Vintage Cable Box: A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy, 1982

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“Marriage, for me, is the death of hope.”

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A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy, 1982 (Woody Allen), Orion Pictures

Born a little too late to appreciate Woody Allen’s early slapstick comedy, and then the easy transformation to the more thoughtful romantic comedy for which he would become synonymous, A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy arrived on cable television at a time with which I would most identify: a middle period in his career that would introduce his new muse at the time – Mia Farrow. A brilliant but under-utilized actress in her own right, she would receive the lion’s share of attention for her work (and unfortunately, her personal life) with Allen. The movie was unfairly maligned as audience enthusiasm dipped after the autobiographical Stardust Memories (1980).

Allen plays a neurotic (of course) inventor, Andrew, married to the beautiful Adrian (Mary Steenburgen) whose cousin, college professor Leopold (José Ferrer) and his fiancée, Ariel (Farrow) are set to join them at their country home for the weekend. Among his startling inventions and flying machines, Andrew has created what he calls a “spirit ball” (a kind of magic lantern), which can communicate with ghosts. Andrew’s friend, Max (Tony Roberts) is also invited, and he brings his latest girlfriend, the youthful and sexually-active Dulcy (Julie Hagerty). Andrew’s sex life with his wife is waning. He keeps trying to initiate sex with her, but Adrian feels as though she might be frigid. Andrew discovers that Leopold’s fiancée was an old flame he never quite got over.

Andrew secretly covets Maxwell’s ease with women. He cries to him about his lack of sex drive. Maxwell recommends hypnosis. Leopold arrives with Ariel, and takes an immediate dislike to Maxwell, who starts to put the moves on Ariel. Adrian displays jealousy at the sight of her. When she confronts Andrew, he lies that he never loved her. Dulcy and Leopold develop a mutual attraction to each other, while Ariel and Andrew take baby-steps to rekindle their romance. Maxwell confesses his love for Ariel to Andrew. He wants Andrew to escort Ariel for a late-day rendezvous. Leopold tells Dulcy he is enamored of her and they arrange their own meeting time. Adrian seeks sexual advice from Dulcy, while Andrew consummates his desire for Ariel.

While Leopold is a worldly man of science who disbelieves notions of a spirit world, Ariel is earthy and bohemian, igniting the interest of both Maxwell and Andrew. Maxwell and Leopold nearly come to blows and Maxwell attempts suicide at the thought of their impending marriage. Before the weekend is over, Maxwell will be shot through the heart with an arrow intended for Andrew, and Leopold will die in the throes of passion and his spirit will take up residence in the woods. This contrived plot very much reminds me of Allen’s Manhattan (1979) wherein these dynamics (and soap-opera-style contrivances) are played against the backdrop of a perfect city, or a sumptuous wooded meadow, but lacking the epic qualities and instead embracing what Allen has referred to as “intermezzo.”

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This is an unusual period-piece (turn of the century) that, if anything else, demonstrates Allen’s skill at dialogue that needs no particular span of centuries in order to be worthwhile.  Images of sprites, spirits, and pixies are conjured by Allen’s characters in the midst of his typical sexual turmoil.  Gordon Willis’ photography is exceptional, and against the grain of his typically “darker” movies like The Godfather, Klute, and The Devil’s Own.  Lush fields and forestry, and gorgeous specimens of nature are given such a beautiful treatment that I was surprised he never received nominations for this work in this movie.  He would receive a much-deserved nomination a year later for Allen’s Zelig.

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.

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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.