' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Melvin and Howard

Friday, March 09, 2012

Friday's Old Fashioned: Melvin and Howard

Films often hinge on some sort of dramatic precipice which must be scaled. Luke Skywalker and cronies needed to blow up the Death Star. Rocky Balboa needed to go toe-to-toe with Apollo Creed and win the heart of Adrian. Will Kane needed to stand up to Frank Miller and his gang. Then there is "Melvin and Howard" (1980), Jonathan Demme's lovable based-on-a-true-story fable, in which the precipice is an ultra-cheesy game show called Easy Street, hosted by a debonair sleazebucket (Jack Kehoe), where Lynda Dummar (Mary Steenburgen) will offer up an amateurish if spirited tap-dance routine to "Satisfaction" in the hopes that it will bring riches to the lives of she, her husband Melvin (Paul Le Mat) and their two young children.

Did you know Mary Steenburgen won an Oscar for this role? I'll admit I had no idea. In doing research for a recent article I stumbled upon this nugget of info. I'm a Steenburgen fan, from her work as herself on "Curb Your Enthusiam" to her fine supporting turn in the underrated, underseen minor masterpiece "Sunshine State." Yet the fact she had earned an Academy Award somehow eluded me. And while she offers fine supporting work, resembling an airhead with a brain, the title of the film, after all, includes Melvin's name, not hers, and that's because it's about him. Yes, even more than Howard.

That's Howard Hughes. Yes, the Howard Hughes, played by Jason Robards with shaggy hair, a grizzled face, and both mild annoyance and indomitable spirit. The facets of the true story go that the real life Melvin Dummar picked up Howard Hughes one night on a desert highway, drove him to Vegas, dropped him off at the Desert Inn, dismissed the notion that he really was who he said he was, and then forgot all about the encounter until several years later upon the famed but reclusive aviator's death he discovered he was supposedly left 1/16th of the Hughes fortune in a supposed will. It was referred to as The Mormon Will on account of it being discovered at the Church of Latter Day Saints in Salt Lake City where Dummar claimed he was instructed to leave it after it had originally been left to him by a mysterious if stylish man at his flailing gas station. Demme's film addresses The Mormon Will in it's third act but this is much less a film specifically about the will than it is about the life of Melvin.

He may be a bit chuckleheaded but he's also quite gracious, as evidenced both by his picking up and subsequent transportation of ol' Mr. Hughes and then forcing Mr. Hughes to sing along to his extraordinarily lame self-composed Christmas jingle about "Santa's souped up sleigh." We first meet Lynda, in fact, when she decides to up and vanish from their trailer with their daughter in tow on account of her husband's chuckleheadedness. Not that she isn't a bit of a chucklehead, too, because he tracks her down at a strip joint and brings her home. They get married a second time and then strike it sort of rich with $10,000 and a furniture set on Easy Street. But Melvin promptly does what any chucklehead would do in such a situation and buys a sleek car and a boat. And so Lynda packs up herself and her daughter and their newborn son and vanishes again. Melvin winds up re-marrying with Bonnie (Pamela Reed) and moving on to Utah where they assume her family's gas station, an enterprise not destined for any great success......until that mysterious and stylish man drops off the Mormon Will.

"Melvin and Howard" is a film about the dirt poor. It is about trailers and cars being repossessed and rundown juke joints and thrift store costuming. It is about how being named Milkman Of The Month is the equivalent of setting a world air-speed record. It is about a man doomed to repeat the same mistakes of good willed desperation. Until, of course, he finds himself face to face with a judge (Dabney Coleman) convinced he has forged the Mormon Will to have at a fortune that will finally square him for life.

In real life where there numerous court battles to follow and Dummar, though having no criminal charges filed against him, never saw a single cent of the Hughes' Estate. But "Melvin and Howard", gratefully, isn't about the numerous court battles. It's about the sad realization from the very first court battle that this money, whether he's telling the truth and has it or not, won't square him for life. That's probably a lesson Howard learned a little too late.


Andrew K. said...

Love, love, love.

As someone who gobbles up AMPAS trivia I did know she won an Oscar for this and I always wonder why people don't ever seem to mention. It's as if it happened and then, everyone forgot about it. And, it's such a peripheral role (not in a bad way) and Mary just makes it sing and she's such a delightful performer (both generally, and here specifically) that I like that she has an Oscar, at least for historic purposes.

I need to rewatch this one, but I do remember loving its easy charm and it's honesty and sweetness (and a generally fine script). Also, Jason Robards. Never a bad deal.

Nick Prigge said...

I felt bad that I didn't know. I've always liked her. And then just a couple days after I saw this she turned up on 30 Rock. A completely different role and she knocked it out of the park, too.

Mary Steenburgen: Unheralded Versatility. Is that a thing?