July 20, 2010


July 20, 2010

This past weekend, courtesy of my DVR, I revisited a gem from 1975, the year that produced “Jaws,” “One Who Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” and a couple of my all-time favorites, “The Man Who Would Be King” and “Hester Street.”

The movie is called “Smile” and satirizes the fictional Young American Miss Beauty Pageant that blows into Santa Rosa, California each summer. The contestants, including a teenaged Melanie Griffith and an equally young Annette O’Toole, are nearly as jaded as the men who leer at them throughout.

The film opens with one of the girls exhibiting her talent for—are you ready!—packing a suitcase. As the male judges try not to salivate, she folds a lacy white nightgown and puts it suggestively on top of the rest of her belongings. Naturally, she moves on to the next round.

Bruce Dern stars as Big Bob Friedlander, the type of fast-talking, slightly sleazy but ultimately likeable used car salesman he specialized in back in the day. He’s the top pageant judge. Barbara Feldon, in full Mary Tyler Moore mode, is Brenda DiCarlo, the prime mover, herself a “has-been” former Young American Miss.

And what’s not for a writer to love about this kind of a set-up:
  • Sharp social commentary in the barely disguised lust of all the male characters, including Little Bob Friedlander who’s about twelve and gets sent to the psychiatrist for taking Polaroids (no developing lab required) of the girls while they’re changing their clothes. He has a long list of customers.
  • Wonderful dialogue, such as when the janitor of the building where the pageant takes place listens as an embarrassed oranizer passes on his request that the girls respect the plumbing and not flush their sanitary napkins down the toilet. Then he reaches for a bottle of gin stashed inside a Coke machine. Or when Tommy French, the choreographer, instructs a contestant not to kick and bend at the same time, because if she does she’ll knock herself out, literally.
  • Outrageous yet likeable characters like Big Bob, an overbearing blowhard. Yet the screenwriters wisely show us his vulnerabilities. In one of the best scenes, he counsels perseverance to his friend Andy, who is deeply unhappy in his marriage to Brenda. The two men sit in a donut shop with Andy loudly voicing his discontent. He wants to know how Bob can stand his life. Bob shrugs and gives Andy a pep talk.

    To which Andy replies, “You know what you are? A goddamned 'Young American Miss'!”

    More discussion follows, during which Bob reveals that when he was in junior college a friend fixed him up with Elizabeth Taylor. In spite of all his preparations, though, she never showed, so he learned to “accept a little less.” He married and pronounced himself happy.

    Wow! How could you not have sympathy for him after a revelation like that?

    Toward the end, he approaches men in a color guard who have participated in the ceremonies and tells them he was in the Army very early in the Vietnam War, I think. They don’t hear him, since they’re busy dissecting the anatomy of the contestants.
Too bad nuanced, hilarious satires like this one hardly exist anymore. I can’t remember the last time I saw a film that took such care to reveal both hypocrisy and humanity in equal measure without the benefit of cardboard characters, loud music, and CGI.

And was so whip-smart.

Click on this link to read a review. Afterwards, scroll down a bit, and treat yourself to a few scenes from "Smile."

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