Sunday, January 29, 2017

THE LATE SHOW

   When I checked out the guide and saw that The Late Show (1977) was coming on in half an hour, I skipped across the room with my arms in the air and my feet a-sailing. I had not seen this wonderful Robert Benton-directed Robert Altman-produced movie since the day it hit the theater in Huntington, West Virginia. I left the movies that day feeling I had just watched a terrific movie, a movie that captured the strange spirit of odd friendships. It was also the first time I can remember thinking that a movie's casting has more power than its plot.
    So there it was on TV tonight. Lisa Ann heated the cheese and I pulled out the chips and I loved every minute of it. Lisa Ann turned to me when the closing credits were rolling and said, "That was sort of a Phil Mershon movie, wasn't it?"
   I didn't say anything for a few seconds. I recognized that I had not been insulted. But I wasn't clear on exactly what she meant.
   She said, "It was cute."
   "Cute" is one of those words people use when they try to make you feel better about the fact that they do not want to sleep with you. "Oh, you are so cute. But, no, it just wouldn't feel right."
   "It's your kind of humor," she clarified. "I can see why you like it."
   Well, hell. She nailed me. It is my kind of movie. If I made a list of my one hundred favorite films, I would expect that at least ninety of them would have friendship as a theme. If you are honest with yourself, the same is true for you.
   The Late Show would be on my version of that list.
   Citizen Kane is not just a movie about Patty Hearts' grandfather; it is about friendship, or the horror of its absence. Casablanca is more than a love story and Nazis; it's also about the grudging admiration Rick has for Victor Laslo. MASH is very much about friendships that would never have happened had the participants not been dragged into an idiotic war. Goodfellas is less a movie about gangsters than it is a movie about friendships betrayed. Name any movie that has stuck with you over the decades and I will bet that some type of strange friendship is at that movie's heart. 
   Strange friendships are right up director Robert Benton's alley. The first movie he wrote was 1967's Bonnie and Clyde, the two main characters of which, it will be recalled, weren't all that much in the lover department, but her desire to reinvent herself was the impetus for the friendship between the two. Five years later, Benton was back with Bad Company, a civil war era film about draft resisters who team up for an unlikely life of armed robbery. But with the script for The Late Show, bolstered by Altman's genius in casting Lily Tomlin and Art Carney in the leads, Benton has earned his way into heaven. As Margo, Lily Tomlin is a little bit goofy, a little bit astrological, and very edgy. As Ira, Art Carney is cagey, weather-worn, and lonely as an abandoned hound dog. Even within the realm of the 1940s detective noir to which this movie pays considerable homage, we recognize right away that their relationship will be an unusual one. 
    Someone has kidnapped Margo's cat. In fact, the cat is being held for ransom by someone to whom Margo owes money. She is introduced to Ira at a cemetery where he is sending off one of his best friends, another private detective named Harry. Margo wants Ira to find her cat. Ira is offended at the suggestion. He may be old, he may be living in a modest home, he may be lonely, but he has not degenerated to the point where he tracks down missing felines. 
   Ira discovers that the recently departed Harry was murdered while trying to do that very thing.
   The rest of the plot runs amok. And that is not a criticism. The story has a kind of logic--just one that's nearly impossible to follow. Besides, the plot doesn't matter.
   What matters is the way Margo and Ira come to care about one another. Being young and feisty, she gets on Ira's nerves. For instance, when she mentions to him that she had to sell some marijuana to pay his fee, he asks, "How long have you been a pusher?"
   When Ira has to go into a room that will probably reveal something they don't want to see, Margo, who has actress among many other jobs on her resume, panics. Ira says, "You're an actress, right? Well, act calm."
   This is not The Bickersons. These two people are together in a somewhat contrived series of situations and just try to make the most of it. Margo does not want to fence stolen merchandise or sell pot to make ends meet, but she can't pay her bills on the money she makes as an actor, an agent, a talent manager, or any of the other careers she admittedly does not have the self-discipline to do well. When she suggests to Ira that he take the vacant apartment next door to her because they work so well together, we recognize that both of them have an emptiness they would love the other to fill and when he turns her down because he has grown so accustomed to his life of quiet desperation, we actually ache for the both of them. 
   Look, there was a time in my life, somewhere around the time when I first saw this movie, that I harbored a secret wish that by the time I reached Carney's age, I would be just like his character in this movie. So, yes, as usual, Lisa Ann was correct. It is a Phil Mershon kind of film, at least to the extent that nuggets remain of the person I was then. As the Black Panthers used to say, "The more things remain the same, the more they remain the same."
   If you have read this far, then just maybe you have some of that Art Carney or Lily Tomlin in you as well. Hey, different generations have different heroes. But just as the great actors of my parents' generation transcended typecasting--it's a straight line between, say, Humphrey Bogart and Orson Welles to George C Scott and Peter Sellers--so do two actors most celebrated for their comedic skills make those legends irrelevant in this movie. Tomlin worked the camera as well as anyone who ever stood in front of one and not once yielded to any impulses to become too endearing or sympathetic. The same with Carney: every time our feelings shift from empathy to sympathy, he comes out with guns a-blazing and makes us reevaluate what we think we know. 
  My advice? Watch this movie with someone who will tell you afterwards that this is your kind of movie. 

No comments: