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


  1. Wow. I've never seen this (and, frankly, I'm not even 100% sure I've even heard of it!) It looks like my kind of movie as I have a VHS of the 1984 Miss America Pageant (brimming over with production numbers and "talent") under constant, heavily-armed guard and am strangely drawn to the whole scheme of pageants, contests, etc... I never thought Annette O'Toole got her due praise. I'll have to check it out! Thanks.

    1. When it came out, "Smile" was the victim of a really small budget, the shift in America's taste for blockbusters, and a truly terrible marketing campaign. It tried to sell the film as a salacious teen sex comedy, which it is anything but. And yes, Annette O'Toole is one of the best of the under-appreciated actresses out there. Just a wonderfully relaxed screen presence. The following year O'Toole provided the singing voice for an actress in the equally forgotten "The First Nudie Musical" and she sounds great (YouTube clip:

      Fans of beauty pageants will like this movie. As per your VHS copy of Miss America, I have a couple of old VHS tapes of early 80's Miss Black America pageants and indeed, the "talent" on display is a hoot.

  2. Oh great now I have "Me Ole Bamboo" stuck in my head again! Thanks a lot Ken!

    1. You're right...
      I should have begun the post with a disclaimer warning potential "Smile" viewers of the unlikelihood of getting that song, "Me Ole Bamboo" out of one's head in under less than two full days. It happens to me every time.
      So impressed that you KNOW that!

    2. For me it's the "Young American Miss" theme song that keeps popping up in my mind. You may also be haunted by a haunting rendition of "Delta Dawn" accompanied by an off-key saxaphone. "Smile" is one of the greatest pitch-black comedies ever made and it is a shame how few remember it. As a fan of Barbara Feldon it was a shock, and still sobering to see how well she can portray an absolutely vitriolic charachter who sums herself up to perfection by saying "It's not for him, it's for the girls!" People seem to crave and expect slapstick comedy with rude jokes, but "Smile" is a true satire. It makes you think, if you'll let it. As the perfectly cast Bruce Dern likewise summed it all up, after hearing the judging panel recite what qualities a Young American Miss should hold; "Yeah. And those are all great things to be. (PAUSE) Aren't they?" Now I'm craving guacamole dip.

    3. I haven't seen this film since the date of this post, but your references to "Delta Dawn" and the "Young American Miss" theme song whet my appetite for a revisit. Your summation of ""Smile" 's charms are spot-on. The satire is really what satire should be (comedy that makes you think)and the film is so well cast...especially in mining the talent that is Barbabra Feldon. Though a film too good to be forgotten, I'm glad that those who know it seem to love it so much. Thanks very much for your comment and for stopping by!

  3. I had heard about the film for years (in regards to Denise Nickerson in all her wide-eyed innocence, and its connection to Lyricist Howard Ashman's failed musical), but hadn't seen it until last night on Netflix Streaming.

    Smile definitely fits into those films that are hard to categorize. I can't call it a straight comedy, and I can't say it's a dark comedy (though in some ways, the idea of trying to 'sanitize' something that seems sensual did put me in mind of the ulterior motives in 'Dr Strangelove').

    Up until the film, my thoughts on Bruce Dern largely stemmed from him as Mr Rumsfield in 'The Burbs,' and here, to see him as a middle-class American with an overly positive attitude was quite a shock. I couldn't help but think of Will Ferrell a few times when I saw the way the character was portrayed (albeit not as loud as Ferrell can get).

    Part of me was also expecting alot of backbiting and sabotage behind the scenes (of which we only got one major exhibition regarding Ms Salinas), yet the film also delved into other areas one wouldn't expect, such as the prep by all the 'adults' for the big show.

    1. I think you hit on what has always been Smile's problem, marketing-wise: it doesn't fit easily into any particular genre, and its subject matter comes with a lot of audience pre-suppositions that are either met or subverted. It's not really light, it's not really dark; it's not mean-spirited, yet it's satirical...very 70s in that films sometimes were narrative points of view and not genre defined packages.

      And yes, Bruce Dern is his least Bruce Dern-ish here and, while I hadn't thought of it, I agree that the character does suggest a role very well suited to Will Farrell's style. It's great that you finally gave this old film a look and I hope the overall unexpected nature of "Smile" was ultimately more pleasing than disconcerting. Thanks very much for stopping by the blog and sharing your experience of the film!

  4. Hi Ken:

    Thanks for your response to my comment about Raquel in Myra Breckinridge. For Smile, I'm still talking Raquel! I saw this movie when it opened in Westwood. It was a weeknight and the audience was small. My date and I sat right behind two women, and at one point the one on the left turned to make a comment to her friend, and I recognized the distinct Welch nose. Of course, I watched her watch the movie, and it was interesting how she reacted strongly to every sexist moment and laughed in all the right places. When we left, we followed Raquel and her companion out of the theater and it was fascinating to watch the staff try to avoid staring at her. This was the Mother, Jugs and Speed era and she looked natural and gorgeous. The next time I saw Smile, I paid more attention and really liked it.

