Friday, October 18, 2013

A TOUCH OF CLASS 1973

A Touch of Class is one of my favorite comedies. But like The Women, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Cactus Flower, or almost anything written by Neil Simon; it’s a comedy I’m only able to still enjoy if I disregard contemporary sensibilities (both comedic and social), and simply allow it to remain a time-piece firmly ensconced within the bubble of the era in which it was made.
Glenda Jackson as Vickie Allessio
George Segal as Steve Blackburn
Director / writer Melvin Frank’s A Touch of Class is a perfectly amiable, very watchable, and, upon occasion, absolutely hilarious, romantic comedy about adultery from the era of the sexual revolution. It boasts fine leading performances from then-darlings of the cinema, Glenda Jackson and George Segal; a jaunty musical score; crisp, comedy-friendly photography; some nice views of scenic London and Spain; and quite a lot of funny bicker-banter and oil/vinegar chemistry between the two leads.
That being said, it is also a rather ordinary, schticky, sometimes broadly played, middle-brow comedy thoroughly lacking in the kind of wit or distinction that would justify its having won Glenda Jackson her second Best Actress Oscar (and a Golden Globe), or explain how it managed to snag four other Oscar nominations, including one for Best Picture, shutting out such possible contenders as: Last Tango in ParisPaper MoonThe Last Detail, The Way We Were, The Long Goodbye, Mean Streets, and Sleeper.
Get Out Your Handkerchiefs 
A Touch of Class makes explicit its intent to be a frankly comedic update of the coy adultery melodramas of the past by having Steve and Vickie fall to pieces watching David Lean's 1946 film, Brief Encounter on TV. Brief Encounter tells the story of two married people who embark upon an ill-fated love affair.
George Segal is an insurance adjuster; Glenda Jackson, a fashion designer (“stealer” as she calls it). Both reside in London, he: 11 years wed with two children, she: three years wed - now divorced, also with two children. After a “cute meet” and several coincidental run-ins, the two embark upon a no-strings-attached affair that gets off to a rocky start, grows passionate, then becomes complicated when lust turns into love. How funny you find Segal’s sitcom-y attempts to lead a double life depend a great deal on how amusing you find the script (serviceable), charming you find the leads (considerable), or hilarious the concept of ceaseless lying and deception as the cornerstones of familial harmony (not very).
As Glenda Jackson's two children, Edward Kemp and Lisa Vanderpump appear onscreen for about as long as it took you to read this. George Segal's children fare even worse. A Touch of Class wants us to believe the bond of family trumps homewrecking, but George Segal's Steve Blackburn is such an absentee dad, he makes Ryan O'Neal look like Father of the Year. 
The uninitiated, drawn to A Touch of Class by its Oscar pedigree or Glenda Jackson’s reputation, are apt to come away from it entertained, but perhaps scratching their heads, wondering what was being put in the water back in 1973 to result in a movie that plays out like an extended episode of Love, American Style being so widely lauded (although Pauline Kael is said to have walked out on it). I confess; on revisiting this film, it’s a question I even have to ask myself. And this from the guy who, when it was released, saw A Touch of Class more times than he can count, and considered it one of the funniest comedies he’d seen since What’s Up, Doc?.

Part of this may have to do with changing tastes in comedy. For reasons I’m at a loss to explain, some types of comedy are timeless, while others age rather badly. I saw A Touch of Class when I was 16 years old, and my only guess as to why I fell in love with its bed-hopping clichés is that they weren't yet clichés to me. Another explanation for the film’s success, one I fully recall, is that at the time, America was deep in the throes of a brief but passionate infatuation with Glenda Jackson.
Albeit by way of a terrible wig, audiences were pleased to see BBC's Elizabeth R let her hair down
After gaining the attention of American audiences with her Best Actress Oscar win for Women in Love (1969), Jackson was a prolific onscreen presence throughout the decade, going on to appear in many highly-acclaimed films: The Music Lovers, Sunday Bloody Sunday, Hedda, The Maids, Mary Queen of Scots, The Romantic Englishwoman, and  The Nelson Affair.

She was literally was the Meryl Streep of her day. And, much in the way critics and audiences in the 80s longed to see Streep drop her accents and somber façade for lighter fare like Postcards from the Edge or Death becomes Her; 70s audiences were thrilled to discover that Glenda Jackson, the neurotic heroine of so many Ken Russell melodramas, possessed a real flair for comedy.
George Segal appeared in a staggering number of films, both comedic and dramatic, between 1970s Where's Poppa? and the flop 1979 re-teaming with Glenda Jackson, Lost & Found. Although he played essentially the exact same character in all of his comedies, nobody did bemused fluster better.

