Friday, March 30, 2012

SMILE 1975

The topics for satirical films come in three categories: 1. Overdue — health care (The Hospital, Robert Altman’s H.E.A.L.T.H.), rock & roll (This is Spinal Tap), regional theater (Waiting for Guffman); 2. Overdone — television (A Face in the Crowd, Network), Los Angeles, (Shampoo, S.O.B); and 3. Overripe — soap operas (Soap Dish), country music (Nashville), and beauty pageants (Drop Dead Gorgeous).
Understandably, it’s the latter two categories which pose the biggest challenge. For while public familiarity with the subject works to the filmmaker’s advantage, the potential for arriving at a suitably unique perspective to warrant yet another swipe at a favored pop-culture whipping-boy is statistically low. This is especially true of subjects that have, in one way or another, already become parodies of themselves.
The Summer of our Discontent
Michael Ritchie's Smile and Robert Altman's Nashville were twin satires of post-Watergate disillusionment released in the summer of 1975. With 1976 looming as both a Bicentennial and election year, Smile and Nashville appeared to be two extremely well-timed social comedies with their finger on the pulse of the tumultuous decade (Nixon's 1974 resignation, inflation, the oil crisis). Unfortunately, both films were swallowed up by that other 1975 summer release, Jaws.

Beauty pageants occur in every corner of the world, but it’s the American beauty pageant—with its discomfiting and vaguely unwholesome co-mingling of sex objectification, patriotism, Las Vegas vulgarity, and beauty-myth perpetuation—that looms strongest and most pervasively in the minds of the public. For as long as I can remember (even before the Women’s Lib '70s came along and forever pasted the stamp of “anachronistic, sexist, meat parade” on the whole practice) beauty pageants have struck me as curiously absurd rituals. Unabashedly kitschy, yet immensely entertaining, albeit for all the wrong reasons. I’m sure that someone, somewhere, is gladdened by the spectacle of eerily similar, Stepford-perfect women with lacquered hair and joyless smiles, trotted out, conveyor belt fashion, for our appraisal. As for me, few things look as cheesily ludicrous as a woman in a bathing suit wearing heels. The silliness of which is compounded tenfold by said woman being quizzed about government policy and solutions for world peace at the same time.
Bruce Dern as Robert "Big Bob" Freelander
Barbara Feldon as Brenda Di Carlo
Michael Kidd as Tommy French
For all the talk of celebrating inner beauty and scholastic achievement, I’ve not seen a single beauty pageant yet able to surmount the built-in incongruity of a “show” designed to display and reward that which is unobservable. Aware perhaps that there’s just no way to ethically reconcile a human competition  that bears more than a passing resemblance to a 4H Club prize heifer fair, beauty pageants always try to bump up the intellect and culture quotient. A decision which manifests in talent segments heavy on jarringly divergent high-brow/folksy mash-ups (e.g., classical pieces played on an accordion, baton twirling routines to pre-recorded recited poetry), and squirmingly awkward Q & A segments wherein contestants are required to answer preposterously weighty questions on the spot. You may not be able to show intellect and you can’t show a big heart, but what you CAN show is plenty of T & A and lots of smiles, smiles, smiles.
Contestants in the California Regionals of the Young American Miss teen beauty pageant
17 year-old Melanie Griffith is Miss Simi Valley, while directly behind her stands Colleen Camp, Miss Imperial County
*(Males aren’t immune to this lunacy, either. I once attended a bodybuilding competition, and aside from everyone there trying like mad to ignore the insistent homoeroticism of it all; I was made aware of how the contest as such [which is little more than your standard beauty pageant bathing suit competition on steroids—literally] seems to exist in this strange limbo where it’s neither sport nor full-out sideshow attraction. Divested of even the pretext of being about anything more than physical appearance, bodybuilding contests are the only real beauty pageants left.)
Contestants Robin (Joan Prather) and Doria (Annette O'Toole) ponder their situation.

