Forget Ford Prefect. These hoopy froods really know where their towels are, Judge Brett Cullum notes.
Patron With Cigar: Crisco.
1976's The Ritz seems like a gem of an undiscovered film finally out on DVD because it certainly has an impressive pedigree. Director Richard Lester was famous for his work with the Beatles (Help!) and Superman II, while the screenwriter was Tony Award-winning scribe Terrence McNally (Love! Valour! Compassion!). The cast included Jack Weston (Can't Stop the Music), Rita Moreno (West Side Story), Jerry Stiller (Hairspray), Kaye Ballard (Freaky Friday), Treat Williams (Hair), Paul B. Price (The One Armed Bandit), and a nearly unrecognizable F. Murray Abraham (Amadeus). Warner Brothers finally releases the film on a stripped-down DVD, and the results are mixed.
Facts of the Case
Teddy bear-shaped Jack Weston plays an Italian husband whose wife's (Ballard) mafia don father has died while asking for a hit to be taken out on his son-in-law. The hapless man with a contract on him jumps in a cab and asks to be taken somewhere his gangster brother-in-law (Stiller) will never find him. He ends up at a gay bathhouse complete with all the fabulous amenities you could imagine and hundreds of horny men in towels prowling the halls. He thinks he's safe. He doesn't count on being pursued by a relentless chubby chaser (Price) lusting after his ample figure, a deluded Hispanic cabaret singer (Moreno) who thinks he's a big-time theatrical producer, a flaming out-and-proud queer who thinks this is Weston's coming out (Abraham), and a high-voiced private detective (Williams) who has a killer pretty-boy body and not a clue how to use it. Doors slam, wigs come off, and identities are mistaken as the farce plays out full steam.
Originally The Ritz was a Broadway play, and the film shoot found most of the cast recreating their stage roles. F. Murray Abraham, Rita Moreno, Jerry Stiller, Jack Weston, and Paul B. Price play the parts they first embodied in the original production. Director Richard Lester gives the traditional farce in an untraditional setting a good go, but the proceedings play all too easily to homosexual stereotypes and forced hilarity. What saves the show are performances which are solid and way too much fun. Rita Moreno stands out as the Puerto Rican poolside singer aspiring to go the way of Bette Midler as a "Bathhouse Betty"; her misguided medley of show tunes slaughtered by her thick accent is a scream. Paul Price chases the overweight patrons with a deranged commitment. F. Murray Abraham's sweet and nelly patron role pops as extremely believable. Jerry Stiller creating a macho mafioso is something he rarely got a chance to do, and he makes the most of it. Weston has to play it "straight" the entire film gasping at the gay hedonism, but succumbs to the insanity long enough to do an Andrews Sisters number. A very young Treat Williams sings songs in his girlie voice and poses long enough in nothing but a towel to leave a strong impression. The cast is the best reason to check in to The Ritz, because they understand the farce elements and deliver believable characters who want something very badly.
The physical production is handsomely well-appointed with strong art design. The bathhouse set is amazingly well done with just the right amount of glitter combined with a touch of sleaze. Anyone who has been to an establishment like this will nod in recognition at the wet areas, steam rooms, and tacky private cubicles that serve as bedrooms. It's a loving testament to a bygone era when bathhouses were the focal point of the gay community, long before they were demonized by the AIDS epidemic.
The Ritz is now a period piece chronicling a more innocent and sexually charged time, yet it refrains from showing any male on male sexuality to a graphic degree. Gay viewers hoping for a realistic portrayal of their community will be disappointed. There's no nudity, no sex, and only a few hints at innuendo to establish where the characters are. Despite having McNally writing, this could have been cranked out by a script writer who never frequented a bathhouse. The gay characters are as buffoonish as the straight ones, and everyone is a cartoon. The Ritz plays everything safe rather than sexy, and was aimed at straight audiences and mainstream America.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Warner Brothers does not do much to preserve the 1976 feature, and there's nothing more to this disc than a basic presentation. The widescreen image is grainy and soft, looking easily three decades old. The source print is in okay shape, but there are plenty of instances of dirt and scratches. Sound is a really muddy mono which muffles a good portion of the dialogue. Thankfully we do have English subtitles for when the going gets rough. There are no extras other than a vintage trailer that is in rougher shape than the main movie.
Ironically the release of this DVD is timed perfectly with the end of the revival run of the stage show (starring Rosie Perez in the Rita Moreno role) at the old Studio 54 by the Roundabout Theatre Company. The film suffers a bit because the material is truly meant for the stage, and the translation Richard Lester offers is far too static and staid. The Ritz misses the pacing of a farce, and moves far too slowly to truly work in recreating the great Hollywood farces of the '30s and '40s.
A great cast stumbles through a funny farce that belongs on the stage. The Ritz is a curious film that tries to be unconventional and daring in many ways, but in the end only reinforces the cuddly stereotypes of the gay community from 1976. Check it out for a few great character actors giving it their all, but don't expect too much from the film or the DVD. Warner Brothers gives a shoddy soft transfer that looks like it wasn't restored or retouched in the slightest. The Ritz gets a bare-bones release with only a trailer to back it up, and that's a real shame. I'd love to hear from the cast members who translated the script as a stage production and a film. I have a feeling they would clearly prefer the more successful Broadway version.
Guilty of being a quaint comedy that never reaches the absurd highs it strives for, The Ritz is simply a nice memory of '70s cinema.
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