February 28, 2012
As the 1960s ended, so did Robert Mulligan’s collaboration with producer Alan Pakula. After seven films together, Pakula embarked upon a successful directing career of his own, beginning with the college romance of The Sterile Cuckoo in 1969 (which would earn Liza Minnelli her first Oscar nomination). Mulligan also tried his hand at courting the youth market, starting production on The Pursuit of Happiness late that same year, although it was not released until 1971. It was the first coming-of-age story that Mulligan directed since To Kill A Mockingbird, and its melancholic sense of lost innocence pervades all of his work in the early 1970s.
As with all of the Pakula-Mulligan productions, The Pursuit of Happiness was adapted from a novel, this time by Thomas Rogers. The rights were purchased by David Susskind, a prolific producer of TV movies who re-entered theatrical features with this low-key story that was shot late in 1969 (he made the hit sex comedy Lovers and Other Strangers (1970) immediately afterward). Sidney Caroll (The Hustler) wrote the script, but a revision by George Sherman introduced so many changes that Caroll requested his name be changed to Jon Boothe. The final draft follows lapsed-radical William Popper (a morose Michael Sarrazin) as he argues with his student-activist girlfriend Jane (Barbara Hershey) and accidentally sulks his way into prison. There he decides to drop out of society for good.
Working on location in NYC with D.P. Dick Kratina, who had just shot seedier parts of the city in Midnight Cowboy, Robert Mulligan crafts a sympathetic, though distant, portrait of a disaffected ex-Leftist youth. Mulligan, who had joined the Marines at the tail end of WWII, was an outsider to the violent revolutionary stirrings of the 60s, saying that, “We were in the process of a nightmare that I didn’t understand. and that I didn’t feel anyone else understood. I mean, the riots were going on, the campuses were being burnt, the ghettos were being burnt, the marches were going on, people were being killed. It just didn’t make any sense.” Pursuit is his attempt to comprehend a generation he is entirely disconnected from, and the result is a film of great sensitivity and sadness, because he can never bridge that gulf.
Kratina and Mulligan open the film on a close-up of a toy sailboat, bobbing in a park pond, inter-cut with shots of William. He is instantly identified as adrift and alone, cutting through a sea of humanity, each protesting inaudible causes. Kratina’s camera roams with a cinema-verite freedom, the frames crammed with idealistic bodies that William swiftly navigates away from.William ignores them, Sarrazin’s face holding a persistent dopey calm, a smirk perpetually creeping up his lips. He slices his way to his girlfriend (an engagingly perky Barbara Hershey), who was originally inflamed by his passion, and now vaguely annoyed by his apathy and creeping nihilism. Their academic world is filled out by their Hippie pal Melvin (an adorably manic Robert Klein), who is seen mostly sleeping in William and Jane’s bed.
Their circumscribed world comes apart when William is involved in a car accident, and faces serious jail time. Then the world outside floods in, and with it the revelations that he comes from a rich, well-connected family, and political resentments ooze out of every corner. His aunt asks, “still a communist?”, while his grandmother bluntly states how her neighborhood declined once the “negroes and jews” moved in. Because of his wealth, he gets fine representation from a blustery E.G. Marshall, who pithily comments that “when you got in trouble, you came straight for the reactionary bastard.” The sense of class betrayal is ever-present, no more so in the painfully bittersweet scene when William declines his Grandmother’s offer to inherit the family mansion. She, like William Buckley Jr., wanted to “stand athwart history, yelling stop!”, but had to watch her grandson embrace the multi-cultural future instead.
When William decides to escape America once and for all, it should be a moment of triumph, and would be in a traditional counter-culture movie of the period. But Mulligan senses tragedy in this breakdown of society, no matter how nakedly corrupt he has shown it to be. Their departure sequence occurs in near-silence, after an uncomfortable barter with a smarmy pilot played by William Devane. The transaction is starkly capitalistic, as if the couple is swapping one exploitative system for another (one of crime). So when they take to the air, headed for Mexico, the overwhelming emotion is not one of release, but of unutterable sadness. The lovely Randy Newman song that plays under their escape captures this ambivalence perfectly: “Let me go, let me go, let me go/Don’t give me the answer/cause I don’t want to know”.
Columbia Pictures delayed the release of The Pursuit of Happiness for over a year, perhaps because of how “square” the film would look next to Easy Rider (1969), and put it out to little fanfare in February of 1971. In the interim, Mulligan shot the deeply personal Summer of ’42, which Warner Brothers released to enormous box office in April of that same year. It’s a nostalgic coming-of-age tale of three young boys as they spend a summer on Nantucket. Seemingly tailored for Nixon’s so-called Silent Majority, with its loving evocation of small-town American life, it nevertheless retains the ambivalent melancholy of The Pursuit of Happiness, its youths also lost inside of different kinds of American myths.
Herman Raucher wrote the autobiographical script in the 1950s while as a TV writer, but he couldn’t get anyone to look at it. He was acquaintances with Mulligan from those days, and once the director gained enough clout, was able to get the picture funded for “a million dollars” (interview in the TC Palm). The story centers on Hermie (Gary Grimes) and his infatuation with Dorothy (a dreamy Jennifer O’Neill), the beautiful army wife whose husband is fighting during WWII.
