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|
|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|
|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.|
|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."|
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)
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|
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