Category Archives: Directed by Herbert Ross

Pennies from Heaven (1981, Herbert Ross)

Pennies from Heaven is about how being a woman—particularly in the 1930s—is awful because you exist entirely for male consumption. If not sexually, then as production. The film’s supposed to be about how life’s just unfair for dreamers, in this case lead Steve Martin, who’s just trying to make the American Dream work for him; what’s standing in his way is wife Jessica Harper not wanting to give him her father’s estate so he can open a record store. He’s a traveling sheet music salesman in Chicago; he covers the rural points west.

We know Martin’s a dreamer because he daydreams in musicals. All of a sudden the movie will switch over to a big musical number with Martin and other actors lip-synching to period recordings. The musical stuff is good. Ross’s direction emphasizes the production, which is… fine. But the actual production of the numbers is excellent. Great choreography, so on and so forth. Martin’s very good at the dancing.

The same cannot be said about his “aw shucks” performance. Though some of the problem is Dennis Potter’s script; no one speaks his dialogue well until the second half of the movie, when Christopher Walken shows up and Bernadette Peters starts her fallen woman arc. Until that point, it seems like Potter’s dialogue just isn’t catching. But then all of a sudden Peters makes it breathtaking and it’s clear the problem’s a combination of Martin, Ross, and Potter, not Peters or Harper.

The film’s well-aware it’s about how being a woman is lousy—Peters gets seduced and knocked up by married Martin, who then abandons her multiple times, and finally ends up hooking. Harper—who manages to be the character with the least agency in the film, which is something because Martin’s got almost nil—is the cold fish preacher’s daughter wife who won’t give Martin enough sex or the money to start his store. Even though Martin humiliates her and then some cops humiliate her later on, Harper’s never presented sympathetically. If only she gave him some sugar (or the money sooner), look what might’ve been avoided.

Because somehow when it comes time to address Martin’s exploitation and mental abuse and manipulation, the movie just skips it. He’s the hero, after all, the dreamer who can’t find his American Dream. Again, it’s a combination of script, acting, and directing. Pennies from Heaven is only going to work if Martin’s transcendent.

And he’s not. Worse, he’s markedly better during the musical numbers than the dramatic, which makes the dramatic feel like a strange stagy vanity project, but one where he’s unenthusiastic about it too.

Nothing is worse than unenthusiastic vanity projects. Yes, he’s got the enthusiasm for the musical numbers—which disappear during at least twenty minutes of the film; it gives Peters a chance for some great acting in a middling film, but it also all drags. Her character’s ostensibly obsessed with Martin but he’s clearly a doofus. Yes, she’s supposed to be all in because of some kind of animal magnetism but… Martin hasn’t got any. The film cheating Harper out of getting rid of him at some point is a disservice to the work she put into her performance.

Wondrous photography from Gordon Willis—maybe thirty percent of Ross’s shots are good and there are some way too stagy ones—but Willis makes them all work. The film’s gorgeous.

Great dancing from Peters, Walken, and Vernel Bagneris (who’s got the majorly thankless part of the forgotten man). But he’s also really vile man. The only guy who’s not criminally creepy in Pennies from Heaven is Francis X. McCarthy, who plays a kindly bartender.

The end seems like it’s going to flop, then seems like it’ll do the right thing, but then it turns out doing the right thing is the wrong thing for the film anyway. Because it just isn’t going to work out. It just can’t.

Shame to waste the truly spectacular Peters performance.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Herbert Ross; screenplay by Dennis Potter, based on his BBC television serial; director of photography, Gordon Willis; edited by Richard Marks; production designer, Philip Harrison; costume designer, Bob Mackie; produced by Nora Kaye and Herbert Ross; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Steve Martin (Arthur), Bernadette Peters (Eileen), Jessica Harper (Joan), Vernel Bagneris (The Accordion Man), John McMartin (Mr. Warner), John Karlen (The Detective), Jay Garner (The Banker), Robert Fitch (Al), Tommy Rall (Ed), Eliska Krupka (The Blind Girl), and Christopher Walken (Tom).