Robin: Their parents made them beautiful, not them.
Doria: Yeah..but boys get money and scholarships for making a lot of touch downs, right? Well why shouldn't a girl get one for being cute and charming?
Robin: But maybe boys shouldn't be getting money for making touchdowns

Smile, Michael Ritchie’s smart and thoroughly delightful evisceration of beauty pageants (vis a vis small-town America in the post-Watergate years) is that most sought-after of satires: one which sidesteps the obvious and clichéd, landing on all that is surprising and fresh. Its humor hits the mark without resorting to unnecessary exaggeration or cruelty, and the observant, laugh-out-loud funny screenplay by Jerry Belson spares no one. Well, that’s not exactly true. One of the things I like best about Smile, which concerns itself with the mishaps surrounding the mounting of a regional teenage beauty contest, is that the film’s most obvious targets, the contestants, are treated rather sympathetically.
While affectionate fun is poked at everyone involved (with the harshest light shed on the adults who behave badly and should know better) there’s a refreshing lack of mean-spiritedness in this little-known but rather miraculous small film.
Fans of Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory will recognize Denise Nickerson (Violet) as  Miss San Diego
Eric Shea, the bratty little brother in The Poseidon Adventure plays Bruce Dern's son, "Little Bob"

The lampooning of something as already over-the-top silly as a beauty pageant (a teen one, at that) runs the risk of leaving the satirist with nowhere to go. Smile is such a welcome exception to the rule because it consistently throws us a curve every time things start to look like they’re headed down a predictable path or angling for the easy satirical target. For example, the pageant choreographer, who I’d expected would be another tiresome gay stereotype, is portrayed by real-life Tony Award-winning choreographer Michael Kidd (Guys & Dolls, Lil’ Abner) as something like a sardonic Teamster. Expecting to laugh at the expense of Smile’s unsophisticated teen contestants and the usual small–town vulgarity, the film’s gentle tone and genuine affection for its characters caught me nicely off guard.
As Maria Gonzales, the hilariously guileful contestant not afraid to use the voting committee's racial ignorance/guilt to her advantage, actress Maria O'Brien gives, hands down, my favorite comic performance in the film. Not only do I love the concept of her character (a take-no-prisoners competitor), but O'Brien's comic delivery and timing is just brilliant.
Annette O'Toole (the very best thing in Paul Shrader's Cat People - 1982) is close to being the very best thing in Smile. Her disarmingly natural performance is smart and surprisingly nuanced. I especially like how the growing friendship between O'Toole and fellow-contestant/roommate, Joan Prather, is played.

I remember once thinking that Bruce Dern must have had one hell of an agent. At one time the go-to guy for every loose cannon nutjob in every B-movie that came down the pike; sometime in the early '70s (I think it was after he killed John Wayne—yes, John Wayne—in The Cowboys) Dern began to crop up in a lot of seriously A-list movies playing normal, if not sympathetic, guys. It’s like he completely changed his image overnight and became a top-flight, Oscar-nominated star in major motion pictures. It appeared as though he would continue on that course until an ill-timed return to type playing a psycho tattoo artist in the unappetizing Tattoo (1981) put him back on the character actor track again. Dern has never really been my cup of tea, but there’s no denying his obvious talent. And in Smile he gives perhaps his most accessible and likeable performance. 
Geoffrey Lewis (pageant president) and Barbara Feldon
"There are just two things to remember: Just be yourself , and keep smiling!"

On the other hand, I've been crazy about Barbara Feldon since her days as Agent 99 on TV’s Get Smart. Here, as the starchily efficient pageant supervisor, Feldon mines (as Mary Tyler Moore did in Ordinary People) the dark side of all those “perfect on the outside” types so commonly held up as ideal images of American womanhood. She's good in that way that so often happens when actors are creatively cast against type.

My favorite part of any beauty pageant is the talent competition. In Smile, that still applies.
  Talent competition: Saxophone and voice, the accordion (of course), 
and how to pack a suitcase. 

