Once we had so many options
Once we had dignity and grace
Now we have got nothing but our own time to waste
Smile, Michael Ritchie’s 1975 satire of sex appeal and suburban malaise written by Jerry Belson, captured an extraordinary and sometimes unplanned snapshot of generational conflict, insidious misogyny, and society in transition. It also performed so poorly in theaters that, barely over a year later, it premiered as the CBS Wednesday Night Movie four nights after Christmas, when most TV viewing would itself be at a general low. While it as yet does not hold an exalted position in the crowded pantheon of masterpieces of the 1970s, it continues to rise in reputation in the decades since its inauspicious release and furtive returns to the cultural conversation.
I won’t take all that they hand me down
Make out a smile, though I wear a frown
And I’m not gonna take it all lying down
Cause once I get started, I go to town
Cause I’m not like everybody else
I’m not like everybody else
The 32 finalists converging on Santa Rosa, California, vying to represent the state in the national Young American Miss competition are almost all friendly, guileless, and white. The only women of color to be seen will be one black girl in the earlier Miss Imperial Valley finals, who visibly rolls her eyes at the obvious win of her more aesthetically-pleasing competitor Connie Thompson, and Miss Salinas Maria Gonzales, a skilled code-switcher who initially presents herself as a servile model minority complete with coquettish accent, but privately speaks with the cold, crisp flatness of an NPR anchor. Upon closer attention, Miss San Diego Shirley Tolstoy’s father seems ambivalent about his daughter’s journey, Miss Antelope Valley Robin Gibson is being raised by a single mother, and Miss Anaheim Doria Houston is surrounded by men of various ages, none of whom appear to be a parent. These girls likely have all manner of sympathetic challenges and aspirations in their lives, but they’re already smart enough to know unless they involve what Roger Ebert dubbed CLIDVIC – CLImb from Despair to VICtory – those aren’t the tales the pageant judges want to hear.
All the houses on the street have got a name
‘Cause all the houses in the street they look the same
Same chimney pots, same little cars, same window panes
The neighbors call to tell you things that you should know
They say their lines, they drink their tea, and then they go
They tell your business in another Shangri-la
For as much as the power brokers in Santa Rosa crow about the prestige of hosting the pageant, it grows quickly apparent that almost nobody is actually happy to deal with it. Certainly not Wilson Shears, the new Jaycees president, desperate to hold onto his station, nattering on how much of their funds are being spent on a “meat show.” Definitely not the egotistical band leader Ray Brandy, who takes any opportunity to condescend to the naive teenagers rather than help them. Not even Brenda DiCarlo, pageant supervisor and former Young American Miss herself, seems to like her wards very much, as she spends more time tone policing them than learning their names, hustles a fainting victim away before the girl – whose name nobody can remember (its Maureen Abbott) – can testify to her condition, and interrupts Maria’s rehearsal to present marginal radio personality Ted Farley, whom she proclaims “the real star of the show.” Even kindly Emile Naches the auditorium custodian, who is offended at how the girls are treated, still bemoans that every year, the toilets back up because hygiene products get disposed of incorrectly. When Smile’s original trailer narrator proclaimed, “The most popular spectator sport in America is not the Super Bowl, or the Olympics, or the World Series, or the heavyweight championship… it’s the beauty pageant,” this statement not only offered a substantial truth of the time, it also was a harbinger of the pushback all those events now experience from citizens and activists today, that the headaches they bring to “regular people” negate the worth of hosting them.
Well, it’s been said before, the world is a stage
A different performance with every age
Open the history book to any old page
Bring on the lions and open the cage
Give the people what they want
You gotta give the people what they want
The more they get, the more they need
And every time they get harder and harder to please
All manner of indignities are heaped upon the 33 Young American Miss contestants during their Santa Rosa stay. Their airport arrival is crashed by older male conventioneers whom Brenda initially shoos out of her snapshot, but willingly poses with minutes later. They must conduct their pageant preparation in a building that is simultaneously conducting CPR lessons and juvenile traffic court, with older lookie-loos of both genders blatantly violating their “No Mans Land” privacy zone. Their post-pageant photo-op is overwhelmed by a swimming pool sandblasting, sending dust fumes over their gleaming smiles and consolation prizes. And of course there’s that Polaroid photo incident. Does anyone in this city even like these girls?
