MOVIES Surviving the Seventies

Willie and Phil survive quite nicely; Willie Nelson survives just barely.

Paul Mazursky, with keen eye and loving heart, has made another cream puff of a movie in Willie and Phil, a story of two men and a woman who share their lives through the course of the Seventies, that confusing decade in which social and political ferment gave way to a kind of listless survivalism. Mazursky creates comedies of manners for the screen-light, funny, shrewdly observed caricatures of people as they are, and as they think they are, but he doesn’t aim for anything as simple as satirical attack. He sometimes makes fun of his characters, but he usually prefers to have fun with them; they are social cartoons, but they are so earnest in their befuddlement and so sincere in their pretensions that we side with them, pull for them, because too often they are just like we are. Mazursky never uses a cliché unless it hits the nail on the head; Willie and Phil is the work of a mature artist at play. If you are of a certain age and experience, you are likely to see practically everyone you know on the screen at some point in this movie.

The film opens on a scene in a small revival theater in Manhattan. Jules et Jim is playing for what must be the hundredth time for a small core of Truffaut fanatics, and with a long, slow pullback from the glow of the projector to a wide-view front shot of the fuzzy-haired audience, we emerge from the fantasy of the film to a more mundane reality. Well, not quite. Outside the theater, Willie Kaufman and Phil D’Amico meet for the first time. Apparently unwilling to let go of the illusion they have just shared as strangers, they strike up a Jules/Jim-style friendship. Willie (Michael Ontkean) is a high school teacher who wants to be a jazz musician; Phil (Ray Sharkey) is an Italian commercial photographer who wants to be a Jewish intellectual. As their relationship grows, Mazursky himself says in voice-over, “They were having a good time, but they were miserable They were looking for an swers, but they didn’t know what the ques tions were.” Soon Jeannette Sutherland (Margot Kidder), a southern girl with a sense of adventure, appears upon the scene and befriends them both. Before long, they realize, as first the voice-over and then Jeanette herself tells us, that their “destinies are interlocked forever

Willie and Phil discuss which one of them will have Jeanette, but it is she who decides, with a flip of a coin, that she will move in with Willie. One thing leads to another, or, as Jeannette says, “might as well be sooner than later,” and after a series of miscouplings and earnest discussions of feelings, Willie and Jeannette make a baby and decide to marry. They move to Vermont so Willie can try his hand at growing corn and marijuana, while Phil moves to Hollywood, embraces all the claptrap, and gets rich directing television commercials. Jeannette soon finds the country unbearable – she has no romantic notions about getting back to the earth – and she persuades Willie to follow her to L.A. They move in with Phil, she goes to work in the film industry, and Willie does a stretch as a househusband, spending long afternoons bicycling on the beach telling his small daughter he is really a “sea gull.” The siren call of enlightenment beckons, though, and Willie continues west to the Orient (leaving Jeannette with Phil), where after varied exploits in monasteries and communes, his consciousness is raised to the max – that is to say, he recovers his sense of humor and comes home. In time, the three friends separate and return to New York, ending as they began, with Willie and Phil friends and with Jeannette on her own.

In the broadest sense, this is a comedy about social change and about relationships, but for all its gentle humor and mockery of the follies of the young adults of the Seventies, this movie is about the spirit of romance and the way it dieshard. The Jules et Jim clip is a perfect introduction to these young men, each of them yearning for a love goddess of his own. The comedy of the situation lies in their choice of Jeannette, who has to be one of the most literal-minded, sensible, pragmatic film heroines of recent times. It’s as if they made her up-they needed a straight man. Jeannette is the only one of the three who doesn’t have a strong sense of mission about herself. She wants to live, have fun, get along; she speaks from the heart when she tells Willie, “There are no answers ” She is light-years ahead of her two companion in understanding that. When their mens is coming apart at the end, both of the men feel as if they are prisoners; they spend their last nights in California together in the ja-cuzzi, spying on Jeannette’s upstairs win-dow like a pair of tomcats, waiting for her decision. When she announces that she is going on alone, their despair and the aggression which has been repressed between the two men for so many years explode into violence. They snarl epithets and ethnic slurs at each other, which provokes a fist fight that leaves them rolling in an agonized embrace at the edge of the ocean.

Mazursky directs with such a light touch | that even this depiction of a complex love-hate relationship between two men seems | part of a humorous dream. He works this kind of sleight of hand throughout the picture. Listen to the words and then hear how I the actors say them; it’s like watching two separate but harmonious movies at the same time. Mazursky has created a very strong understructure for this film in his precise, schematic screenplay and in the assembly of a very solid cast of players- Kidder, Ontkean, and Sharkey are all excellent-and then he has played this movie loose as a goose. I thought I’d had enough of Mazursky’s ethnic cartoons, but he does them so well, they stay funny. Ray Sharkey fairly shivers with Italo-Catholic shame, and Jan Miner, as Willie’s mother, is a pro at dishing out Jewish guilt.

The theme song of the hapless trio is “What Is This Thing Called Love?,” and it reprises in various forms throughout the film; they play it in a seemingly out-of-place sing-song fashion, but we hear a blues version of it later, and a scat rendering at the end, and finally the song establishes itself as a valid part of the whole. The first time I saw the movie, I objected somewhat to Mazursky’s using himself as a narrator- his voice has an unfinished quality and a vaguely cute edge here-but the film is so like an extremely well-made, friendly home movie, the Mazursky narration is somehow appropriate. It’s such a personal, successfully self-indulgent film, a “professional” voice would be inappropriate.

