Monday, February 8, 2010

They All Laughed (1981, Peter Bogdanovich)

I finally got around to seeing Peter Bogdanovich's They All Laughed after my friend Brian raved about it and I found it in a bargain DVD store for $6. I'd read quite a few reviews critiquing the film as being too light and insubstantial. I tempered my expectations going in and found myself most pleasantly surprised when all was said and done.

After viewing the film with and without Bogdanovich's commentary, as well as the interview between Bogdanovich and Wes Anderson, I'm left wondering how this movie might have played if star Dorothy Stratten hadn't been murdered just after production wrapped. For such a sweet little confection, They All Laughed becomes incredibly poignant and bittersweet with the knowledge of Stratten's tragic demise (told in Bob Fosse's Star 80 and a 1981 telefilm starring Jamie Lee Curtis). In fact, the initial failure of They All Laughed with filmgoers and critics is attributed, in large part, to the close proximity between Stratten's death and the film's release. It was too soon for audiences to see and enjoy a film starring Stratten just as the talented beauty was coming into her prime...a shame because she is so utterly charming and lovely here. When one considers the premature death of star John Ritter in 2003, that the film would contain the last starring feature role for Audrey Hepburn, the film's attention to many vanished or radically altered New York landmarks, and its positioning at the end of the '70s golden age of American cinema, it becomes even more sad. Obviously, this isn't the best thing for a comedy, but it makes for a rich viewing experience.

Leaving aside the real-life drama of They All Laughed, the film has a lot going for it. The story follows New York private detectives Ben Gazzara and Ritter as they follow and quickly fall for their client's wives, Hepburn and Stratten. They are accompanied along the way by fellow detective and stoner Blaine Novak, cabbie Patti Hansen, and country singer Colleen Camp. Bogdanovich explains in the supplements that he wrote all of the roles specifically for the actors who filled them and the proof is in the sublime performances by Gazzara, Hepburn, Stratten, Ritter, Novak, Camp, Hansen, Sean Ferrer, and the rest of the cast.

Gazzara and Hepburn had had an affair after meeting on the set of their previous film Bloodline. Both were in the midst of the collapses of their respective marriages when they got together, but their affair had already ended by the time of filming of They All Laughed. Without giving away the specifics of their onscreen relationship in They All Laughed, it's fair to say that Bogdanovich's knowledge of their offscreen relationship betters the film and adds another layer of complexity to the storyline, which is, admittedly, pretty thin on its own. Both actors do so much with looks and body language--it's a more than respectable ending to Hepburn's legendary film career; not having seen too much of Gazzara before, I was really impressed with his seemingly effortless cool and look forward to watching him in his work for Cassavetes and Bogdanovich's Saint Jack.

Ritter, playing a younger variation on director Bogdanovich, complete with trademark big glasses, shows himself to have been a gifted physical comic, one of the best of his generation to be sure. I never watched too much of Three's Company or the actor's few other feature roles, so his performance here was a real revelation for me. His absence from screens, big and small, is a huge loss. I'd seen Star 80 several times over the years and leafed through her Playboy layouts, but I'd never viewed any of Stratten's film or television performances. From what I understand, none of the other ones offer the glimpse of her burgeoning talent that They All Laughed does. She is as gorgeous as one would expect, but she possessed a comic timing and screen presence that belie her youth and inexperience.

Patti Hansen, a supermodel who would become Mrs. Keith Richards, is as beautiful as Stratten and has a spunkiness that I would have loved to have seen grace more films. Blaine Novak, who helped write and produce the film and worked for years in film distribution, is a really unique-looking and sounding performer. His hilarious onscreen lingo and dialect that lends itself so well to Bogdanovich's fast-moving, Screwball throwback dialogue, is apparently how he really talked. His "Is it dark yet?" line should be adopted by pot smokers in much the same way "It's 12:00 somewhere" has become a guideline for beer drinkers everywhere.

Colleen Camp never had any great starring opportunities, but she's a dynamo here whether she's convincingly belting out country tunes or aggressively pursuing Ritter or Hepburn's son Sean Ferrer. Bogdanovich made a brilliant decision to change Camp's character Christy from a jazz singer to a country singer and Camp's as good a performer as Jeff Bridges nearly 30 years later in Crazy Heart. This is a quintessential New York movie in so many ways, but the decision to go country is refreshingly unpredictable and atypical and the juxtaposition of country and city is one of the best parts of the film. I wish the real country nightclubs depicted in the film still existed.

I really enjoy Bogdanovich's portrayal of the kids in the film--growing up across the river in New Jersey, I always fantasized about being a "city kid," riding the subway, sans parents, to school and, in general, living a less sheltered, more independent life than we suburban kids did. My vision was no doubt shaped by films like this one, Rich Kids, Fame, Jeremy, and others. Here, Bogdanovich's daughters play Gazzara's and their banter and the way they carry themselves seem, to me, to be unique to kids growing up in a city like New York.

Keeping with the family, "company," vibe of the film, Hepburn's son Sean Ferrer humorously plays Jose, suitor to Stratten and Camp, and Linda MacEwen, Bogdanovich's assistant at the time plays secretary to George Morfogen's detective agency boss. Morfogen co-produced and co-wrote the film and had come up as an actor with Bogdanovich in the '50s.

My friend Brian tells me that he caught They All Laughed on television as a kid growing up in Ohio who hadn't spent any time in New York. Years later he'd end up living and working in New York and They All Laughed was the film that made him want to be there. Bogdanovich intended the film as a love letter to the city so I'm sure he'd be thrilled by Brian's reaction to the film. As much as it showcases well-known landmarks like the Plaza Hotel, the Algonquin Hotel, the Brooklyn Bridge, and the Twin Towers, the film spotlights a lot of downtown locales I haven't noticed too often in film--the foot of the Manhattan Bridge, the South Street heliport, a long vanished roller disco, and the since shuttered City Limits country-western bar come readily to mind. The use of country music, the stylized, profanity-free dialogue, and the characters' dependence on elaborate signals to communicate combine to create the effect of a fantasyland New York that's appealing to me now and I can only imagine would have left me as spellbound as it did Brian, if I'd seen it as a child.

3 comments:

bill teck said...

Hi - i was wondering if i could trouble you to email me regarding a project i'm working on about They All Laughed, the Bogdanovich film, - would it be possible? You can email me here at bill@generation-n.com or bill@billteck.com By the way... your writing and your site are wonderful.
Much obliged and thank you!

Ned Merrill said...

Thanks for the kind words, Bill! Glad to see someone read this piece just about a year after it was posted!

Melissa Hernandez said...

I read it when you posted it, i just quietly enjoyed it (not a big comment guy), as i do with your site, you're a wonderful writer man.