Vintage Cable Box: “Romantic Comedy, 1983”

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“A few years ago, I owned a delicate china teapot.  One day, I dropped it and it split right down the middle.  Well, I glued it together, and it looked as if it had never been broken.  And several months later, for no apparent reason, it suddenly exploded into a thousand pieces.  I suppose what I’m trying to say is that despite all appearances, it’s better to keep your teapot intact.”

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Romantic Comedy, 1983 (Dudley Moore), MGM/UA

Phoebe Craddock (Mary Steenburgen) excuses herself to use the restroom at a high-end restaurant packed with back-slappers during the premiere party of her first collaborative work with Jason Carmichael (Dudley Moore). She returns not a moment later, and the joint has cleared out – a ghost town. When she asks a waiter where everybody went, he simply answers, “the reviews came in.” This is the life of the writer; anticipation and happiness and enthusiasm all destroyed within minutes by bad reviews, dirty looks, and marginalization.

The result of a communications snafu, Steenburgen has arrived to work with stage-writing partner Dudley Moore two weeks early on his wedding day. Mistaking her for a masseuse, he strips down naked. When she comes clean, he is embarrassed, slips on a pair of shorts, and goes into a temper tantrum. What we have is a “romantic comedy”, not the title, but the concept – a Neil Simon pastiche written by Bernard Slade. Imagine Anthony Perkins and Mia Farrow in the lead roles they created in the original stage run. If you can, you’re one-up on me. It’s an interesting combination.

The story is told as a series of vignettes (or even acts). Phoebe and Jason meet-cute and begin to collaborate. Their first play is a flop. They bond. He starts a family with his beautiful, politically-ambitious but innately sweet wife (Janet Eilber). A montage showcases the duo’s resulting success with several stage plays. They bond. Phoebe starts seeing a journalist (Ron Leibman). Jason has an affair with a dizzy, ridiculous actress (Robyn Douglass). His wife divorces him. Phoebe abandons him, and marries Ron Leibman.  I think the point of the story (if there was one) is that creative partners are analogs for lovers, or that an intense inventive synthesis is the same as a romantic coupling.

Years later, Jason’s life is in ruins. Phoebe returns, after having written a semi-autobiographical book about her partnership with Jason. She wants to turn the book into a play, and she wants to collaborate with Jason. He flips out in a restaurant and suffers a heart attack. Phoebe nurse-maids him. Leibman finally leaves her when he realizes she loves Jason and working with Jason more than spending time with her own husband. I think he wants the woman who is with Jason, rather than the woman she is with him.

This is as close to unlikable as you’re likely to get from Dudley Moore. He’s crass, vulnerable, sarcastic, moody, and patronizing, but he is Dudley Moore. Again, he manages to make an impossible character work, because we, as viewers, still sympathize with him. Maybe it has something to do with his height. He’s not a powerful man. Perhaps strong in his wit, his manner, his intellect, but a flailing man-child in aesthetics. We believe Dudley Moore; whether he’s a songwriter, a drunk playboy, a writer, a psychiatrist, or a symphony conductor, we believe him. As an actor and entertainer, his decisions were brave and ultimately successful. In the final analysis, his performance is the only thing I enjoy in Romantic Comedy. He would go from the daffy Arthur to the gut-punch of Six Weeks within the space of a year. No other actor would dare to bank on his image as a dramatic actor.

Romantic Comedy is typical eighties cheese, and the Marvin Hamlisch music doesn’t do the narrative any favors. It seemed the formula, or the structure of movies made this way depended on montage to break up acts. We have a set-piece scene, a montage, another scene, another montage, and it goes on like this until toward the end after the climax and before the end credits. Other films from this time period do a better job of linking the elements, but Romantic Comedy is a bit clunky because, being based on a stage play, you have static blocking and heavy dialogue on a big set. Director Arthur Hiller (Author! Author!) tries to shake it up, sometimes putting the actors in nice New York locales, but the stage play narrative feels like a prison from which these very talented actors cannot escape.

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month.  Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.

 

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Vintage Cable Box: “Author! Author!, 1982”

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“Don’t you ever, ever, ever tell me I look good for my age again!”

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Author! Author!, 1982 (Al Pacino), 20th Century Fox

Johnny Mandel’s appropriately cheesy music informs us we are about to spend an hour and forty minutes with a sensitive, high-strung, and passionate man. Ivan Travalian is your typical, over-educated New York lunatic, who also happens to be a marginally successful playwright with a Brady Bunch-sized family of children from a previous marriage to estranged wife Tuesday Weld. Lucky for him, he likes his wayward adopted family, and they love him. Depressed and anxious though he is, he tries to do what’s best for the extended family, struggling to get his play produced (to his specifications) while courting his leading lady Alice (Dyan Cannon).

A few days ago, I put up my review for Deathtrap, another movie about a playwright, also made in 1982, and also starring Cannon. Several movies were made about writers in this time period. Perhaps their work was more intriguing in the early eighties than it is now. This may be the last time we are witness to an Al Pacino who had not yet become the gregarious, overpowering, over-the-top actor most audiences are familiar with today. He would follow up Author! Author! with Scarface the following year.

The script is an uncomfortable balance of humor and drama, because of Ivan’s tense, charged relationship with his wife. Pacino’s reptilian eyes never seem to blink, and when they do, you miss it. He stares everybody down, and he is truly frightening when he is angry. His life falls apart when he suspects his wife of cheating on him. The performances in the movie, though eccentric and varied in intensity, never feel less than geniune. Watching it, you feel you know these people. Pacino has incredible chemistry with the young actors who make up his “family”. Ivan has unusually frank discussions with the kids about his life, his paranoia, his assorted neuroses, and his depression.

