Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The two years immediately following 1969's Easy Rider were chaos in Hollywood, as executives scrambled to find something that would attract "the kids". Getting Straight is a Columbia picture produced and directed by Richard Rush, whose previous experience had been with the A.I.P. youthsploitation epics The Savage Seven and Psych-Out, and TV shows like The Mod Squad. Columbia must have thought that Getting Straight was the perfect project for the Woodstock generation, as it dares to "tell it like it is" about student rebellion, campus disaffection and the disillusion of the day's youth. It's a relentlessly "cute" comedy that treats all these issues with the finesse of a TV situation comedy, minus the laugh track. Screenwriter Robert Kaufman dishes the "right on" buzzwords; his credits range from the not-bad-at-all Divorce American Style to the depths of Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs. The source book is by Ken (Kenneth) Kolb, a TV writer also credited with the script for The 7th Voyage of Sinbad.
Getting Straight was made almost concurrently with M*A*S*H, and newly minted star Elliott Gould is its big draw. Wearing the bushy mustache that makes him look like the wild-eyed spawn of Groucho Marx, Gould is Harry Bailey, a university grad student. Bailey just wants to get his teaching credential, escape from higher academia and start inspiring high school students. That, and have a lot of sex. As a student teacher, Harry enlivens his English class with sophomoric humor: "I was shafted, you were shafted, she was shafted". He praises ESL student Garcia (Gregory Sierra) for his choice of reading material, Batman comics.
We learn in short order that Harry's sarcastic attitude is influenced by a colorful background: he served a tour of duty in Vietnam but was somehow also at the Sorbonne during the '68 riots and took part in the Memphis freedom marches a couple of years earlier. Budding student activists give him grief for not joining their protests; the script satirizes radical activism as immature kid's play. It also ignores the feminist politics of the time. Harry's girlfriend Jan (Candice Bergen, looking bright and fresh) secretly wants a house and kids. Homosexuality is dismissed with a couple of fast jokes. The film assumes that premarital sex is a standard behavior pattern, and even has Harry telling a busload of high school girls touring the campus to "save themselves" for the wild time they'll have in college.
The movie tries hard to be a screwball farce. Harry is besieged on all sides by people demanding his time and attention. The main bady guy on the faculty (Jeff Corey) questions Harry's commitment to teaching. Squeaky-clean black student radical Ellis (Max Julien) spars with Harry over racial politics, exchanges which boil down to sex jokes:
Harry: "You've gotta be better than we are."
Ellis: "We already are in certain areas."
Harry: "Yeah, I know. How come that's the only racial stereotype you never bother to deny?"
The junior protesters want Harry to lead the demonstrations against the Vietnam War while demanding a black studies program and a voice in university policy. He tells them that he's been there before and wishes them luck. Meanwhile, the administration wants Harry to write PR material to help them keep the uppity students in line.
Jan and Harry engage in running arguments alone and in public, each accusing the other of being a sell-out or a phony. With his car breaking down (one hilarious gag, there) and newly evicted from his apartment, Harry tries to sell his textbooks back to the student store, yet keep them 'til the end of the semester. He moves in with Jan and expects her to do his laundry, etc. The fur flies: "Woman? You're not a woman! You're just a guy with a hole in the middle!" Harry is upset when Jan might be sleeping with a proto-yuppie gynecologist, but he sees nothing wrong with bedding a couple of his students, who provide the film with some fleeting nudity.
A running gag involves Harry's doper friend Nick (Robert F. Lyons), a flake who tries to evade the draft by through various underhanded means. He proposes to a black welfare cheat and pretends to be gay, etc.. Nick eventually jeopardizes Harry's successful graduation by turning him in for cheating.
At over two hours, the movie is at least half an hour too long. The good gags include some sex jokes that showed up in later Woody Allen movies, but things become repetitious; creative editing might have really tightened this show into something snappy. To wrap itself up, the film suddenly stages a full-scale campus riot with club-wielding cops, tear gas, screaming students, etc. This cues an obligatory campus rebellion cliché: in the middle of the havoc, Harry and Jan cry out for each other.
Getting Straight has no particular governing principle beyond scattershot humor, and it trivializes just about everything it touches. Harry's final plea to the clueless school dean is to claim that if the administration would just let the students get laid, there wouldn't be any campus protest.
The movie marks the final film appearance of Cecil Kellaway; he's a sympathetic English prof saddened when Harry blows his oral exams. Harry blows a fuse when an obnoxious inquisitor demands that he accept a gay interpretation of The Great Gatsby. Protest leader John Rubenstein played the title role in the next year's Zachariah, and Jeannie Berlin survived the revolution-themed The Strawberry Statement to receive an Oscar nomination for The Heartbreak Kid. And a ver-ry young Harrison Ford has a couple of scenes as Jake, Jan's nice-guy neighbor. The box text calls Ford's appearance a cameo, but one has to be a name star to do a cameo, right?
Richard Rush is creative enough as a director but it's obvious that Getting Straight was put together rather quickly. Cameraman Laszlo Kovacs gives the show a slick surface; he filmed Easy Rider and had already worked with Rush four times. Precise rack-focus tricks and a good use of the zoom lens animate scenes that would otherwise be very ordinary. The title sequence background shows an apple being passed student-to-student along the university walkways, until someone notices a message carved into it: "The Earth Sucks."
Some of the vocals that pop up now and then sound like a Simon and Garfunkle imitation. A computer company is given credit for the simple title graphic, which looks as if it were filmed off of a TV monitor with a scan bar rolling through it. The movie was filmed at the newly finished Lane Community College in Eugene, Oregon.
Candice Bergen continued to better roles and a solid career, while Elliott Gould's flame of star bankability fluttered out after a handful of unfunny comic vehicles. Director Richard Rush's uneven career culminated in his highly admired The Stunt Man. Getting Straight was one of the very last movies I saw before leaving for dorm life at UCLA, where I witnessed most of the movie's themes played out in real life and for keeps. It was definitely an exciting time. Most of the "revolution!" themed movies were obsolete before they reached the screen. After the killings at Kent State, campus unrest no longer seemed like a good subject for a lightweight comedy.
Sony's Martini Movies disc of Getting Straight is a nearly perfect enhanced widescreen transfer of this relic from 1970. Colors are very good and the audio is sharp as a tack. Two Martini Minutes promos are included, but no trailer this time around. Original posters for this movie were terrible, but that doesn't excuse the ugly cover art for the DVD.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Getting Straight rates:
Movie: Good -
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: January 24, 2009
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2009 Glenn Erickson
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