Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Flashback, October 1979: Bo a Big-Office ‘10’

It might have been Oktoberfest in bars around the U.S., but, with her improbable cornrow hairdo and jog toward the camera in a revealing one-piece swimsuit, 22-year-old Bo Derek turned the nation’s box offices into a jigglefest in her first major film role, in the Warner Brothers release 10, premiering 35 years ago this week.

The film popularized the notion of a woman so hot that, on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 the highest, she rates the latter number. (Ironically, in the movie Derek’s character is considered so sexy that even this numbering system is deemed inadequate to summarize her charms, so she is accorded an 11.)

The tidal wave of publicity associated with that designation did more than make Ms. Derek the sex symbol of that moment. It also:

* catapulted the film to #1 at the U.S. box office its opening weekend, and among the top grossing movies of the year;

*it turned the favorite lovemaking accompaniment for Ms. Derek’s character, Jenny—Maurice Ravel’s Bolero—into one of the most requested bits of music on classical music stations, a distinction it contains to hold (see this prior post of mine on the piece's 1928 premiere);

*it transformed the short, hilarious Dudley Moore—who, the year before, had stolen Foul Play out from under Chevy Chase and Goldie Hawn—from a quirky supporting actor into an unorthodox leading man;

*it built name recognition, in a small but well-acted role, for character actor Brian Dennehy; and

*it allowed writer-director Blake Edwards, in the last dozen years of his film career, to project his own raging private anxieties onto a series of male protagonists who were in conflict with themselves.

Derek might be regarded as America’s answer to France’s Brigitte Bardot. Consider the following similarities:

*Both blondes were stamped indelibly as sex symbols for the rest of their lives at age 22 (in the case of Bardot, by the 1956 movie And God Created Woman).

'*Both were largely the creation of cinematic Svengalis better known for relations with three stunning women who became their wives or lovers than for their own, limited talent. The title of the memoir of director Roger Vadim spoke (unintended) volumes about his influence on world cinema: Bardot Deneuve Fonda. For similar reasons, John Derek, an actor whose last good film had been two decades before 10, might have styled the reminiscence he never got to write Andress Evans (Bo) Derek.

*Both women, after a relatively short filmography, retired and became animal-rights advocates.

*Both women dismayed the more liberal members of their nation’s cinema communities by backing right-wing causes. Within the last decade, Derek supported the candidacy of Republican George W. Bush. Bardot’s known foreign-policy views were a good deal more extreme, leading her to be fined 12,000 euros in 2007 for inciting racial hatred for complaining that Muslims were “destroying our country by imposing their ways."

(For the seismic effect that the French sex kitten--she should have trademarked the phrase!--had more than 20 years before 10 on young American males, I urge you to read novelist and occasional blogger Peter’s Quinn’s hilarious post, “Vive Brigitte Bardot!”)

All of this lay in the future, however. In the late Seventies, after scouting coffee shops, talent agencies, little theaters, model agencies, even a fashion show for the personification of feminine beauty for his next film, Edwards met Ms. Derek, at the urging of her husband. Edwards remembered: "Her first words, when she came in to read for us, were: 'I'm sorry about wasting your time.’...Meanwhile, [co-producer] 'Tony Adams' and I were crossing our fingers and praying: 'Let her be able to act—please let her be able to act!'"

Sorry, I must have missed something in that last sentence. The implication seems to be that Ms. Derek won out over a number of other candidates (reportedly including Christie Brinkley and Kim Basinger) because of her talent to emote. Now, from what I’ve heard, she seems to be a nice enough woman, and maybe even relatively intelligent. (I’ve always thought that Joan Rivers’ crack—“She’s so dumb that when she saw a sign saying, ‘Wet floor,' she did”—was cruel.) But, for all that she has shown onscreen (and that’s plenty), acting ability is not one of her assets.

Considering the irony that permeated so many of his films (notably, his Hollywood satire S*O*B), Edwards could have been putting on his interviewer. On the other hand, maybe he was simply displaying old-fashioned gallantry to a woman who, whatever her shortcomings, deserved a thousand times less opprobrium than the sexist pigs who ran the studios and who had been making Edwards’ life miserable.