People say Mr. Pleasant is good,
Mr. Pleasant is kind,
Mr. Pleasant’s okay,
Mr. Pleasant don’t mind.
As long as Mr. Pleasant’s all right, hey hey.
How are you today?
Big Bob Freelander has a nice thing to say about everybody in his town, and he’s darned proud to be the literal gold-badge judge of this pageant, and darned proud of all the girls in it. He’s been a salesman long enough to know how to read anyone and give their endorphins a noodge, so in the individual interviews, when he notices Robin not knowing how to phrase an answer the way he intuits the other judges want to hear it, he helps guide her with some good adjectives. During an otherwise perfunctory shout-out at the ceremony, he dares to take the mic away from Ted Farley to remind the crowd about the hope and potential of these fine young women, that there’s “lotsa winners” among them, though perhaps the opening night of a three-stage event is a little early for that declaration. Bob loves these girls, more than he knows.
I am a creator
Inventor and innovator
I observe the people
The ordinary people
No matter what your occupation is
Everybody’s in showbiz
‘Cos I’m a Star
And I can make you a Star
Tommy French choreographed the national Young American Miss finals in Baton Rouge for years. Brenda knows it’s a big deal they were able to get him to work a state-level show, though Wilson thinks “that homosexual from San Francisco” they had last year was just fine and besides, he’s less expensive. Wilson doesn’t know how cheaply they could have gotten Tommy, or that he had another reason to come to Santa Rosa, a fleeting but comforting one. He’s not your pal like Big Bob is; he may be selling soap but he’s not going to soft-soap. He coldly deduces this show will be the last artistic endeavor most of these girls will ever have. But like SoCal youth baseball coach Morris Buttermaker, he knows that adults in authority will always be bastards, and kids should always be kids, so he’ll tell the girls to go out on that stage, which he has sacrificed part of his fee to preserve, and do the best they can. Tommy loves these girls, to a mutually painful degree.
You try so hard not to follow any trends
Then you cry in your beer and say you’ve got no friends
But is it any wonder that you’ve got no friends
But it’s not the make up
Or the way you dress
It’s not your appearance, that they all detest
It’s not your manners, that you gotta improve
Ooooo–it’s your attitude
Andy DiCarlo finds very little to like in Santa Rosa, especially not his wife Brenda, or himself. One is left to wonder what brought them together as a couple? Andy must have shown some promise in his youth to attract a Young American Miss as a wife. Then again, since his current occupation is manufacturing the physical awards that are given to sports heroes and beauty queens, while she has bedecked their home with an altar and portrait for herself, perhaps she merely wanted a literal trophy husband. “She’s the boss, she just doesn’t know how to make trophies,” he wails. However, for all of Andy’s vehemence at Brenda’s navel-gazing or Santa Rosa’s provincialism, he exhibits no particular exceptionalism of his own, proving that the initial reflex of a basic person is to call everyone else out as basic first. As enablers of each other’s toxicity, Andy and Brenda are a mordantly perfect couple. Could anyone in this city love these people?
