Saturday, September 29, 2012

STARTING OVER 1979

Before Drew Barrymore, Katherine Heigl, Jennifer Aniston, Sarah Jessica Parker, and the entire Judd Apatow oeuvre conspired to sour me on the whole genre for good, I really used to love romantic comedies. To me, the absurdist roundelay that is two human souls striving to connect is marvelous fodder for films both touching and hilarious. In that vein, Two for the Road, Ball of Fire, and Sweet November (the 1968 one) are among the funniest, most sentimentally romantic films I've ever seen. But I don't think they make those kind of romantic comedies anymore. There seems to be a post-feminist hostility embedded in romantic comedies today: a passive-aggressive assignment of all things emotional to “chick flick” dismissiveness combined with a self-serving aggrandizement of all things boorish to the realm of masculinity. Maybe it’s time for me to explore what’s out there in gay-themed romantic comedies because the heterosexual battle of the sexes seems to have grown increasingly reductive and mean-spirited. 
One particular favorite of mine from the past is Starting Over, an almost forgotten romantic comedy smash from 1979 (one of the top 20 highest-grossing films of the year) directed by Alan J. Pakula (Klute, Sophie’s Choice) and written by James L. Brooks (The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Terms of Endearment). 
Jill Clayburgh as Marilyn Holmberg
Burt Reynolds as Phil Potter
Candice Bergen as Jessica Potter
Starting Over is the story of freelance journalist Phil Potter (Reynolds), struggling to adapt to single life after the dissolution of his marriage to singer/songwriter/ self-realization enthusiast, Jessica (Bergen). Through the touchy-feely intervention of his psychiatrist brother and sister-in-law (the always-reliable Charles Durning and Frances Sterhagen) Phil meets emotionally wounded, self-effacing grade-school teacher, Marilyn Holmberg (Clayburgh) and the two embark on a tentative relationship wherein each is afraid of, yet longing for, emotional commitment and a chance to start over.
Charles Durning and Frances Sternhagen ooze well-meaning sincerity
I don’t have a whole lot of objectivity where Starting Over is concerned. Not to the degree that I’m blind to the film’s faults, but in as such that my abiding fondness for the film seems inextricably tied to my feelings about the time in which it was made (the late 70s) and my initial response to it when I first saw it (it rivaled What's Up, Doc? as one of the funniest films I'd ever seen). In other words, this might be one of those films about which I rave from the housetops, yet could very likely leave those seeing it for the first time feeling a little underwhelmed. I guess it's good for me to remember that the proper response to some films (like jokes that don't translate) can only be, “You had to have been there.” 
Starting Over was released at the very tail-end of the 70s and a great deal of its humor is derived from its so perfectly capturing the preoccupations of that particular point in time. Pop history (and especially historical motion pictures) would have us believe that eras begin and end neatly and succinctly, but in truth, time kind of overlaps and everything just sort of bleeds into one another.
The underutilized Mary Kay Place (Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman) is extremely funny as a particularly awkward bind date  
In 1979, the narcissism of the “Me” decade was being co-opted by yuppies and transmogrifying into a new kind of unashamed era of self-interest and self-realization. It was an era of encounter groups, self-help books, and a whole lot of psychoanalytical navel-gazing. Of course, all this preoccupation with self would eventually lead to the “Decade of Greed” that became the 80s, but in 1979 all this meant was that everyone was caring, sharing, and feeling feels all over the place. The drug-fueled hedonism of the swinging singles/disco era led to a post-sexual revolution ennui mixed with singles-bar aimlessness (captured the previous year in the morbidly moralizing 1978 film, Looking for Mr. Goodbar) that in turned boosted divorce rates and threw male/female relationships into a tailspin.
At the urging of his brother, Phil (Reynolds) attends a divorced men's workshop. That's What's Up, Doc?'s Austin Pendleton to the right.
By the late 70s, women who had had their consciousness raised by the feminist movement had to contend with a dating landscape in which there appeared to be no rules. Men, relinquished of the culture-mandated roles of provider/protector grew commitment-phobic, sought therapy, or clung to macho traditionalism. Women were at a quandary wondering if there was really such a thing as "having it all," or was the by-product of emancipation just learning to live single and liking it. What exactly was romance in the world of the zipless fuck, no-fault divorce, Plato’s Retreat, and men’s sensitivity workshops? It was a crazy time to look for love and Starting Over seemed to capture it all in a humorous lens both sharp and fuzzily sentimental.
Marilyn -  "Before I met you I'd finally gotten to the point in my life where I no longer thought some man was gonna come along and make this huge change. I'd finally gotten to the point where I liked being unattached."
I loved that scene pictured above, and I loved that line. After her Oscar-nominated emergence in 1978's An Unmarried Woman, Jill Clayburgh became the unofficial screen spokesperson for modern womanhood. She was a real favorite of mine and she is sensational here. The progressive image she presented - of a woman who wanted, not needed a man - would be fairly eradicated by 2012 thanks to the regeneration of the Disney Princess Myth and reality show humiliations like The Bachelor and Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire? 


WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM:
One of the things I most enjoy about Starting Over (something I’m not sure carries over to those seeing the film today) is how wittily the film captures the tenuous and tense state of male/female relationships in the 70s. The 70s was culturally the decade where all the dust was settling from the upheavals of the 60s, and people were these vibrating bundles of anxiety putting herculean effort behind maintaining a front of laid-back serenity. (The sale of Valium skyrocketed in the 70s; a fact inspiring one of Starting Over’s biggest and most then-talked about gags).
Traditional gender roles, those typified by the  Rock Hudson / Doris Day comedies of the 60s, were dismantled in the 70s, necessitating  a new kind of sex comedy. Ads for Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (1977)—the real game-changer in romantic comedies—labeled it “A Nervous Romance.” That classification goes double for Starting Over, only instead of urban singles, were invited to enjoy the amorous fumblings of the newly-divorced: individuals married when one set of rules were in place, re-entering single life ill-prepared for the change-up in the game plan.
Love, American Style
(I've always loved that print that hangs above them: "Woman Reading" by Will Barnet)
PERFORMANCES:
Few who weren’t around to bear witness to the painful spectacle of Burt Reynolds’ willful self-exploitation and wasting of his talents in the 70s don't appreciate what a delightful departure (and surprise) Starting Over was. The promising performer of Deliverance (1972) spent the better part of the decade ignoring his gifts as an actor, instead choosing to court dubious celebrity and fashioning himself into the male Jayne Mansfield (or the Matthew McConaughey of the 70s). One of the biggest (if not the biggest) box-office stars of the decade, Reynolds, with his myriad talk-show appearances, gleeful sel-objectification, and  seemingly endless stream of unwatchable, good ol’ boy redneck comedies, enthusiastically participated in turning himself into a Hollywood punchline. Divested of his trademark pornstache and dropping the tired machismo act, Reynolds gives perhaps his best pre-Boogie Nights performance in Starting Over. I don’t know that I've ever found Reynolds to be particularly likable before, but here he is quite wonderful. Underplaying marvelously, he’s one of the few male characters on screen able to convey an sweetly insecure vulnerability without slipping into wimpdom.
In one of Starting Over's many memorably comic scenes, Phil suffers a panic attack at Bloomingdale's
Alas, much like Eddie Murphy’s noteworthy performance in Dreamgirls failed to help Hollywood forgive him for Norbert; the career turn-around Starting Over may have signaled for Burt Reynolds was sabotaged by the one-two punch of the craptacular Smokey and the Bandit II (1980) and The Cannonball Run (1981).

