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Smile
(1975)

Director: Michael Ritchie
Cast:
Bruce Dern, Barbara Feldon, Michael Kidd


In just about every aspect of my life, I don't like to compete. Take this web site, for example. While there are a billion movie review web sites out there on the Internet, I don't follow many others by devoting myself completely to new theatrical releases or B movies. Instead, I devote myself to unknown movies, movies that for the most part are not covered by other movie review web sites. I certainly don't like to compete directly with others. In fact, I am kind of puzzled why so many people in so many different ways compete with each other. In past reviews, I have spent time coming up with possible theories as to why people compete with each other in various competitions. To me, an easier thing to think about is a related question - why do so many of us like to watch people competing with each other? Pause right now for a few moments and try to think of some possible answers to that question. No doubt you probably share my theories to that question. One of the most obvious answers is that we in the audience get to compete in whatever competition we view in a way that is safe and comfortable. We are sitting in a place where we can see the action and not have to spend any blood or sweat in our position. Another reason is that we can put our hopes on a specific player in the competition that we are watching. If he or she happens to win the competition, then we can feel as good as the person who actually won the competition. But if the person we put hopes on loses, that's okay - we can keep it a secret, and we don't get anywhere as hurt as the person we were viewing. Unless, of course, we bet a large amount of money on the person who lost the competition we were viewing.

Thinking about it some more, there are other answers to the question, such as the fact that watching people compete can be exciting and subsequently provide a great deal of entertainment. Those and other answers to the question do provide an answer to me for the most part as to why various competitions are a lot of fun to watch. But there is one kind of competition that for the life of me I wonder why provides so many audiences with entertainment, and that kind of competition is a beauty pageant. Oh, part of me does see some attributes to beauty pageants that may explain the appeal. Of course, the prospect of seeing beautiful women one after the other be displayed could attract horny men. Certainly, I admit that I like to see beautiful women in front of me. But physical beauty only goes so far with me. I like to see a woman who also has some kind of strong personality and some genuine talents. Beautiful kickbutt and take-charge women such as Cynthia Rothrock (sigh) and Michelle Yeoh (mmmm) are females that catch my eye, though sadly they are just a dream for me. But let's get back to the topic I was discussing. To me, whenever I have seen a beauty pageant on TV, it always seems degrading to me. A good deal of the judgement on who wins seems to depend on physical beauty, something many of us were not blessed with. Sure, I know that beauty pageants judge contestants on other things, such as talent and intelligence. But to me, it still seems an unfair way to judge a group of women. To further prove my point, think of the fact that they don't seem to have any beauty pageants for men, unless you count musclemen contests. I think that many men would object to being judged as slabs of meat, so I wonder why they think it's okay for women to be judged this way.

By now you have probably guessed what the movie Smile is all about, and why on earth I would choose to watch it after all of what I said. Several reasons, to be exact. The first being that it is still a relatively unknown movie after more than forty years, despite receiving a lot of Smilecritical acclaim from top critics at the time of its release and years later. ("One of the unsung films of the 1970s," said one top critic.) The second reason was that it was written by Jerry Belson, who wrote hilarious movies like Evil Roy Slade, The End, and Surrender. The third reason was that it was directed by famed director Michael Ritchie, who in his career directed some sharp comedies like The Bad News Bears and Fletch. The events of the movie take place in the northern California city of Santa Rosa. Every year, the city hosts The Young American Miss Pageant, a beauty pageant for young women. It's now pageant time again, and there are various characters interwoven in the festivities. There is the pageant's chief judge, one Big Bob Freelander (Dern, The Cowboys) who not only has the pressures coming from the pageant, but from his misbehaving teenage son Little Bob (Eric Shea, The Poseidon Adventure). And Big Bob's best friend Andy (Nicholas Pryor, The Gumball Rally), who is married to the pageant's organizer Brenda (Feldon, Get Smart), has become depressed and turned to drink in part by his wife's indifference to him because of devotion to the pageant. And there are the contestants themselves, including Doria (Annette O'Toole, Cat People), Robin (Joan Prather, Eight Is Enough), Karen (Melanie Griffith, Cherry 2000), Connie (Colleen Camp, Foxforce) and the pageant's sole non-Caucasian contestant Maria (Maria O'Brien, Prime Time), all determined to be crowned queen of the pageant while struggling with each other as well as with their own secret weaknesses.