Ruce Dern plays Robert Freelander. Known to everyone in the town of Santa Rosa, California as “Big Bob,” Robert is a pillar of the community and one of the beauty pageant’s biggest boosters. A member of the JC and several fraternal clubs, Robert owns “Big Bob’s Motor Home City” where he optimistically sells gas-guzzling trailers and RVs during the oil crisis. His idea of a romantic getaway for him and his wife is to take a trip to Disneyland, and he is trusting and honest to the point of naiveté. Relentlessly cheerful, optimistic, and a firm believer that a little hard work will make everything OK, Robert is essentially America as it liked to imagine itself to be before Watergate.

Like America in the mid-'70s, Robert suffers a “crisis of confidence” when forced to confront the less-than-perfect realities of the world around him, and the uncertain value of all the things he’d heretofore convinced himself were valuable. As heavy-handed as this might sound, Smile shows its true mettle in how deftly it handles the thematic metaphor, and Bruce Dern is a little heartbreaking in how well he conveys Robert’s crestfallen bewilderment.
A Young American Miss must be cheerful, a perseverant, and show a genuine concern for others.

Recently I've been seeing these Alain de Botton / Anthony Burrill art posters around town which read: “Pessimism is not always deep and optimism is not always dumb.”  With a great deal of humor and sensitivity, I think Michael Richie’s Smile made that very same point some 37 years ago.

In 1986, Smile was turned into a flop Broadway musical by Marvin Hamlisch (A Chorus Line) & Howard Ashman (Little Shop of Horrors).
Copyright © Ken Anderson

Thursday, March 22, 2012


Let me tell you a fairy tale. Once upon a time there was a film producer who believed that movies didn’t have to appeal to the lowest common denominator or always chase the fastest buck. (I told you it was a fairy tale.) In all likelihood under the enchantment of some evil sorcerer, this producer was possessed of the radical notion that films could inspire tastes rather than follow trends, and that motion pictures, in spite of being a populace medium, held the potential for the broader exposure of culture and the arts. From such chimerical fancies was born The American Film Theater (AFT): a limited-engagement subscription series of films adapted from great plays. Over the course of a year these films would screen for one or two days only, two performances each (a matinee and an evening show), after which the films would be withdrawn from release (“Forever!” as the ads intoned). And they lived happily ever after.

OK...OK, we all know I’m not literally speaking of a fairy tale—but I might as well be, given the inconceivability of such an artistically altruistic idea even being broached in today’s Hollywood. The producer in question was the late Ely Landau (producer of the acclaimed 1972 Martin Luther King, Jr. documentary- King: A Filmed Record…Montgomery to Memphis), and The AFT, his cinematic vision of a cultural Camelot, lasted but a brief two years (1973 – 1975) , but managed to produce a lasting film legacy of 14 marvelous plays with once-in-a-lifetime casts.
Click to Enlarge
I was in high school in 1974 and remember wanting to buy a subscription to a season of AFT very badly. But as the films were screened on Monday & Tuesday evenings exclusively, the whole “It’s a school night!” issue rendered the entire matter a closed book as far as my parents were concerned. I did, however, have the AFT poster on my bedroom wall and made myself fairly miserable staring at the diverse catalog of filmed plays offered (A Delicate Balance, The Iceman Cometh, Luther, Lost in the Stars), imagining all that I was missing. 
The film I most wanted to see was the adaptation of Jean Genet’s The Maids; not because I knew anything about Genet, but because two of my all-time fave rave actresses: Glenda Jackson and Susannah York, were playing the leads. Well, it may have taken 29 years, but The Maids has finally been released on DVD, (in fact, the entire AFT collection - Click here for info: AFT on DVD ) and with it, my adolescent patience rewarded, at last.
Glenda Jackson as Solange
Susannah York as Claire
Vivien Merchant as Madame
With America's history so resolutely mired in slavery, institutionalized racism, and rarely acknowledged socioeconomic imperatives (the rich need the poor); we in the U.S. tend to prefer our domestics sentimentalized (think Shirley Booth in TVs Hazel, Alice on The Brady Bunch, Mr. French in Family Affair, or any TV program in which the "Just like one of the family!"message is reiterated). The social inequities of status or income are never addressed unless crouched in the most cloyingly emotional terms (US domestics work for love, not least on TV), and any expressed resentment or hostility toward one's employer is thoroughly out of the question. The only time we Yanks seem able to relax and enjoy a thoughtful, honest depiction of the precarious servant/employer dynamic is when we're able to put an ocean between us, and even then, only when the events are safely ensconced in the past.
Does it interfere with our appreciation of beautiful surroundings, meticulously maintained,
to consider the lives of those who are paid to keep them that way?

