❉ Nick Clement presents his assessments of cinematic gems and cult oddities.
Michael Ritchie’s quick-witted beauty pageant satire Smile, which was released in 1975, smack-dab in the middle of the Golden Era of studio filmmaking, is one of those casually deceptive films from that time period, as it combined pitch black comedy and straight faced observation over small-town American life and all of the intricacies that would surround an event like the one depicted in this movie, which now feels rather timeless.
It’s aged extremely well, and clearly served as a blueprint for the more modern effort Drop Dead Gorgeous, as well as any number of other projects that cast a wise gaze on societal attitudes. Certainly feeling Altman-esque in certain spots, Smile lacks that filmmaker’s sense of controlled sprawl; Ritchie kept it intimate and observant in Smile, was part of that legendary run of films for him in the late 60’s and into the 70’s, which included Downhill Racer, Prime Cut, The Candidate, The Bad News Bears, Semi-Tough, and An Almost Perfect Affair, all classics in their own particular way. His name should be included with Ashby, Scorsese, Coppola, and De Palma when discussing the best works from the 1970s, and yet it rarely ever is spoken of with the same level of passion.
Starring Bruce Dern, Barbara Feldon, Michael Kidd, Geoffrey Lewis, Eric Shea, Nicholas Pryor, and future filmmaker Dennis Dugan, Smile also introduced some exceedingly beautiful and talented actresses, including Melanie Griffith, Annette O’Toole, Colleen Camp, and Caroline Williams, while also showcasing a variety of non-professionals who were cast because of their beauty queen experience. The plot centers on the various ins and outs of a particular pageant, with comedy, drama, and scandal colliding in a riotous manner, and yet the comedy was always coming from a place of intelligence, with sassy dialogue courtesy of screenwriter Jerry Belson (Fun with Dick and Jane, Student Bodies, Always, uncredited work on Close Encounters of the Third Kind), with apparent room for improv from the various cast members. I love films like Smile where the comedy is born out of eccentric situations, vivid characters, and real life mannerisms; Ritchie and Belson used the milieu as a way of holding up a mirror to society and saying “Look how crazy we all are!” This type of movie would never stand of a chance of being made today, not in the same fashion as it was by Ritchie over 40 years ago; why does this movie feel so far removed from what would be pitch-able today?
Shot in and around Santa Rose, CA, the film has a great sense of verisimilitude considering the likely low-budget and the small-scale setting, with Conrad L. Hall’s naturalistic cinematography sweetening the aesthetic package at every turn, with shots that never call attention to themselves but are so beautifully crafted as to invite study. Just the way body language is used in this film, and the way characters are framed within the shot is enough to give film buffs a solid night of discussion post viewing. And yet, for all of this wonderful film’s merits, it was a tough sell, even back in the day when audiences were seemingly more interested in challenging material, and the support systems were in place to get that material made.
Sadly, despite excellent critical notices, releasing studio United Artists didn’t have much faith in the film on a commercial level, and dumped into in the four theaters that it owned, so as a result, it became a cult classic before it could ever have the chance of being embraced by wider audiences. Almost 10 years after the release of the film, the material would be adapted for the stage, featuring songs by Marvin Hamlisch and Howard Ashman. It’s also interesting to note that Altman’s seminal film Nashville was also released in 1975. Available on DVD, Ritchie’s Smile is just begging for a release from Kino Lorber, The Criterion Collection or Twilight Time.
❉ Nick Clement is a freelance writer, having contributed to Variety Magazine, Hollywood- Elsewhere, Awards Daily, Back to the Movies, and Taste of Cinema. He’s currently writing a book about the works of filmmaker Tony Scott, and co-operates the website Podcasting Them Softly.
❉ He is also a regular contributor for MovieViral.com, a site dedicated to providing the best news and analysis on viral marketing and ARG campaigns for films and other forms of entertainment.