My rave recommendation of this film to my partner (followed by his subsequent, “Meh!” reaction) clarified for me that A Touch of Class has, for the first-timer, a couple of things working against it. And from highly unlikely sources, to boot. One is its title. A Touch of Class suggests a witty, sophisticated comedy of the sort that once starred Myrna Loy and William Powell. But as many critics couldn't resist noting at the time, a more apt title for A Touch of Class is A Touch of Crass; what with the screenplay's over-reliance on profanity and smirky sex jokes for laughs.
Given  how Jackson's character makes reference at one point to author Edith Wharton's, The House of Mirth, I'm rather inclined to think the film's title, A Touch of Class, is used in irony. Like Wharton's The Age of Innocence.
Secondly, and this is an odd one, I think it does A Touch of Class no favors that it’s a 1973 Best Picture nominee, and that it stars one of the preeminent actresses of her time in her Academy Award-winning role. Why is this problem? Principally, because it sets the viewer up for a film far superior to the one they’re given. I truly enjoy this movie a great deal, but even in all my rabid Glenda Jackson fandom, there’s no way I consider hers an Oscar-worthy performance, nor this film Best Picture material. I'm convinced my partner's reaction to A Touch of Class would have been far more favorable had he come to it expecting an unexceptional, lightweight, early 70s comedy that's actually funny. The latter being rare as hen's teeth today.
Any points A Touch of Class gains in giving Jackson's character a gay male secretary (Michael Elwin, r.), are soon lost by having his every appearance serve as some kind of sight gag. (Even Jayne Mansfield would say this apartment is too pink.)

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM:
What works best in A Touch of Class, and what makes it a film I literally never tire of watching, is the marvelous “opposites attract” chemistry between Glenda Jackson and George Segal. And while they don't exactly make us forget Tracy & Hepburn, the two play delightfully antagonistic foils before their romance starts to gel. Jackson's slow, boiling rages so compliment Segal's edgy exasperation, that their frequent sparring and bickering scenes crackle with the spark and energy of a well-matched tennis game. Jackson, with her crystal clear diction and mellifluous voice, has it all over Segal for hilariously sarcastic jeremiads; but she doesn't have Segal's gift for physical comedy. George Segal is a joy to watch, and he has the rubbery face (and enormous head) to pull off a veritable lexicon of comic double takes and reaction shots.
Jackson's flinty British calm contrasts amusingly with Segal's neurotic American excitability 

PERFORMANCES:
A Touch of Class is essentially a two-character piece, so it’s great that Jackson and Segal are each so marvelous in their roles. That is, inasmuch as Melvin Frank and Jack Rose’s farcical, gag-filled screenplay pauses long enough to give these talented actors enough breathing room to flesh out their characters (Melvin Frank and Jack Rose, both in their 60s at the time, got their start writing Bob Hope movies). George Segal coasts a bit on charm alone (and if you don’t find him charming, the blithely immoral character he plays is sure to grate) but Jackson is a revelation. She does wonders with a character not given much more than “typically British” as a personality trait.
If my enjoyment of Breakfast at Tiffany's is ruined every time Mickey Rooney's Mr. Yunioshi shows up, so it is with A Touch of Class and the irksome and annoying "ubiquitous best friend" character played by Paul Sorvino.  Each time he shows up I race for the fast-forward button on my remote.
It amuses me to have read several online reviews that state Glenda Jackson’s character is a feminist. Since no mention is made, expressly or covertly, of Jackson’s Vickie Allessio being a feminist, I can only take this to mean that young audiences raised on the female masochists typical of today’s rom-coms (Katherine Heigl, Jennifer Anniston, Drew Barrymore, Sarah Jessica Parker) can only envision smart, articulate women who speak up for themselves, know their own minds, and have their own opinions, as a feminists. Scary.

THE STUFF OF FANTASY:
A Touch of Class is a deliberate throwback to the sex comedies of old with its updated gimmick being the ability to tell the story with the freedoms afforded by the “new permissiveness” of the 70s. While this certainly makes for raunchier language and a less coy approach to the adulterous couplings, it also affords a few awkward moments as the old clashes with the new in unexpected (and sometimes unintentionally funny) ways.
The effortless gravitas Glenda Jackson brings to A Touch of Class significantly compensates for the film's wobbly gender politics which include a rape joke; a homey, constantly cooking mistress; and several cheating husbands but not a single cheating wife.
European films have always been able to combine nudity and comedy, but here in the States, nudity tends to stifle laughter. So, as incongruous as it is to a pair of heated lovers off on an illicit tryst in the free-love 70s, out pop a pair of his and hers pajamas suitable to a Doris Day/ Rock Hudson movie.