Look at all the losers and the mad eyed gazers
Look at all the looneys and the sad eyed failures
They’re giving up living ‘cos they just don’t care
So take a good look around
The misfits are everywhere
Big Bob loves Andy and Brenda. He ribs her by saying, “He was my friend first, you stole him from me.” He’s grateful to her involving him in the pageant and giving him a gold name tag while other judges get silver ones. And he doesn’t understand why Andy isn’t looking forward to the Jaycee’s mandatory retirement ceremony that, as he sees it, will raise him up to his own emeritus status. When Andy balks at the ritual of kissing a dead chicken’s ass, he says, “I’m an Exalted Exhausted Rooster…I’ve seen as many chickens’ asses as another chicken,” and it finally yields a laugh out of his sullen friend. Bob is the one person in town Andy does not despise…yet. If only Bob would stop talking in homilies…
Now the Melody Maker want to interview me
And ask my view on politics and theories on religion
Now my record’s up to number 3
And a woman recognized me and started to scream
This all seems like a crazy dream
Meanwhile, back at the pageant, two important intersections are taking place. Doria and Robin, assigned to share lodgings together, gradually open up and speak candidly about their respective feelings on pageants, competition, and friendship. They each possess something the other desires for themselves – Robin admiring Doria’s cunning, Doria envying Robin’s stable home life – which seeds a friendship likely to continue regardless of this contest’s outcome. Concurrently, Maria launches a ruthless charm offensive, plying business leaders and judges alike with bowls of guacamole dip, and a talent presentation pandering directly to white patrician attitudes about Mexico. Her naked electioneering not only rankles the other girls, it raises the eyebrow of Brenda, whose behavior hints that she probably used some of the same tactics in her own pageant time. Game recognizes game.
I’ll sing a song about some people you might know
They made front pages in the news not long ago
Oh but now they’re just a part of the crowd
And I wonder where they all are now
It sounds like cognitive dissonance to suggest that a movie depicting a city full of busybodies alternately negging and coveting young women is a warm and forgiving portrait of humanity. Indeed, even 40-plus years after its production, many residents of Santa Rosa who were present for the filming of Smile have expressed feelings of betrayal, objecting to the focus on the less compelling parts of town and the language used by the characters. Yet Smile is particularly praiseworthy because it does not treat people as standard heroes and villains, but lays out their capacity for empathy and self-awareness as a unit of measure. Obviously, most of the Santa Rosans and the pageant girls are wrapped up in their own immediate needs, and it is the venal odysseys of people like Wilson that create trouble. But even the nicer folk have some issues to work on: Bob has been blithely undercutting his son with his “Little Bob” nomenclature, Tommy enjoys being the grouch too often, and Robin does admit to enjoying watching Maria’s hubris backfire on her. One can look at such a reflection and recoil at the sight, or contemplate it carefully and figure out what to fix so that the next glance yields a better picture.
We are the Sherlock Holmes English Speaking Vernacular
Help save Fu Manchu, Moriarty and Dracula
We are the Office Block Persecution Affinity
God save little shops, china cups and virginity
Smile, filmed in 1974, also deftly captures people, things, and behaviors of that time which are no longer taken for granted in the present day. Beauty pageants still exist, but there have been dozens of changes applied to them over the decades, and their influence has significantly fallen. Fraternal service organizations are an alien concept to the average citizen today, and their secret rituals such as the dreaded “Exhausted Rooster” ceremony understandably raise hackles, especially those damned white robes. As depicted in the film to the 1956 song “Let the Good Times Roll” by Shirley & Lee, it’s ultimately just an excuse for otherwise proper establishment men to get drunk and rowdy like the teenagers they were in the year that hit came out. In our present, there’s no need to bother with those trappings; you can get piss-drunk with your friends anywhere anytime and still be a respected figure so long as you don’t do something really stupid. New generations grasp that helping the community can be done without membership fees, time spent at a lodge at the expense of family, and weird events with bad optics. And Smile understands that some things like kindness and self-improvement, and other behavioral virtues of the Young American Miss handbook, are worth preserving, but other trappings of the 1970s are ready to be kissed goodbye, such as that dead chicken’s ass.
