Today! Because they didn’t burn down Rome in one day – you got to keep pluggin’ –
Melvin and Howard (1980)
Directed by Jonathan Demme
Starring Paul Le Mat, Mary Steenburgen, Jason Robards, Michael J. Pollard, Gloria Grahame, Robert Ridgely (x2), Charles Napier, Jack Kehoe (x2), Pamela Reed, John Glover (x3), Dabney Coleman, Elizabeth Cheshire
A very deceptive movie in its marketing and general awareness, Melvin and Howard ostensibly is about when milkman and all-around blue collar shlub Melvin Dummar met billionaire/eccentric/nutcase Howard Hughes in the desert one night and gave him a lift home. This is the scene that opens the film, and then isn’t mentioned again, for about an hour. And because of the bookending of the film with constant Hughes intrigue, not only did that become the focus of the movie, but everyone tends to forget the middle hour, as we watch the daily employment and marital struggles of Melvin, which is the key to the whole story.
Otherwise, what really are you left with? Sure, Robards makes a great Hughes, but he’s in the movie for about ten minutes, and then is just mentioned endlessly, making it feel like he’s a much larger character. In fairness, the movie should’ve been titled Melvin and Lynda, as Mary Steenburgen has far more and trickier acting to handle, and rightfully won an Oscar for her efforts. The spurious will and debate is intriguing, and knots the whole film together, but (and this shouldn’t be much of a spoiler) with Melvin never really having a chance at the Hughes fortune, the dramatic heart of the movie defaults to Melvin’s good-natured bouncing from one setback to another across the story. You might be more an American Graffiti fan, but for my money, this is Paul Le Mat’s best work. Melvin could come off as a doofus, or a con man, or just super pathetic, but Le Mat’s delicate balance between these shades make for more of an endearing character than he probably deserves. Steenburgen and Robards got the lion’s share of attention, but it’s Le Mat’s steady work that drives the movie.
The performances are great, and Demme’s solid pacing holds interest through the middle section – I wouldn’t really describe the structure of the movie as a fault, necessarily, but given that going in most viewers only know the movie is about Howard Hughes’ will, there is an anxious tendency to look forward to his reemergence in the story. Bo Goldman’s terrific screenplay functions better with less preconceived ideas – I only glancingly knew anything about this movie the first time I saw it – but it can be frustrating if Howard’s end of Melvin and Howard is all you’ve tuned in to see.
Along with Steenburgen, Goldman’s screenplay also won an Oscar – his second, following his adaptation of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – and Robards was nominated, while both actors plus Le Mat and the film itself were nominated for Comedy/Musical Globes. But no where was the Best Dumb Christmas Song award given to Melvin for his drive time singalong “Santa’s Souped-Up Sleigh.” Boo!
Also as a sad bit of trivia, Oscar winner Gloria Grahame (best remembered as Violet in It’s a Wonderful Life) randomly turns up here, playing Lynda’s mother, and has literally no lines in the film. Her later life took a lot of weird turns (some of which are recounted in the movie Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool), including marrying her own former stepson, Shadows star Anthony Ray, and undergoing electroshock therapy after a nervous breakdown, because that was an actual treatment a licensed doctor would recommend in the 1960’s. But really, what is she even doing in Melvin and Howard?
Character actors abound in the Two-Timers club today, with Jack Kehoe (#354 The Untouchables) and Robert Ridgely (#395 Robin Hood: Men in Tights) joining up, as well as Three-Timer John Glover (#399 Payback and #325 Gremlins 2)!