Playing Wed Feb 1 at 6:00* at Film Society of Lincoln Center [Program & Tix]
*Director Jonathan Demme and star Paul Le Mat in-person
The regularly recurring “50 Years of the New York Film Festival” revives some semi-forgotten screwball gems of Demme’s early career. Be sure to read below the jump, many respected critics adored these films.
Demme was named best director by the New York Film Critics for Melvin and Howard; the film itself was chosen best picture by the National Society of Film Critics. Bo Goldman and Mary Steenburgen won Oscars.Vincent Canby announced upon the film’s initial festival premiere:
It would be difficult to a imagine a better way to begin the 18th New York Film Festival than with the showing tonight of Jonathan Demme’s sharp, engaging, very funny, anxious comedy, “Melvin and Howard,” a satiric expression of the American Dream in the closing years of the 20th century, as old debts are being called in and life has become a series of repossessions.
Mr. Demme has now made five films, but on the basis of just two of them, “Handle With Care” (sometimes called “Citizen’s Band”) and “Melvin and Howard,” he is clearly a social satirist in the tradition of Preston Sturges. He’s a film maker with a fondness for the absurdities of our existence and for people who have no idea that they’re ”little” or teetering on the edge of disaster. Or, as Melvin Dummar says with impatience when his wife points out they are poor, ”We’re not poor! Broke, maybe, but not poor!”
As he did for “Handle With Care,” Mr. Demme has assembled a cast of first-rate character actors. Mr. Demme is a lyrical film maker for whom there is purpose in style… [this is] commercial American movie-making of a most expansive, entertaining kind.
Pauline Kael loved both films. On Handle With Care in 5001 Nights at the Movies:
A high-spirited, elegantly deadpan comedy, with a mellow, light touch. Paul Brickman, who wrote the screenplay, had an idea worthy of Preston Sturges: that the psychology of those who operate CB radio units might be like the psychology of crank phone callers and breathers and obscene phone callers, too – that as disembodied voices with identities borrowed from pop fantasies, and signal names to confirm their new self-image, people could live another life on the public airwaves. In the film, the CB users are secret celebrities, eloquent on the air, or, more often, aimlessly loquacious. But they dry up when they actually meet. Cb functions as an authorized madness; it allows the characters to release their inhibitions while keeping one foot on the ground. The story is about the people in a Southwestern town and the collisions of their free-floating ids. Paul Le Mat is the hero – a small-town Boy Scout who never grew up. Marcia Rodd is a trucker’s hard-bitten wife, and Ann Wedgeworth is a trucker’s softheaded wife; these two become a tearstained running gag when it turns out that they’re both married to the same trucker. Jonathan Demme directed, in a soft, subdued style – the film is lyrical and wiggy at the same time. It has the consistent vision of a classic comedy; it undercuts the characters’ illusion without a breath of ill will.
Kael on Melvin and Howard, in The New Yorker:
Jean Renoir instinctively understood what he had in common with characters very different from himself, and when his people are at their most ludicrous – when they are self-pitying or infuriatingly contentious – he puts us inside their skins, we’re laughing at ourselves. The young American director Jonathan Demme has some of this same gift, and his lyrical comedy is an almost flawless act of sympathetic imagination. Demme and the writer Bo Goldman have entered into the soul of American blue-collar suckerdom and brought us close enough to see that the people on the screen are us. Demme and Goldman have taken for their hero a chucklehead who is hooked on TV game shows and for their heroine his wife, who when she’s off on her own and needs to work turns go-go dancer. And they have made us understand how it was when something big – something legendary – touched their lives, nobody could believe it.
This picture has the same beautiful dippy warmth of its characters; it’s what might have happened if Jean Renoir had directed a comedy script by Preston Sturges. Le Mat’s Melvin, who barely opens his mouth when he talks, opens it wide when he sings. His proudest moment is probably the hit he makes at the fairy’s Christmas party when he grins confident as he sings a ballad about the gripes of a milkman. Le Mat’s Melvin often has a childlike look of bewilderment that he seems to be covering up by his beaming optimism.
