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I can guess what killed Otto Preminger's very good Such Good Friends before it could get a hold on the movie-going public in 1971. About a reel into the picture, the wealthy young New Yorkers attend a rooftop publication party for the husband, who in addition to serving as a photo editor at Life Magazine, also writes children's books. Everybody at the party has a dream job or is independently wealthy. Then we see perennial Preminger actor Burgess Meredith dancing stark naked except for a little book over his privates. The spectacle is a daydream fantasy of the author's wife, who has herself come to the party in a woolen knit top that's nothing more than a loose fishnet. The 'sophisticated' Manhattanites ignore her provocation, but the audience didn't ignore Meredith's. As far as they were concerned, the new 'freedom' of the screen was supposed to lead to an era of attractive screen nudity. I'll bet that the sight of Meredith's rolls of pink flab clouded viewer's minds for the next fifteen minutes.
Burgess Meredith starkers is just one "erotic" fantasy in Such Good Friends, Lois Gould's story of the private life of a modern woman who has most everything but lacks an outlet for her inner desires. Julie Messinger (Dyan Cannon) lives the affluent life among other swells that own attractive apartments and luxury cars but mostly take taxis wherever they go. A responsible nanny takes care of the kids during the day, so Julie has plenty of free time to consort with her trendy best friends Cal Whiting and Miranda Graham (Ken Howard & Jennifer O'Neill). She lets her imagination take over because her busy husband Richard (Laurence Luckinbill) can't seem to find the energy to make love with any regularity. Julie's routine changes drastically when Richard goes in for some very minor surgery, only to have his stay delayed by some nagging complications ... which suddenly put him in a coma.
The crisis has an unexpected effect on Julie, who worries about Richard but is also confused by the attitudes of her many 'friends', who would not think of letting the catastrophe interfere with their personal agendas. A number of Julie's acquaintances take Richard's absence for granted, an issue that can be dropped by changing the subject. A couple of men even make amorous overtures toward Julie, including Richard's doctor, Tim Spector (James Coco). Bombarded with friends urging her to sue for medical malpractice, and getting only partial support from her mother (Nina Foch), Julie finds herself continuing to fantasize sexual relations with other men in her life. She plays around with both Cal and Tim, looking for the answer... which leads to some startling revelations about her husband's oddly coded address book. Everybody knew what Richard was doing, but nobody told Julie...
Perhaps audiences just didn't like actress Dyan Cannon. Despite the ugly stories from the set and her own hateful remarks about director Preminger, Cannon is extremely good in this movie, which appears to have been written to give her a star-making vehicle. In addition to writer Elaine May working under a pseudonym, Joan Didion reportedly contributed to the final script. The skillful, excellent dialogue shows the superficiality of Julie Messinger's relationships. Most of the smug conversation at the publishing party is sarcastic or demeaning commentary on the ritual. Everybody loves Richard but nobody is particularly affectionate -- it's all kissy-poo greetings that mask various levels of personal resentment. Burgess Meredith's character is an egotistical author always looking to pick a fight. Then again, he's the only one honest enough to come out and openly stare at Julie's nearly exposed breasts. Even Julie is more than just attending the party, she's "making a statement" about her sexuality. We're all celebrities on this bus.
Such Good Friends didn't do half as well as Frank and Eleanor Perry's angry, misanthropic Diary of a Mad Housewife, a box office hit about a less established couple in the same milieu. The mean-spirited Diary sees a self-destructive love affair as the only escape from an upscale hell of false friends and social humiliations. Otto Preminger's film is much more forgiving of its characters. Julie's mother does indeed seem too wrapped up in her beauty regimen to focus on her son-in-law's situation, but Julie isn't asking for her help, either. The most satirical scene in Such Good Friends occurs when everybody comes to the hospital to donate blood. Once in the room together, these spoiled rich people act as they normally do and turn the place into a party, ignoring the nurses' pleas for quiet. Julie's mother treats the nurses like servants, instructing them to have food sent in. The scene plays as no exaggeration whatsoever. 1
Dyan Cannon's Julie is a nicely observed characterization ... sensitive and honest about her feelings, she discovers that she's quite a bit more together than some of the selfish and immature people around her. Julie really wants to save her husband -- even when she finds out how unfaithful he was -- but she acknowledges that life will go on should he die. She's sexually something of a loose cannon, as seen when she responds to Tim and Cal's casual overtures. Are Julie's associates and confidantes really so self-obsessed and shallow, or does nobody in this corner of society really get close to anybody else, unless sex is desired? Such Good Friends is a refreshingly open look at these issues.
