Once upon a time in Hollywood…
Blake Edwards has made some great movies—Breakfast At Tiffany's, The Days of Wine and Roses, The Pink Panther—but this isn't one of them. Though it's not for a lack of trying. All the elements necessary for a great comedy are here. Take one part funny premise—successful producer hits rock bottom and creates brilliant plan for reclaiming box office glory—two parts funny characters—manic publicist, oversexed director, drunken studio doctor—and three parts funny people—Richard Mulligan's physical comedy, Robert Preston's brilliant line deliveries, Robert Webber's off-the-wall performance. Mix in a healthy dose of funny moments. Cook for 121 minutes and voila!—a hilarious feast of comic proportions. Unfortunately, this soufflé falls flat…both in content and presentation.
Facts of the Case
Felix Farmer (Richard Mulligan) has established himself as Hollywood's golden boy—a producer who can turn any half-wit project or two-bit script into box office boffo. However, his luck has just run out. Felix's latest project, "Night Wind"—a schmaltzy family drama starring his wife, America's sweetheart, Sally Miles (Julie Andrews)—has crashed faster than the Hindenburg and sunken deeper than the Titanic. The critics have skewered him, his wife is divorcing him, and the studio wants to fire him. Felix has reached the end of his rope and is using it to hang himself when inspiration strikes! Rewrite the film turning America's sweetheart into a world-class sexpot. It's a perfect idea! What could possibly go wrong?
We do not need Inspector Clouseau's powers of deduction to see that S.O.B. fails as an uproarious comedy. For example, in the opening sequence, a man is jogging down the beach, with his dog, and suffers a fatal heart attack. For the next 60 minutes, he lays there unnoticed by the hundreds of people who travel, relax, and play on the beach, within 20 feet of him, with the dog by his side. Not funny. However, upon closer examination, this is not a comedic device but a commentary on the people of Southern California. It is a signal to us—the audience—that there is more to this picture than meets the eye.
In a sense, S.O.B. must have been a catharsis for Edwards—his chance to exorcise decades of Hollywood demons. My guess is, on one level, each character in the film is an amalgam of real life people and personalities Edwards has worked with over the years—some more obvious or stereotypical than others. The studio "yes" men who change their collective minds like a fart in the wind. The subtle and devious machinations of everyone you trust and rely on—agents, lawyers, publicists, assistants, et cetera—all looking for an angle or opportunity to advance their own careers. All the hangers-on who want just the tiniest taste of what stardom and success in Hollywood brings. Even Felix's wife—played by Edwards' real wife, Julie Andrews—is cursed by stardom. Best known for her role as Peter Pan (insert Mary Poppins or Maria Von Trapp), her success comes complete with golden handcuffs, as the perfect person unable to live her life as a flawed woman, wife, or mother, for fear her fans might see.
On another level, several of these characters most likely represent Edwards himself at various stages in his career. The publicist who has only just had his eyes opened to the ugliness and insensitivity that is Hollywood and the anger he harbors for not seeing it sooner. The optimistic producer who must battle the powers-that-be in order to convince them his idea will work. The trusted but bitter old director who has resigned himself to playing the game—even though it has cost him his soul—while numbing the pain with sex and alcohol. However, despite all the satirizing and ridicule, the overall message Edwards leaves us with is one of conciliatory cynicism—in the end, even when you win, you lose.
From an acting perspective, the performances, much like the comedy, are hit and miss. In the plus column, Richard Mulligan plays the desperation and volatility of Felix to perfection. William Holden, in his final film performance, is masterful. Granted, there isn't much to the role of Culley, but he makes it all look so easy. Robert Preston, showcasing his impeccable timing and delivery, chews the scenery as Doctor Finegarten. Finally, Robert Webber, one of Hollywood's best "I know that guy" actors, gives the film its biggest injection of laughs as the manic publicist Ben Coogan. In the minus column, Robert Vaughn is a cardboard cutout as studio president David Blackman. Robert Loggio is wasted in his two minutes on screen as Sally's lawyer. Larry Hagman phones in a watered down version of Major Nelson (I Dream of Jeannie) as one of the studio execs. Larry Storch (F-Troop) as a marhareshi-yogi is just wrong on many levels. Finally, Loretta Swit (M*A*S*H*) is loud and obnoxious as Polly Reed the annoying gossip columnist. Falling somewhere in-between is Julie Andrews basically playing herself as Sally and Shelly Winters as her agent, Eva Brown, with two good lines and not much else to do. For those "before they were stars" seekers, keep an eye out for minor character appearances by Joe Penny (Jake and the Fatman), Corbin Bernsen (L.A. Law), and Rosanna Arquette (Pulp Fiction).
The physical evidence here only serves to distract from the film. The 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is clean but looks as if it spent too much time in the California sun. The colors are faded and most noticeable in the film's two musical sequences. Definitely could have benefited from a facelift. The Dolby 1.0 mono audio track is a huge disappointment, but not surprising given that Warner Bros. packaged the film in a cheap snap case with photo static menus. The only saving grace is Henry Mancini's beautifully whimsical score that carries us through the entire film and leaves us humming the theme long after it's done.
What little special features Warner tosses our way are not even worth talking about. A theatrical trailer is nice, but nothing else? Edwards is a man with a tremendous body of work. Wouldn't it benefit us all to capture those memories and insights while he is still around to share them? Perhaps it's fitting that this film, given its subject matter, continues to show us the idiocy and shortsightedness of Hollywood. Not much has changed in 21 years, has it?
I have to admit it took more than one viewing for me to appreciate the real value of this film. If you are expecting a laugh riot, you will be sorely disappointed. However, if you are looking for a cynical inside view of Hollywood, you will find a wealth of entertainment. A rental at best, this is not a film I would recommend purchasing. For a good Blake Edwards comedy, I recommend A Shot in the Dark or The Pink Panther Strikes Again.
This court finds S.O.B. guilty of exemplifying much of what is wrong with Hollywood and holds Warner Brothers responsible for putting out inferior product. If you are not going to do it right, don't do it at all! This court now stands in recess.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Theatrical Trailer
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