By Alan Hurst
This month has been a full-on immersion into the life Julie Andrews with the release of her second autobiography “Home Work”. The book details Andrews’ experiences in Hollywood and abroad, from her arrival in 1963 to film Mary Poppins (1964) to That’s Life! 22 years later. It’s a continuation of her more introspective first volume entitled “Home” which was released in 2008 and details her life from birth to her success in British music halls and eventually Broadway. We’ve been listening to both volumes, narrated by Andrews, whenever we hit the road. If the first book is the more compelling of the two, the second gives us an insight into one of the more interesting film partnerships of the seventies and eighties: Andrews and her writer/director husband Blake Edwards. The pair made seven films together – Darling Lili (1970), The Tamarind Seed (1974), 10 (1979), S.O.B. (1981), Victor/Victoria (1982), The Man Who Loved Women (1983), and That’s Life (1986) – some hits, some misses, but all worthy of revisiting.
S.O.B. was a cathartic project for Edwards and one he began writing in 1975 after a particularly negative few years of filmmaking. He and Andrews first teamed up on Darling Lili, a WWI comedy with music about a Mata Hari-like spy (Andrews). Location shooting forced huge budget overruns, run-ins with studio executives, much negative press coverage and reviewers seemed to be gunning for the film and Andrews upon release, coming as it did after the failure of her 1968 vehicle Star! Reviews were undeservedly poor, and so was the box-office. Another soul-destroying experience for Edwards occurred during production and post-production on Wild Rovers (1972), and then more studio interference for him during the production of The Carey Treatment (1972).
Edwards took his anger, frustration and depression and funnelled it into the screenplay for S.O.B., a truly funny, and alternately vicious and affectionate satire of Hollywood. The film runs a little too long and some of the visual gags are excessive, but overall this is probably best and most unvarnished look at the inner workings of the film industry since The Bad and the Beautiful (1952).
Felix Farmer (Richard Mulligan) is the producer at the centre of S.O.B. who has just experienced the first major box-office flop of his career. The film within the film is called Night Wind and it stars his wife Sally Miles (Julie Andrews). Despondent, Felix spends the first part of the film trying to kill himself. His wife leaves him, and his beachfront home in Malibu becomes party central for an assorted cast of industry people (William Holden, Robert Preston, Robert Webber, and Larry Hagman among them), hangers on, and the police with Felix wandering around in a sucidal daze. As an orgy gets underway around him, Felix has an epiphany that snaps him back to reality: they needed to re-shoot the film as a sexual fantasy/nightmare. He mortgages everything he and Sally have to buy back the film, do the re-shoots and get it released. He also has to convince his wife – clearly based on Andrews and referred to as America’s G-Rated Sweetheart – to bare her breasts in the film’s climactic scene. The craziness continues when the studio that originally released the film smells a hit with the buzz around the re-shoot and tries to get it back.
You can feel the glee that Edwards must have had in writing this. He’s able to skewer every possible Hollywood type – including himself – with his farcical plot and the sly way he’s able to amalgamate bits and pieces of real-life Hollywood players at the time. Is Shelley Winters doing a take-off on agent Sue Mengers? Her aggressiveness and caftans seem to indicate yes. Is Robert Preston’s needle wielding Dr. Irving Finegarten a take-off on the notorious Max (Dr. Feelgood) Jacobson who freely administered “vitamin” shots to the rich and famous? Probably. And is the very blonde Loretta Swit’s gossip columnist a not-too subtle slap at the then prominent Rona Barrett and Joyce Haber? No doubt.
And the actors themselves are clearly having a great time playing their roles to the hilt. My favorites include the afore mentioned Preston. His sardonic, philosophizing doctor has some terrific lines and Preston’s world weary, all-knowing delivery is hysterical. This performance should have pushed Preston in the running for that year’s Supporting Actor Oscar. I also love William Holden’s seen-it-all director, trying to do the right thing for his friend Felix but clearly fed up with the back-stabbing machinations of Hollywood. Robert Webber is also excellent as the ever-exasperated press agent. As the alter ego of Edwards, Mulligan is wildly over the top as Felix. He’s very funny, if ultimately exhausting as the insanely obsessed producer.
In 1979 the film 10 helped re-introduce movie audiences to Andrews after a considerable break from films. It was followed by the cute but inconsequential Little Miss Marker (1980), and then S.O.B. where Edwards and Andrews made a concerted effort to break free from the very proper image that her initial screen successes in Mary Poppins (1964) and The Sound of Music (1965) had entrenched. Andrews is obviously having some fun playing a bit of a bitch here – for the most part Sally is very genteel on the surface, but she’s also determined and very self-focused. She also lets loose with some wonderful expletives, she throws things, and ultimately plays a key role in her husband’s demise. She also goes topless, which I guess makes sense within the film but it’s not the highlight – her scene just before that where she’s nervous about the big reveal and the doctor’s solution to relax her are comic perfection.
Critical reaction to the film when it was released was divided, but it definitely trended to the positive. Edwards was lauded for being able to produce something that really was incredibly mean spirited but also very funny. It received a nomination for Best Comedy or Musical at the Golden Globes that year, but not much else. I think it should have been recognized with Oscar nominations for Preston’s performance as well as Edwards’ screenplay. There was never any chance of it getting a Best Picture nomination, but I can sit down and watch S.O.B. at anytime and still laugh. I can’t say the same for that year’s winner – Chariots of Fire.
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.