Smile (1975)

D: Michael Ritchie
S: Bruce Dern, Barbara Feldon

Savage black comedy laced with bitter irony and a brutally unforgiving attitude towards the emptiness and hypocrisy of middle class American/Californian society written by Jerry Belson and produced and directed by Michael Ritchie (The Candidate). The story concerns the staging of a beauty contest for teenage girls and the various complications which arise as the local luminaries find themselves under strain and the competition hots up among the girls. Bruce Dern is the relentlessly upbeat car salesman who chairs the judging panel. Barbara Feldon is the former winner who deals directly with the girls but is unable to deal with her own increasingly disillusioned and frustrated husband, Nicholas Pryor. Geoffrey Lewis plays the sponsors' representative whose concern for bottom line culminates with an hilarious moment where, following the injury of one of the girls during rehearsal he asks her, "Can I get you anything; a doctor, a Pepsi?" Michael Kidd is a bitter choreographer who notes at one point "I've taken a nice bunch of high school kids and turned them into Vegas showgirls."

The film begins with one contestant triumphing in her local qualifying round with an inane talent routine where she illustrates how to pack a suitcase. The judges mutter to one another in the dark about what constitutes real talent, concluding with the observation that ultimately it all boils down to sex. Given that our first shot of the girl has been a close up of her cleavage as she bends over her suitcase, it is therefore no surprise that she wins and moves on to the finals, where the bulk of the action takes place. The film is never shy about reinforcing the fact that despite the overlay of cheerful wholesomeness demonstrated by both the organisers and the contestants, the base concept of selling oneself and one's body is central to the culture of commodification. Both the gags and the darker satirical undercurrents of the film revolve around hypocrisy and paradox, and Ritchie is far from coy about representing nudity and voyeurism both as part of the action and a reflection of the audience's own (inevitable) point of view.

The film is concerned with the exploitation of images of both people and society, and it is not entirely focused on the girls. Just as much part of the tapestry of the community is the weirdo sub-culture of middle class boredom which has grown men join organisations named after animals and conduct bizarre initiation rites including having their members kiss he anus of a dead chicken for membership. In one such scene one man, dressed in a sheet emblazoned with a chicken logo, comments that they have sponsored the pageant to instil a sense of adult values in the girls. Though obvious, this type of counterpoint is effectively employed throughout the film, and as it progresses, it becomes darker and more merciless, with even Dern beginning to realise some hard truths about himself and Pryor descending into alcoholism and violence. Its visual world is also composed of contrasts between the drab and desolate appearance of the everyday and the garish spectacle of the pageant, an imagistic irony further reinforced by the decoration of Feldon and Pryor's home where shampooed carpets and china dogs take precedent over a discussion of their marriage. Feldon is portrayed not as a genuine airhead, but a woman equally desperate to escape the hard realities of her life by emphasising the glamourous and virginal elements of it which obviously came to their climax with her own crowning as champ in 1966.

In spite of this rather horrific vision of a moral and emotional wasteland populated with desperate, semi-delusional individuals (or perhaps partly because of it), the film is also very funny. The progeny of MASH are beginning to find a real rhythm of their own, and this film provides a fair quota of laugh out loud jokes as well as more subtle moments of parody and quiet ridicule. Well chosen lines of pointed dialogue and irresistibly funny situations are worked in with a pleasing amount of character development, and the script maintains a delicate balance of focus between organisers and participants. Though the girls themselves are treated more gently, there is a nice mixture of savviness and naivete in their characters which frequently slips between the two registers to comic advantage. Annette O'Toole is excellent as one contestant who has no illusions about what the judges want to see, yet whom is touched by a yearning hope which she attempts to mask amid moments of both cruelty and kindness. She rooms with Joan Prather as the slightly more wide-eyed variety of contestant whose honesty provides some kind of redemptive centre to the characters, yet is most useful when contrasted with the attitudes of her fellows. Maria O'Brien is hilarious as the Mexican girl who plays her ethnicity to the hilt in an attempt to project an image of herself amenable to the all-American sponsors, but who is well aware of the artifice and barely conceals her will to succeed and her contempt for those who would stand in her way. Melanie Griffith makes a spectacular entrance in which Ritchie literally shoves the sexual undercurrent in our faces (she bends over to pick up a fallen object, giving the camera (and us) a very clear view of her legs in a short skirt). A topless photo of the girl taken by Eric Shea as the oversexed son of Dern's character also later plays a significant part in the film's conclusion.

This is a detailed and very well crafted skewering of Americana which spares no one its ire. From scenes of Dern dealing uncomfortably with a local psychiatrist to the faux charm of the master of ceremonies right down to the attitudes of minor characters such as the janitor and the band leader, almost every element of the film has satirical meaning. Though our sympathies oscillate, the film ultimately invites us to feel somewhat sorry for these people (an emotion which is carried primarily through what happens to Dern), and to treat with contempt the society and social values which foster such an empty and hypocritical culture of self-exploitation. Rather than suggesting that any of this is the result of deliberate mischief or bloody-mindedness on the part of any one person or group within society, it suggests that it is a mass delusion, a deliberate escape into elaborate fantasy designed to mask our fears and desires and contain the latter by making a spectacle of the female body while pretending to lionise personality. It is about what is hidden, not what is shown, and the constant mantra of 'inner beauty' is ultimately shown to be more a desperate search for a moral and spiritual centre which this type of society does not have, rather than proof that one exists. The film begins and ends with a melancholy rendition of Charles Chaplin's title song sung by Nat King Cole which reiterates this theme, urging us to "Smile though your heart is aching; smile even though it's breaking...", with its themes of pretending something is true until it actually happens, and thus even the generally redemptive final scenes are underlaid with a sense of sadness, concluding with a shot of the Polaroid of the semi-naked Griffith to remind us for the last time that sometimes only the surface counts and that real truth is somewhere more difficult to pin down.

The film is especially interesting to revisit in the light of recent films including Drop Dead Gorgeous and American Beauty, both of which explore similar themes. The former uses much the same basic plot, but is by far less effective. The latter deals in a similar conception of middle class angst and hypocrisy, and seems quite heavy handed by comparison with Ritchie's film.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 2000.