Tag Archives: Bernadette Peters

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 Jerk (1979, Carl Reiner)

“Classics.” In the sense, “oh, it’s a classic.” Possibly even, “it’s classic.” “Classic” is a lousy classification for film. It’s applied mostly as if it were a genre, with something like King Kong escaping to the sci-fi section, but A Night at the Opera absent from the comedy one.

The Jerk is considered a “classic” and I don’t quite get it. It’s occasionally funny, but mostly drags on. It’s poorly titled (according to IMDb, the working title was Easy Money, which is better), because The Jerk suggests… well, it suggests Steve Martin is playing a jerk. According to Oxford’s, a jerk is (in the informal) a contemptibly obnoxious person. The film gets the title from the colloquialism, “What do you think I am, some kind of a jerk or something?” Except, in that colloquialism jerk doesn’t mean obnoxious person, it means sap, dope, maybe patsy. I suppose they could have called any of those, but didn’t. Because The Jerk, starring Steve Martin in a bathrobe, looks like a movie you’d want to see. It looks like a funny movie.

The film’s structure is also particular. Bernadette Peters has almost no dialogue for the film’s last third or so. She’s around–both on screen and in the story–but she’s not doing anything. The film is so delineated into scenes, once she’s done, she has to stick around, but the film doesn’t have anything to do with her. The first half of the film has this deliberate pacing–lots of funny moments in amusing scenes. The scenes flow from one to the other, more on the comedic factor than any sort of dramatic one. It’s not extreme enough to be notable, but it creates a pleasant viewing experience. The second half of the film, which feels like someone checked his or her watch and got really worried about the running time, is hurried and almost all in summary or half-scene.

Steve Martin wrote the script with Carl Gottlieb, who’s the only guy to work on all of the first three Jaws films. I imagine the tight structure of the first half is from his hand, but it’s hard to blame the second act on either writer. Once director Carl Reiner shows up in a cameo, it’s apparent the film’s lost its footing. Most of Reiner’s filmography is Steve Martin films, so I guess they liked each other, but Reiner’s not bringing anything particular to the film. I just finished watching it an hour ago and nothing’s resonating. It’s all seeped away, except maybe the subtly touching relationship between Martin and his adopted brother, played by Dick Anthony Williams.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Carl Reiner; screenplay by Steve Martin, Carl Gottlieb and Michael Elias, based on a story by Martin and Gottlieb; director of photography, Victor J. Kemper; edited by Bud Molin; music by Jack Elliot; production designer, Jack T. Collis; produced by William E. McEuen and David V. Picker; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Steve Martin (Navin R. Johnson), Bernadette Peters (Marie Kimble Johnson), Catlin Adams (Patty Bernstein), Mabel King (Mother), Richard Ward (Father), Dick Anthony Williams (Taj Jonson), Bill Macy (Stan Fox), M. Emmet Walsh (Madman) and Dick O’Neill (Frosty).