Alan J. Pakula and James L. Brooks Team Up To Create A Smart “Rom Com” In 1979’s “Starting Over”


Reynolds and Clayburgh in “Starting Over”

I have dedicated this blog to those lost films of the 1970s mostly from the perspective of films that have been “forgotten” or “hard to find,” but this week I will use director Alan J. Pakula’s 1979 effort, “Starting Over” to discuss a genre that I feel that is truly lost: the intelligently made “rom com.” We all know the term “rom com,” that hideous mess of the last few decades of the Sarah Jessica Parker and Kate Hudson kind that serves its ideas so warmed over that the mere mention of one will send most film watchers who expect anything more than a trifle running for the hills. There was a time though when romance was not always looked at in a giggling beautiful people kind of way; you all remember the time when the Albert Brooks and Woody Allens dominated the landscape, don’t you?

Alan J. Pakula was no where near the aforementioned directors’ world during the 1970s, as he, like so many of his contemporaries, were too busy examining the paranoia of a Nixon-era America in films like “Klute,” “All The President’s Men” and “The Parralax View.” One wonders why after such huge successes, that Pakula would gravitate towards romance? Perhaps the reason lies within the critical and commercial failure of his heavy-handed 1978 film, “Comes A Horseman,” which included the death of stuntman, Jim Sheppard, or perhaps it was the chance to work with the talented young screenwriter, James L. Brooks, the successful creator of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” that had Pakula thinking in a new direction. Regardless of the reasoning, there is much to like about “Starting Over,” Pakula’s last film of that decade.

The film opens with Phil Potter (an eerily clean-shaven Burt Reynolds, free of his Smokey and The Bandit stache) staring at his wife Jessica (Candice Bergen) as she performs a comedically flat version of her new song “Better Than Ever,” an almost mockingly nasty poke at late seventies feminism, which she wrote about their fading marriage. She soon carelessly tells Phil that she has filed and has been granted a divorce. Phil takes it passively and packs his bags for Boston where he can regroup and stay with his brother Mickey (the always solid Charles Durning) and his over-sensitive wife Marva (Frances Sternhagen, who is better known as “Cliff’s mom” on Cheers). On the request of Marva, Phil is off to a divorce workshop in the basement of Boston’s famed Trinity Church, where he and his fellow sad sacks sit and discuss their failed marriages with a sitcom-esque cadence of moans and accusations as they fight off the hoard of divorced women, who like approaching Visigoths, pound the door every time that their stay in the basement is supposed to start. Here, we can see the brilliance of James L. Brooks dialog writing in television. Sure, the jokes have laugh space like any good episode of “Rhoda” (another Brooks creation), but they are no less hysterical and real.

Phil seems happy to go to these meetings and that encourages Marva and Mickey to inflict more kindness on Phil as they secretly invite their preschool teacher friend Marilyn (ironically played by Jill Clayburgh just a year after she defined the modern divorcee in An Unmarried Woman) to a dinner/setup to meet Phil. They hit it off, but because she is equally gun shy after a failed relationship, she pushes our Phil away, even setting him up with another divorcee friend of hers, Marie, who seems more hungry to get at Phil than he had ever dreamed of, sending him running back to Marilyn as he begs her for any kind of evening, romantic or not. It’s abundantly clear that Phil is not over his ex-wife, but he craves companionship at some level, and Marilyn will begrudgingly comply, though she is still keeping her guard up. You know the wife is not out of the picture, not even close, but Marilyn just likes Phil too much to not see this through. Clayburgh’s ability with comedic dialog is to be commended here, and I truly wished that she had done more comedy, and she plays Marilyn fragile but smart and handles each scene with a demented confidence that feels like she knows what is best for her, but she also knows that the hammer will fall soon. As far as Burt is concerned, well, needless to say that this is 1970s Burt Reynolds, so you are given the same classic cocky performance you always get in every film he stars in, which you of course love, regardless of how it does or doesn’t fit the character he is playing here.

