Thursday, July 12, 2012

THE RITZ 1976

Three distinct memories spring to mind when I think of the movie version of The Ritz, Terrence McNally’s gay liberation-era Broadway farce that won Rita Moreno the 1975 Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Play: 
1) I was 18-years-old and attending college in San Francisco when The Ritz had its West Coast premiere there. I recall the local papers running photos of Moreno posing on a special The Ritz cable car surrounded by a phalanx of attractive young men in tight-fitting “The Ritz” t-shirts, ready to be transported to the film’s screening, and later, if memory serves, to a disco after-party held at one of the city's more popular gay bathhouses. Movie premieres were rare in San Francisco, and everything about this one (disco-themed, gay-centric, hip, and a little kinky) encapsulated all the things I associate with that particular time and place.

2) The Ritz was released in the summer of 1976. America was caught up in Bicentennial and Olympics fever, and me...I was swept up in a fever of a different kind. One resulting from prolonged exposure to the pervasive and persuasive ad campaign for that other summer '76 release The Omen ("You are one day closer to the end of the world!"). I went bonkers for that movie and saw The Omen at least four times that summer, never getting around to seeing The Ritz even once (although, in my defense, The Ritz performed so poorly that it wasn't in theaters very long). 

3) Curiously, while I couldn't be troubled to see the film itself, I did make the effort to go to the theater where The Ritz was playing just so I could buy myself a "The Ritz" t-shirt. It was this very cool (for 1976, anyway) European-cut white shirt with the film’s title in black art-deco lettering on the front and Al Hirschfeld’s poster art caricatures of the film’s cast on the back. I absolutely loved that shirt!  It lasted all through college and survived for many years after until finally disintegrating in the wash sometime in the mid-'80s.
Even the usually reliable Ebay has proved fruitless in my search to find another one of these T-shirts. I knew I should have bought two of them when I had the chance back in 1976

When I finally got around to seeing The Ritz on cable TV in the late-'70s, I found I enjoyed it a great deal and it instantly became one of my all-time favorites. I was so impressed with the attempt to create a kind of modern Marx Brothers comedy of chaos —a classic farce full of broadly pitched performances and McNally's irreverent send-ups of everything from homophobia to show business, gay culture to gangster films. 

The raw material is a great deal of outrageous good fun that could have perhaps benefited from that intangible, crazy "something" that Mel Brooks and Peter Bogdanovich brought to Young Frankenstein and What's Up, Doc?, respectively; but while The Ritz never reaches the heights of comic lunacy necessary to make this kind of comedy really soar, it nevertheless has a tremendously funny freneticism to it that throws new things at you so fast that even if you're not laughing, you're rarely, if ever, bored. 
Rita Moreno as Googie Gomez
Jack Weston as Gaetano Proclo
Jerry Stiller as Carmine Vespucci
Treat Williams as Michael Brick
F. Murray Abraham as Chris
Kaye Ballard as Vivian Proclo
One of the things that most struck me about seeing The Ritz for the first time, just a few short years after its initial release, was how swiftly it had become a period piece. Not in the superficial things like clothes and disco, but in reflecting an emerging liberalism that was already about to have the lid shut on it. In the intervening years since the glory days of the sexual revolution (the days of porno chic, Erica Jong, key clubs, wife-swapping, and Plato's Retreat lest we forget that sexual recklessness was not the sole province of gays in the '70s) fundamentalist nutjobs like Anita Bryant, the AIDS crisis, and the burgeoning conservatism of the '80s conspired to render The Ritz's pro-sex, pro-acceptance, live-and-let-live egalitarianism something for the history books.