Traditional gender roles are adhered to pretty stringently throughout, but every now and then an unexpected curve is thrown, such as in this scene where Steve clings to Vickie at a bullfight

THE STUFF OF DREAMS: 
I began this post stating how much more I enjoy A Touch of Class when I don’t try to apply modern sensibilities to what is now a 40-year-old film. Not always an easy thing, but something classic film lovers frequently have to do when faced with outmoded attitudes about sex, race, and gender in otherwise terrific films. I'm not exactly captivated by the idea of a film that depicts serial adultery as just another charming personality quirk in boyish, middle-aged men (in fact, as a gay man denied marriage rights, it galls a bit to think of how films like this tend to undervalue and take for granted such a gift...even if it's just for escapist laughs); but it speaks well of the overall tidy professionalism of A Touch of Class that none of these things really occur to you until after the film is over.
Of course, my chief fondness for this film lies with Glenda Jackson, one of the absolute best of the slew of intelligent, interesting actresses that seemed to flourish in the 70s, only to disappear come the blockbuster 80s. In this, her first motion picture comedy (if one doesn't count a priceless unbilled cameo in Ken Russell's The Boy Friend) she revealed a heretofore untapped comic gift later put to good use in several films, most notably, House Calls (1977) and Robert Altman's little seen, H.E.A.L.T.H. (1980). There isn't a single moment in A Touch of Class where she doesn't dominate the screen with her lively, fully committed performance. And while it'll always be my belief that Ellen Burstyn should have won the Oscar that year for The Exorcist, in reality, could ANY acting award granted Glenda Jackson ever be considered undeserved?
Four-time Oscar nominee, two-time winner. When Jackson retired from acting in 1992 to become a Member of Parliament, film lost a true original. A versatile, intriguing, and very classy actress.

Copyright © Ken Anderson

5 comments:

  1. Terrific post, Ken.
    You are so good at endorsing an older film that is now questionable on more than one level. Glenda Jackson was wonderful in almost everything and - like Karen Black - could only flourish in a crazy time like the 1970s. Can't imagine her landing supporting roles in contemporary Hollywood productions, let alone leads. She was not conventionally attractive to be sure but her talent made her beautiful.
    I think 'A Touch of Class' was a hit in 1973 because it was one of the few films of that era aimed at older moviegoers. Even though it had some of the sexual frankness of the era, it was essentially old-fashioned. I remember my mom loving "A Touch of Class" but hating the other George Segal comedy that came out that year, "Blume in Love," which was too '70s for her.
    The one puzzler for me in "Class" has always been that odd, wiggy hairdo Jackson sports in the film - the studio's attempt to glamorize her?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Joe
      I agree with what you say about Jackson's very 70s appeal and its dim chances of ever eve being unearthed in the films made today.
      She was a very striking woman, the type usually referred to as "handsome", but she had an appeal via her talent that registered considerable sexual heat and a unique beauty.

      I think her look in this movie is the most glamorous she ever appeared in a film (she's photographed very lovingly), and for some reason, her stiff Cleopatra-style hairdo didn't seem all that odd to me back then (I guess with all those blunt, geometric Toni Tennille/Dorothy Hamill Sassoon cuts of the era, it fit right in) but is downright distracting to me now. What it most reminds me of is the similar kind of studio glamour job they tried on Karen Black in "Airport 1975".

      You're also on point in noting that "A Touch of Class" was a hit with the oldsters. I worked as an usher at the theater where it opened in San Francisco, and the blue-haired matinee ladies ate it up. I know my mom loved it, after finding George Segal in "The Owl & the Pussycat" too vulgar.
      Ah, the 70s! Thanks a heap, Joe! Great hearing from you!

      Delete
  2. I've always enjoyed this but I agree it is a different experience watching today than it was the first time I saw it, which was some time in the 80's I believe. The loosey goosey attitudes towards adultery mark it as a relic of a much more liberal time. I'm not condoning adultery but that woman that George is married to in the film would be enough to drive anyone away. She irks me for every second of her screen time. Speaking of screen time somebody who steals her brief time in the film is the actress who plays the travel agent, her sly delivery of her lines is one of my favorite parts of the movie. No matter how much the film dates what doesn't change is the dynamite chemistry between George and Glenda, which I've read was a reflection of their backstage camaraderie.

    A great actress, her work is the mini-series Elizabeth R will never be bettered, it was fun to see Glenda cut loose which she did rarely but its not an Oscar worthy role.