Americans may find a film about white employers and black domestics uncomfortable, but few really expect anything else. Indeed, domestic workers of color are such an accepted cultural conceit that an entire film (1987's Maid to Order) was built around the satiric premise of a white family coveting the status symbol that comes from having a white maid (Ally Sheedy). Since the vast majority of major motion pictures produced in America are for and from the perspective of the white gaze; Stateside domestics (being people of color) are rarely given much emotional dimension. Their role is either to reassure and comfort audiences by being the grateful recipients of white largess, or be the non-complaining supporters of the status quo, happy in their lot. 
Because we reserve humanity for white characters, the oppressed class system hierarchy of European aristocracy in things like Downton AbbeyGosford Parkor Upstairs, Downstairs, are the only environments in which we allow ourselves to listen to the voices of the oppressed from a humanist, non-political perspective. As a country, it seems we find it easier to identify and empathize with the subjugated masses when they're white.  
Although denied by the play's author, Jean Genet, The Maids is popularly believed to have been inspired by the notorious real-life crimes of Lea and Christine Papin; two maids who brutally murdered the wife and daughter of an employer in 1933 France.

If ever there was an artist about whom the words “non-threatening” and “comforting” most definitely do not apply, it is the late, great, poet/novelist/playwright/activist, Jean Genet. His theatrically incendiary play The Maids (written in 1946) and is an acerbic, absurdist treatise on identity and class struggle that plays out like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  and The Killing of Sister George crossed with Harold Pinter’s The Servant.
In the ornately fussy, Louis XV furnished apartments in the aristocratically ritzy Place Vendôme district of France, two embittered live-in domestics work out their hostility toward their mistress (and their own self-frustration for enduring such servitude) by routinely engaging in a ritualized pantomime whenever she is away. Alternately taking on the roles of employer and servant, the maids—Solange (Jackson) and her sister Claire (York)— literally lose themselves in this cathartic ceremony of (self)contempt and emancipation that strives, always unsuccessfully, to culminate in the make-believe murder of Madame.
Truth Games
Madame/Claire: "You only EXIST through me!"
As the film begins, the exaggerated passions of the playacting maids are running at a particularly feverish high, as it appears that their fantasy plotting has begun to take root in the real world. Emboldened by the early morning arrest of Madame’s lover (the result of incriminating letters anonymously mailed to the police by Claire) and invigorated by this small sign of efficaciousness in lives of servile invisibility; the maids determine on this day to make actual, the much dreamed-about, never consummated, death of their beloved/detested Madame.  
Claire: "Now I will order the world about!"
Though not overtly fond of Theater of the Absurd, I do have a penchant for the manner in which art can thrust to the forefront that which is rarely spoken of and scarcely acknowledged about the human condition. Like so many of my favorite films (Robert Altman’s 3 Women, Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, Hitchcock’s Vertigo, and Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan), The Maids is about masks, role-playing, and the flexible quality of identity. We each wear masks and play various roles throughout our lives. Often with such regularity and acuity that it can become difficult to remember just what it was the original mask was meant to conceal. Meanwhile the shifting power plays in our day-to-day lives and relationships only serve to reinforce the ever-alternating positions of supplicant and master we find ourselves in. The Maids cleverly uses the banal protocols of domestic servitude (where the feelings of contempt/gratitude/anguish ambiguously co-mingle) to dramatize the interdependent manner in which the way we are perceived by others can come to define the very selfsame ways we see and regard ourselves.
Solange: "When slaves love each other it's not love."
Claire: "No, but it's just as serious."
The '70s was the era of the male "buddy picture," yet, paradoxically, it was also a time (albeit, short-lived) when interesting actors like Glenda Jackson and Susannah York could land major roles in fascinating projects like this. Certainly a film with an all-female cast (Madame's lover is briefly, wordlessly seen) is notable in any era, but because the '70s boasted such a remarkable breed of versatile, intelligent, and unique actresses (Faye Dunaway, Jane Fonda, Genevieve Bujold, Shelley Duvall), I'm especially thrilled that two of my favorites were paired in a feature. 
Playing sisters of different temperament (and I gather, intelligence) both Jackson and Susannah infuse their complex characters with considerable emotional depth, making palpable the pain behind the often high-flown language. Jackson is dynamic, as always, but the late Susannah York, with her despairingly throaty voice and wounded eyes is even better than she was in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?