Otto Preminger populates Such Good Friends with a wealth of acting talent drawn from his stage background and his Manhattan social circle. A lot of these bright faces do indeed seem fresh from the cocktail-party circuit: Sam Levene, Louise Lasser, Rita Gam, Nancy Guild, Elaine Joyce, Doris Roberts, Salome Jens. James Coco and Ken Howard had just starred in Preminger's Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon. Poking his face in there for just one wide shot is senior-citizen tough guy Lawrence Tierney, of all people -- we recognize his gravel voice first. Such Good Friends is a classy picture with some kinky scenes (but a mild "R" for content), that shapes up as a convincingly accurate vision of its subject matter. Unlike some saber-rattling feminist fulminations of the time, it has an honest concern for its characters.
Once one of America's most respected filmmakers, Otto Preminger was noted for mature movies about provocative subjects. He'd leave controversies ambiguous rather than indulge in moral simplifications. After 1965's Bunny Lake is Missing his career seemingly fell apart, with movies that were poorly reviewed, ill-conceived or just plain unlucky: Hurry Sundown, Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon. It's a shame that Such Good Friends didn't do better, for it holds up very well. It continues Preminger's earlier non-judgmental approach to a story that anyone else would exploit as a target for satire. Probably due to the critical slop-over from dogs like Skiddoo and Rosebud, it's never been afforded a critical re-evaluation. 2
Olive Films' DVD of Such Good Friends is a very good enhanced transfer of what is probably Otto Preminger's last really good movie. Color are bright, although some of the cinematography looks a little grainy, especially where opticals might be in use. The audio track is very clear, which is a good thing for this dialogue-heavy picture. The cover sets several stills against Saul Bass's provocative graphic art design. Bass had been creating marketing art and title sequences for Preminger since 1953's The Moon is Blue. The disc has no extras, and unfortunately for the hearing-impaired, no subtitle options. 3
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Such Good Friends rates:
1. Maybe things have changed, but I saw worse behavior among the Beverly Hills crowd in 1973. I had the misfortune of ushering at the premiere of 1776. Jack Warner must have invited every social magpie and well-dressed leech in town. Unlike any rational crowd, they ignored requests for order, refused to wait their turn and pushed their way whereever they wanted to go. Old women pushed me aside and other ushers were kicked. One girl usher got slapped for "not showing enough respect." Scenes like this in Westwood permanently prejudiced me against affluent people demanding unearned privileges. This was not a good mindset for getting along in this town -- I've probably shunned people who put on airs ever since. After an hour of dealing with that particular crown, I wanted to lock them in the auditorium and burn the whole theater down. Such Good Friends tells it like it was, but it doesn't make the upscale Manhattanites into harpies and monsters.
2. Other evaluations I've read of Such Good Friends compare its view of the refined and semi-refined of New York to Woody Allen's later satires and dramas. That's a great observation from writers who know New York from first-hand experience.
Dear Glenn: Such Good Friendswas a flop, but I'm fairly sure it did considerably more business theatrically than Skidoo, Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon or Rosebud. [Preminger's last picture, The Human Factor, was kinda gingerly released by MGM, so I won't include it with this group.] Unlike these films,it wasn't a total disaster. I do know a lot of people went to see it in New York City.
Your comparison to the Perrys' Diary of a Mad Housewifeis interesting. To me, it's difficult to directly contrast the two because the pictures and their protagonists are so different -- and Carrie Snodgress' affecting, vulnerable performance in Housewifeis remarkable in a way that just dominates that film. Dyan Cannon is very good in Such, but in a different mode; she's a survivor and appealingly feisty. She may not have gotten along with Otto, but the performance propels the film. [You assert that this was crafted as "a star-making vehicle" for Cannon. Don't forget, after Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice, Mike Frankovich decided that she was a star: she starred in four pictures for Columbia in '71: Doctor's Wives, The Love Machine, The Anderson Tapes and The Burglars.] Such and Diary are satires, to be sure, but Preminger's movie is first and foremost a bitter comedy of manners of the elite and well-heeled. The Elaine May dialogue could possibly go even further in this regard, of course, but the audience I saw this with in early '72 roared consistently. [There's some good writing -- and elegant streamlining of details of Gould's book -- here. I've always wondered why May took her name off of the script; I don't know whether it was because it was a rewrite of the work of others, or because she was then suing Paramount over the editing of A New Leaf.] Whereas my mother left the Perrys' film with a wistful feeling that left her in a funk for days.
This was a fine, thoughtful review, pal.
One small note: author Lois Gould is referred to as "Louis Gould" in your credits block. Best, Always. -- B.
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