Wednesday, June 30, 2010

A Broken Promise

You may think I have swum off and left you all alone in The Underworld as it has been a while since my last posting. Never! I have just been experiencing another one of those perfect storms in which everything converges at once and leaves me with little or no time to work on my blatherings. Work continues to consume the better part of my work day (imagine that!) and I have another theatre newsletter due this week. Also, I was away for four days at a conference concerning community theatre, of which I am a part. (I was thrilled to be recognized with awards, along with many, many others, for my acting in two roles: Pharaoh in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and Captain Keller in The Miracle Worker.) I’ve returned now and I promise to be back with more posts very soon.

Speaking of promises, to tide you over for a few moments until I can free myself, I will toss you this morsel. The Promise is a 1979 romantic drama that landed in theaters to howls of derision due to its far-fetched, hoary, clich├ęd and sappy storyline. Needless to say, this qualifies it as a favorite in The Underworld! I was taken to see this gem as a 12 year-old burgeoning gay boy and was as choked up by it as if it were one of Barbara Stanwyck’s or Bette Davis’ old weepies. How could I know that the screenwriters had borrowed from every conceivable well-worn plot device up to that time in order to push audiences’ buttons (audiences who didn’t leave midway through it, that is!)?

Starring Stephen Collins and Kathleen Quinlan, the story concerns a couple of college students who come from different backgrounds. Collins is a rich kid with a dragon-lady mother he refers to by her first name, Marion. Quinlan is a lower middle class girl who wins his favor despite being somewhat homely (and, thanks to the ludicrous makeup she’s been applied with, vaguely Asian!) As the opening credits appear, accompanied by a gooey, but effective love theme, they go through all the 1970s gum-commercial moments to show us that they are "in love."

Arm in arm and having fun to the nth degree, their mutual affection is culminated in the burial of a cheap carnival necklace to signify their love while spouting some of the most ludicrous dialogue ever written. The necklace is placed under a large rock where it will stay as a permanent record of their love. Critics of the day would love to have placed the canisters of film from this movie under a rock if they could have as well!

This romance is played with utter sincerity although Quinlan is decked out in all sorts of face-altering make-up so that she'll look different (and hopefully better) in the last 2/3rds of the film. Smeared with tan pancake make-up, wearing a wig that Marlo Thomas vetoed on That Girl, donned with eye and nose prosthetics that give her a plain appearance and speaking in a whiny, annoying voice, she is anything but what one would imagine as a dream lover. But that's not all! They also outfitted her with false buck-teeth which leave her unable to fully close her lips, so many of her words come out jangled and unintelligible. For example, when confronted by Collins with the prospect of marriage, she replies, "I don't need a feece of fafer..."

So she can barely open her eyes and can't close her mouth when she and Collins and his best friend (a total buffoon who rinses toothpaste out of his mouth with BEER!!) are smashed up in a horrific car collision with a truck. Quinlan is disfigured, Collins is comatose and the friend is (sadly) only moderately injured. Quinlan is shown wearing those unintentionally hysterical full-face bandages in which only a slit for the mouth and two cavernous eyeholes poke through. From this point on, not one logical thing happens and the story takes on such an orchestra of contrivances that it becomes science fiction.

Collins' gorgon of a mother, Beatrice Straight (who viewers know is evil because she smokes cigarettes constantly through a long plastic holder), pays to have Quinlan's face put back on, but only if she'll promise to stay away from Collins. (This scenario, of course, is lifted with only minor alterations, from Madame X.) The mother doesn't want her son to have a love affair with :::gasp::: an orphan because it may mess with her plans for Collins' career. So she tells Collins, once he’s awake, that Quinlan is dead. He apparently takes her word for it without ever once looking into it or even trying to see if there's a grave, a death notice or even a funeral bill!

Quinlan undergoes a long series of excruciating procedures overseen by surgeon Laurence Luckinbill. Among her enhancements are thinner, lighter eyebrows and even, remarkably, a change in eye color! I had no idea that they could do this in 1979 (or even now!) She also loses her tan and her teeth are shortened a bit. Her thick, wig-like hair is now fluffy, free and light and she has developed a sense of style. She has a new name, a new city to live in (San Francisco, home of Vertigo, another film about loving someone who looks like your allegedly dead mate) and a new career as a photographer. This shot of Luckinbill with his patient cracks me up. She looks practically on the ground and he isn’t with her or paying attention to her, as if she could go rolling down a street the way bedridden patients in old comedies do at any moment!
A complete set of wild contrivances finally reunites the long lost couple. Collins has now become an architect and comes upon one of Quinlan’s photographs, one that speaks to him and, eventually, haunts him. He, with the help of his friend from the accident, manages to track down its creator, goes to visit her......and he doesn't even recognize that it is his soul mate Quinlan! (Thank you, Tomorrow is Forever) You see, she is now the "normal" Quinlan, replete with trendy new duds and full-on glamour make-up, so he has no clue she's the chipmunk who was in the car crash with him. (And she is quite lovely. She is showcased in the latter part of the film in a wide variety of hairstyles and outfits.)