THE STUFF OF FANTASY:
Without a doubt the biggest buzz attending Starting Over on its release was the breakout comedy performance of Candice Bergen. Never highly-regarded for her acting but a popular screen presence due to roles capitalizing on her ice-princess beauty, Bergen had heretofore only shown her comedic side on television (she was the first female host of Saturday Night Live and appeared to great effect on The Muppet Show). As Starting Over’s self-confident, atonal singer of atrocious “empowerment” pop songs, Bergen garnered the best notices of her career and, at age 32, launched into a second career of sorts as a skilled comedienne.
Candice Bergen's highlight scene in which she attempts to seduce her ex-husband by singing her disco composition, "Better Than Ever", received the loudest and longest laugh from an audience I have ever heard in a movie theater.
The songs attributed to Bergen’s character were written by then-collaborative-couple Carole Bayer Sager and Marvin Hamlisch, whose own relationship they immortalized in the Neil Simon-penned Broadway musical, They’re Playing Our Song (1978). I'd always thought Bergen’s songs in Starting Over were intended to be awful, both musically and lyrically (although I can’t help liking the song “Better Than Ever”…oddly enough, Bergen’s version more than the Stephanie Mills version heard at the end), but in truth they sound identical to the songs from their hit Broadway show, so maybe they aren't as satiric as I once thought.
Future Murphy Brown co-star, Charles Kimbrough, has a bit part as a salesman
 Home Alone's Daniel Stern (who would appear in the Jill Clayburgh films I'm Dancing as Fast as I Can and It's My Turn) plays a student in Burt Reynolds' journalism class in Starting Over
THE STUFF OF DREAMS:
As earlier stated, I still think Starting Over is a terrifically funny and touching romantic comedy, but I can understand if time has diluted some of its punch. For one, the image of Burt Reynolds as a wiseguy sex machine is so dim now that no one now is likely to derive much pleasure out of seeing him cast against type. Just seeing him without his trademark moustache would be akin to seeing Lady Gaga wearing Crocs. Similarly, most people's memory of Candice Bergen today only extends back as far as Murphy Brown, so her atypically relaxed and risk-taking performance lacks the shock value it once had. Likewise her laughably terrible singing. The idea of a no-talent pop star was riotous in 1979; folks looking at the film today might well think she sounds no worse than Katy Perry.
The Academy snubbed Reynolds but both Clayburgh and Bergen received Oscar nods for Starting Over. Clayburgh had previously appeared with Reynolds in Semi-Tough (1977) while Bergen would re-team with the actor in Stick (1985)
I have no idea why some comedy is enduring (I Love Lucy) while other kinds grow less funny over time (I love the film Shampoo, but I look at it now and can't even remember why I once found it so hilarious).  Starting Over, for better or worse, bears the stamp of its time, but in a way that I don't think dates it so much as lends its humor an authenticity and its characters a sense of existing in a real time and place. (Starting Over, which takes place in Boston, has a great look of winter and autumn about it. The huge coats the characters wear look for once like they're actually for function, not fashion, plus, I love that people in this movie use the bus!)
Starting Over is full of 70s-era jokes about finding oneself, Accutron watches, and telephone answering machines, but its sweetly comic look at the need to take chances to find love is something I don't think can ever be labeled dated.

THE AUTOGRAPH FILES:
Autograph of Candice Bergen from 1991, at the height of her Murphy Brown fame
Copyright © Ken Anderson

12 comments:

  1. "...the heterosexual battle of the sexes seems to have grown increasingly reductive and mean-spirited."

    Welcome to my world, Ken.

    Being from 1970s San Francisco, you would no doubt recall "EST" groups (albeit maybe not first-hand).

    I can think of several films that lampoon these "self-help" groups. Of course, you have already mentioned "Semi-Tough" (I have this on DVD). Another one is "The Big Fix" (1978) starring Richard Dreyfuss. Many years later, the 1970s cultural spoof "Spirit of '76" (1990) featured an "EST" type group with Rob Reiner making an appearance as the condescending group leader (the film is worth seeing for the "EST" stuff alone, and it IS available on DVD).

    I've not yet seen "Starting Over". But I do have a few Burt Reynolds movie from around that era sitting around on DVD ("The Longest Yard, and by that I mean the ORIGINAL, is one of my all-time favourite movies).

    (Stating the obvious: Jill Clayburgh looks just like Diane Keaton!)

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    1. Hi Mark
      You notice the same thing in today's so-called "romantic comedies" too, huh? They just feel so full of hostility these days.

      As for EST, I have firsthand knowledge of it, as my mom went through it in the 70s. The change in her was remarkable. It got a real bad rap, but in her case (an African-American woman who survived an extremely racist and repressive youth) EST turned my mom into this incredibly confident, happy, self-assured go-getter. She almost scared us kids!
      I haven't seen ANY of the films you listed as EST spoofs, but I think it might have been a part of this Tuesday Weld movie "Serial" that I saw in the 70s. And of course we know what effect it had on the writer and star of "The Wiz."
      And yes, Clayburgh looked a LOT like Diane Keaton.
      Thanks for another enjoyable response to a post. Much appreciated!

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  2. Romantic comedies? I'm talking about real-life! The battle has become a war!

    I tend to avoid today's romantic comedies for the most part. I once read the lament ("The Top Ten Lies Blockbuster Video Tells Their Customers"--it's online) from a film buff who worked at Blockbuster somewhere in the USA. One of his managers said that her favourite movie of all-time was "Rumor Has It" (starring a certain someone with the initials "J.A."). I don't know how you can work in a video store, be exposed (presumably) to so many movies, and your favourite is a romantic comedy that stars that "Friends" girl.


    Where did you meet Candice Bergen?

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    1. Ha! I never thought for a moment that these awful films about betrayal, lying, game-playing and generally treating each other like dirt, were reflections of real life. More's the pity.
      And I know what you mean about the Blockbuster person.
      I remember on this year's Academy Awards, Reese Witherspoon said that she watches the Goldie Hawn flick "Overboard" when she wants to be cheered up (words to that effect, anyway). We're talking about a film where a man exploits the amnesia of a woman he dislikes (for laughs)and tricks her into being his indentured servant/wife. Yes, that's the stuff of real romance.