It is Mulligan’s first collaboration with the great DP Robert Surtees (The Last Picture Show), and they opt for heavily filtered images of browns and greens, the beaches fading like old Polaroids. This sense of the movie as memory is enhanced by the voice-over, which is read by the director himself. The events are clearly past, mythologically so, with scenes of troops sailing off to war, first dates at the movie house, and fumbling over an old sex manual. These are scenes that could come out of a Budweiser commercial, but Mulligan invests them with such emotion and detail they become monumental. He shoots Hermie’s hand marching down the shoulder of his date as if he was conquering Normandy. One starts to notice the expressivity of clothes and objects, the gritty texture of Hermie’s beach shoes and rolled up slacks, as if a Victorian orphan in short pants, unfit to be seen in the presence of Dorothy’s snug cable sweaters and J. Crew yachtswoman wear. Through Hermie’s gaze, Dorothy is a mystical object.
The penultimate sequence, in which Dorothy falls into Hermie’s embrace, is a marvel of tonal ambiguity, as unexpected as the close of The Pursuit of Happiness. What should be Hermie’s glorious climax is a scene of mourning and cold comfort. Hermie enters her room, and Mulligan and Surtees isolate objects of her presence: a cigarette, a skipping turntable and a crumpled letter. The room is heavy with her presence, a ghostly atmosphere. Hermie resets the music, and Michel Legrand’s score fills the room, opening a space for Dorothy’s entrance. She enters, and it’s become clear her husband has died. The music ends and the clicking sound repeats with grief-stricken repetitions. Dorothy falls into Hermie’s arms, and Mulligan continues to focus on details: feet, hands, shadows on wallpaper. Neither are whole individuals, Dorothy is slowly collapsing, Hermie overwhelmed to keep her together. The lurid climax of the usual hetero sex comedy has turned into something tragic and uncertain. In the end, the ghostly Dorothy disappears, and Hermie is left to look at the ruins of his childhood, saying in retrospective voice-over, “I lost Hermie, forever”.
The Other (1972) is also about loss, but fudged into the Manichean machinations of a boilerplate horror tale. It’s adapted from actor-turned-author Tom Tryon’s best-selling novel about twin boys who have a penchant for astral projection, hallucinations and a few murders. It is 1935 and Holland and Niles Perry live an idyllic-Satanic life in Connecticut, stealing jam from the neighbors and a finger from their dead father. The family’s maid, Ada (Uta Hagen, in her first screen role), has been teaching the boys how to astral project their bodies, but has begun to suspect these lessons are not being used for good.
It retains the thrust of his other work in this period, of the tragic death of childhood illusions (and no viable afterlife), but the vehicle for this idea is a rickety one. Tryon’s script never develops a coherent character out of either twin, both just inexpressive conduits for a few slaughters, with no childhood left to mourn. Without this emotional undertone, the film becomes a slog of unmotivated plot twists. The child actors, Chris and Martin Udvarnoky, are eager but uncharismatic, never gaining the unaffected naturalness of the kids in Summer of ’42 or To Kill a Mockingbird. These tots are always over-emphasizing their lines, more or less pounding them flat. Despite all these dramatic flaws, the film still looks gorgeous, with Mulligan and Surtees bathing it in a golden-green glow, and pulling off some impressive subjective camera shots, which become fractured along with Niles’ psychology.
Mulligan followed up this misfire with one of his greatest works, The Nickel Ride (1974). Mulligan depicts the decaying mental state of an aging paranoiac through cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth’s palette of rotting browns, and lead actor Jason Miller’s remarkable ability to deflate himself into the posture of a crumpled paper bag. Miller plays Coop, a low-level fixer for the Los Angeles mob who is getting pushed out of his position by a young, sweetly psychotic Southerner (Bo Hopkins, channeling Jon Voigt in Midnight Cowboy). One of Eric Roth’s (Forrest Gump) earliest scripts, it is also his most effective, a film about the cruelty of time’s passing and the crueller tricks of an addled mind. Instead of youth passing into adulthood, it is about middle-age passing into death.
Originally called 50-50, Eric Roth recalled in Backstory 5 that it was supposed to be about “a man turning fifty, a film noir with intimations of mortality.” Robert Mulligan agreed to make it for producer David Foster, his first film after making McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), who had secured a distribution deal with 20th Century Fox. The lead was originally intended to be played by George C. Scott, but he had to drop out, leaving the part to relative newcomer Jason Miller, fresh off of The Exorcist. Miller is extraordinary, giving a performance of hollowed-out intensity. He painfully maintains his everyman persona at the local watering hole and with his painfully young wife (Linda Haynes), as his fears start to devour him. His speech becomes clipped and his face draws ever tighter into a skeletal mask. At his lowest point he is stalled by the side of the road, an infernal red tail light edging his body, sure that his life is about to end. He just sighs, “Things change.”