Sunday, October 16, 2011

YOU'RE A BIG BOY NOW 1966

Coming-of-age films have always been with us, but they really came into their own during the youth-obsessed 60s. The post-Baby Boom "youthquake" of the 60s, which impacted American culture in ways both social and economic was the perfect breeding ground for films pertaining to social rebellion, sexual awakening, and challenging authority. As a genre, coming -of-age films were tailor-made for the New Hollywood. A Hollywood desperate to court of new-found economic clout of the young through "personal" films, anti-heroes, and romanticized depictions of the struggles of the post-adolescent set (always male). Given how coming-of-age films have always afforded ample opportunities for sex, drugs, and the baring of female flesh, it's not surprising that Hollywood's old-guard (traditionally suspicious of change) proved so receptive to even the more way-out, avant-garde entries in the genre. After all, whether audiences be young or old, sex always sells.

Time has granted Mike Nichols’ The Graduate (1967) the uncontested title of representative coming-of-age film for a generation, but my favorite entry in cinema’s “pain of growing up” sweepstakes is this delightfully offbeat comedy from a young (27) Francis Ford Coppola. You’re a Big Boy Now was Coppola's first film for a major studio as well as his master's thesis submission to the UCLA film school, and as such, displays an engagingly youthful lack of discipline and over-fondness for camera trickery...two things that don't exactly get in the way in films that came out of he 60s.
Elizabeth Hartman as Barbara Darling
Peter Kastner as Bernard Chanticleer
Geraldine Page as Mrs. Chanticleer
Julie Harris as Miss Thing
Rip Torn as Mr. Chanticleer
Karen Black as Amy Partlett
You’re a Big Boy Now is about the misadventures of Bernard (scornfully nicknamed “Big Boy” by his self-centered father), a woefully under-experienced 19 year-old who, at the insistence of his father and against the protests of his obsessively over-protective mother, goes off  to live on his own in Manhattan. Bernard’s naiveté and propensity to lose himself in flights of fantasy consistently get him into trouble as he attempts to navigate life and love on the path toward adult independence.   
Given how male filmmakers and writers never seem to tire of wistful, semi-autobiographical looks back on their sexual awakening, there’s no shortage of these “rite of passage” films to choose from. Indeed, one could probably fill an airplane hangar with them. Inherently similar in tone, most suffer from a kind of willful masculine myopia and gender fear that finds endless charm in the sexual fumblings of doltish, socially awkward, physically unattractive, emotionally superficial young men who nonetheless feel they rate the most beautiful woman in the film. Being the wish-fulfillment fantasies they are, our callow hero usually does get the longed-for beauty, but it’s a certainty that before the end credits roll, said dream girl will reveal herself to be somehow undeserving of his noble affections (take THAT pretty girls who snubbed the director in high-school!).
You’re a Big Boy Now doesn’t deviate far from this well-trod narrative path, but Coppola invests the proceedings with such creative exuberance (every scene holds at least one element of surprise; whether visually, verbally, or in the goofily straight/comic performances he elicits from his game cast), that the film feels more like a surreal satire of the genre rather than a representative of the genuine article.


WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM:
Providing, as it does, a subjective view of the overwhelming and perilous adult world as it's perceived by the sheltered Bernard, there is much to enjoy in the film's many eccentric visual flourishes, absurdist characters, and anarchic editing style. With its blaring (and rather good) score of pop songs by The Lovin' Spoonful, You’re a Big Boy Now is a 60s film to its core, complete with an overarching air of reproach directed at middle-class sexual repression and senseless guilt.
"Don't eat too much, don't stay out late, don't go to suspicious places or play cards, and stay away from girls! But most of all Bernard, try to be happy."
I had always thought of Peter Kastner (right) as looking like a cross between Robert Morse & Michael J Pollard; but a friend nailed it when he said Peter reminded him of Ernie (Barry Livingston) from My Three Sons.
The late Peter Kastner starred in his own TV series in 1968, The Ugliest Girl in Town; about a man who poses as a female model and becomes a boyish fashion sensation, a la Twiggy

PERFORMANCES:
The desirable, yet dangerous, female is as much a staple of the coming-of-age film as the virginal hero having a more sexually sophisticated best friend/advisor (in this instance, the appropriately unctuous Tony Bill). When it comes to scary women, You’re a Big Boy Now has probably the most disturbing, dick-withering example of that gynophobic archetype ever to come out the free-love era: the man-hating, aspiring actress/go-go dancer, Barbara Darling.
The character of Barbara Darling in less capable hands would be just another bitch-goddess cliché, but someone had the inspired genius to cast against type, and the late Elizabeth Hartman manages to be downright chilling, yet terribly funny, in the role. What makes her performance here so amazing is that I saw You're a Big Boy Now only after I had already seen Hartman in A Patch of Blue (1965), The Group (1966), and The Beguiled (1971); all roles emphasizing the gentle, almost fragile vulnerability of this immensely likable actress. Though obviously talented (she was Academy Award® nominated and won the Golden Globe for A Patch of Blue), there is nothing about her performances in any of these films that would lead you believe she could be so aggressively carnal and convincingly, psychotically mercurial. In a transformation the likes of which I've rarely seen, the Eizabeth Hartman of her earlier films is nowhere to be seen in You're a Big Boy Now. She gives my favorite performance in the film.
Displaying her vast range, the man-eater of You're a Big Boy Now is light years away from the Elizabeth Hartman in this promotional clip.
A Cinderella Named Elizabeth: 1965 featurette for "A Patch of Blue"












THE STUFF OF FANTASY:
You're a Big Boy Now has some great shots of Manhattan and New York's seedy Times Square area that predate the gritty images in Midnight Cowboy (1969) and Klute (1971). It's fun seeing theater marquees advertising films like Born Free and The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming.

