the nudie the kid is busted for and sent to a psychiatrist over, adorns a police officer’s car visor. The cop casually eats a Twinkie and takes a peek at the topless young woman – what’s more creepily All-American than munching on junk food and leering at teenagers from a position of power? And it’s not a surprise, really, that the cop would have the photo, after all, in a sad moment, Bob tries to bond with the servicemen rolling the flag when the pageant is over. Good American that he is, Bob informs them that he too served in the First Infantry Division: “We held the Chosin Reservoir,” Bob says. They ignore Bob’s affiliation and history and brush him off, remarking crassly to each other: “Boy did you see the knockers on Miss Imperial County?”
Smile contains numerous scenes that are either as obvious as the cops and the military (so much for the red, white and blue), or potently understated with small, telling details saying so much about how these 1975-era characters (1974 when the film was shot) contend with suburbia and the outside world. Current events are at the periphery of these characters concerns and lives (abortion in brought up in one scene), and yet the this a very 1970s film – you can sense the era’s creeping cynicism working into this town and hanging over it like a pall. As Nat King Cole brilliantly sings “Smile” (composed by Charlie Chaplin, lyrics by John Turner and Geoffrey Parsons) opening and closing the film, the song could initially seem ironic – if you’re not paying attention to the words or the great man singing them. No, the song “Smile” is direct and to the heart, and becomes so touching it’s almost too much to bear: “Smile though your heart is aching/Smile even though it’s breaking/When there are clouds in the sky, you’ll get by/If you smile through your fear and sorrow/ Smile and maybe tomorrow/You’ll see the sun come shining through for you…” Dear lord. Nat King Cole is right. What else is one supposed to do? You can’t stay drunk all day. Well, you can, but, as Big Bob says, “A good philosophy is good philosophy and I don’t happen to be a snob about where I get it from.”