 Vivien Merchant (Alfie, Fenzy) manages to capture the conflicting characteristics of dominance, condescension, and vulnerability in the theatrically self-dramatizing character of Madame 

For all its perception, perhaps what’s most brilliant and surprising about The Maids is how terribly enjoyable it is. As a fan of bitchy repartee, I love the film’s near-poetic verbal battles of hurled invectives and raging hostilities. I also take great pleasure in how the film veers, with unexpected bite, into dark comedy. But what I most thoroughly enjoy and what brings me back to The Maids again and again is the finely-honed suspense and dramatic tension which propels the plot along its barely-tethered-to-reality course. There’s a considerable amount of anxiety mined from the current of madness and potential for violence that runs beneath the central conflict of The Maids.
"Naturally, maids are guilty, when madames are innocent."
As the predicament of the maids grows ever perilous, we find ourselves drawn into the paranoia of inanimate objects conspiring to betray them. It is a fact of a maid's day-to-day existence that the dust on the mantle and the unpolished mirror will stand as silent accusers of a job incomplete. When conspiring to kill one's employer, how many small details can be similarly neglected?
Class Distinctions
There are so many ways for The Maids to be interpreted, so many levels upon which it works, it’s like watching a new film every time you come back to it. An intelligent, eccentric film, I can’t imagine it being to everyone’s taste (the intentional theatricality of the language and performances can prove distancing, if not confounding); but it is one of those films which rewards each visit with even more information and overlooked details. Both in performance and theme. I think it’s an absolutely brilliant, moving work made surprising accessible by the combined efforts of everyone involved in this film adaptation...chiefly the outstanding performances of Glenda Jackson and Susannah York. 
"The revenger is always born of the maids."

Playwright of The Maids, Jean Genet, passed away in 1986. A fascinating artist with an even more fascinating life, this is one of my favorites of his many quotable quotes:
"I'm homosexual. How and why are idle questions. It's a little like wanting to know why my eyes are green."

Signature of Susannah York received at a 2005 performance of her one-woman show, The Loves of Shakespeare's Women
Copyright © Ken Anderson

Friday, March 16, 2012


You can’t really appreciate the benefits of a film like The Other Side of Midnight until you’re confined to your bed for three days with an ass-kicker of a late-winter flu. Only when one’s energy has been sapped from inactivity, muscle weakness, and a ceaseless intake of liquids (followed, with breathtaking immediacy, by the expulsion of same from every imaginable orifice); when a toxic blend of physical inertia, mental malaise, and miserable weather renders futile all possibility of doing anything remotely productive. Only then can one fully understand what a panacea to the beleaguered spirit is the extravagantly trashy film.
"The Romance of Passion and Power"
Sidney Sheldon (the man who gave the world The Patty Duke Show & I Dream of Jeannie) wrote The Other Side of Midnight for folks who find sociopathology, brutishness, premeditated murder, and abortion-by-wire-hanger to be the stuff of epic romance.