In a left-handed way, Mazursky has made a feminist film in Willie and Phil and also “answered” his own film, An Unmarried Woman. In this comic world, women make the decisions, and men depend upon them to keep things going. Left to their own devices, Willie and Phil become lost in fantasy or, worse, they become ordinary.

Cinematographer Sven Nykvist has once again done exquisite work. Donn Cam-bern’s editing also makes a huge contribution to the film’s snappy comic rhythms.

Paul Mazursky shows more talent and wisdom in the throwaway parts of this timely, generous movie than most directors display in a life’s work of heavy melodrama. Willie and Phil is a quiet, subtle movie that feels deceptively soft; it demands close attentio

As early as 1972, folks in Austin were predicting that one day (“soon”), some smart film producer would devise a starring vehicle for country singer and musician par excellence Willie Nelson. That film has finally arrived under the title Honeysuckle Rose, the tale of a late-blooming performer with a mighty talent and an incurable wanderlust, a character modeled closely after Nelson. The story is set in and around Texas-it’s chiefly a “road” film -and it was somebody’s idea of a good idea to hire a former fashion photographer from New York to direct it. Jerry Schatzberg is a director of some skill, but he has no sense of the terrain and culture he’s grappling with here, and the film is for the most part an exercise in phoniness. Willie Nelson finally prevails in Honeysuckle Rose, but only his unique personality and great charm keep the film from looking like an old Elvis movie.

Nelson plays Buck Bonham, a grizzled, road-worn musician who has made it into middle age with his self-image as a lusty “desperado” still intact. However much he loves his wife Viv (Dyan Cannon) and their son Jamie (Joey Floyd), they do cramp his style, and his brief visits home are basically rest stops. Buck hits the road with his band after one such visit, taking Lily (Amy Irving) on tour with him. She’s the daughter of Garland (Slim Pickens), Buck’s long-time sidekick and oldest friend, and he needs her to fill in until he can find a permanent guitarist to replace Garland, who has retired. (Lily’s supposed to be an excellent guitarist.) Buck and Lily fall in love, Viv discovers the affair, and the fur flies.

The plot is the very stuff of c/w sob songs, but that’s not much basis for complaint; we don’t come to this movie for high drama, we come to see Willie Nelson perform. Too bad director Schatzberg didn’t have enough confidence in the intrinsic value of his material to keep it simple, to sustain the band performances so we could see what we came to see. It’s not until deep into the film that we get to watch Willie do a song from beginning to end. For the first hour or so, the music serves as a background for traveling montages of the band on the road and for all sorts of silly peripheral incidents. It’s a palpable relief and a long-awaited pleasure when we finally do see the band in concer

Schatzberg did credible work with The Seduction of Joe Tynan and great work in an early film with Al Pacino, The Panic

in Needle Park, a gritty little movie about New York junkies. But here Schatzberg is so alienated from the basic textures of his subject that when a dance floor fills up with a crowd doing the Cotton-Eyed Joe, they look like they’re shuffling in an unhappy circle waiting for a subway train; there’s not a hint of joy in the scene. And the film isn’t helped much by the banal, cute-good-ol’-boy screenplay by Carol Sobieski, Bill Witt-liff, and John Binder, which provides a panoply of infantile jokes and Ozzie-and-Harriet-style exchanges between Nelson and Dyan Cannon.

The movie catches fire somewhat when Nelson begins an affair with Amy Irving, and when Dyan Cannon makes an onstage appearance at a concert to declare her wifely outrage; the confrontation and resulting events create some momentum, and meanwhile we get what we came for – Willie Nelson onstage. His singing and playing is superb, and he’s not half bad as an actor when he’s expressing a simple, direct emotion. It’s when he has to put over some of the absurdities of the screenplay that his desperado’s eyes start to glaze over with what looks like a cross between embarrassment and something approaching fear. It’s reassuring to see that he’s uncomfortable with most of the faked-up parts of the story.

Dyan Cannon is nicely overripe as the wife, and since she has a gift for expressing hostility, she’s fairly convincing. One wishes she weren’t so often wearing a ridiculously tall cowboy hat and that she didn’t always look bigger than Willie Nelson. Amy Irving is a wonderful young actress and a great beauty; she mostly overcomes her air of the spoiled princess in her portrayal of the hero-worshipping paramour, and her feints at fancy guitar playing are engaging, if not entirely believable. She possesses the most beautiful pair of green eyes you can see on the screen today – they’re dazzling, like jewels -and it’s typical of Schatzberg’s “art” that when Irving first appears in this movie, she’s wearing a wide-brimmed sun hat which so shades her face we can’t see her eyes. Both Cannon and Irving do their own singing, and while neither is spectacular (they both look scared at the microphone), they are wisely given relatively low profiles and defer to Nelson’s lead. Slim Pickens is predictably winning as Garland, and he and Nelson give us the sense of fun that two legitimate good ol’ boys can have when they’re on a binge. Nelson’s band is sublime in its musical performances, and there is the added treat of a small cameo by Kenneth Threadgill, a long-time Austinite and a fine musician.

It’s a stretch, but Willie Nelson manages to overcome the obstacles of this mediocre film and stand out as a star.


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