Having seen this movie one time in 1984, I was surprised at how much of it came back to me as I was watching it. The unpleasant dynamics of the married couple unraveling and the mental cruelty to their own child was instantly recalled and regretted. When I first saw this, I did not have kids and now my kids are adults so you would think I could laugh off the comic elements a little bit more easily, I can’t. This is a movie that sets up a romance and develops it nicely and then shows how selfishness and Hollywood success can turn something sour very quickly. It is not subtle or shy about it’s point of view but it also does little to make us anything but angry at the shallowness of two characters that we might have cared for more in another movie.
This film was apparently based on the story of director Peter Bogdanovich. It is pretty easy to see the roots in this supposed expose of Hollywood. A young couple who work together to make a movie that is a critical and financial success are torn apart by the husbands affair with the beautiful actress that he discovers and featured in the film. After divorcing, he makes an indulgent musical which flops, the girl leaves him and his career is mostly dead. Now substitute “Americam Romance” for “The Last Picture Show”, replace Cybil Shepard with Sharon Stone, and make the musical a remake of “Gone with the Wind” named “Atlanta” instead of a Cole Porter based film named “At Long Last Love” and you have the basis for the story.
The backbone of the story is the attempt by the young daughter of the couple, to divorce herself from them. Two years after “E.T.”, young Drew Barrymore is featured in the part of a little girl who is mentally abused by her narcissistic parents. Mom and Dad are played by Shelley Long and Ryan O’Neal. That’s right, the Ryan O’Neal who starred in “What’s Up Doc?”, “Paper Moon” and “Nickelodeon” for Bogdonovich, gets to play the director’s alter ego on screen. He is actually pretty good in the film, which surprises me a little since he is such a non-entity in some other notable roles. The movie is told as a series of stories from the litigants in the celebrity divorce by a child of her parents. On the stand, each one tells part of the story and then we watch as it plays out.
The opening section of the film tells the story of how Albert and Lucy met, when she reluctantly picks him up as he is hitch hiking to a new job across the country in California. He is a film teacher who loves movies and knows them intimately. She is on her way to meet her fiance, a Navel officer that she seems to be convincing herself she is in love with. The chemistry between the two strangers is one of the best things about this film. Even though in real time it happens quickly, you can accept their romance. Shelley Long was two years into her stint as Diane Chambers on the TV show “Cheers” and seemed on the cusp of stardom. Her take on the brittle Lucy is not too different than what she did on the TV show. She is attractive in a cute sort of way and very neurotic. That worked early in the story as she and Albert are building their life and getting into the film business sort of by accident. The problem is that once the marital problems begin, she becomes whiny, shrill and completely unsympathetic. She should be a victim in the story but the way she takes out her unhappiness on her daughter Casey is nearly pathological. The shift in her personality seems too great for us to stay in her corner. I suppose that is part of the point, but when the end of the movie shows us the more positive image that the little girl wants, it is hard to believe.
What was easy to believe was how she is just as corrupted by her later success as her cheating ex-husband was by his. This is probably the first wives dream revenge, to buy the exes house and furnish it with the trophies of your own success while wiping out any sign that he existed in the first place. Kids who have gone through an acrimonious divorce will probably recognize the ways in which the two parents play the child off in the power struggle that follows. Lucy is a caricature of the thoughtless Mom, so absorbed in her success that she does not notice when her daughter is out of the house with the maid’s family. When her book goes to number one on the best-seller list, the only people she has to share her success with are her employees.
Sharon Stone was the object of lust in this movie and she plays vacuous in the early scenes and striving in later moments. Her role as “Amanda” in the musical version of “Gone with the Wind” is one of those moments that could have made her career start singing. Instead it took another decade for her to break out into stardom. Her part here is even more thankless because we never had any reason to care about her in the first place. Her discomfort with little Casey becomes an issue that should have sent warning signs to the smitten director, but as he is a selfish a-hole, he would not notice those alerts. The idea of bringing home a strange woman, to live in your house and groom to star in a movie sounds preposterous to normal people, but maybe it fits with the weird world of Hollywood, because I’ve actually seen stuff like this.
In the third act of the story, everything comes to a boil as it should but it is so heavy handed that it is sad, and without the Lubitch touch that Albert’s character so charmingly described in the opening section of the film. The tug of war that you see in this picture is not over the best interests of the child but the status of the two losers who hope to gain some leverage with their ex. By the time this moment arrives, we have had some nasty pieces of conversation. There is a scene in the sad motel/apartment that Albert ends up in that reeks of tragedy. Casey has become an eight year old adult. She fixes the meal for her father who is supposed to be caring for her on his weekend. She reads a novel that is clearly not something an eight year old should be enjoying, and she is blase about the whole situation. It is unfortunately too real for this supposed comedy. It is a bitter pill that everyone needs to swallow and it made me hate the two parents even more. The problem is that if I feel that way about them, I won’t have any sympathy for them when a resolution comes that is supposed to be a little hopeful. For a film billed as a comedy, it is unfortunate that we have to have at it’s center the brutalization of a child.
I enjoyed the lampooning of the Hollywood dream. The scene on the set of “Atlanta” was the most amusing thing in the center of the story. I wanted the characters to suffer a little more when it comes to the daughter. I thought that the two turned their backs on the audience as well as the little girl. The hateful way that Lucy is shown after the divorce, by lampooning her weight and looking at other average women was a poke in the eye to a lot of the audience that might have otherwise sided with her. Albert’s knowledge of movie history made him an appealing and valuable commodity in those days. Now he’d be easily replaced by IMDB. I’m conflicted about the movie because there were things that I liked, but the emotional spine of the tale depends on familial cruelty that was hard for me to take.
Extra: This is the first film for the project that I watched on VHS. There are copies of the film on Blu-ray but they were expensive. It was available in the Laser Disc Format, but I could get the movie on VHS for the same price without any shipping charge so I took a chance. It reminds me of why VHS is not the format of choice any longer. The picture quality is poor and the sound was low. Since I did not expect to watch this again for thirty more years, I did not want to spring for anything better. I dug out a VHS player and plugged it in for the first time in six years. It worked well enough to get me though this. I wish the local library had a DVD copy but no such luck.