Sunday, February 13, 2011

Wonderful Movies 3: Just Tell Me What You Want

In honor of Valentine’s Day I thought I’d recommend another of those terrific movies you’ve likely never heard of, much less seen. I could be wrong, but...

...Just Tell Me What You Want (Warner Bros, 1980) is a love story. In a voiceover at the beginning of the picture the star, Ali MacGraw, even tells us that “it’s a very romantic story”. This is as she’s physically attacking Alan King in the men’s department of Bergdorf-Goodman, (the old Bergdorf’s) beating him with her purse. MacGraw plays “Bones” Burton, mistress to mega-mogul Max Herschel (King). He’s set her up in the television business and she’s made her own success, at some sacrifice. Early in the picture we learn she’s had an abortion (though the word isn’t mentioned) and, as much as she cares for Max, she falls in love with an off-Broadway playwright (Peter Weller) whom she eventually elopes with and marries.

Max has his own share of problems: he’s running a global empire, while taking on mistress after ever-younger mistress, paying for their orthodonture and sending them to good schools. He also has a wife, Connie (a brilliant turn by Dina Merrill), who is in and out of sanitaria for nervous disorders and other maladies, which are probably no more complicated than problem drinking and boredom. Nevertheless, Max loves her, really loves her, and has no intention of divorcing her.

When Max discovers Bones has married and effectively dumped him, he goes into apoplexy and sets out to destroy her professionally and financially. Which leads to the assault in Bergdorf’s, beginning in the men’s haberdashery and continuing into the shoe department and the perfume department, where a good deal of damage is done before she chases him into the street, whaling on him the whole time with her purse.

Eventually Max winds up in the hospital, the victim, he is certain, of a heart attack. It’s here that one of the best zingers in the movie is delivered by a nurse. It’s her only line and she nails it. The screenplay is  acerbic and cynical and beautifully layered and, ultimately, as Bones tells us, very romantic. But it pulls no punches and there’s no mushy ending where everyone suddenly becomes a character out of a Disney cartoon. We learn all we need to know about these people from the writing and the story: ultimately Max makes a huge sacrifice so save Bones and her new husband from ruin, a sacrifice that was meant to be a secret, but which she learns about in a lovely scene with Keenan Wynn as the father of a movie mogul who owns a studio that Max... oh, never mind. You have to see it.

The movie also features Myrna Loy as Max’s long-suffering, loyal personal secretary Stella, who knows all about everything, where the bodies are buried, etc. I think this must have been her last film role and she plays it with the finesse and simplicity and good taste of Old Hollywood, even when the language gets salty (and it does, indeed, get very salty).

The script is by the late Jay Presson Allen, based on her novel. I think it’s the script that brings me back to the movie again and again. The way the characters are delineated is masterful, the plot is set up so carefully and yet so unobtrusively that you hardly notice how it all falls together as the movie progresses. There is no moment when you think, “Oh, I know what’s gonna happen...”

And there’s the music by Charles Strouse (Broadway composer of, among other things, “Annie”). It’s just right – brassy and sharp and very New York. I’ve even managed to “rip” it from the DVD and have the opening and closing credit music in my iTunes library.

As I mentioned, you’ll also get to see some of “old” New York: the old Bergdorf’s before the men’s department moved across the street, and the old Plaza Hotel. There’s a scene in the Palm Court where all the best people used to go for tea in the afternoon. I don’t know what’s in there now, now that it’s a Fairmont property. Oddly, though, except for a few interior design elements in Bones’s apartment and a house in Hollywood, the movie really doesn’t have a dated look to it at all. Ali MacGraw wears Calvin Klein throughout, mostly the same sand-colored slacks and cream-colored satin blouse and it looks as sharp and classic now as it did then.

What really gets me every time is how satisfying this movie is for me, in the audience. It’s a great story, beautifully told with fine performances. Some people think this is Ali MacGraw’s finest performance. It may be, but she’s still no Bette Davis. (Imagine Bette Davis in that role in, say, 1942 when she was at her peak. The language would have been different, but what she could have done with that part! She’d have still been picking pieces of the scenery out of her teeth in 1947.)

Finally, for all its cynicism and moral ambiguity, the movie has class. It's a classy production, it's a classy script (f-bombs notwithstanding), the characters are real and it treats its audience like grownups. Hell, it's got Myrna Loy, how classy can you get? It's the kind of romantic comedy they'd have made in the 30's and 40's if the production code had permitted. Anyone who's thinking of writing/producing/directing a rom-com these days should take a look at Just Tell Me What You Want to see how it should (still) be done.

I don’t want to over-analyze this, but boy Just Tell Me What You Want is a helluva movie. See it with someone you love.

Or whoever’s paying for your braces.

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