Sometimes it takes a thing like a 100-degree-fever to break down one’s resistance enough to allow for the guilt-free enjoyment of gilt-edged sleaze like The Other Side of Midnight. A film that, at a running time of over 2 ½ hours, is an over-embellished potboiler of love, sex, and revenge so narratively antiquated, so routine and clichéd in execution, that even on first viewing it feels like a rerun. Yet it is nevertheless thoroughly engrossing and strangely reassuring in its by-the-numbers adherence to type and staunch refusal to go anywhere near the unexpected. It's all there, everything one looks for in a soap opera: sex, romance, betrayal, power plays, vengeance, retribution...the whole shebang. Directed with a daring lack of distinction by Charles Jarrot (Lost Horizon), this big-budget adaptation of the 1973 Sidney Sheldon bestseller is a comfort food movie requiring little in the way of attentiveness, and nothing more of your brain than that you leave it on the nightstand and let the glistening images and warmed-over histrionics enshroud you like an electric blanket. Lovely to look at, easy to ingest, and 100% lacking in anything remotely substantive, The Other Side of Midnight is the cinema equivalent of a sugar pill.
Marie-France Pisier as Noelle Page (short a, as in Pajama)
John Beck as Larry Douglas
Susan Sarandon as Catherine Alexander
Raf Vallone as Constantin Demeris
Clu Gulager as Bill Fraser
When Jacqueline Susann, the queen of crass, (and I wouldn't have it any other way) passed away in 1974, she left a sizable void in the supply pool of high-gloss motion picture camp-fests. The last of her novels to be adapted for the screen was Once is Not Enough (1975), a delightfully squalid take on the Electra Complex and May/December romance among the Hollywood elite. Following that, devotees of true highbrow smut had to wait till 1983 for Harold Robbins and Pia Zadora to pick up Susann's tacky torch and deliver the legendarily craptastic The Lonely Lady. Between 1975 and 1983, with the “slick sleaze” landscape populated by the likes of Judith Krantz, Danielle Steele, and Jackie Collins, the one book and film adaptation that genuinely felt like a worthy successor to the Susanne crown was The Other Side of Midnight. A film virtually forgotten today, but heavily promoted at the time and arriving at theaters with an incredible amount of promising advance buzz. A summer release primed to be Fox's big blockbuster hit, it bombed rather stupendously.
Father Knows Worst
"Noelle, war is have beauty. It is your only weapon of survival. Use it. Let the hand under your dress wear gold, and you'll be that much ahead of the game."
What's the French word for "Ick!"?

A kind of last-gasp, big-screen entry before the TV miniseries came to corner the market on this kind of globetrotting/bedhopping glamour drama; The Other Side of Midnight begins in 1939 and tells the story of Hard-Luck Noelle (Pisier). Noelle is a breathtakingly beautiful French woman (they’re always breathtakingly beautiful in these kinds of books) who, over the course of one remarkably bad year, has her father sell off her virginity to an employer; runs off to Paris and is robbed of all of her belongings within minutes of arrival; gets mistaken for a whore; and has a whirlwind, rapturous love affair with Larry, an American Army pilot (Beck) who ultimately abandons her (pregnant, unbeknownst to him) after telling her to go out and buy a wedding dress and wait for his return.
The Agony & The Ecstasy
Above: Noelle learns of love at the extremely hirsute hands (and back) of horny French couturier, Auguste Lanchon (Sorrell  Booke...yes, Boss Hogg from The Dukes of Hazzard).
Below: Noelle's fate is sealed when she falls in love with caddish RAF pilot Larry Douglas (Beck)

