Friday, December 14, 2012

Ya Wanna Make a "Betsy?"

Just as they say it's sometimes hard to look away from a car crash, it can be hard to turn away from the opulent awfulness of this vehicle-oriented soap opera. Today's featured movie, The Betsy, released in 1978, boasts a stellar cast of actors who probably did better work in almost any other project they ever appeared in! Still, it's fun to reexamine the muted, taupe-filled world of the '70s and glimpse some big stars (some headed up, some down) acting out this simultaneously tawdry and torpid storyline.

Based on a 1971 book by the prolific and famously explicit novelist Harold Robbins (who gave the world Where Love Has Gone, The Carpetbaggers and The Lonely Lady, thus making him something of a deity amongst lovers of the wretched!), this generational saga concerns a family who has made its fortune in the automobile industry. Despite it's R rating, it is nevertheless toned down from Robbins' source novel, which featured one female character engaging in watersports (and I don't mean skiing or surfing!) No Fitzgeral or Hemingway he, Robbins always followed a formula in his many books that decreed a sex act and an act of violence every certain number of pages!

After the credits roll (with the cast's names set against a series of vintage cars while the unmistakable music of John Barry plays), we meet race car driver Tommy Lee Jones, an innovative, daring young man who is touted to win his latest contest.

Meanwhile, multi-millionaire automobile czar Laurence Olivier, his nurse Inga Swenson and his great-granddaughter Kathleen Beller watch the proceedings on a portable television in the solarium of Olivier's Florida home. My grandma would not have been pleased that Beller is doing her college homework directly in front of the set (not to mention that her head is in Olivier's way!)

When Jones' race car soars off the track, flies into the air – flipping and bursting into flame with pieces flying everywhere – Olivier offers up a dramatic reaction and jolt while Beller continues to stare blankly into the screen as if there is nothing even being projected on it (which, during the shooting, there probably wasn't!) Note how Olivier's wheelchair has moved between shots even though no one would have had the opportunity to touch it. You can even see the mark on the floor where the front wheel is supposed to be!

After treatment and physical rehabilitation, a still battered-up Jones is met at the hospital by Beller (clearly driving a Cadillac even though the family owns and operates the – fictional – Bethlehem Motor Company!) She explains to Jones that Olivier wishes to see him right away, something he seems to have little choice about.

Once at Olivier's estate, Jones is informed by the elderly, wheelchair-bound man that he has been chosen to engineer a new car, one that will be universally accepted, like the Model-T or the Volkswagon, and which will achieve tremendous gas mileage. Olvier's company has become a conglomerate more interested in peddling dishwashers and other appliances rather than the vehicles which brought the company its initial success. Thus, with Olivier's grandson presumed to be opposed to the risk of this new car, Jones has to pretend to be working on a race car (for the publicity value) while actually working on a compact sedan.

Sweetening the deal, without Olivier's express request, but also without his disapproval, is the fact that nubile young Beller is on hand to heighten Jones' interest level in the venture. This is particularly driven home when she, while Jones watches from his balcony, strips down to nothing whatsoever and takes a languid dip in the family swimming pool. This scene (featuring Beller's heaving bosom and enough pubic hair to make due for eight of today's starlets) has earned Beller a place in the cult firmament when it comes to vintage, on-screen, female nudity. (For what its worth, all I have to do is mention this scene to my female best friend to get her screaming in horror! And needless to say it does nothing for me personally. LOL)

Jones has to fly to Detroit in order to meet Olivier's grandson, now in power at Bethlehem motors. Robert Duvall plays this role and, for whatever reason, his 3-1/2” height deficit when compared to Jones seems far more pronounced than it ought to be. Duvall occasionally looks like a miniature man (not helped by the presence of his top bean counter Edward Herrmann, who is 8-1/2” taller!)

Dig the teeny racquetball shorts that Duvall wears on two occasions in the movie and which are paired with knee-high tube socks!

Jones and Duvall come to an understanding about the project and then Jones is invited to their massive family estate. Here, we meet Lesley-Anne Down, a glamorous widow who's a friend of the family (particularly Duvall!) who doesn't waste much time setting her sites on Jones. We also meet Duvall's wife (and Beller's mother by Duvall) played by Jane Alexander.

It's not long before Jones is on his way to San Francisco and finds Down in the seat next to him on the flight. They rent adjoining hotel suites and haven't even unpacked before she's on her knees, undoing his belt and pants! This semi-nude torso really is Jones' and Down got quite up-close and personal in order to get the necessary shot. (You can tell it is him because he has a small injury to the middle finger of his left hand and it's there in all the love scenes from this moment.)