THE STUFF OF DREAMS:
What's fun about watching the early works of accomplished directors is trying to catch a glimpse of some kind of nascent artistry or budding style that would later emerge as a defining trait or characteristic of their work. To look at the early films of Roman Polanski or Woody Allen is to see the beginnings of a style and preoccupation with themes they continue to bring to their work even to this day. In watching You're a Big Boy Now, I was left with two thoughts: 1) with this film's pre-MTV kinetic rhythms, how is it that all of Coppola's subsequent musical outings (Finian's Rainbow, One From the Heart, and The Cotton Club) all seemed so flat?; 2) Coppola shows such a flair for comedy here, I'm surprised he hasn't had many comedies on his resume.
Although You're a Big Boy Now has not been widely seen nor is it particularly well-known, Elizabeth Hartman and Geraldine Page were both nominated for Golden Globes for their performances, with Miss Page (who was married to co-star Rip Torn at the time) garnering an Oscar® nod as well. Best of all (for me, anyway, because I'm such a big fan) the film gave Karen Black her film debut. Pretty classy pedigree for a director's first major film.

4 comments:

  1. I've been meaning to order this through the Warner Archives Collection MOD program. I've heard and read so much about it ans it sounds like it's right up my alley.

    The cast alone is impressive and whoever's idea it was to cast Elizabeth Hartman as "Barbara Darling" needed to be given an award (if an award exists for such things). Totally ingenious, totally against type and from everything I've heard and read about the film she truly almost walks away with the film.

    I will pay you another visit and post my observations once I actually see it.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi PTF, It's awfully cool that you are reading and commenting on so many of my posts. Beyond the patience it takes to read so many (talk about an award being deserved), it it's just interesting to hear from someone who likes so many of the same films.
      The cast for this comedy is truly impressive, and while silly, it's a pretty nice little film. But you're right... Hartman walks away with it and it's nothing short of brilliant how she transforms herself. It's what I imagine Ann-Margret intended to do in "kitten with a Whip"

      Delete
  2. Just watched this tonight (picked up today from the library on a lark) and I had a hunch this was something you'd have reviewed here (if not, I intended to recommend it to you).

    A very entertaining film, though I won't lie: it seemed to turn into a chaotic mess toward the end with a chase scene right out of a 60's-era Disney (or Doris Day) movie. (And the weird sitcom-y scoring of that extremely silly scene between Harris and the cop in Harris's bedroom that feels like a prelude to "Love American Style.")

    That said, I also found the movie bursting with energy and Coppola obviously had a real love of his actors. As a native New Yorker, I enjoyed seeing the city as it was at that time and recognizing so many of the locations (including forgotten cheapie department store, Mays, and yes, even an automat).

    Julie Harris, Geraldine Page are tremendous, and OMG, that chicken -- hilarious; I loved Elizabeth Hartman though she's unfamiliar to me. Also Karen Black is extremely winning and perfect for the role. All in all, the film really captures an era (arguably mid-60's to early 80's?) when movies about young people were filled with innocence and optimism.

    Such fun to read your review right after watching it!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Peter
      What a fun film to pick up on a lark! I discovered it when I was very young and Elizabeth Hartman's character fairly terrified me, but I've always liked the film's absurdist comedy which seems rather sweet-natured to me now.
      In your commenting on how you felt the film kind of fell to pieces towards the end, I think you're kind of right. It doesn't bother me, but I think it is the rare comedy that ever knows how to wind itself up in some kind of satisfactory way. There always seems to be the need to end with a "big finish" (Like the pie fight in "The Great Race" or car chase in "With Six you get Eggroll"...a fave Doris Day).
      Directors, especially young ones like Coppola, don't seem to trust that the character-based comedy the film is structured on is enough to send audiences home smiling.
      I love that you enjoyed the views the film provides of New York in the 60s, and it was nice seeing Karen Black in one of her few non-slutty roles.
      If you're unfamiliar with Elizabeth Hartman, I urge you to try to get your hands on "The Group" (She's great in "A Patch of Blue" but the movie is a bit syrupy). "The Group" is available for instant viewing on Netflix, and it's a great all-female soap opera with terrific performances and Jessica Walter in outrageous clothes.
      As I've said before Peter, I think you are such a witty writer. In every comment there is at least one thing you write that cracks me up because of your ability to describe an emotional response by giving it a perfect pop-cultural correlative. In this instance, the "Love, American Style" reference to the Julie Harris/Dolph Sweet scene. Just perfect!

      Delete