Taking a kind of “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” attitude about the cruel objectification she’s suffered at the hands of all these beastly males, the embittered Noelle embarks on a curious course of revenge. One which involves pimping herself out to the highest bidder in an effort to secure enough fame, money, and power to eventually stick it, but good, to her fleetfooted wartime paramour, whom she learns is alive and well (and very married) in Washington, D.C. 
It’s raunchy fun watching Noelle’s Evita-esque bed-climb to the top (wherein she plies her considerable sexual skills on an increasingly unappetizing assortment of men), but it’s only after Larry weds the lovably kooky dipsomaniac, Catherine (Sarandon), that The Other Side of Midnight really shifts into high gear and becomes the vengeance-fueled bitchfest I was hoping for. Only then does it begin to dawn that - for all its travelogue scenery, half-hearted The Best Years of Our Lives subtext (dramatizing vets struggling to adapt to civilian life), and pseudo-feminist parallels drawn by Catherine's climb up the ladder with her brains contrasted with Noelle's degrading use of her body  - The Other Side of Midnight is mostly fancy window-dressing in service of a diamond-encrusted parable on hell, fury and women scorned.
No Wire Hangers
Even fans of glossy trash have their limits, and this hard-to-watch abortion sequence was a real deal-breaker for many

In a previous post, I wrote of my weakness for films whose artistic reach exceeds their grasp. Films whose intentions are at direct odds with their execution. In the case of The Other Side of Midnight: a “love” story, if you can call it that, between two totally reprehensible people (admittedly, poor Noelle doesn’t start out that way); there exists a gross misinterpretation of the source material.

From watching the film and listening to the hilariously on-the-defensive DVD commentary, I’m given the distinct impression that the filmmakers thought they were making an epic love story with a strong, resilient heroine at its center…like Gone with the Wind. Pisier may be a headstrong brunette and Beck sports a dashing pencil mustache, but that is where all similarity ends. Believe me, the self-destructively monomaniacal Noelle Page is no Scarlett O’Hara; Larry, the oafish lout, is no Rhett; and The Other Side of Midnight is no Gone With the Wind…not unless I missed the scene where Scarlett and Ashley make plans to bump off Melanie.
Fatal Attractions
In spite of being an unrepentant jerk of a boyfriend and the worst husband since Guy Woodhouse, Larry has two women who suffer untold agonies to be with him. However, only one of these women is off her rocker.

Given how shabbily she's treated by men, I understand how admirable we are supposed to find it when Noelle decides, at last, she will no longer be anyone's victim. Everyone harbors at least one revenge fantasy (in my case, several), so it's really a lot of vicarious fun watching Noelle systematically plot and carry out her plans. But, given all she goes through to get back at Larry, her eventual "revenge" is rather toothless and a slap in the face to whatever "empowerment points" we've granted Noelle so far, because after one kiss from him (one of those romance novel "Unhand me you brute!" type of kisses, at that), she turns to mush in his arms. 
All sympathy for Noelle goes out the window when she demands that Larry kill his hapless wife, Catherine (who, at this point has been treated so abusively by Larry that the idea seems to benefit HIM more than it does Noelle).

I have a hunch Sidney Sheldon needed some Third Act action and arrived an unsympathetic about-face for Noelle which doesn't wholly support all that came before it. I would have loved to have Noelle and Catherine to eventually meet (at least then the narrative paralleling of their lives would have served a purpose) and, in discovering their mutual woes start and end with the philandering Larry, together plot a way to kill the guy. Now THAT would have been a crowd-pleaser (for me, anyway)!
Larry concocts a batty plan to do away with Catherine

Were The Other Side of Midnight a better film, I would say its moral ambiguity regarding Noelle was intentional (it can’t make up its mind if she is a villain or victim/ her quest for vengeance is sick or empowering) but I really don’t think it is. It’s just one of those overproduced Hollywood “properties” so preoccupied with advancing the plot and giving fans of the book all the glamour, romance, and drama they can muster; no one noticed that the film’s underlying themes come off as comically amoral and wrongheaded, and that the so-called heroine kind of loses her mind somewhere up the ladder of success.
Although The Other Side of Midnight takes place in Europe between 1939 and 1947, war and the events of the world fade into the background for the psychotically single-minded Noelle. Here, seen preening before an open window with a swastika in the distance, Noelle remains blithely oblivious to anyone's suffering but her own.