Soon after their love tryst, Duvall calls her and tells her he wants to meet her elsewhere, so off she goes, to Jones' dismay. (And, no, she's not joining a gypsy tribe or Middle-Eastern dance troupe despite that on-trend headgear!)
Olivier, who is flush with excitement over his upcoming car – to be called “The Betsy” after Beller's character – starts to reminisce about the good old days, so we're taken via flashback to the time when he was middle-aged (and not ancient.) His son, and only child, Paul Rudd has married pretty Katharine Ross and there's a massive reception in full swing.
Olivier, having overslept during a nap, is struggling to get his tuxedo shirt buttoned and his tie done, but adds to the tardiness by taking time out to bang the hell out of the maid who's working upstairs! Young Ross comes up to waken him (or find out where he's been) and witnesses the act in progress. Flushed, she darts from the room to splash cold water on her face before joining the party.
Olivier, having gathered himself together following his maid service, gifts Rudd and Ross with a stunning new car named after Rudd and a generous share of stock in the company.
There is a stretch of rough road ahead for the young couple, however. Not only does Rudd spend an inordinate amount of time at the office, including several nights per week, but Ross is fighting off an inappropriate attraction to her horny father-in-law Olivier. After Olivier's wife dies and Ross is left alone with Rudd's and her baby son, the two begin to draw closer together.

In what has to be one of the most tasteless seduction scenes of mainstream 1970s cinema (thus excluding all the hilariously off things that John Waters did in his movies), Ross steps into the nursery to breast feed her baby as Olivier watches on.
 
As her braless boob is pressed into the mouth of her son, she looks up longingly (if a tad tormentedly) at her dad-in-law. For a flicker of a second, thanks to the poor, restless infant cast as the baby, who couldn't actually get any milk out of the not-pregnant-in-real-life Ross, her nipple is flashed. Later that night, she departs her own bed and crawls into Olivier's!
She's not exactly 100% to blame for the discord in her marriage, however. It seems that Rudd has been busying himself at the office with one of his chief advisors, the MALE Clifford David. Even though we are treated to full-on Kathleen Beller and various love scenes with mostly naked Lesley-Anne Down, this being 1978, the homosexual relationship between these men is tame as can be, never even shirtless and with no or next to no touching whatsoever.

As the film continues, the contemporary story is occasionally interrupted to check in with the period backstory of about two-decades prior. In the present, plans for the Betsy are in full swing. Jones has sketched it ad nauseam, a clay scale model is prepared and finally a prototype is produced.

Maybe I'm just a stick in the mud, but I cannot imagine too many 1970s men heading to the car dealership to purchase a “Betsy.” I guess it's a good thing Oliver's granddaughter wasn't named Clarissa or Penelope... it might have been an even tougher sell!
Duvall is livid when he discovers what has been going on behind his back. He wants to fire Jones and his helpmate. Trouble is, his wife Alexander (not content anymore with his gifts of jewelry in lieu of affection) has pieced together his free-time philandering with Down and decides to get him where it counts, siding with Jones and Olivier.
Now Beller is turning twenty-one and there's a big shindig as a result. Just as Bekim Fehmiu spirited Candice Bergen away to a green-house to claim her virginity during her eighteenth birthday in Harold Robbins' The Adventurers (1970), Jones takes Beller to a plant-filled poolhouse to rid her of the ghastly yellow party dress she's been sporting and rid her of her own pesky virginity. (This hairdo is annoying me, too. If you aren't playing one of Yul Brynner's children in The King and I, then forget it!)
She is now smack dab in the middle of a love triangle between herself, Jones and Down (who was already involved with Duvall prior to Jones.)
Beller finds out at the party that she is being granted a hefty chunk of Bethlehem Motors, which doesn't sit particularly well with her father Duvall. He is desperate for the car to fail, though the reason for his antagonism towards Olivier isn't altogether evident. Yet...

As we return to the flashback sequences, we are shown arguments between Olivier and Duvall's father Rudd. We also see that Olivier's and Ross' relationship continued even as the young boy was close to eight or nine. (There is also an element of underworld crime as monies exchanged within the car company involved some shady figures.) Finally, on one fateful night, Duvall (as played by a child actor) is transformed forever by tragedy and despair.

Crime is rearing it's head in the present day, too, as a consumer reporter is for some reason talking the Betsy down even though it gets 60 mpg and only slightly less in the city! (Get a load of the patterned suit the magazine reporter is wearing here.) Jones finds himself on the receiving end of a beating and there is other violence to be seen.