In this case, Edwards turned out to be considerably shrewder about what would work at the box office and with critics than studio heads. On the one hand, he knew how to lure into theaters guys who would salivate endlessly at Ms. Derek (including a friend of mine—AND HE KNOWS WHO HE IS!!!!!).

On the other hand, just below the surface of a bedroom farce that the French could have enjoyed thoroughly, was a far more subdued, rueful comedy, shot through with melancholy, about a man in full-blown personal and professional midlife crisis. In his professional accomplishments—notably, several Oscars for his songs—Moore’s George Webber sounds superficially like the man who had contributed magnificently to so many Edwards films, Henry Mancini. 

But, in his increasing sense that time might be slipping away from him—a fog of depression so thick that even a psychiatrist is of little use—George is a seriocomic version of Edwards himself. (The final three films in the Pink Panther series had given Edwards what Hollywood worships above all else—the golden touch—but had also given him major agita in the form of star Peter Sellers, who wore the director out with constant arguments and all-around derangement.) Edwards is the only writer-director I’ve ever heard who listed his psychiatrist as a co-screenwriter on a film (That’s Life!, in 1986).

Few if any reviewers remarked on this autobiographical element at the time, the way they would that year with Bob Fosse (All That Jazz), Woody Allen (Manhattan), and David Steinberg (who, in the bomb Something Short of Paradise, not only parsed his own story, as a Jewish comedian obsessed with old films, but Allen’s similar persona, in Manhattan and Annie Hall). The fact that critics overlooked it had much to do with the felicitous casting of Moore, who came on board during shooting when George Segal left (reportedly because the latter thought the role of Julie Andrews, Edwards’ wife and frequent leading lady, was being built up at his expense). Now, Edwards was able to use an inspired farceur, as well as a piano player of considerable talent who, in an extended solo, made the fundamentally autumnal mood of this material unmistakably apparent to audiences.

As notoriously documented in Gay Talese’s Thy Neighbor’s Wife, the 1970s had transformed America into a Disneyworld writ large for sexual experimentation. But, like the theme park, it catered overwhelmingly to the young. 

The loneliness of those left on the fringes because of age is depicted repeatedly in 10—in George, who becomes a peeping tom, low-grade stalker, and adulterer in his foolhardy pursuit of Derek’s character, a bride named Jenny; George’s gay songwriting collaborator, bitterly aware that he won’t be able to hold onto his younger lover for much longer; and George’s level-headed, age-appropriate lover Samantha (played by Andrews), who fumes as she waits for her boyfriend to give up his oafish quest for a woman who can make him feel young again. The movie was, as Nathan Rabin noted as part of the series “Forgotbusters” for the Website “The Dissolve," “simultaneously a perfect sociological document of the era that created it, and strangely timeless in its obsessions.”

Edwards would go on to write and/or direct a series of highly personal films, over the next dozen years, about male characters deeply conflicted and insecure: The Man Who Loved Women (an adaptation of the Francois Truffaut film), That’s Life!, Skin Deep and Switch (a conflict worsened in the last of these by the fact that womanizing Jimmy Smits, murdered by ex-girlfriends, is reincarnated as a woman).

The barrel-chested, fortysomething Dennehy couldn’t be less like the voluptuous Derek. But I couldn’t write this post without mentioning the veteran character actor, who used his few minutes of screen time to make a notable impression as a sympathetic bartender. It was the first in a series of roles that incrementally raised his profile in the entertainment industry, to the point where he is now one of the giants of the American stage.

In 1989, Moore and Derek reunited to present the Oscar for Best Costume Design—an occasion, the award show’s writers not-so-subtly reminded the audience, that was 10 years after their hit. He seemed to recall playing opposite someone who looked like her, Moore said with a straight face: “How odd that the mind plays tricks. Would that the body could as well!”

In the end, Edwards’ film conveyed the wisdom that when it came to relations with women, male emotional health consisted in accepting the fact that it was better that the body not play the tricks once (seemingly) within reach, and that a dream girl might not necessarily provide the goal of life: love.

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