Growing up is very hard to do
Everybody watching your every move
Your private life always on view
But jealousy never really suited you
But I know that
Underneath that rude exterior
There’s got to be a heart of gold
Underneath that hard exterior
Is a little girl waiting to be told
You’ve got a heart of gold
She’s got a heart of gold
There are a plethora of fine actors shining throughout Smile, but as most appreciations have been written for the adult performers, attention should be given here to all the women who comprise the pageant participants, for contrary to Brenda DiCarlo, they are truly the stars of the show. Joan Prather demonstrates warmth and wonder as Robin, the constantly bemused observer of this surreal circus. Annette O’Toole’s delivery of Doria’s “Inner Beauty” monologue is such a precise balance of straight-faced subversion, it feels so cosmically correct that in real life, she would be united in creativity and in marriage to another master of biting yet affectionate satire, Michael McKean. When it is considered that Kate Sarchet had both actual pageant experience, winning “Miss Ghost America” in a promotion for TV’s “Dark Shadows,” and comedy training from Second City, her ability to disappear into winsome Miss Modesto Judy Wagner (and her terrible celebrity imitations) is quite skillful. Maria O’Brien inhabits Maria Gonzales with ferocious comic energy, her obsequious behavior alternately annoying yet endearing; why wouldn’t the only Mexican-American in the contest use every rope trick in her rodeo to win? Denise Nickerson’s Shirley Tolstoy is so out of her element and so put-upon by the hostile band you want to hug her, and then shove Ray Brandy’s baton where the sun don’t shine. By comparison, Colleen Camp and Melanie Griffith were already at a pro level when cast as the scampish Connie Thompson and Karen Love, yet effortlessly play convincing ingenues while demonstrating chops that have carried their careers into the present. And for that matter, all the other unprofessional Santa Rosa locals filling out the body of contestants, in short glimpses, offer plenty of pluck and adorability, especially during those unforgiving talent montages. As predicted in character by Tommy French, in real life most of these nice young women went back to nice ordinary lives, but what rich stories they must have told their friends and family. What a marvelous thing it would be if a savvy documentarian or DVD producer were to reunite all these ladies one last time!
And now we’re back where we started
Here we go round again
Day after day I get up and I say
I better do it again
Smile had a brief and interesting reincarnation as a stage musical in November, 1986, with music from Marvin Hamlisch and libretto by Howard Ashman. Characters were reduced and condensed, some plot points recontextualized, but most of the general plot points and themes remaining the same. Much like its predecessor, it was not a hit, closing on Broadway in January, 1987, after only 48 performances, and without an official cast recording released to the public, though many songs surfaced on compilations and bootlegs afterward. Without any criticism for the talent involved, perhaps this was not the musical idiom the story was suited for. As the juxtapositions interspersed throughout this essay demonstrate, this story of unassuming people and their assumptions about life’s rewards would have been excellent fodder for one of the best rock bands ever to chronicle the strife of the everyday misfit, The Kinks. Many of the best, most memorable quotes from the film sound like they could have come from the pen of Ray and Dave Davies… “It’s a depressing thing to see one person be mean to another person,” “Can I get you anything? A doctor? A Pepsi?” “Isn’t she lovely? Aren’t they all lovely? Isn’t everyone lovely?” “I won $200 and had a wart removed.” “God, Elizabeth Taylor was beautiful.”
They’re gonna put you down for a while
You’ve got to learn to grit your teeth and smile
And look a little on the funny, sunny side of life
Look a little on the sunny side
After the new Young American Miss has been crowned, there’s not much more story to tell. The sour union of Andy and Brenda reaches an inevitable resolution, albeit in an unpredictable manner. Tommy is off to wrest what value his reputation still has elsewhere. Maria, a little more humbled but no less ambitious, politely poses with barely concealed fangs among her rivals with the cars and appliances from the various sponsors (and the pool cleaners’ dust cloud), not yet aware that maybe getting the preceding embarrassment over with at this stage of her life will propel her further than Brenda’s pageant experience did. Doria may still be outwardly hustling, but now knows there’s one person in her life she can trust. And as Robin’s mother drives her away from the city she’ll likely never visit again, they pass an RV dealership, she sees Big Bob, who helped her during that interview session where all the other adults made her feel ill, and will remember the one man who made her feel welcome in an intimidating, lonely place. Game recognizes game.
Everybody’s a dreamer
And everybody’s a star
And everybody’s in show biz
It doesn’t matter who you are
And those who are successful
Be always on your guard
Success walks hand in hand with failure
Along Hollywood Boulevard