      I met Ms. Bergen when I was teaching at a studio in Santa Monica and she was with her kid and just stopped in to look around.

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  3. The death of romantic comedy is one of the saddest developments in modern movies. Maybe the actresses of today just don't have the equipment for it. Even in the 1970s, there were not a whole bunch of good rom-coms, but then along came Jill Clayburgh who, to me, always seemed reminiscent of Jean Arthur. Funny and warm and down to earth (and with a great voice!)
    "An Unmarried Woman" isn't really a romantic comedy but Clayburgh brought so much humor and likeability to her role there that it seems like something Jean Arthur or Irene Dunne might have starred in if they had come along in 1978.

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    1. I think your likening of Clayburgh's appeal to that of Jean Arthur and Irene Dunne to be pretty apt. She never seemed to do well in weighty roles (Luna) but she was almost in a class by herself in light comedy that required a grounded, likable sort of woman and not a girl. I thought she was terrific.

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  4. I recall that "Overboard" was on television many years ago, but it didn't really hold my attention, to be honest, so I didn't continue watching it. Still, I think that sticking a spoon on your nose ought to be an Olympic sport (maybe if some small town in Kentucky ever wins the bid to host), or at least have its own half-hour every week on ESPN2.

    Ken, it's interesting that you don't rate Jill Clayburgh's performance in "Luna" very highly. I saw this as part of a full Bernardo Bertolucci retrospective at the cinema that allowed me to experience most of (I didn't get around to all of them) BB's feature films on the big screen. I thought that Ms. Clayburgh was absolutely astonishing. It's the sort of role that could very easily have fallen to pieces or maybe just not really hit home. In fact, I found the film overall to be most astonishing. Wonderful on the big screen--it's BB after all (has a knack for choosing brilliant cinematographers, often Vittorio Storaro).

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    1. Yes, I found "Overboard" hard to sit all the way through as well. You could predict where it was headed so it felt like a lot of torture to endure to get there.

      And alas, as much as I like Betolucci and Jill Clayburgh, "Luna" was kind of trying for me. I just always felt at a remove from it.

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  5. Ken, I haven't seen this film probably since its release but you've inspired me to re-visit. Your assessment of the romcom situation today is dead-on. Desperately sad: negligible romance, sappy comedy (and Judd Apatow...don't get me started). I love the screwball era romcoms - "The Awful Truth," (obviously) "The Lady Eve" (and adore Bogdanovich's brilliant '70s homage, "What's Up, Doc?"). Probably my all time favorite/guilty pleasure of the genre is "Breakfast at Tiffany's"...almost every woman-who-is-now-of-a-certain-age wanted to grow up to be Holly (because she was portrayed by Audrey Hepburn we didn't understand she was a call girl - I thought "party girl" meant she was madcap and was so charming that men paid simply to be in her presence) and find our Fred - errr - Paul.

    Have you read Frank Langella's "Dropped Names"? He began writing it when Jill Clayburgh, who had been a close friend, died and he realized his young girlfriend had no idea who she was.

    You don't miss a thing with this review - you never do - and I keep thinking you ought to be doing this for a living.

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    1. Hi Eve
      What a very kind comment! Thank you very much. I too am a fan of "breakfast at Tiffany's" and when I saw it as a kid, I never once thought Hepburn was a call girl, either. She just seemed like all those other women in rom-coms of the day (Natalie Wood, Sandra Dee) who never seemed to work. I'm ashamed to say I've never seen "The Awful Truth". Perhaps I should seek it out.
      However, I am definitely going to seek out that Frank Langella memoir you mention. I read a little about it on the Joe's View website, but your reference makes it sound irresistible.
      Thanks again for your encouraging words. It pleases me that you take the time to stop by and comment. I'm a flawed writer, just a novice really, but I'm working on it!

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  6. Bergen's "Better Than Ever" song is the best scene in the movie, and really did launch the glorious comedic second act of her career. I too remember the audience laughing with delight, and applauding the character when she finished the song.

    Burt Reynolds did make a few artistic choices after Bandit made him a box-office brand. I especially love his dark comedy The End, with Sally Field, Joanne Woodward and Dom Deluise.

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    1. Hi 66!
      Yes, Bergen turned the corner and pulled a Leslie Neilsen with this role. She was so good in this.
      I tend to forget about "The End." I recall being very high on it when it came out and I saw it at the theater and left very disappointed. I think it was the last Burt Reynolds film I ever watched until "Boogie Nights."

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