|Every kid growing up in the 70s wanted to be Elliot Gould because he was (and still is) so FUCKING COOL!|
dir. Richard Rush
Starring: Elliot Gould, Candice Bergen, Harrison Ford, Brenda Sykes
Review By Greg Klymkiw
During the general 60s/70s American mayhem of the civil rights movement, Vietnam, protests, the draft and the JFK/RFK/King assassinations, one event still stands apart from the rest.
The Kent State University Massacre in Ohio of 1970 continues to send shudders through us all - that horrific moment when American National Guardsmen fired off live rounds of ammunition into throngs of innocent student protesters. As horrific as anything imaginable, this was a case where a government turned its fascist guns against its own people - its hope for the future, its youth.
Dissent would NOT be tolerated and Big Daddy Establishment was steadfastly unable to spare the rod against its seemingly spoiled, stubbornly non-compliant progeny.
During this period, the unrest was mirrored and examined in the popular culture – especially the movies, where filmmakers like Robert Altman, Arthur Penn, Sam Peckinpah and many others sought to expose the violence and hypocrisy of American life. Many of these films were not only boxoffice hits in their day, but continue to be revered and recognized to this day. And then, there’s all the rest.
While there are several worthy forgotten pictures from this era, one in particular stands out – Richard Rush’s fascinating and entertaining Getting Straight, a counter culture drama based on Ken Kolb’s novel (with Robert Kaufman's screenplay adaptation) about post-secondary academic hypocrisy. Rush is a great, but hardly prolific filmmaker. His biggest claim to fame is The Stunt Man, a wonky, obsessive and utterly anarchic look at the blurry lines between fantasy and reality in the movie business starring a completely and deliciously over-the-top Peter O’Toole whose thespian excess in the picture is rivaled only by Rush’s controlled manic directorial style.
Looking at Getting Straight 45 years years since its release (during the very year of the aforementioned Kent State Massacre) and in the context of The Stunt Man, one is immediately taken with Rush’s fascination with the blurring of borders. In Getting Straight, the divides are simply and clearly between old and new.
Harry Bailey (Elliot Gould) is the mustachioed, side-burned and amiably rumpled protagonist of Getting Straight – a Vietnam veteran returned from the war and in the last year of his English Literature Masters degree and a sessional lecturer. Harry is a man without (so to speak) a country. He wants to teach – desperately, but is, alas, faced with the dilemma of being too world wise to be a true part of the youth movement he so desperately craves to reach and too hip to embrace the staid complacency of the established order of academia.
He wanders through the picture, not so much torn between both worlds, but observing them and wondering how he can be a part of both. This noble effort, on the part of the character makes for fascinating viewing as we take on his perspective, but it’s also probably the main reason why Getting Straight has disappeared into the ether.
Rush bravely chooses to maintain the perspective of a man divided to lead us through the narrative – a worthwhile goal and certainly not flawed, but over the decades, audiences have become so bludgeoned into needing a character with firm coattails to grab onto in order to - ugh! - root for him/her, that part of the picture's relative obscurity has probably been affected by this the most. Like Gould’s Harry Bailey, we, the audience, wander through a world where students protest the outmoded academic ideals of the institution and Gould himself tries to utilize new methods to reach his students, but he also craves to play the game of an establishment he wants to change. This, of course, is what makes the film so fascinating.
|Two Harry Baileys.|
Both went to war.
One Harry won
Medal of Honor,
The Other Harry
by The Man.
Rush’s Harry is probably closer to Capra’s big brother figure, George. He wants to join the establishment in order to change it. In Capra’s post-war fantasy, George Bailey gets to do exactly that, but in Rush’s world, with roles clearly reversed, Harry learns that straddling the fencepost can never yield true change – it instead equals stasis.
Getting Straight falls a bit short of greatness, but in many ways, it's one of the few pictures that comes closest to capturing the complexity of the period in which it’s set. In this sense, it has NOT dated. It is genuinely a project of its time – perfectly reflective of the complexities of the blurred lines on both sides of the old and new world orders. The two main things that work against the picture’s bid for the kind of immortality it probably craved are as follows: the aforementioned passivity of Gould’s character – it’s right for the movie and right for the world of the movie, but at the same time, fights against what mainstream movie drama is MOSTLY made of – a clear goal, clear stakes and a satisfyingly wrought conclusion.
Rush does not achieve this, though in all fairness, it’s clearly not his intent to do so. The second roadblock facing the picture's grab for greatness, and it is (and must have been) insurmountable, is the utterly dreadful performance of its leading lady Candice Bergen as the Ice Goddess grad student who is in love with Harry. Bergen is horrendous. Her lines are delivered with the kind of soullessness, which goes well beyond that of the character’s cold shiksa-like station. Bergen’s deliveries are flat and so is her face. Though this movie was made well before the Botox revolution, Bergen wanders through the picture like a poster-child for the toxic protein of choice to render the flesh immovable and wrinkle-free.
That said, there’s just so goddamn much to admire in the film. Elliot Gould works boundlessly with his character's passivity, indecision, confusion, complexity and manages to always maintain a fun, funny, sexy and amiable screen presence. When Harry Bailey is called upon to be active, especially during a brilliant thesis-defense sequence, one can see precisely how and why Gould was such a big star during this period and why he hit such a responsive chord with audiences. He's a laconic wiseacre who saves his best explosions of force for when he needs them. HE IS SO FUCKING COOL you just WANT to BE Elliot Gould. (At least I did as a kid and probably still do.)
The film's supporting cast is marvelous, especially a very young Harrison Ford as a wide-eyed preppie-druggie. It's also great seeing sexy Brenda (Mandingo) Sykes and counter-culture star of Zachariah, John Rubinstein.
Rush’s direction is suitably obsessive and detailed. There is a protest scene that is as breathtaking and chilling as anything you’re likely to see and the numerous party scenes are all infused with the kind of immediacy that allows you to observe AND participate.
At the end of the day, Getting Straight accomplishes much of what it set out to achieve and is, finally, an evocative window into a time and place that seems so distant, and at the same time, so current.
Look around. Innocent people are being killed indiscriminately by The Man everyday.
In that sense, things never really change that much, do they?
THE FILM CORNER RATING: **** 4-Stars
Getting Straight is available on Sony Pictures’ inexplicably titled and oddly programmed DVD label “Martini Movies”. This movie is begging for a proper Blu-Ray release, transfer and special edition via Criterion or Kino Lorber. I also dream of a commentary track featuring Gould and Rush and, most importantly, moderated by Kim Morgan (whose piece on California Split for the L.A. Review of Books is a poster-child for WHY SHE'D BE PERFECT).
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