    A cute bauble with great views of 70's London you're completely right that the undeserved Oscar attention weighs the film's reception down when watched now. I own a copy and have lent it to friends with little preamble other than saying the film is one I like, once they've given it a view most say yes it was pleasant but having read the back and seeing that it was a nominee for best picture and Glenda won they just didn't get why.

    I have to disagree about Ellen Burstyn's being the performance that should have taken the prize, although she should have one more than she does-for Resurrection in 1980. For me the winner should have been Barbra Streisand in The Way We Were, talk about a film with potent chemistry!. She gave a fully lived in performance equal to her Oscar winning debut in Funny Girl.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Joel
      I love the points you brought up! I too found the characterization of George Segal's wife to be troublesome. Not only does she seem an unlikely match for the coarse American, but they seem to have such a terrible relationship that it undermines his character's repeatedly voiced love for her and his desire not to break up his happy home.
      I'm sure the problem is a screenwriter's dilemma: It's imperative that the audience like Jackson and Segal. Portray Segal's wife as appealing and sympathetic and the audience dislikes Segal for cheating on her, and hate Glenda Jackson for coming between them.

      I'm glad you brought up the actress who plays the travel agent (Eve Karpf). She really IS wonderful in her brief time onscreen.

      Glenda Jackson does have a great chemistry with George Segal and is a marvelous comedienne. i only saw Elizabeth R for the first time two years ago, and was completely blown away. With he display of versatility in this role, it's easy to see how Academy voters could be swayed.

      So much appreciate your sharing your fondness for this film and passing on many interesting observational points! Hope you visit again soon. Thanks!

      Delete
  3. Not gonna lie, just like you I found myself asking how did Jackson won an Oscar for this movie! Not that is a bad one but looking at the contenders list for that year there were roles that were instant classics!

    Still, I love her here. I think it's a really tough character to play when all she had to do was, as you said, act "british". When the movie started i perceived her as just the counter-part to George Segal's character and that was okay to me, I'm used to this romantic comedies clichés and I tought it was just one of them. But then she started to captivate me.

    Nowadays, passive-agressiveness is a cool feature in any character. The give the best lines in a movie, they make the audience laugh, they're so full of attitude and style... but if there's one thing "Who's Afraid of Virginia Wool" taught me is that passive-agressiveness is not a sign of coolness: is in most of the cases the sign of a bruised soul. The more Jakcson's charcater tried to pretend she didn't care it was becoming clear she was hurt and trying to keep her heart intact and I think that's what Jackson did brilliantly. Whereas the script had one simple line she turned that in a moment of subtle explanation of how she wanted to feel loved without having to love someone, without having to destroy the wall she had to build to protect herself. She wanted to have someone in her arms but keep her heart safe. So as the movie progresses you can see her defenses breaking and you begin to worry about her, cause she is so happy but no one can really live a half love, and when the third act comes Steven Segal still doesn't shows a sing of wanting to live his partner. She was completely seduced by love, drowning little by little and she couldn't breathe, we couldn't breathe. AND THEN THE MOVIE ENDS IN ALL THAT DEPRESSION and I cried for half an hour the first time I watched it, cause I was really riding Jackson's wave of emotions and wasn't prepared for that. I didn't see the movie building to that ending!! She was so intelligent here and few actresses would have the capacity to turn this role into a full-fleshed woman. It looks like her character came to the same point she was at the beggining of the movie, but Glenda turned it into a whole journey! A very sophisticated piece of acting and should really be more talked about.

    This movie is not perfect. Most of it's universe is under developed and even the two leads are not very well build, but we are lucky we got two of the 70s finest here. Their families are never shown (if it wasn't for the one scene when Jackson introduces her kids you could tell she was single), George Segal's had a stereotypical wife and as you said, the fact that only men are showed cheating is hard to pass. The pace is sometimes uneven (it feels like two different movies, when the first half is pure comedy and the second is more mature and heartbreakking), and some scenes are awfully repetitive (like Segal at the concert having to change clothes or Segal playing golf).

    I laughed a lot, tho. That line when Glenda says something like "a woman's body is not a machine where you press a button and then PAW!!! the world moves" still makes me laugh on the bus, at the restaurant, everywhere. Steven is adorkable here. He's quite dreamy and have that boyish enthusiasm about life and things, it's easy to love him. His chemistry with Jackson really saves this movie, and I couldn't love them more. The airport attendant also deserves mention.

    In the end it feels like it's a movie about taking chances. They knew this couldn't end well, we knew too, but they chose to believe life and love were easy and so did we. If there's only 1 chance of love in a hundred possibilities why couldn't we try? And what comforts me is that I'm sure Vicki gave love another chance some time after that ending. She deserves to love and be loved <3

    ReplyDelete