Release Date: February 13, 1976
Runtime: 117 minutes
Studio: United Artists (MGM)
Director: John Byrum
Cast: Richard Dreyfuss; Bob Hoskins; Veronica Cartwright; Jessica Harper; Stephen Davies
This early Richard Dreyfuss starrer is essentially a chamber piece centered on an alcoholic former film director in the 1930’s, now reduced to making quickie silent-movie porn. A feel-good movie, to be sure, yet not without its pleasures, namely the sublime performances from all five actors.
Dreyfuss is a former great movie director, now an alcoholic recluse in his Hollywood home. Once known as the Boy Wonder, he is in the midst of production on his latest quickie skin flick, starring the drug-addicted Harlene (Veronica Cartwright – she’s the one who puked cherries in “The Witches of Eastwick”) and Rex, the Wonder Dog (Stephen Davies), a dim bulb wannabe heartthrob. Showing up to check on his investment is the film’s financial backer Big Mac (Bob Hoskins), who totes his trophy girlfriend, Cathy Cake (Jessica Harper), along with him. Before dusk sets on this fateful day, the porno will be finished, but dreams will be shattered and one person will end up dead.
This is very much a filmed stage play, occurring in real time and in one location (Boy Wonder’s house/studio). The movie is all about the performances, which are excellent across the board. You can sense the defeat in Dreyfuss’s Boy Wonder. His alcoholism has gotten the better of him and he has basically given up on life and recapturing his once-great status. Cartwright gives a brave performance, naked both emotionally and physically. You can tell that underneath Harlene’s flapper-girl façade is a broken girl, afraid to receive the fatherly guidance Boy Wonder tries to give her. Davies, as Rex, the Wonder Dog, possesses that romantic dream of one day becoming a real movie star, constantly reminding everyone else that some big shot at MGM told him he had star power. Of course, everyone except for Rex knows that that line is total bullshit, and you can see the idealism deflate from his face whenever someone tells him as much. A very young looking Bob Hoskins has just the right amount of smarminess, and really sells Big Mac, the producer who thinks of himself as David O. Selznick, but, in reality, is just a get-rich-quick schemer. Cathy Cake, as played by Harper, seen here before her roles in the legendary “Suspiria” and “Phantom of the Paradise,” knows that Big Mac is full of shit. But, maybe because of her heretofore-sheltered existence, has a certain fascination with the seamier side of life and Boy Wonder’s strange world.
Debuting writer-director John Byrum (“The Razor’s Edge”) shows remarkable confidence in directing his actors and elicits fine performances from all of them. None of them go over the top, which could easily have happened, given the material. All are suitably restrained, which give their portrayals that much more power and effectiveness.
This movie caused quite a bit of controversy when initially released because of the, for the time, explicit sex scenes…it is, after all, about the making of a porno. But seen through today’s lens, there isn’t too much to be concerned about. It is far from an exploitation movie, like, say, “Showgirls”: the nudity and sex is all a necessary part of the character’s jobs and presented according to the needs of the story. That being said, there is a lot of nudity (Harper spends much of the latter half of the movie naked), and dirty words, so I would recommend this, as they say, “For Mature Audiences Only.’