While director Michael Ritchie did direct some sharp comedies in his career, a full look at his career shows that he was a very inconsistent director, both with comedies and other genres. (I reviewed one of his failures, the disappointing musical The Fantasticks, in the past.) When it came to comedies, he always struck gold when he had a strong script that saw the funny side of serious themes and situations, but simultaneously in a honest and realistic viewpoint. (For example, the politically themed The Candidate.) Given another strong script with Smile, Ritchie manages to direct another comedy that hits the bull's-eye. Ritchie approaches and films the material in an interesting manner. He gives the movie as a whole a documentary-like feeling. What makes this choice especially interesting is that he doesn't for the most part go the way many other directors have gone to give their movies this same feeling - there are precious few shots that are accomplished by hand-held cameras, for one thing. Instead, Ritchie steps back, very seldom giving us a close-up shot of an actor's face. We more often than not get a "wide" view of the action, but at the same time it's often photographed at angles that are not straight on, sometimes cutting us off from seeing everything that's happening in the vicinity. Ritchie also carefully controls the lighting of scenes. Indoor scenes are often not blazing bright, and often have some darkness around the edges. But this is realistic; just look around you where you are sitting now, and you'll see that not every corner in your room has the same level of brightness everywhere. With these techniques, more often than not we in the audience will be feeling like we are spying in on whatever is going on, looking in at the action at whatever cockeyed angle we flies may be sticking to on the wall.

There is another technique that Ritchie uses to make us almost believe we are seeing real people instead of actors. He obviously didn't give that much instruction to the actors as to how to move around, except maybe for them to do what feels natural. Their body language does feel casual yet believable. But that does not mean Ritchie was leaving everything up to his cast; it's clear he gave them enough guidance because all of the performances are uniformly great. It's hard to say which of the cast gives the best performance but I must confess I had a soft spot for both Adam Reed (who is a dead ringer for Napoleon Dynamite) as Little Bob's friend Freddy, and Michael Kidd as Mr. French, the pageant's choreographer. Both have streaks in their characters that at first might seem unappealing; Freddy is a horny teenager, and Mr. French pushes the contestants very hard during their rehearsals. But Belson's screenplay finds the funny side of these oddballs. Freddy is so obsessed with his friend planning to secretly photograph the contestants in their changing room that his one-track mind becomes hilarious. And Mr. French has a one track mind himself, only his being to get the girls to dance exactly right, and his rigid demands are just as funny. In fact, all of the characters in the movie are seemingly obsessed with one or more things, and the results of their obsessions lead to many of the movie's laughs. Curiously, however, while we laugh at the characters for their obsessions, at the same time the movie generally doesn't mock them so much that we don't like them. For the most part, we get to see another side of them sometime in the movie that gives them some humanity. Mr. French, for example, may be seen as a strict and demanding choreographer, but later in the movie he gives up twenty-five percent of his salary so that the girls are able to keep the ramp against the stage that the dance routine they had been rehearsing had been using.

Curiously, however, there are some characters in Smile that don't get enough time to make them as fully fleshed-out (and hilarious) as the rest of the movie's characters. And those characters are the pageant contestants themselves. Now, I know that with twenty plus contestants, the movie couldn't possibly focus on all of them. But with the exception of Mexican-American contestant Maria, none of the contestants gets enough time to make them more than a silent participant. It's kind of odd that a pageant movie would do so little concerning fleshing out the contestants themselves. Still, the women playing the contestants are game, and when they are given a line or two of choice dialogue, they do manage to deliver it in a comedic manner fitting the jovial nature of the surrounding material. And the women are not portrayed as being totally idiotic as pageant contestants found in other movies. Whatever they feel their "talents" may be, like the one young woman who shows her audience the right way to pack a suitcase, they all know what they are in is one big game. At one point, one contestant reasons that since boys get rewarded for touchdowns in football, why shouldn't women get rewarded for being cute and charming? Clearly, there is a cynical viewpoint of the American tradition of pageants such as the one depicted in Smile, one that is summed up when one character comments, "It's mean to see one person be mean to another." Indeed it is. If you've ever competed with others in anything in your life, you know that already. But Smile delivers that message with much effective humor. The humor is there to not only sugar-coat the message, but to make us laugh enough to heal from the wounds we have been inflicted from our own personal experiences with competition.

(Posted December 26, 2017)

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See also: Cold Turkey, The Gong Show Movie, The Fantasticks

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