The Magic Garden Of Stanley Sweetheart

Director: Leonard Horn            
Don Johnson, Linda Gillin, Michael Greer

For the past few decades a number of film buffs and writers on films have discussed just why MGM - the undisputed king in the Golden Age of Hollywood - somehow managed to fall apart in about two decades or so. There have been a number of theories put forth over the years (check out the long but very entertaining 3-part MGM: When The Lion Roars documentary), many of which do have more than a likelihood of explaining Leo's near-death. A personal theory of mine, which may not be one of the main causes but possibly a significant contributing factor, centers around how MGM reacted to the changing American culture starting not long after the Second World War - or to be more precise, didn't react.

Looking at MGM's output from that point on, one can see that until not that long ago that MGM usually had a big reluctance to make movies that were more or less simply "fun" movies, or geared for the newly arrived youth market. Often if they made something "fun", it had some "cod liver oil" in it (It's good for you!), like Forbidden Planet, and such movies usually didn't do well. (At least when first released.) When they become desperate for money and started to make "fun" movies for a supposedly easy buck, the results were almost always embarrassing. For example, in their lowest period (circa 1980 to 1995), their efforts at slasher movies resulted in He Knows You're Alone and A Stranger Is Watching, and their attempt to exploit the martial arts craze included Forced Vengeance and Gymkata. (*)

Actually, MGM's embarrassments started much earlier than the Reagan years. When rival studios like American-International were having To his horror, Don Johnson finds himself in Travis Bickle's cabgreat success making movies for the youth in the baby boom era, MGM jumped in and made an ass of itself. Sure, they made Jailhouse Rock, but the subsequent Elvis movies made in the '60s were thoughtless efforts cranked out with a fattening yet fading star belting out forgettable songs like Song Of The Shrimp. A few years later down the road, when rival studios were capturing the youth with counterculture movies like Easy Rider, MGM jumped into the act, though their efforts were nowhere as successful. Not only did The Strawberry Statement and Zabriskie Point generally fail at their intentions, but time hasn't been very kind to them. However, they still remain watchable and have their interesting moments, which is more than you can say about The Magic Garden Of Stanley Sweetheart. An adaptation of the novel by Robert Westbrook (who also wrote the screenplay), it's the most obscure of the three. Despite containing Don Johnson's screen debut, it has never been released on video, and almost never gets any air time on cable. Watching it, it doesn't take long to figure out why; it's an absolute mess of half-baked ideas that's so pointless and unfocused, I think I can safely say that even the drug-influenced youth of its day must have let out a collective "Huh?" over it.

Unlike many counterculture films of the era, this one actually takes place in the eastern U.S., in New York City. Don Johnson plays the title character (no, not the "Magic Garden" - he plays Stanley Sweetheart) a youth in his early 20s who is attending college, making underground films on the side, though film does not appear to be his major. When outside of class and not cooped up in his apartment, he spends his time wandering around the city or dropping into clubs, though staying on the sidelines. One day he meets Barbara (Gillen). He goes up to her apartment and they have sex. Stanley wanders around some more. Then it's another day. He meets a prudish girl names Cathy (Dianne Hull) in his language class and they start dating. She won't have sex with him, though. Stanley goes for a walk. At a cafe, the actor who played the killer Santa Claus in Christmas Evil (a.k.a. You Better Watch Out) makes a gay pass towards him, and a frightened Stanley runs into the night. Stanley lounges in his apartment. He then meets Andrea (Victoria Racimo) and Danny (Greer). Hi, how are you? Fine. See you later. Wander, wander, wander.

Stanley is bored (big surprise), even when Cathy one day suddenly changes her tune There was a whole lot of free love in the '60s - in more than one wayand asks him for sex. They have sex. Stanley decides to make another film. Not long afterwards, he starts having an affair with Cathy's roommate. Not only is Stanley boring, he's a jerk. Stanley quits school for no apparent reason. He starts snorting coke, though he's so pathetic at this that he can't even have an interesting drug trip. He wakes up after his "wild" night, picks up his jacket, and leaves the premises. Not long afterwards, Cathy breaks up with him. Stanley starts to fall apart, though considering his life before all of this, there really is no difference. Then... well, you can see there's no real story happening here. But is there a point to all of this mishmash we have seen? Well, after watching to the very end, it seems that the moral of the story is that if you act like a jerk, start doing drugs, drop out of school and do other things to royally f*ck up your life, you'll end up living with and boinking two lesbians. Some moral, but hey... LESBIANS! Bet that woke you up as much as me seeing them on my TV screen, and they at least made the last few minutes of the movie actually tolerable to watch.

