By Alan Hurst
I readily admit there are a lot of movies I don’t like, some that I’ve fallen asleep watching (yet they still went on to win a Best Picture Oscar) and a few – very few – that I’ve walked out of before they were finished (take that Blair Witch Project). But narrowing it down to one that I can label “The Worst Film I Have Ever Seen” and be able to defend that choice is tough.
Still, there’s nothing like a challenge and there is one film that I keep going back to. When I first saw this film – at 15-years old – even then I was wondering what the filmmakers were thinking (and that was at a point when I would usually enjoy anything I paid to see). I’ve since seen it twice – and it still sparks the same reaction: “WTF were they thinking?”
The winner: Peter Bogdanovich’s At Long Last Love (1975)
Now I know there are a lot of movies that are worse, but what makes this one standout for me is the A-list talent both in front of and behind the camera and the amount of money you can see was spent on every aspect of the film – and the mind-numbing result.
The story revolves around four socialites in mid-thirties New York and their transient attraction to each other. They’re played by Burt Reynolds, Cybill Shepherd, Madeline Kahn and Duilio Del Prete. First Burt and Madeline are together, then Burt and Cybill. Duilio and Cybill start a romance and then he starts wooing Madeline. Also along for the “fun” are Eileen Brennan as Cybill’s maid, John Hillerman as Burt’s chauffeur and the wonderful Mildred Natwick as Burt’s flighty mother. They all get their chance to sing one or more of the 18 Cole Porter songs that are worked into the script. Yes, it’s a musical. With Burt Reynolds and Cybill Shepherd. Just let that sink in.
The film starts promisingly enough with a beautifully designed opening credit sequence set to a great arrangement of Porter’s “At Long Last Love” but it just goes downhill from there.
- The Look: Bogdanovich had done well with period pieces in three of his first four films. The Last Picture Show (1971) is a near perfect evocation of 1950 Texas, Paper Moon (1973) is a wonderfully funny film that feels and looks like it’s set in the depression era mid-west, and Daisy Miller (1974) does a nice job of evoking late 19th century Europe. At Long Last Love certainly has the Art Deco look perfected, but the first misfire is filming in colour. Bogdanovich supposedly art directed the film to ensure the sets all were in shades of black, white and grey, but it’s still a color film and it looks very contemporary. The illusion of being in 1935 Manhattan or Long Island is lost immediately. The costumes are also all from the same palette and some are not flattering – particularly on Shepherd.
- The Script: The story and script (also by Bogdanovich) is pretty light, which could be forgiven if it allowed for some fun, but it’s not funny. It’s just laboured and seems to go on forever and, what’s worse, you don’t really care about any of these people. The frustrating thing for me is watching good comedic actors like Reynolds, Brennan, Hillerman, and Kahn struggle to get a laugh. It’s not an easy thing to watch. They’re given nothing to play except glib and whiny and that wears out fast.
- The Supporting Players: This is one area where the film isn’t all bad. Eileen Brennan and John Hillerman come off the best. They’re doing what they can, and it helps that they can sing, but thankfully both went on to better things. Mildred Natwick is charming in her few scenes, but she’s given very little to do that would have any real impact. Madeline Kahn is OK, but watching her in this after her back-to-back successes in What’s Up Doc? (1972), Paper Moon (1973), Blazing Saddles (1974), and Young Frankenstein (1974) is a little disheartening because you realize even someone as brilliant as Kahn needs decent material. She does well with her dances, but the songs she has to sing don’t work. Duilio Del Prete was an unknown going into this and stayed unknown after. If you ever catch the film, you’ll see why.
- Burt Reynolds: In 1975 Reynolds was on his way to becoming the biggest star of the decade. He’s very lucky this movie didn’t hinder that. Reynolds is very attractive here and he looks great in a tux, but he can’t sing, and he isn’t a dancer. What he does have is charm and a certain smugness that works for about 10 minutes. Supposedly Bogdanovich wanted Ryan O’Neal, but he wasn’t available. I can’t see how he would have been an improvement.
- Cybill Shepherd: This was her third film with Bogdanovich and the two were a couple (soon after they met on the set of The Last Picture Show, her first film). Coming off some negative reaction to Daisy Miller the previous year and a poorly received album of Cole Porter standards, Shepherd’s career was faltering by 1975. Her work in At Long Last Love only accelerated that. Shepherd bore the brunt of the bad reviews when the film came out and you can see why. She’s playing exactly what people thought she was at the time – a spoiled, entitled brat who was protected by her family – and she’s terrible at it. Every line she utters falls flat, her singing may be on tune for most of the time, but it’s not pleasant. And she dances like a construction worker in heels. There’s absolutely no grace.
- The Music: The decision was made to film all the musical numbers live with no pre-recording. I guess Bogdanovich wanted to emulate the practice of some early 1930s musicals where an orchestra was just off the set and the performers would sing live. That can work with real singers, but here it’s distracting to the point of tedium. Cole Porter’s songs are classics, but as performed here they all sound tinny, under rehearsed, repetitive and the performers come across as amateurs. We re-watched this last week over two nights (I couldn’t handle just one sitting) and each time someone started to sing a feeling of dread come over us. And the songs just kept coming and coming.
You can clearly see Bogdanovich was going for something along the lines of a Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers film like Top Hat (1935) or one of Ernst Lubitsch’s early musical successes. The result was so far off the mark that it helped derail his career after such a promising start and Shepherd didn’t get hers back on track until she went to TV and Moonlighting in the late 1980s. Burt Reynolds complained at the time the film was released – to scathing reviews – that critics were reviewing Bogdanovich’s personal relationship with Shepherd, not the film. Nice try Burt.
Hooked from a first viewing of Mary Poppins at four and after school reruns of I Love Lucy, Alan has been a movie and TV enthusiast ever since. A particular aficionado of films from the late thirties through the seventies, he enjoys helping others discover the joys of those films, directors and stars. His career has careened from journalism to public relations to marketing, always with one foot in the arts and with a unique ability to relate all work and life experiences back to a movie. Alan’s top five desert island films are Bonnie and Clyde, Sunset Boulevard, Cabaret, Mildred Pierce and, with no apologies, Mary Poppins. Alan’s focus will be on films from Hollywood’s first golden era (and a little beyond) as well as TV.