|Glenda Jackson as Vickie Allessio|
|George Segal as Steve Blackburn|
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 Paris, Paper Moon, The Last Detail, The Way We Were, The Long Goodbye, Mean Streets, and Sleeper.
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).
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.
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|
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.
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.
|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.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?
Copyright © Ken Anderson