Things are wrapped up by the end, to an extent, though some of it occurs during the closing credits, with names scrolling over the action! Maybe the makers wanted to cap off the film at 125 minutes and no longer...

The director of The Betsy was Daniel Petrie, a Canadian who segued from heavy TV work into features. Some of his other films include The Bramble Bush (1960), A Raisin in the Sun (1961), The Neptune Factor (1973), Lifeguard (1976) and Fort Apache the Bronx (1981.) Retiring in 2001 after the Gena Rowlands-Laura Linney TV-movie, Wild Iris, he passed away in 2004 of cancer at age eighty-three.

Three-time Oscar-winner (for 1948's Joan of Arc, 1951's Samson and Delilah and 1964's Night of the Iguana) Dorothy Jeakins was in charge of the clothing for this film. A respected designer (who also put those delicious clothes on Eleanor Parker's back in 1965's The Sound of Music), she was known for her use of color and sense of taste. Here, it's hot and cold, though. Look at this ugly, shapeless, snakeskin-patterned mess on Jane Alexander.

And while I like the pleated dress on Lesley-Anne Down below left, the other outfit is appalling. It looks like a rejected Jean Louis design from the disastrous 1973 musical Lost Horizon! Why anyone would want to evoke that esthetic is anyone's guess!
Legendary actor Olivier, an Oscar-winner for 1948's Hamlet, as well as the recipient of two other special Oscars, was hot again after having tormented the hell out of Dustin Hoffman in 1976's The Marathon Man. He, however, was also in a phase of portraying several American characters in TV versions of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1976) and Come Back Little Sheba (1977) and was not known to possess a very good U.S. Accent (of any region!) Here, he affects a bizarre, over-the-top “Kansas” accent that does bring to mind Professor Marvel, aka the title figure from 1939's The Wizard of Oz! Only the character is from Michigan...

In the flashback scenes, he is stripped of some of the age makeup he wears in the contemporary portion of the movie and has darker hair. The result is vaguely Dabney Coleman-esque. This was also a pretty hammy time for the august star as he worked in The Boys from Brazil (1978), The Jazz Singer (1980), for which he was lambasted, and Clash of the Titans (1981.) He died in 1989 of renal failure at the age of eighty-two, his final film War Requiem, coming out that same year.

Duvall, who'd been working in TV since the late-'50s, went on to a major film career with no less than True Grit (1969), MASH (1970), The Godfather (1972), The Conversation (1973) The Godfather: Part II (1974) and Network (1976) on his resume. Many more memorable and important works were still to come, so The Betsy is hardly a highlight for him. He took the Oscar home in 1983 for Tender Mercies (with a memorably elated Dolly Parton presenting it to him.) In January, he'll turn eighty-two and he's still at it today.

Jones got a later start in movies, but is also fifteen years Duvall's junior. His first appearance was in 1970's Love Story, but this was really his breakout year. Besides The Betsy, he also costarred with Faye Dunaway in the high profile (if often preposterous) Eyes of Laura Mars. With Coal Miner's Daughter in 1980, he was on his way to a solid career in films that continues today. His most memorable role for many is his Oscar-winning turn as Lt. Gerard in The Fugitive (1993), but he's also well-remembered for the 1989 TV miniseries Lonesome Dove, which reunited him with Duvall! He's currently sixty-six years old.

Ross' most high profile films included 1967's The Graduate, 1969's Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and 1975's The Stepford Wives. The Graduate brought her the sole Oscar nomination of her career, but it went to Estelle Parsons for Bonnie and Clyde. After the chiller The Legacy and the huge flop The Swarm (both in 1980), her career turned more and more to television, where she had gotten her start in the early-'60s. Now, sixty-eight, she only works occasionally, preferring to work on children's books and be wife to her fifth husband Sam Elliott (and who can blame her?!)

Alexander was a tremendously accomplished stage actress who made the leap to TV and movies and enjoyed success there as well. She's been nominated seven times for Emmys (winning for 1980's Playing for Time and 2005's Warm Springs) as well as four Oscars (1970's The Great White Hope, 1976's All the President's Men, 1979's Kramer vs Kramer and 1983's Testament. The winners, in order, were Glenda Jackson for Women in Love, Beatrice Straight for Network, Meryl Streep for Kramer vs Kramer - which was actually a leading role - and Shirley MacLaine for Terms of Endearment.) She was doubtlessly chosen for The Betsy by director Petrie for having played Eleanor Roosevelt for him in two highly-regarded telefilms. He cast her again in 1987's Square Dance. Now seventy-three, she remains a busy actress.