I always regret that I didn't first see The Ritz back when the climate of the times better reflected the optimistic spirit of healthy hedonism depicted on the screen. This out-and-proud retooling of the classic bedroom farce was one of the earliest (if not the first) mainstream examples of gay sexuality presented as normal, fun, and every bit as prone to comical chaos and misunderstanding as heterosexual sex. Gay characters are presented in a non-tragic, comic milieu where for once the humor derives from their personalities. Being gay is merely a part of who they are, not the source of a joke. I can only think of a handful of films from that era (Saturday Night at the Baths, A Very Natural Thing, Some of My Best Friends Are) which successfully portrayed gay people in a gay-specific environment that was neither defined nor impacted by hetero acceptance or disapproval. 
The fictional  bathhouse in The Ritz is modeled on New York's The Continental Baths, the infamous '70s recreational sex venue that boasted a pool, gym, cafe, disco, and most popularly, a cabaret where stars like Bette Midler, Barry Manilow, and Peter Allen got their start 

Summarizing the plot of a farce in print is, I think, thankless, and the written equivalent of a tongue-twister: you know what you’re intending to say, but it often sounds garbled. But I’ll give it my best (and briefest): Cleveland sanitation company president, Gaetano Proclo (Weston) has a hit put out on him by his mafia-connected brother-in-law (Stiller), and mistakenly picks a N.Y. gay bathhouse to hide out in. 
Hoping to just lay low for the duration, Proclo finds himself the unwitting target of an amorous chubby-chaser (Paul B. Price), a blackmail-minded private detective (Williams), and a monumentally untalented Puerto Rican cabaret singer (Moreno) who mistakes him for a producer. Of course, everything that can go wrong does, and complications escalate to a delightfully silly pitch, all leading to the anticipated chase/free-for-all finale. 
Taking place over the course of one frantic evening, The Ritz is a door-slamming, identity-mangling, towel-snapping, man-chasing, gun-wielding, lunatic comedy of absurdly subversive sexual politics. Behind all the hilarity is a nifty little commentary on how hard it is to pin labels on people when everyone’s dressed in only a towel.
Oscar-winner F. Murray Abraham (Amadeusleapfrogs over what could have been the unendurable cliches written into the character of Chris, a befuddled bathhouse regular swept up in a comic case of mistaken identity 

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
Depending on the critic, the film legacy of director Richard Lester (A Hard Day’s Night, Petulia, The Three Musketeers) has been categorized as either varied or uneven. But that which has been most consistent in all of his work—a talent for brilliant bits of staged pandemonium—is well-suited to this screwball fish-out-of-water burlesque that mines traditionally uncomfortable gay/straight confrontations for laughs.
In comedy, all is forgiven if you just come through with the funny, and on that score, Lester, with just a few minor lags in pacing, succeeds in keeping things moving at the requisite frenetic pace. Lester's sure handling of the dizzying particulars of so many characters, doorways, and complications never gets in the way of his Broadway-trained cast (Moreno, Weston, Stiller, Abraham, and mustachioed chubby-chaser, Paul B. Price, all reprise their stage roles), each of whom is allowed their moment to shine.
Devoted fat-fetishist Claude Perkins (Paul B. Price) puts the moves on a badly-disguised Gaetano Proclo (Jack Weston)
PERFORMANCES
Before talent-free, self-deluding, fame-whores became a staple of show-biz (thanks, reality-TV), they were the deserving targets of satirical derision. After years of American Idol, Rita Moreno’s Puerto Rican bombshell, Googie Gomez, doesn’t seem nearly the awful performer she’s supposed to be (she’s sings only marginally worse than say, Katy Perry); but the loony, comedic brilliance of Moreno’s performance hasn't waned a bit. Like the late Madeline Kahn, Moreno is an actress capable of being outrageous and real at the same time. Fabulously sexy, Moreno imbues Googie with a comic lunacy that steals every scene she's in. 
Legend has it that Terrence McNally wrote The Ritz for Moreno after seeing her perform the character of Googie at parties. If so, the man should be commended for resisting the impulse to place this dynamically colorful character at the front and center of the play. As a peripheral but indispensable element of crazy in The Ritz’s party mix, she is the film's spice;  The Ritz offers just enough Googie ineptitudes, tantrums, and malaprops to leave you wanting more.
Googie Gomez launches into a grievously misguided rendition of "Everything's Coming Up Roses"

Every member of The Ritz’s gamely peripatetic ensemble cast is worthy of accolades (this film must have been a continuity nightmare), but Jack Weston is my personal favorite. A rubber-faced master of the double-take with all the corpulent grace of Oliver Hardy, Weston makes me laugh aloud time and time again over his incredulous reactions to the not-so-fine mess he’s gotten himself into.
Googie tries her hand at seduction

