Vintage Cable Box: “Romantic Comedy, 1983”

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“A few years ago, I owned a delicate china teapot.  One day, I dropped it and it split right down the middle.  Well, I glued it together, and it looked as if it had never been broken.  And several months later, for no apparent reason, it suddenly exploded into a thousand pieces.  I suppose what I’m trying to say is that despite all appearances, it’s better to keep your teapot intact.”

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Romantic Comedy, 1983 (Dudley Moore), MGM/UA

Phoebe Craddock (Mary Steenburgen) excuses herself to use the restroom at a high-end restaurant packed with back-slappers during the premiere party of her first collaborative work with Jason Carmichael (Dudley Moore). She returns not a moment later, and the joint has cleared out – a ghost town. When she asks a waiter where everybody went, he simply answers, “the reviews came in.” This is the life of the writer; anticipation and happiness and enthusiasm all destroyed within minutes by bad reviews, dirty looks, and marginalization.

The result of a communications snafu, Steenburgen has arrived to work with stage-writing partner Dudley Moore two weeks early on his wedding day. Mistaking her for a masseuse, he strips down naked. When she comes clean, he is embarrassed, slips on a pair of shorts, and goes into a temper tantrum. What we have is a “romantic comedy”, not the title, but the concept – a Neil Simon pastiche written by Bernard Slade. Imagine Anthony Perkins and Mia Farrow in the lead roles they created in the original stage run. If you can, you’re one-up on me. It’s an interesting combination.

The story is told as a series of vignettes (or even acts). Phoebe and Jason meet-cute and begin to collaborate. Their first play is a flop. They bond. He starts a family with his beautiful, politically-ambitious but innately sweet wife (Janet Eilber). A montage showcases the duo’s resulting success with several stage plays. They bond. Phoebe starts seeing a journalist (Ron Leibman). Jason has an affair with a dizzy, ridiculous actress (Robyn Douglass). His wife divorces him. Phoebe abandons him, and marries Ron Leibman.  I think the point of the story (if there was one) is that creative partners are analogs for lovers, or that an intense inventive synthesis is the same as a romantic coupling.

Years later, Jason’s life is in ruins. Phoebe returns, after having written a semi-autobiographical book about her partnership with Jason. She wants to turn the book into a play, and she wants to collaborate with Jason. He flips out in a restaurant and suffers a heart attack. Phoebe nurse-maids him. Leibman finally leaves her when he realizes she loves Jason and working with Jason more than spending time with her own husband. I think he wants the woman who is with Jason, rather than the woman she is with him.

This is as close to unlikable as you’re likely to get from Dudley Moore. He’s crass, vulnerable, sarcastic, moody, and patronizing, but he is Dudley Moore. Again, he manages to make an impossible character work, because we, as viewers, still sympathize with him. Maybe it has something to do with his height. He’s not a powerful man. Perhaps strong in his wit, his manner, his intellect, but a flailing man-child in aesthetics. We believe Dudley Moore; whether he’s a songwriter, a drunk playboy, a writer, a psychiatrist, or a symphony conductor, we believe him. As an actor and entertainer, his decisions were brave and ultimately successful. In the final analysis, his performance is the only thing I enjoy in Romantic Comedy. He would go from the daffy Arthur to the gut-punch of Six Weeks within the space of a year. No other actor would dare to bank on his image as a dramatic actor.

Romantic Comedy is typical eighties cheese, and the Marvin Hamlisch music doesn’t do the narrative any favors. It seemed the formula, or the structure of movies made this way depended on montage to break up acts. We have a set-piece scene, a montage, another scene, another montage, and it goes on like this until toward the end after the climax and before the end credits. Other films from this time period do a better job of linking the elements, but Romantic Comedy is a bit clunky because, being based on a stage play, you have static blocking and heavy dialogue on a big set. Director Arthur Hiller (Author! Author!) tries to shake it up, sometimes putting the actors in nice New York locales, but the stage play narrative feels like a prison from which these very talented actors cannot escape.

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month.  Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.

 

Vintage Cable Box: “Psycho II”, 1983

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“It’s starting again.”

Psycho II, 1983 (Anthony Perkins), MCA/Universal

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On occasion, you would have dual premieres of movies. HBO and Cinemax, at the time, aired new releases on the same night, usually a Saturday. One such summer Saturday, HBO debuted National Lampoon’s Vacation and Cinemax aired Psycho II. We couldn’t decide what we wanted to watch, and back in those days, you couldn’t Tivo your troubles away, so we went with Psycho II. I had not seen the original Psycho but was well aware of the famous shower scene. It would be a couple of weeks later that I finally watched the original Psycho, and to this day, nothing scares me more than Mrs. Bates. That goes for Michael Meyers, Charles Manson, and Donald Trump. I repeat: nothing scares me more than Mrs. Bates!

I remember a few years ago, somebody made the point (maybe it was me) that Norman Bates never truly existed; that whatever Norman was, only appeared to be an extension of his mother, the famous Mrs. Bates. When you look at Norman, even in advanced years, played by the extraordinary Anthony Perkins, he’s nothing more than a “man-child”, consumed in fear of disappointing his mother and telegraphing an all-consuming shyness around women he deems attractive, women he is driven to be attracted to – starting in 1960’s Psycho with Janet Leigh’s Marion Crane.

Norman’s mother had gained a peculiar form of immortality by being so endemic an image in her son’s mind that she devoured him whole and implanted her own personality. It has taken 22 years for Norman to become his own man, and sadly, there are those who still wish to destroy him. Once released from the custody of the State, Norman tries to pick up the shattered remains of his life and run his motel. He fires sleazy manager Mr. Toomey (a hilarious Dennis Franz) and makes a new friend in Meg Tilly.

Of course, all of this is a veneer; a curious effort to drive Bates mad so that he will be taken away again. Meg Tilly is the niece of Marion Crane and she and Crane’s sister (a shrill Vera Miles) take turns phoning Norman and dressing up as his mother to make him crazy. Meanwhile, very real murders are being conducted by a mysterious third party, who is revealed at film’s conclusion. As with the original Psycho, you can’t help but feel for Norman as his mask of sanity slips away gradually.

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Meg Tilly (at first) sides with her mother in discrediting Norman, but as she sees the struggles he tries to cope with, she develops an affection and attraction to him, ultimately protecting him from her mother’s cruel scheming. Anthony Perkins’ promising career was destroyed by Psycho. He was forever type-cast, as either yet another psychotic personality, or a borderline “heavy” in most movies after Psycho. Like Leonard Nimoy before him, he decided to wholeheartedly embrace his legacy by directing 1986’s Psycho III and appearing in the promising, but ultimately illogical Psycho IV.

Richard Franklin does an admirable job directing this first sequel to the horror classic, and having to weather the storms of vicious film critics, who bemoaned a lack of originality in Hollywood they perceived had to rely more and more on sequels to make easy money. As we know, this was only the beginning, but Psycho II is a well-crafted, labyrinthine thriller with elements of mystery and suspense worthy of Alfred Hitchcock. Tom Holland’s script is intelligent, sympathetic, and thought-provoking.

Next up: Amityville II: The Possession

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month. Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.