Candice Bergen Trying To Win Her Ex Back With “Song”

You may be thinking at this point that the story of “Starting Over” doesn’t exactly fall to far off the “rom coms” of today, and in some ways you are right. A romantic film that plays out with some difficultly but one where you know that the two leads will get together in the end is the book definition of a “rom com,” but using that definition alone, “Annie Hall” and “Modern Romance” would also be considered “rom coms,” except that they create interesting, intelligent characters who progress through the narrative with smartly written dialog and situations that reach a level of uncomfortable that recent entries into this genre do not have the courage to do as to not upset their callow audiences. One would only have to look at the Thanksgiving scene in “Starting Over” when Phil invites Mickey, Marva, and Marilyn over to his apartment for dinner and callously crushes our Marilyn, who finally is feeling like she’s part of Phil’s life, when his ex-wife Jessica calls up, and Phil describes his new love to Jessica as “some friend of his brother’s.” It’s a genuinely soul crushing moment that seems to come out of nowhere, but it does somehow fits Phil’s hidden resolve to get back with Jessica, though he shouldn’t even consider it.

If there is a negative critique of “Starting Over,” it is that it does move too quickly towards an ending that doesn’t seem to fit Phil’s character. It almost resembles Albert Brooks’ desperate wedding proposal to Kathryn Harrold in “Modern Romance,” except that act furthers Brooks’ insipid obsession with the woman that he cannot stop breaking up with during the film. Phil Potter’s proposal to Marilyn in the end shows the weakness in James L. Brooks writing at the time as it seems more like something that would happen at the end of a 30 minute sitcom and not a film that is taking a hard look at the modern divorced man. James L. Brooks would tighten in endings during the 1980s with “Terms Of Endearment” and “Broadcast News.” Two excellent films that occasionally slip a bit too far into melodrama, but still come out with their edge intact.

Though “Starting Over” is not in the same league as some of the more honest films about men and women in the late 1970s, it is still packed with more than enough humor and excellent performances to lay waste against anything in the desolate land of the modern “rom com.”

From 1979, Bernardo Bertolucci Gives Us The Faux-Operatic “Luna”

America Luna Poster

1979 Poster for Bertolucci’s “Luna”

Given the recent success of Bernardo Bertolucci’s latest film, “Me and You,” the story of a bourgeois boy who spends a few days locked away with his gorgeous junkie half-sister while hiding from his overbearing mother in the basement of this condominium, it immediately brought to mind Bernardo’s controversial 1979 film of incest, “Luna.” “Luna” was ripped apart by the critics in 1979 and was even sermonized during a Sunday service at my local church, which, of course, made me want to leave immediately and see the film myself.

I originally didn’t see “Luna” in the most ideal way, with my elderly Italian-Catholic father in a downtown Philadelphia theater. Pa also had it in a bit for Bernardo as my dad was a proud fascist who hated Alberto Moravia, who had written the book that Bertolucci’s “The Conformist” was based on and thus despised the film. Regardless, as Dad was sweet about most things and would on my request see just about anything except for science fiction, we went to see the film at the old Ritz Theater. Let’s just say that when Luna was over, pa was not pleased. Translating from Italian, he called the film “sensationalistic garbage.” With all respect to my father, I didn’t agree with him then, but I’m not sure that it needed to be seen again.

Watching “Luna” again recently, I was immediately struck by the beautiful photography of Vittorio Storaro, who that same year had lensed Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now.” Storaro had been working with Bertolucci since they collaborated on the aforementioned “Conformist” and for his time,was the finest cinematographer on earth. Much can also be said for Jill Clayburgh, the star of “Luna,” an exceptional actress throughout the 1970s, who a year earlier had shined in the equally controversial Paul Mazursky film, “An Unmarried Woman.” Clayburgh, it has been rumored, relished the opportunity to work with Bertolucci and truly does the most she can with what was given to her and turns in a fine performance. As for Bertolucci; he was on quite the roll, from his first film in 1962, The Grim Reaper, through the 60s and 1970s, and although he had stumbled a bit in his 1976 film, “1900,” he had won every conceivable accolade possible for “Last Tango In Paris,” “Love and Anger,” and “Partners.”