Carlos Clarens for Film Comment (a great interview with Demme follows):
Jonathan Demme, not to be confused with Jacques Demy, shares nonetheless two of the most winsome qualities of his Gallic near-namesake: a penchant for fluid, elaborate camera movements which often ensnare some runaway character back to the relaxed narrative, and a fair-play conviction that each of these tangential characters is worth a movie all to him/herself. It is this obsessional concern with character rather than plot that allows Demme (and the viewer) to string along with some rootless people through their minor crises in tacky motels, trailer camps and crossroad towns in backwater America. Demme is the quirkiest graduate from the Corman College of Quick and Punchy Movies. In 1977, Citizens Band broke new ground in the subgenre by omitting entirely the ugly violence that usually attends redneck dramaturgy and discovering instead a humor and sensibility as foreign to citified viewers as those exhibited in a Eric Rohmer talk-fest, and just as welcome.
Best of all, Demme’s people are capable of improbably offbeat arrangements with life and each other. In Citizens Band, the two wives of a bigamist trucker (who also keeps a mobile mistress on the side) realize their touchy situation as they board the same bus. “Does this mean we’re related?”, wonders Wife One (Marcia Rodd) to Wife Two (Ann Wedgeworth) having just discovered they share the same husband. There is a feeling here for bonds of affection unfettered by legalities, and for people willing to make absurd concessions not to lose each other – Demme’s most personal theme, one surmises.
The twin-story structure is even better articulated in Melvin and Howard, which is the richest slice of Americana since small towns became redneck hell-holes in the Sixties.
The NYFF program notes announced of Handle With Care (which is also known as Citizen’s Band), “Writer Paul Brickman has created a townful of likable middle-American eccentrics out of Preston Sturges, and director Jonathan Demme has brought them to life with an assured vitality worthy of Frank Capra.”
Dave Kehr, for the Chicago Reader:
The film’s original title, Citizen’s Band, evokes its origins as an exploitation film designed to cash in on the short-lived CB craze, but, as Jonathan Demme (Melvin and Howard) directed and Paul Brickman (Risky Business) wrote it, the picture was too good for its own good: audiences weren’t expecting humor of this degree of piquancy and charm, and it was a failure. The action takes place in a tiny southwestern town, where the residents—among them Paul Le Mat, Candy Clark, Roberts Blossom, and Marcia Rodd—use their adopted radio personas as a means of escape from the dingy identities life has imposed on them. Demme is satirical but never cruel, and sweet but never syrupy: this film marked the emergence of one of the most appealing directorial personalities of the New Hollywood.
Keith Uhlich on Handle With Care, “in every way the equal of The Rules of the Game,” for Senses of Cinema:
Demme’s first masterpiece, Citizen’s Band (1977), takes Marshall McLuhan’s concept of the global village and applies it to the CB-radio obsessed residents of a small American town. This microcosmic hothouse of differing political and sexual ideologies threatens to explode in technology-assisted violence, such is the profound sense of isolation that Demme brings to the film’s early scenes. But technology here is finally a means of bringing people together, not tearing them apart. The ensemble cast (which includes Paul LeMat, Candy Clark, Charles Napier and Roberts Blossom) and the freewheeling mise en scène suggest Altman, but that great director’s caustic, Buñuelian wit is nowhere evident, replaced instead by an optimism akin to Renoir. Indeed, Citizen’s Band is in every way the equal of The Rules of the Game (1939), both films obsessed with class and generational conflicts that come to a destructive head. But where Renoir ends his story with a literal death, Demme concludes Citizen’s Band with a more figurative obliteration. Assisted by their CB obsession, the township converges along a sun-drenched stretch of seemingly endless highway. Both men and their machines are backlit into silhouetted anonymity, and the very palpable sense of jubilation, rendered so simply and effortlessly by Demme and his collaborators, effectively breaks down the characters’ – and, by extension, the viewers’ – oppressive and hateful prejudices. This death of self-imposed human limitations is an apocalypse of a different sort, equalising people, technology and emotion through filmic spirit, an eternal heaven/hell battle resolved at 24 frames per second against a blood-red sunrise/sunset.