Down, after having been named “Britain's Most Beautiful Teenager” in 1969, entered films and soon began appearing in movies like Brannigan (1975) and The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976), with the acclaimed miniseries Upstairs, Downstairs as well. After starring in all three installments of the miniseries North & South (in 1985, 1986 and 1994), she found a niche in American daytime drama where she had successful runs on Sunset Beach, Days of Our Lives and especially The Bold and the Beautiful. Still beautiful and glamorous, she is currently fifty-eight.

Beller had honed her craft on Search for Tomorrow a few years until making her big screen debut in The Godfather: Part II in 1974. a steady film career was not to be, though Petrie cast her in Fort Apache the Bronx in 1981. She's probably best known for her two-season stint on Dynasty. After marrying musician Thomas Dolby in 1988 and having three children with him, her acting career became more intermittent. She is currently fifty-six. (Note that even though their characters are worlds apart in type, experience and presumably age, there was only a two-year gap between Beller and Down.)

Rudd was another accomplished Broadway actor, who'd worked with Lee J. Cobb in King Lear when he was eighteen. Not much prior to The Betsy, he'd done The Glass Menagerie with Rip Torn and Maureen Stapleton. His career on TV and in film was far less extensive, however (and he is no relation to the currently popular Paul Rudd.) He retired in 1986 to raise his three children and died in 2010 of pancreatic cancer at age seventy.

Herrmann, as Duvall's Maalox-swilling, Tums-crunching accountant, has enjoyed a long career of solid character work since 1971. He also played Franklin Roosevelt oppostie Jane Alexander's Eleanor in the aforementioned TV-movies. A five-time Emmy nominee, he finally won in 1999 for a guest role on The Practice. Still busy today at sixty-nine, some of his films include The Paper Chase (1973), The Great Gatsby (1974), The North Avenue Irregulars (1979), Reds (1981), Annie (in which he again played FDR, 1982) and The Lost Boys (1987.)

Swenson, who'd later score a lengthy stint on Benson, had been on TV since the mid-'50s and later played Helen Keller's mother in The Miracle Worker (1962.) She also worked on the first two North & South miniseries and was memorable as one of Betty White's sisters on an episode of The Golden Girls in 1989. She retired in 1998 and is currently seventy-nine.

As Rudd's shifty business partner and lover, Clifford David was working on the big screen as a change from TV, his more frequent home base. Having worked steadily for fifty years (including Petrie's Fort Apache), he retired in 2005, a late-career bit of notoriety being his role as Ludwig Van Beethoven in Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure (1989.) His current age is given as sixty-eight or seventy-four depending on the source.

Late in the film, Jones approaches the head of a crime family played by Joseph Wiseman, known to James Bond fans everywhere as the title character in Dr. No (1962.) Wiseman passed away in 2009 at the age of ninety-one after a lengthy, impressive career.

Also appearing briefly as Olivier's wife and Rudd's mother is Whitney Blake, the costar of Shirley Booth's sitcom Hazel and real-life mother to Meredith Baxter. She died in 2002 of esophageal cancer at age seventy-six.

The Betsy was a reasonable hit, helped on by the stellar cast and the gratuitous nudity of Beller. This was a time when a soapy plot-line more fit for a TV miniseries could still be spiced up a little with some rough language and skin and be released as a feature. As a major fan of Dynasty, I can appreciate the use of real Rhode Island mansions and the sumptuous d├ęcor that permeates the film (no sets were used at all as the entire movie was filmed on actual locations, including the AMC automobile factory.) This one has to set some sort of record for the use of flowers and plants for they appear in practically every scene that isn't set at a factory or racetrack!

A few judicious snips and the overdubbing or cutting of some curse words and the film was able to play on TV with ease. (And by the time of this airing, Robbins' works were regular sources for miniseries such as Harold Robbins' 79 Park Avenue, The Pirate and The Dream Merchants.

This publicity portrait was taken of the principal cast while on location at one of the mansions, but it is misleading in that there is no point during which all of these people interact. Olivier is in fact the only performer who gets to appear in both the past and the present day sequences. The other factions never got to share any screen time. The Betsy isn't really very good, but it's captivating and attractive enough to enjoy at least once I should think, even if just for the oh so '70s clothing and decor. (As a connoisseur of the awful and a lover of all things all-star, I am sure I've watched it at least four or five times!)

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