So, what went wrong?

Let’s start with the story and dialog of the film, co-written by Bertolucci, his brother Giuseppe, and his wife Clare Peploe, which has no desire to either fully ground itself to reality or to allow the operatic style drama of the piece to flourish into a surrealistic experience. The story goes like this; Caterina Silveri (Clayburgh) is a wealthy opera singer who is married Douglas Winter (Fred Gwynne), and they have an erratic bratty teenage son named Joe (Matthew Berry). Together they all live happily in their New York townhouse until dad dies suddenly which makes mom whisks Joe and herself off to Italy to grow her career. Once in Italy, Caterina’s career flourishes in grand opera, while Joe becomes more bitchy, chatty, and erratic. He appears to worship his mother in an almost romantic fashion but of course, treats her like crap whenever he can, which in some ways is very Italian Catholic, but these people are supposed to be Americans, so what gives here? This character flaw is the beginning of the many issues that I have with “Luna” as I am not sure that Bernardo ever wants this to be an American family.

Joe follows this behavior by experimenting with hetero sex, gay sex, and of course heroin, a fact that his mother discovers during a somewhat hedonistic birthday party for Joe. Once Caterina discovers that little Joe is on the horse, she breaks out into full maternal mode, abandoning all and even buying a fix for Joe once his dealer Mustafa leaves town. This culminates in one “key” scene when Joe forks his arm in frustration when he runs out of needles for his fix. Even more bitchy and obnoxious, Joe is inconsolable, so mom kisses and masturbates him to climax, until he falls into a peaceful junkie sleep. This scene provides another moment of frustration for me as Caterina’s somewhat maternal but sexual reaction to Joe’s junkie freak-out is as believable as Joe even being able to get an erection while strung out. If given the stylistic context of an opera, these mistakes would be taken in as operatic license but here they just appear confused as to what they want to portray.

At this point, we aren’t sure where Joe’s addiction stands, but Caterina decides to pull Joe into the country to trace back the time when she met Joe’s father. You see, unknown to Joe, Douglas was not his biological father, so Caterina, after another few rest stops that lead to even more moments of sexual uncertainty, leads Joe to Giuseppe (Tomas Milian), a poor, country elementary school teacher, who is loved but still lives in the town where they met. Perhaps what Bernardo is saying here is that Caterina wanted more than just being a mom, so she was off to America where she has always denied who she really loved and has now brought those hidden desires to her son. Sure, there are moments when we see that Joe and Giuseppe have accidentally dressed the same, but that’s all Bernardo is going to give you to draw that conclusion. Once everything is out in the open, the film bizarrely culminates in an outdoor performance of Verdi’s “Un Balla in Maschera.”  If you are looking for a connection between Verdi’s three act opera and the story of “Luna,” I will save you some trouble.  There isn’t one, and this pseudo operatic tale of tragedy and regret is now over.  Not surprisingly, the critics of that time seemed more concerned with the audacity of the film, but they should have been more upset at its lack of focus.

Watch Joe wander and rant through the streets of Italy in “Luna”

The good news is that with 2014’s “Me and You,” Bertolucci has corrected the mistakes of “Luna” by allowing his characters’ dialog to speak for their broken realities and not by forcing them into constant over the top moments of dire melodramatics.   It is a film that is grounded in reality but is no less dramatic (or beautiful for that matter) for its choice of narrative style. Lorenzo, the struggling adolescent in “Me and You,” is selfish and callow in his actions at first, but once he understands the causes of his inner turmoil through the ranting of Olivia, his economically trapped roommate and junkie sister, he is free and able to leave the basement with peace. Though there are suggestions of possible intimacy between Lorenzo and Olivia, Bertolucci sidesteps those moments and does not allow for a physical encounter to happen, which is an excellent decision for a film that has chosen the ground for launching its familial drama. So what if it took 35 years for this to happen, I was thrilled that Bernardo was able to pull it off right this time.