Michael Sragow talks to Demme for American Film:
Did you exert a strong influence on Paul Brickman’s screenplay for Citizens Band?
The producer, Freddie Fields, asked me to direct the screenplay; I supervised the rewrite and Paramount agreed to make it. Paul Brickman had an etched-in-concrete idea about what the movie should be like. Apparently, that was very different from how the movie turned out. He disliked it very much; even when the picture won a certain amount of notoriety, he never went, “Oh, great.” He’s a very good writer; we just had a lousy relationship.
On our second day of shooting, on location, one of the actors told me that Paul came up to him after a scene and said, “Did you read those lines the way you did because that’s the way you wanted to do it or because that’s the way Jonathan told you to do it – because that’s not at all the way I saw it.” The moment I heard that I walked over to the production manager and said, “If you want me working tomorrow, that dude’s got to be out of town.” And he was on the six o’clock flight that night. The hilarious thing is, the theme of the movie was communication.
When you are presented with a script like Citizens Band, which has a strong original conception, how does it become your movie?
I consider myself an interpretative director. If I get turned on by a script, it’s my job to make the viewers of the movie feel the way I felt as a reader of the script. If there is a scene in the screenplay that I don’t feel I can make work, I’ll tell the writer. He’ll either say, “OK, we can loose it,” or he will explain why the scene is important, so that I’ll understand the value of it and be able to direct it well. It’s always a dialogue.
You once said, “Melvin and Howard dropped into my hands out of heaven.”
One of my favorite little ironies is that before Thom Mount at Universal put me on the movie, I was already meeting with him about some other project, and when I asked him how he was, he said, “I am great! I read perhaps the finest screenplay I’ve ever read in my life this morning. It’s called Melvin and Howard.” Mike Nichols had prepared the script with Bo Goldman; I signed on to the movie only after Nichols left. I give the Goldman-Nichols collaboration a lot of credit.
Bo Goldman told me that at your first meeting he said he wanted his affection for the people to come through, and you said, “Not affection — but respect.”
That may be more of my Corman influence; Roger always wanted both. I thought it would be easy for audiences to like the characters in Bo’s script, but the tricky part would be to make an audience identify with them and not look down on them. We had to understand the characters’ motivations. I told Bo that Melvin’s first wife had to come right out and say, “We’re poor, Melvin.” We had to get across what an influence that can have on a person’s life.
Goldman also said that he was much more nervous than you were about the lack of any obvious story.
Whether he intended it or not, when Bo wrote Melvin and Howard he went on an amazingly poetic flight of imagination. To open a movie with an eighteen-page dialogue scene, two people riding along in a truck at night? Outrageous idea! It breaks every rule known to man, and yet the emotion he poured into that scene makes it wonderful. What’s incredible is that Mary Steenburgen got it right away and that Jason Robards got it, too. Paul Le Mat got it, but he had reservations. It turned out that Paul thought Melvin was a terrific character, but a bit of an asshole. And Bo had some stuff in the script that Paul felt he couldn’t do, because he thought it was too foolish, such as sniffing his wife’s panties when she was gone or carrying his clothes bag on his back when he entered the strip joint she was working. It was an effort to get him to do any of that kind of stuff, but I thought it was funny and touching.
Joshua Rothkopf lists Melvin and Howard as one of the best Las Vegas movies, and possibly one of the best of the 80s, for Time Out New York:
He is Las Vegas’s spookiest ex-resident: Howard Hughes. And to think that one night in the breezy desert, the aging billionaire (Jason Robards) was rescued by a simpleminded Good Samaritan (Paul Le Mat) who noticed his exhausted body sprawled on the highway. After a strange midnight conversation, they’re back at the Sands, Hughes in quiet gratitude. Such is the mythical setup of Bo Goldman’s touching original script, transformed by director Jonathan Demme into what still may be his finest, kookiest picture, arguably 1980’s best.