    1. Hi again!
      That's a terrific Raquel Welch encounter story! I would have done the same: watch her watch the movie. When that terrible movie "Can't Stop The Music" opened in Hollywood, I went to see it on opening weekend and sat behind magician David Copperfield and a male friend. This was way beck when rumors of he and Claudia Schiffer being engaged were still fresh, so needless to say, i spent the entire movie watching him. Although there was nothing to see, it was more entertaining than the film.
      My own Raquel Welch encounter occured many years later when she took an aerobics class I taught in Santa Monica a few times. It was during her short-haired, yoga video phase, and I couldn't take my eyes off her. The entire class was gauged to what she could or could not do. She was very sweet and we spoke each time she attended, but I regret that I never asked her about "Myra Breckinridge."
      Thanks again for sharing your first-run theatrical experience of a classic film.

  5. Hi Ken! I was just thinking about 'Smile' and came across your review... I love this review! You describe the strengths and wonders of 'Smile' as I, too, see them. It is such a great film –– and it's far too under-appreciated. I truly enjoyed it, and loved Bruce Dern in it. “Pessimism is not always deep and optimism is not always dumb.” Love the quote! :)

    1. Hello, Klara
      I am glad you like this review and happy to hear from a fan of "Smile"! It may not be particularly well known, but amongst those who have seen it, it is a terrific film with one of Bruce Dern's best performances. Ad yes, isn't that a terrific quote? I appreciate your visiting my blog and your kind comments. Thanks!

  6. "Smile" was on TV this morning! I love this film and haven't thought about it in years. I first saw it when it must have been broadcast on TV for the first time sometime in the late '70s. It is mentioned in a book I read once called (I think) "Forgotten Films of the '70s". A small thing, but for some reason the ending (the policeman in his patrol car) has always stayed with me. That, and the flaming batons! Maybe that is the mark of a great movie: images stay with you.

    1. Ha! I love those broadcast networks (In this case, I think it was THIS TV) have begun mining the wealth of films that have been shunted aside by cable movie networks. "Smile" is a favorite, of course, and it is indeed fascinating what movie images stay with us over the years. I'm sue they must have digitally blurred the nudity, but that finale with the patrolman having the confiscated photo of one of the contestants in the dressing room clipped to his visor is a memorable sign-out for a film that I hope continues to find new audiences. And yes, those flaming batons! Thank you for stopping by the blog!

  7. One of the best American film's of the 70s, this somewhat neglected minor classic is satire that manages to be funny without any meanness. Each character is given their due and the casting and acting is pitch perfect.

  8. Hi Ken-
    Your writing on this sadly little-known film is spot on. I'd never heard of it before someone I was dating introduced me to it in the mid 2000s, and it's been love ever since. It deserves much more awareness than it gets, but then again I think the general populous just wouldn't fully appreciate it. They like their humor much more obvious (and now, ironic).
    You hit on all of the same things my ex and I gravitated to; every moment with Maria O'Brien (she steals this film, hands down), the "Delta Dawn" contestant. 'Relaxed' is the perfect adjective for Annette O'Toole's acting style. She's never not engaging in an utterly unforced way; funnily enough I just saw her in the Robbie Benson basketball film "One On One" from a couple years later. And as a Willy Wonka fan I am completely embarrassed I never put together that the girl attempting that hilarious seasons medley is Violet. She's another gem in a perfect cast. The only part of the film that I feel bogs it down a bit is the chicken sequence, but I see it being an important part of Dern's awakening. (Plus it's another obvious ripe target.)

    1. Hey Pete
      Isn't it a curious things which films and filmmakers are continually fussed over, while others either fade away or await their "discovery" by a Scorsese or Tarantino to validate its worth?
      Frank Perry of LAST SUMMER and DIARY OF A MAD HOUSEWIFE seems to be enjoying such a burst of late-in-coming notoriety thanks to THE CRITERION CHANNEL, but SMILE's Michael Ritchie, so much a New Hollywood darling at the time, seems to be one whose rediscovery is still in the wings.
      I'm pleased to read that its a favorite of yours, and that so many of the reasons for it intersect with mine. It's a marvelous character piece that only loses its footing occasionally (I agree with you that the whole men's club ritual sequence has perhaps narrative relevance, fits as a small-town skewering target, but definitely bogs the film down).
      And thanks again for reminding about the Chitty Chitty Bang Bang reference for my other post. The scenes with Michael Kidd (so amusingly grouchy) are gems.
      Appreciate your reading this and commenting, Pete!