As Joan Collins would learn four years later with the premiere of the primetime television drama, Dynasty, the bad girls have all the fun and get the best lines. The Other Side of Midnight is no exception. If there's any fun to had in the sometimes drawn-out proceedings that make up the film's dual-story plotline, the fun is to be found in discovering to what lengths Noelle is willing to go to enact her revenge on Larry. That and witnessing her transformation from naive waif to, as one character puts it, "a first-class bitch."
Goodnight and Thank You
Social-climbing Noelle is about to throw over her current director/lover (Christian Marquand) for the bigger fish that is super-rich Greek tycoon, Constantin Demeris.

The late Marie-France Pisier (who first came to the attention of American audiences in the 1975 French comedy, Cousin, Cousine) has the requisite beauty to play the role of a woman who relies almost completely on her desirability to achieve her aims. In this, her first American film, Marie-France is considerably better in dragon-lady mode than in the scenes requiring a conveyance of more subtle emotions. The film was intended to launch her as a major American star, but outside of a few TV mini-dramas, Pisier continued to do her best work in her native country. A true class act, whenever prodded by the press to dish about the tacky film Hollywood chose to launch her US career, Pisier would only say that the studio treated her like a queen and made her feel like a star before she even became one.
The exquisitely beautiful Marie-France Pisier passed away in 2011
Pisier is very appealing, but her performance in The Other Side of Midnight is perhaps too superficial to help the hackneyed narrative rise very far above the suds. For a truly harrowing portrait of obsessive love and a performance that strikes at the self-consuming desperation behind it all, check out actress Isabelle Adjani in Francois Truffaut's The Story of Adele H. (1975). 
The Other Side of Midnight is the parallel story of two women who share the same man but never meet.
Susan Sarandon (two years after The Rocky Horror Picture Show) has a relaxed, natural style that stands out in the starchy surroundings, but she suffers from an underwritten role.

Jay Leno, Larry Douglas, & Clutch Cargo
In popular entertainment, a strong or prominent chin can either signify a hero (Roger Ramjet, Dudley Do-Right), or villain (Dishonest John, Dick Dastardly).
Anyone care to venture a guess as to how many villains we have pictured here?

After sex and illicit romance, the major drawing card for a film such as this is the promise of exotic locales, glamorous costumes, and opulent surroundings. The Other Side of Midnight makes good use of its French and Greek locations (plus a few obvious studio sets), but perhaps at the price of narrative cohesion. The Other Side of Midnight is a film that purports to disapprove of the ways in which people debase themselves for money, but an entirely different, conflicting message is given when the camera lovingly lingers on the material things all that wealth can provide.
My personal favorite image of extravagance: the over-sized backgammon board

I suppose it's because I wasn't around during the heyday of the "Women's Film" (the late 30s & 40s) that the glossy soaps of the '60s and '70s hold so much appeal for me. By and large, they are inferior films in most every aspect beyond the technical, but they represent to me a wholly pleasant diversion and return to an old-fashioned (if not archaic) method of filmmaking we're not likely to see again. 
As the years go by and more and more contemporary films start to take on the arid, distancing look of video games and computer screens; old-fashioned trash cinema like The Other Side of Midnight begins to look better and better. By the way, I have no idea what this film's title means. The Other Side of Midnight always reminds me of that old Johnny Carson soap opera satire, The Edge of Wetness.
Here We Go Again
Oh, and for those who care about such things - In 1990, the ever-prolific Sidney Sheldon wrote a sequel to The Other Side of Midnight titled, Memories of Midnight. In 1991 it was made into an indifferent TV miniseries starring Jane Seymour and Omar Sharif. 

Copyright © Ken Anderson 2009 - 2012