Geoff Andrew for Time Out (London):
A beautifully observed, beautifully performed offbeat comedy. The story is slim: milkman Melvin Dummar (Le Mat) picks up a grouchy old hobo in the Nevada desert one night, lends him a quarter while disbelieving his claim to be Howard Hughes, and then returns to a mundane life of work, divorce, remarriage, and failed songwriting attempts, until eight years later he appears to have been left a fortune by the dead tycoon. But this remarkable (factually based) plot is merely a hook on which to hang an unglamorous account of American working class life. Melvin and his wives’ experiences are double-edged examples of the allure and failure of the American dream of success, fame and wealth, although Bo Goldman’s script and Demme’s understated direction never become overly serious or ‘significant’. And the film’s delightful humour derives – unusually in these days of brainless Animal House spoofs and one-liners – from the characters, who are affectionately observed but never patronised.
A.O. Scott selects the latter film as a Critic’s Pick in his video essay for The New York Times:
Kehr again, in When Movies Mattered (re-printed in the Museum of the Moving Image program notes):
Tell someone that a movie is about America, and—if he has any sense—he‘ll head for the exit. But I don‘t know how else to condense the subject of Jonathan Demme‘s funny, stirring Melvin and Howard. The movie does so many things well, covers so much ground with such apparent ease, that it wriggles out of the usual categories—you have to reach for the big, transcendent ones. And yet, it isn‘t a big, sprawling film: it‘s short (a little over an hour and a half), and it restricts its focus to a handful of characters, digging in for small, precise observations. In its ideas and emotions, it‘s the largest American movie in a long time, but it‘s a modest, comfortable film, a movie that‘s a pleasure to spend time with. It leaves you like a good conversation with a friend. You’ve learned something, you‘re lifted up—but the conversation stays casual, unforced.
I first saw Melvin and Howard nearly a year ago. What surprised me, seeing it again last week, was the film‘s concision: scenes that had expanded to epic length in my memory turned out to last only a few shots, a few lines. Demme has an amazing gift for actor‘s detail—the raised eyebrow, the downward glance that reveals a whole range of attitudes and emotions—and his screenwriter, Bo Goldman, has a similar gift for loading dialogue: his lines, simple and stripped, have an unforced density of expression, a poetry that never strikes our ears as “poetic.” (There is Melvin‘s resigned observation that “Rome wasn‘t burned in a day,” and in that unconscious demolishing of cliché, we see a life attuned to disaster, measured by it.) My mental Melvin and Howard is about 12 hours long: it would have to be, to get in all of that emotional texture, fullness of character, shape of experience. But the meeting with Hughes is finished in a few minutes; without effusion, we‘ve seen the affection grow between the two men, and we can believe that Hughes would leave Melvin $156 million: Melvin has already given him something—an emotional connection that‘s more than charity, better than sympathy—in return; he‘s treated him like an equal.
Roger Ebert loves Le Mat’s performance:
The genius of “Melvin and Howard” is that it is about Melvin, not Howard. The film begins and ends with scenes involving the Hughes character, who is played by Jason Robards as a desert rat with fading memories of happiness. Dummar stops in the desert to answer a call of nature, finds Hughes lying in the sagebrush, gives him a ride in his pickup truck and gets him to sing. For reasons of his own, Hughes sings “Bye, Bye Blackbird”: Got no one to love and understand me… oh, what hard-luck stories they all hand me.
Robards is a chillingly effective Hughes. But this movie belongs to Paul Le Mat, as Dummar. Le Mat is the actor who played the round-faced hot-rodder in “American Graffiti,” and Dummar is the kind of guy that character might have grown up to be. He is pleasant, genial, simple of speech but crafty of mind, and always looking for an angle. He angles for Milkman of the Month, he plots to get his wife on a TV game show, he writes songs like “Santa’s Souped-Up Sleigh,” he plays the slots at Vegas and goes through his life asking only for a few small scores.
This is a slice of American life. It shows the flip side of Gary Gilmore’s Utah. It is a world of mobile homes, Pop Tarts, dust, kids and dreams of glory. It’s pretty clear how this movie got made. Hollywood started with the notion that the story of the mysterious Hughes will might make a good courtroom thriller. Dummar is the kind of guy who thinks they oughta make a movie out of his life. This time, he was right.