THE STUFF OF FANTASY
The Ritz is about as New York as you can get in terms of setting, subject and humor, but was filmed, most likely for financial reasons, in the UK (the illusion is shattered less than a minute into the film when the actress cast as Jack Weston’s daughter delivers the line, “I want to go back to Cleveland” with a pronounced British lilt). What fascinates me about The Ritz is how British and Carry On-ish it all feels in spite of hewing so faithfully to the stage show and employing a largely Yankee. Director Richard Lester may be American by birth, but in having made England his home since 1956, I think he brings something to The Ritz that makes me wonder if perhaps there isn’t something to the widely held belief that there are really subtle and not-so-subtle differences between British and American humor.
In farce, all beds are made for hiding under and situations are never as they seem
A curious thing about The Ritz, something that Kaye Ballard mentions in her memoirs, is that for a film set in gay bathhouse, the movie is woefully low on male pulchritude. The Ritz has been cast with a straight male's detachment from (or fear of) his appreciation of male beauty. Lester found a way to include (in the burlesque tradition) a bevy of sexy females in 1966s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, but clearly didn't think turnabout was fair play in this wholly appropriate male atmosphere. A peroxided Treat Williams (hilarious and endearing as the private eye with the helium voice and boyish nature) is pretty much it when it comes to beefcake.
"See something you like, buddy?"

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
Given that the most heavy topics can be lightened through levity, humor has always been one of the most pain-free ways to broach controversial subjects on film. With The Ritz, audiences otherwise loathe to spend 90 minutes watching a film set in an environment as alien and potentially disconcerting as a gay bathhouse, can galvanize around and have their latent homophobia assuaged by the more traditionally accessible comedy targets: sexism - the sexually rapacious heterosexual female; xenophobia - Googie's Puerto Rican assault on the English Language (I think Al Pacino studied Moreno her for his accent in Scarface); and irony - Googie's deluded belief in her own talent.
And if laughs are hard to elicit from viewers unsure of what to make out of a nonjudgmental look at an establishment where men gather to have anonymous, promiscuous sex with other men, then Gaetano Proclo’s exaggerated, Alice Through The Looking Glass sense of bemused amazement provides the perfect outlet for all that nervous tension building up inside.
If, however, at film's end, audiences are left with their presumptions challenged, replaced with only the awareness that one has spent 90 minutes in the presence of a bunch of zany, eccentric characters, each unique and yet somehow the same...sympathetic, misunderstood, likable;...well, to me that's one small blow for the power of comedy.
Three Gay Caballeros
The Ritz is not perfect, but is IS a funny film, and there are more genuine laughs to be found here than in a great many more well-regarded comedies out there. It's a forgotten gem that has garnered a well-deserved cult following.  
The Ritz was revived on Broadway in 2007 for a limited run and featured Rosie Perez as Googie.

Copyright © Ken Anderson

6 comments:

  1. I had a drin
    A drin about jew bay-bee
    Iz gona con tru bay-bee
    They thin tha' weir thru
    But bay-bee

    Jewel bee swell
    Jewel bee great
    Gun-na hav de hole whirl on a plate

    Eh-startin' hurr
    Eh-startin' now

    Hun-nee
    Every tings comin' up ros-ehs!

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    1. Hi PTF
      Ha! That is without a doubt the absolute BEST dialect transcription of Googie's butchering of Sondheim I've ever seen! Just reading it over I can see every camera angle, expression, and bits of choreography. Thanks for the great laugh. Only a fan of the film could get it so spot-on.

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  2. Ken, I think being Puerto Rican *and* a big fan of the film helped with that transcription! Glad I was able to put a smile on your face!

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    1. This made me laugh even more than your first post! Whatever the reason, you've got an incredible ear and a great sense of humor!

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  3. Thank you! Keep up the great work...and try to watch THE PLEASURE SEEKERS will ya, it's on tomorrow!

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    1. Thanks. And yes, it's about time I saw that film. I have set my DVR to "stunning."

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