The Goodbye Girl (1977, Herbert Ross)

The Goodbye Girl is excessively genial. Usually at the expense of lead Marsha Mason. It’s her movie too. Not hers to lose, because it’s so much her movie–she’s The Goodbye Girl–instead hers to be taken away. And take it away writer Neil Simon does. The film starts being about single mom Mason getting dumped by her live-in boyfriend. He’s a New York actor, she was a Broadway dancer. He goes to Italy, dumping her and the kid (Quinn Cummings) instead of taking them to L.A. as promised.

Of course, the ex-boyfriend is never in the movie. He’s got his pictures up all over the apartment, but he’s never in the movie. It’s the best thing Simon and director Ross end up doing in the film. The establishing of this awful ex-boyfriend just through exposition and visual suggestion.

The ex sublets the apartment out from under Mason and Cummings. Enter Richard Dreyfuss, Chicago actor come to New York, subletter.

The apartment is central to the film. Simon’s script has play trappings while still paced like a movie; Ross never goes stagy. The direction’s not great, but it has a lot of depth. The apartment becomes gradually familiar in the first half of the film. It becomes comfortable. Even though Mason and ten-year old Cummings are living with part-time nudist, wheat germ enthusiast Dreyfuss. Though all of Dreyfuss’s first act eccentricities disappear right after being established.

Goodbye Girl has some behind-the-scenes drama and some of it might explain Simon’s disjointed script. But the lack of consistency just comes off as lazy. It makes a lot of Simon’s set pieces come off contrived. Especially once they become at the expense of Mason. First couple times, it’s not at the expense of screentime for her, it’s at the expense of her performance. See, once Dreyfuss warms to Mason–which seems impossible after their first few scenes together–and takes a liking to Cummings (who’s likable in the thinnest part in Simon’s atomic-thin cast of characters), he sort of starts stalking her. Like he goes to her job to mess with her.

Then Mason stops doing anything but decorating; once she and Dreyfuss do hook up, she stops caring about anything except redecorating.

The movie has some problems with plotting. Ross doesn’t do summary well so it’s never clear how long they’re living together before the third act. It just makes for a disjointed picture–Dreyfuss and Mason go from bickering funny to romantically funny in about five minutes. And it’s Dreyfuss becoming a completely different character.

That character is far from an organic development. The movie doesn’t even really acknowledge that his character is developing. While he should be warming up to Mason and Cummings, Dreyfuss is busy in the play from hell subplot with Paul Benedict as a misguided but insistent director.

So, while Dreyfuss is doing all that stuff, Mason gets to keep her movie. Then she loses it.

By the finale, all Goodbye Girl has got keeping it going is the charm of its three stars. Because everyone else in Goodbye Girl is disposable. It’s just Dreyfuss, Mason, and Cummings. If their parts were stronger, it’d be enough. If their parts were at least consistent, it might be enough.

The film’s dramatically inert. But pleasant–even when it’s being creepy–and amiably acted. David M. Walsh’s photography doesn’t help with the excess geniality. His lighting is too soft. Dave Grusin’s score is a little light too. Everything in Goodbye Girl is too thin, too soft, or too light. They have to be to match Simon’s unsubstantial script.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Herbert Ross; written by Neil Simon; director of photography, David M. Walsh; edited by John F. Burnett; music by Dave Grusin; production designer, Albert Brenner; produced by Ray Stark; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Marsha Mason (Paula McFadden), Quinn Cummings (Lucy McFadden), Richard Dreyfuss (Elliot Garfield), Paul Benedict (Mark), Barbara Rhoades (Donna), and Theresa Merritt (Mrs. Crosby).


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Footloose (1984, Herbert Ross)

Footloose isn’t so much awful as dumb and obvious. Some of it is awful–the scene where Kevin Bacon, fed up with the small town getting him down, just has to go to an abandoned mill and dance it out–that scene is awful. So are most of the courtship scenes between Bacon and Lori Singer.

But the relationship between Singer and father John Lithgow? While really obvious and thin, the actors do okay with it. Singer’s not good, but she’s convincingly angry. Lithgow’s the emotionally wounded reverend who tries to fix the world through his sermons, only to learn the townsfolk he’s trying to save are perverting his message. It’s just Footloose’s way not condemning the religious in the audience, just the ones who don’t like rock music. Though it does a really bad job of it.

