I hate reality TV shows. Wait. Let me try to be more specific. I hate modern reality TV shows. Oh, I didn’t always. I admit I actually liked the first few seasons of The Real World. Never mind that MTV had been in danger of being irrelevant as early as 1984 (feel free to debate the merits of that statement). The idea of bringing together a microcosm of young adults and giving the viewer access to some of the most personal moments (or at least what we assumed were the most personal moments, since the majority of drama on the show was, if not manufactured, certainly not entirely truthful) was a good one; Come to understand people different from yourself by observing a representative (black, Latino, gay, Irish, white, whatever) go through their daily life. It was never going to be as groundbreaking as 1973’s An American Family nor as honest, and in short order the whole affair became about celebrity rather than comprehension. It became more important to be a spotlight-hogging jerkoff than a bona fide member of the human race (and the question of whether they’re one and the same should keep you up at night).
So, naturally, reality TV (a misnomer in the extreme) became more and more prevalent. Why? Well, in my mind, there are two reasons. One, producers realized that for much less money than a scripted show, they could make huge profits (and it’s called “show business” not “show charity”). Two, they appeal to human beings’ morbid curiosity to gawk at others’ misfortunes, like rubbernecking at a car accident. The problem is what does this say about us as a society? More people know about Beard Wars than they do about the war in Afghanistan. More people give a bigger shit about who will win American Idol than they do about who will win the next presidential election. More people can name the “cast members” of Hardcore Pawn than can name the countries which made up the Axis in World War Two. It now seems that absolutely everyone in the world, regardless of how inconsequential they are (perceived or otherwise) can have a reality TV show. When Andy Warhol stated that, “in the future, everyone will be world-famous for fifteen minutes” in 1968, it’s arguable whether or not he foresaw the reign of reality TV off on the horizon. His quote rings more of a curse than it does a prophecy, from this vantage point at least. It’s rare for me to not consider other viewpoints when thinking about these sorts of things, but it bears repeating: I hate reality TV. You should, too. It lowers not only those on display but those watching it. It’s the modern equivalent of the geek show. And when’s the last time they were thought of as acceptable entertainment? Now, you can argue the other side until you’re blue in the face. And you would be wrong. I feel dirty just discussing it for this length of time, and I can certainly go on, but we’re here to talk about Michael Ritchie’s Smile (you got the screed for free; you’re welcome).
The Young American Miss pageant is underway, and the event in Santa Rosa, California will choose who goes on to the National contest from that state. The film centers on several of the teen girls, including Robin (Joan Prather), Doria (Annette O’Toole), and Connie (Colleen Camp). Running the pageant is Wilson (Geoffrey Lewis), and he is assisted by Brenda (Barbara Feldon), and head judge Big Bob (Bruce Dern). But as the competition draws nearer, the personal lives of the entrants and the officials complicate things.
As a satire of pageant mentality, the film succeeds marvelously. By basing the structure on duality, screenwriter Jerry Belson is able to focus on surfaces, both in our fascination with them as well as the way they mask truth. For every scene of teen girls smiling, dancing, or answering inane questions, we get scenes of the tribulations of the girls and pageant officials. Brenda’s husband Andy (Nicholas Pryor) is the suicidal town drunk. Big Bob’s son, Little Bob (Eric Shea), and his pals have a pervy scheme going to make money off nude Polaroids of the girls. Big-shot choreographer Tony French (Michael Kidd) is on the skids and desperate for work. Newcomer Robin doesn’t understand how pageants work but gets an education from roommate Doria. The point is, most of these characters are absolutely miserable when they’re not “on.” As Brenda tells the girls early on, “just be yourselves, and keep smiling.” This is not simply advice for aspiring contestants, this is how these characters cope with their lives. It’s better to put on a happy face and be tormented inside than to let anyone ever think that everything is absolutely honky dory.
Big Bob sums it up to Andy best: “I just learned a long time ago to accept a little less from life, that’s all.” This is why Big Bob is the happiest person in the film, alone or in public. He has trained himself to be happy being unhappy. This is why he espouses the traditional values professed in the pageant “manifesto.” He does believe in them, because he needs to believe in them. To confront that life is anything less than perfect based on what you’re given is to confront his entire life as a lie and to admit that he is dissatisfied.
Conversely, it is Andy who sums up Big Bob perfectly: “You’re a goddamned Young American Miss.”
The absurdity of the goings-on make up the core of the film’s humor, but it’s entirely plausible. The girls are interviewed by the judges and given generally slow pitch questions, and almost to a person, they answer the questions with some version of the good they want to do with their life, the charity they want to contribute to, and the succor they want to give to their fellow man. Of course, Robin then gets asked about her views on abortion (by the priest on the panel). But after floundering for a bit, she comes back with the “pageant-ready” statement that she’s glad she isn’t young enough to vote. What’s interesting here is twofold. One, Robin resists becoming like the more aggressive, exploitive girls, but we see instances where she begins to bare her teeth. It’s subtle, never arch, and very effective both in writing and in performance. Two, the filmmakers understand that beauty pageants are purposeless displays of hot flesh masquerading as substantive showcases for truly talented young people. Yet, they never rub the viewers face in this. They know what’s going on and they give the audience credit for knowing, as well and not patronizing them by taking easy shots.
This is also part of the film’s biggest problem which is its pacing. While it starts off at a breakneck pace, flipping between characters, the film soon finds itself getting mired down in trying to be equable to too many of its characters. It gives us long scenes which have nothing at all to do with the contest, and it kills the frenetic momentum built up in those scenes. But it must also be stated that the filmmakers’ care and investment in the characters shows through. These are not strictly one-dimensional people, and the lengthy sketching out of their individual foibles goes a long way in illustrating the point that this truly is a microcosm in the film, not in what we see but in what we don’t. In summation, then, the film is highly entertaining, hysterically funny at times, and thoughtfully conceived so you get more than a great Comedy. But it’s a great Comedy, too.
MVT: The script by Belson is razor sharp in its dialogue and the interplay between the characters. We do feel bad for these people in as much as we enjoy laughing at the ridiculousness of their lives. It’s a difficult trick to pull off, and while it doesn’t pull it off without a few bumps, it does pull it off.
Make Or Break: The talent portions of the pageant Make the film. They are not a single scene, and more often than not, are snippets rather than whole acts, but they are believably ludicrous, and I personally almost did spit takes at several points. Ah, comedy.
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