Ivan and his agent (played by a burly, bearded Alan King) convince Alice to take a part in his play. In the midst of rehearsals for his new play, English With Tears, Ivan’s family suffers upheavals. There was never a more beloved stepfather, as all the children don’t want to be broken up and dispersed to other, newer families. They would rather stay together, and it is touching to see one of Ivan’s stepdaughters add up the number of fathers, mothers, grandfathers, and grandmothers she has because of her mother’s romances. He hooks up with Dyan Cannon at the insistence of his son, who encourages him to find happiness. Soon, she moves into his already-cramped townhouse. Tuesday comes home and flips when she discovers the new living arrangement, even though she’s there to tell him she’s moved on with her life, despite his plea for her to return.

With Author! Author!, we have rich, complex characters that lead unusual inner lives. Pacino repeatedly forgets (or refuses to remember) other people’s names. His children know way too much about his sexual life. Tuesday Weld’s character is a mass of emotional contradictions. Dyan Cannon appears to be the most stable character of them all, despite her emotional unavailability. Ivan is a fascinating person, owning up to his responsibilities as a provider for his family, but also exhibiting arrested behavior; he is not the weary man-child audiences have been subjected to for the last 10 years in cinema.

This is a much better film than the critics of the time would have you believe. Evidently confused as to the characters and their manic moods and motivations, Roger Ebert, in his review, writes that it isn’t necessary for Pacino’s character to be a playwright, but I think he misses the point. Author! Author! is old-fashioned melodrama and theatricality; even extending to a scene where Pacino absconds with his kids and hides his two runaway stepdaughters on the roof of his house. Above all the histrionics, the tirades, and the bittersweet machinations of the script, we never forget that this is a story about a typical, over-educated New York lunatic who loves his children.

Special thanks to my beautiful, brilliant wife for suggesting this title to me.

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month. Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.

Vintage Cable Box: “Deathtrap, 1982”

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“I want a short-cut, Sidney. And I really don’t care whose yard I cut through, if you understand me.”

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Deathtrap, 1982 (Michael Caine), Warner Bros.

Michael Caine’s Sidney Bruhl, a successful playwright who specializes in the macabre is livid over the terrible reviews for his latest play, Murder Most Fair. His somewhat dizzy, weak-hearted but wealthy wife, Myra (Dyan Cannon), cannot understand his anger. Protégé and fan Clifford Anderson (Christopher Reeve) sends him his latest manuscript, Deathtrap; the unqualified genius of which drives Caine to the breaking point as he contemplates murdering him and claiming the work for his own. He invites Reeve out to his house in Montauk.

After “killing” Reeve and covering up all evidence of the crime, Caine attempts to soothe his distraught wife. Reeve recovers, obviously not dead, attacks Caine and drives Cannon to have a heart attack. It is then revealed that Reeve and Caine were co-conspirator’s in Cannon’s death, in order to take her vast fortune. Weeks pass and Reeve and Caine collaborate on another play. Cannon has left her fortune to Caine. Paranoia and suspicion sets in as Caine begins to convince himself (with the aid of his lawyer played by Henry Jones) that Reeve is looking to take his money, or planning to extort him. He discovers that Reeve has written a play about Cannon’s death and the machinations involved, and he has titled it Deathtrap.

Caine’s world-reknowned psychic next-door neighbor (whom had previously foresaw the death of Cannon) arrives on a stormy night and informs Caine that Reeve will attack him, fueling his panic further. In a scene filled with baited anticipation, Reeve and Caine are working out stage blocking when Caine pulls out a gun and tells him he can’t be permitted to finish the play. Caine has set up Reeve, leaving all the proper clues to implicate Reeve in his wife’s death. Of course, Reeve sees it coming and removes the bullets, turning the tables on Caine.

As deliciously convoluted as this stage play-turned-suspense-thriller is, you can see that this is a playwright’s own murder fantasy. It was originally written for the stage by Ira Levin, and played a record 1,793 performances; the longest running thriller on Broadway to this day. With the exception of a few short scenes in the city and on the grounds, the entirety of the movie takes place in Bruhl’s house, the living room specifically, so visually the palette is limited, but Sidney Lumet, the film’s director, cut his teeth in studio television production, so he knows how to get the most out of his limited sets.

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Writers are a bitchy group. With enormous egos and leanings toward a kind of creative psychopathy, they live in fear of a lack of originality. I know I’ve been through that myself. I’ll write a million pages and then toss them, flagellating myself for not being “original” enough. It’s hard enough to negotiate, but even harder when I see that originality is a limited and precious commodity in today’s creative marketplace. Writers often accuse each other of plagiarism because they know they can only be creative for so long. Writers live and breathe the construction of their characters, so it’s only fitting that Sidney Bruhl have murder on his mind.

In one particularly tense scene, Caine outlines the definition of a sociopath to Reeve as “one who has no sense of moral obligation whatsoever”. Reeve can only gloat, and his performance in Deathtrap conjures up images of what could have been. He is so confident, so assured, and so human, it makes me wonder what turn his career would’ve taken had he not put on the big red cape. He was a brilliant actor, forever typecast as Superman, and as such, serious work was hard to come by.

Sidney Lumet’s first foray into pictures was 12 Angry Men and every few years, he would make a masterpiece like The Pawnbroker, or Serpico, or Dog Day Afternoon, or Network. Incredibly prolific, he book-ended Deathtrap with Prince of the City and The Verdict in the space of three years. In 1970, he said, “Every picture I did was an active, believable, passionate wish.” Lumet died in 2011.

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month. Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.