Some of the problem is Dean Pitchford’s script. It’s dumb and often bad, but Pitchford really doesn’t shy away from difficult scenes. The ones between Lithgow and Singer, the ones between Lithgow, Singer and Dianne Wiest (as the quietly suffering preacher’s wife), they’re really good. But Pitchford doesn’t know how to work them. The most important conversation in the film–between Bacon and Lithgow–doesn’t even occur on screen.

It’s not like director Ross does much good. He probably can’t make Bacon look any younger and most of the performances are blandly acceptable, but the idiotic dance interludes are Ross’s fault.

Footloose is often marginally competent, but never any good.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Herbert Ross; written by Dean Pitchfork; director of photography, Ric Waite; edited by Paul Hirsch; production designer, Ron Hobbs; produced by Lewis J. Rachmil and Craig Zadan; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Kevin Bacon (Ren), Lori Singer (Ariel), John Lithgow (Rev. Shaw Moore), Dianne Wiest (Vi Moore), Chris Penn (Willard), Sarah Jessica Parker (Rusty), John Laughlin (Woody), Elizabeth Gorcey (Wendy Jo), Frances Lee McCain (Ethel McCormack) and Jim Youngs (Chuck Cranston).


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The Last of Sheila (1973, Herbert Ross)

The Last of Sheila has the most constantly deceptive structure I’ve seen in a while. Watching the time code on the DVD player (and on the laserdisc and VHS players before it, and the clock for televised films even before those inventions) really changes the way one experiences a film. I’m always telling my fiancée we watch films at home and see them at the theater. It’s a measure of control. One can pause, rewind–and stop (I guess this website is more about video-watching than theatergoing, otherwise it’d be called The Walk Receipt or something–it’d actually be called The Golden Ticket after a particular theater’s refund ticket). Anyway, during The Last of Sheila I kept frequent note of the time. It’s a mystery with a cast of familiar stars going somewhere and… mystery ensuing. Since it’s a closed location (a yacht) and Stephen Sondheim and Anthony Perkins wrote (don’t know why I’m attributing this assumption to them, but I am), I figured it’d be stagy, like an adapted play. Obviously, I shouldn’t have made that assumption, just because the film’s all about Hollywood people. The film isn’t traditional–one could sit and use the time code alone to discuss how the story works. Lots of things happen at the thirty minute mark and then a lot happens around ninety minutes. It’s a two hour movie. Even with that frequent observation of the time code, I couldn’t tell where The Last of Sheila was going. I guessed at the culprit, but I never guessed at the eventual resolution, or how the film got there. It’s remarkable, especially since the film started out with director Herbert Ross doing all the lame stuff I associate with his name and it’s incredibly unfortunate Sondheim and Perkins didn’t go on to anything else. It’d be impossible for them to have topped Sheila, because one would have expected it from them–and the casting is incredibly important in ways I can’t possibly discuss without spoiling something–but I would watch a film, written by those two, about two kids who decide to open a pickle-farm. I imagine it would have been wonderfully effective.

As I said, talking about the cast is difficult, but there are some people I can point out. Obviously, Joan Hackett is quite good, but so is Ian McShane, who was once young and slim. James Mason is good. James Coburn I’ve never been able to figure out. He’s good in some stuff, but in other stuff he’s unbearably campy. I thought he was going to go campy for Sheila, but doesn’t. The only weak actor is Raquel Welch, who’s essentially playing herself. She can’t do it.

I was going to say one would have to be familiar with some film history to fully appreciate The Last of Sheila, but that judgment was wrong. It’s just a really good mystery. Even if the locations (and sets) bring more to it than Herbert Ross did.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed and produced by Herbert Ross; screenplay by Stephen Sondheim and Anthony Perkins; director of photography, Gerry Turpin; edited by Edward Warschilka; music by Billy Goldenberg; distributed by Warner Bros.

Starring Richard Benjamin (Tom), Dyan Cannon (Christine), James Coburn (Clinton), Joan Hackett (Lee), James Mason (Philip), Ian McShane (Anthony) and Raquel Welch (Alice).


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