Lesbians aside, The Magic Garden Of Stanley Sweetheart is an utter bore of a movie. Though the description of the movie certainly sounds like it's the key culprit for the yawns that are generated, I would say the screenplay actually isn't the prime factor to point a finger at. What really sinks the movie is the character of Stanley Sweetheart. Sure, the movie may more or less be a hodgepodge of vignettes, but if Stanley had been given some kind of solid character, he might have actually made these vignettes interesting by actually giving some kind of honest reaction - likable or not - to them. Instead, things are often the other way around, where Stanley's personality seems dictated by whatever situation he is thrust into. Shoved into an isolated and lonely part of the city, he acts like a puppy that's been kicked around a lot. Dropped into a counterculture version of a rave party, he becomes a dancing coke-sniffing fiend. Handed a sweet girlfriend, at first he acts shy and a non-conformist. But then when she breaks up with him he becomes a swearing abusive lout. Stanley has virtually nothing of himself to make any kind of personality, one of the few things being that he likes to masturbate in the bathtub while reading letters from his mother.

Even without knowing that this was Don Johnson's first movie, it's fairly evident from his performance that he is still an amateur at the acting game. You'd be happy as well... being with two LESBIANS!!!!!!He often seems ill at ease in whatever situation he's in, though at least that puts some emotion in his amazingly bland and expressionless face. (That problem disappears when his character starts to grow a beard late in the movie, which may explain why Johnson has often appeared unshaven in his subsequent roles.) Johnson is okay when he plays his part as a loner (especially when he has little to no dialogue), but otherwise his performance usually has a note of uncertainty in it, as if he hadn't rehearsed long enough to gain any confidence. When not stumbling over his dialogue, he manages to be schizophrenic in his delivery, abruptly changing the tone of his character midway through scenes by changing the inflection of his dialogue.

Though Johnson's amateurism is a liability, most of the blame for his poor performance actually rests on the shoulders of director Leonard Horn. It was his responsibility to do retakes if Johnson stumbled, as well as to guide Johnson as to how to bring Stanley Sweetheart to life. But there's no evidence Horn was working with Johnson on this, as if he just let Johnson do whatever he felt was right. No wonder Johnson seems confused about how to act. For example, among the few things we learn about Stanley is that the "magic garden" in the title is the special place in his mind where he daydreams he has confidence, peace, etc. The scenes where we do get to see his daydreams are so short, that Johnson hardly get to do a thing. Not only that, it's sometimes hard to figure out if a particular scene is a daydream or not. It gets even worse; though the title of the movie suggests that Stanley's fantasy world plays a major role, it's actually only touched upon a few times in the first part of the movie, then it's completely dropped and never brought up again.

Horn's seeming refusal to insert any kind of constant thread, or even a relative coherence just further proves that he was not the right person to handle such an avant-garde project, whether it's bad editing that abruptly cuts to another scene before the previous one has had a reasonable conclusion, or with efforts to be cutting-edge or "hip" that come across as forced (repeated footage, montages with narration, etc.) These failed efforts come not only from his Whoa, look at all those colors... and LESBIANS!!!!directional technique, but in attempts to insert the elements commonly associated with movies of the time that pandered to the college crowd. The scenes of sex and full-frontal nudity (including Johnson) indeed must have been shocking at the time and seemingly an honest reflection of the lifestyle of many college youths of the time. But seen today after thirty years of progressively more permissive cinema, the shock value has been stripped away to reveal that all these scenes had were shock value; now these characters are just stepping naked in front of the camera not because that's how they are, but simply because they are able to. Though I can't say to be an expert of the era, just about everything that's more or less claimed to be a cultural element of the times rings false, even the soundtrack. While The Strawberry Statement and Zabriskie Point were flawed, they at least had great songs on their soundtracks that were indeed what the youth of the time were listening to. Though Stanley Sweetheart trots out Magic Mountain and So Happy Together, the rest of the soundtrack mostly consists of unknown songs that are either forgettable or downright laughable (Sample lyrics of psychedelic song: "Water! / Rushing down! / Think I'm gonna drown!")

As silly as the songs get, they do at least provide a lot of the one factor that prevents Stanley Sweetheart from being absolutely worthless, and that is humor - mostly of an unintentional kind, though. There is some genuine comic relief, such as when we see Stanley's film Head-Less, a hilarious and dead-on parody of typically pretentious student films. But most of the movie is played dead serious, and though Stanley and his drug-influenced buddies occasionally do or say something worth a smirk or or chuckle, they are otherwise really boring people that don't seem to have any future. After a while, you have to ask yourself just why you are watching something so downbeat as uninteresting characters who just don't seem to care about their futures or anything else. The funny thing I've kept noticing about counterculture movies is that even though they were aimed at the youth of the time, they constantly depicted youth in a a downbeat light. You have to wonder why anyone would turn into a hippie or tune in and drop out. Maybe that's why the youth of the time didn't want to listen to anyone over 30, so they wouldn't have to risk someone with a straight mind and experience telling them straight out how unrewarding their lifestyle was.

* To further illustrate MGM's desperateness during this period, I only need to point out that for several years they got the rights to distribute Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus' Cannon films. And to show that MGM still has some desperateness, a few years ago they got the rights to distribute the entire Cannon library!

Check for availability on Amazon.
Check for availability of the Robert Westbrook novel

See also: Breezy, Didn't You Hear, Your Three Minutes Are Up