[Originally published in Movietone News 44, September 1975]
The bilious purple lettering of the credits prepares us for Conrad Hall’s photographic style through the first half or so of Smile: motion aside, everything appears as it might in a drugstore-developed roll of Kodacolor snapped on a picnic. Smile takes us to Santa Rosa, California—cinematically immortalized as the iconographically ideal American smalltown in Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943)—and plunges us eyeball-deep into American camp, several strata below kitsch. The Young American Miss beauty pageant, or rather the sub-pageant designed to yield a contender to represent the state of California, is tooling up. Bruce Dern, as a used-car and trailer dealer known to one and all by the loaded moniker “Big Bob” Freedlander, is deeply touched to learn that Barbara Feldon, a one-time Young American Miss now in charge of marshalling the girls, has provided a special gold nametag for him as head judge. His ole buddy—and Feldon’s hubby Nicholas Pryor—is less than enchanted with her nonstop pageant trip, which condemns him to evenings of TV dinners and booze, and with the initiatory ordeal approaching him: on the eve of turning 35, he must kiss a dead chicken’s ass while his brother, over-the-hill business pals cheer.
Michael Ritchie plays this Middle American horrorshow and its imminence off against the week of preparations for the pageant’s own big night. Pryor’s moment of truth parallels that of the teen queens sweetly fighting Vaselined tooth and manicured nail to win a place in the artificial California sun: Ritchie focuses particularly on Miss Antelope Valley, her hometown name an apt index of the, shall we say, poised gawkiness with which she confronts the whole scene and gradually comes to realize that they’re all competing. As an exposé, exploration, and exploitation of indigenous success-fantasy absurdities, Smile has nothing new to say or offer, but it says and offers it energetically and, often enough to tip the balance in its favor, engagingly. Sometimes Ritchie makes his simplistic points simplistically: past-it Barbie doll Feldon pushes her lonely, tendresse-starved husband away and we’re left looking at the blue-green-lit TV dinners in her freezer (the word ‘frigid’ is mercifully delayed till their next interview); Michael Kidd, as a gruffly sentimental directorial superstar engaged by the local Jaycees to stage the spectacular, watches the Antelope Valley girl turn an onstage fumble into a sympathy-inducing bonus and murmurs, “They learn fast” (a mere reaction-shot cut to him at this point would have verged on the excessive; the line kills any validity the moment might have had); a drummer (screenwriter Jerry Belson, no less) watches one contestant segue into a striptease whose impiications are hilariously ambivalent in the context of so much plastic puffery, then exchanges glances with the orchestra leader and gives his drumstick a ribald stroke. But his film maintains enough hustle that even simplistic gestures tend to get by, contribute profitably to the overall effect of more-than-competent observation, as when, in an unstressed behind-the-credits bit of business, a girl whose “talent” is packing a suitcase has her suitcase burst open at the foot of the airport gangway. Likewise, we are permitted to get used to, while still wondering about, the sewn letters ticking off Wednesday, Thursday, etc. as the days of rehearsal and preliminaries to the big Miss California judging pass by; about the time we’ve taken the device for granted, the camera pulls back from ‘Sunday’ to reveal it’s stitched onto the panties of a contestant who’s been very outspoken in her preference for “tits’n’ass” competition and who wears a special set of lingerie for each day of the week.
Ritchie’s casting is just as sharp, for both generations and both sexes, right down to the contestants who never matter much dramatically (even though some of them turn out to be winners), the just-not-pretty woman who accompanies and abets the faded Feldon most of the time, and three uproariously funny do-it-yourself porno freaks, male, one of whom is “Little Bob” Freedlander. Bruce Dern, even though he has canny-actor-in-a-calculated-putdown-role stamped all over him, gets at a lot of the despair “Big Bob” feels even as he strives to stay unaware of it, and in one long-take, traffic-noisy reminiscence in a parking lot—about a date he almost had with Liz Taylor the night she ran off to marry Nicky Hilton—he nails down that sense of Life’s Big Moment Missed that Ivan Passer and Carroll O’Connor strove for so conspicuously and so unsuccessfully in Law and Disorder. Smile makes plenty of sense as the fourth film of a director who has turned big-time sports inside-out (Downhill Racer), examined the enervating razzledazzle of media -hyped political campaigns (The Candidate), and processed gangsterism, white slavery, and the meat industry into the same link sausage (Prime Cut). It ought to be a lot better but, given the cut-and-dried attackability of its subject matter, it’s amazing it’s not a great deal worse. The picture deserves better than a fast five days as a first-run item, which has been the extent of its availability locally, so far.
Direction: Michael Ritchie. Screenplay: Jerry Belson. Cinematography: Conrad Hall.
The players: Bruce Dern, Barbara Feldon, Nicholas Pryor, Michael Kidd, Geoffrey Lewis, Colleen Camp, Joan Prather, Denise Nickerson, Annette O’Toole, Melanie Griffith.
Copyright © 1975 Richard T. Jameson