She gets miffed because he doesn’t recognize her (!), won't work with him on his project and he can’t put his finger on why he’s drawn to her. Straight briefly comes back into the picture and has a face-to-face showdown with the all-new Quinlan and has apparently begun to see the error of her ways. However, the newly confident and bitter Quinlan will have none of it. Eventually, in a bit lifted from An Affair to Remember that involves a painting, he puts it all together, but it’s too late. She’s already fled San Francisco.

It all keeps spiraling until they wind up back at the carnival almost precisely the same time, despite her leaving hours before him.....and have a "poignant" reunion. Astonishingly, this film, crazy and as bad as it is, still can manage to draw tears from me during that final scene! Collins gives a very heartfelt performance in it (however Quinlan remains strangely stoic and the direction is oddly muted, which hurts the final clinch.)

This movie is clearly inspired by all the classic tear-jerkers but by 1979 that type of storytelling had lost all sense of even more so! If anything, it should have been a period piece. At least it gave hope to less attractive girls everywhere that they might come out of a fiery car crash looking better in every way.

Amazingly, the director Cates had previously given audiences the stark and grim I Never Sang For My Father before offering up this hoot. Fans of soapy dramas who don't require much reality will love it. Fans of campy, unintentional humor will also eat it up. The only person who will likely hate it is any straight man. He will probably be off the couch and out the door before Melissa Manchester finishes howling the title theme song!

The song, I’ll Never Say Goodbye (unless my mom tells me you’re dead!), was penned by Alan & Marilyn Bergman. Those of a certain age will recall seeing their names attached to many cinematic love songs of the 60s, 70s and 80s. They were Oscar magnets, nominated many times and winning for their tunes from The Thomas Crown Affair, The Way We Were and Yentl. This time out, they were nominated, but the award went to Norma Rae’s It Goes Like It Goes.

Collins was close to the start of his career, having headlined the miniseries The Rhinemann Exchange and enjoyed a few supporting film roles. This same year, he played Commander Will Decker in the much-anticipated Star Trek: The Motion Picture, though the project disappointed more fans than it pleased (it was a major hit nonetheless, thanks to curiosity.) His middling, but steady, career would include another tearjerker, Bette Midler's Stella, based on Stanwyck’s classic Stella Dallas and he’d later star in the very successful series 7th Heaven.

Quinlan was emerging into adult roles after having played youths in American Graffiti and Lifeguard. The Promise marked one of those “Eureka!” moments for me as a kid because I was in the car with my mom after seeing it and suddenly realized that she was the same girl who had appeared in Airport ’77. I can be forgiven for not grasping it right away since in The Promise, she looked like a slightly uglier version of herself as well as a slightly more beautiful version of herself while in Airport ’77, she basically looked like herself, but wet for part of the time. Several very dramatic parts in films like I Never Promised You a Rose Garden and The Runner Stumbles failed to yield a significant career for her and she drifted along without much fanfare until she scored a surprising, but welcome, Oscar nomination for her sensitive, yet restrained, work in Apollo 13. Like Collins, she’s remained busy, but not enjoyed stellar success.

Straight, who copped an Oscar for her tiny role in 1976’s Network, seemed hell bent on tarnishing it thereafter with parts in such winners as this, Sidney Sheldon’s Bloodline, Endless Love and the John Travolta/Olivia Newton John quagmire Two of a Kind, with only Poltergeist as a standout. She appeared in a 1982 Family Feud Heroes vs Villains special as a villain, but didn’t dare single out The Promise for evidence, so they idiotically referred to her role in Network (in which she was a neglected, cheated on wife!) Her role in her final project, Goldie Hawn’s Deceived, was removed entirely except for a shot of her at a birthday party!

The story is often misguidedly credited to having been based on a Danielle Steel novel. Though she did write the tie-in novel, it was based on the screenplay from the start, much the way the far more successful book for Love Story was released prior to the film as a marketing tool and was also taken from the finished screenplay long before the film itself was actually released.

This was stupidly released to DVD in a pan and scan version (part of a Danielle Steel collection, perhaps they wanted to keep the same aspect ratio as her other made-for-TV adaptations?) Inane as it is, fans of it would surely prefer to see the Frisco scenery, Collins’ blonde good looks, Straight’s cigarette holder and Quinlan’s transformation in all of their widescreen glory! We should make Universal promise to create another edition if anyone there can recall the movie in the first place.


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