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Lovers and Other Strangers
This better-than-average comedy plays a little like an upscale television sitcom, but in 1970 its honest attitudes about relationships were a refreshing change. Writer- actors Joseph Bologna and Renée Taylor fashion their comedy around a series of one-act blackouts. A few drag but most are good and a couple are sensational. Best of all, the show gives us a good opportunity to observe at work a dozen good actors that rarely get parts this big.
Lovers and Other Strangers is neither the classiest nor most accomplished romantic comedy ever made, but it does manage to reflect its times without undue embarrassment, something few movies achieved in 1970. It's divided into perhaps two dozen isolated scenes that still look ready to be presented on a stage. When the writing is good, it's better than amusing. But at this 34-year remove, actor-watching takes precedence. There's some great talent here, some of it better used than others.
The point is that even though many rules have changed by 1970, old values have not. The newlyweds already live together, but in secret, with relatives always asking how their non-existent roommates are doing. They seem too casual and flighty about the wedding, or at least the groom is, blabbing about his freedom and insecurity over getting into the same mess the previous generation did. After all, his brother's perfect wedding is crumbling, and nobody knows exactly why. Michael Brandon is good but Bonnie Bedelia is wonderful. She would spend the next ten years with unfulfilled predictions that she'd become a big star.
Sex is taken for granted and is the first priority in many agendas, even the 'nice' characters. Susan's father is carrying on an affair with his wife's best friend, and is getting away with murder through creative double-talk. Gig Young's role is broad and thin, although always carping about having no 'generation gap' is a good touch as lots of jerks talked that way back then. Anne Jackson is terrific as the one-note despairing other woman who always seems to be conducting her life hiding in rest rooms with mascara running down her face. There's not that much film on Ms. Jackson but she never fails to be sensational, in this case taking bad material and keeping it going nicely. As the wife, Cloris Leachman doesn't really have a part and stays on the sidelines, which seems a missed opportunity.
The most incisive family portrait is provided by Mike's parents, sketched beautifully by Beatrice Arthur and Richard Castellano. While clumsily refereeing their older son's broken marriage, they reveal credible characters - she never liked sex, he strayed once and has been busted for it ever since. Now their marriage is more about good cooking than anything else. They deliver the overall message about lovers being strangers, who know each other really well. Unlike much ethnic-based humor, the Italian-American gags are soft peddled and the Vecchio family avoids cartoonish parody. Seeing Bea Arthur before her television glory days is quite a revelation; she's very good.
Anne Meara and Harry Guardino's bickering couple are annoying only because their material is the most dated, but for 1970 it's politically astute. Johnny wants to play the big boss in the family and poor Wilma can't seem to dissuade him, not with kidding, kisses or arguments. He claims his masculine prerogative but it's obvious that he just wants everything his way, along with the cozy illusion that he's more important than her. There seems to be no solution except for Wilma to just give up, as she loves him despite his complete obnoxiousness. Anne Meara, another great talent, brings these scenes to life; Harry Guardino has the thankless jerk role. The interest here is that their sketches (some early ones are pretty weak) are an excellent yardstick for the state of marriage in 1970 - women looking for a hint of respect and men wanting a one-sided fantasy. Johnny hits Wilma and forces her to agree with him by holding her in an armlock, stuff that looks like criminal abuse now. It's very eye opening.
Starting bad and getting good is the just-meeting duel between lothario Jerry and the seemingly defenseless Brenda, a wonderful performance by Marian Hailey who I'm sorry to say didn't make many films. He's obsessed with nailing her on the first date and even though she comes off as a creampuff, she manages to guide him in her direction time and again. The charming Brenda succeeds by not becoming a victim; again, both parties want a relationship and sex but each has an entirely different agenda. The comedy here is nicely judged and the surprise is that what should be depressing (lame wolf roped by cagey rabbit) is uplifting. If they end up together they'll have the same chance any couple has.
In a small and unheralded role is Diane Keaton in her first film. She's adorable, a babyfaced charmer with a look of intelligent reserve. She has a good scene with Bea Arthur, trying to tell her mother-in-law that the joy left her marriage when her husband's hair stopped smelling like raisins. It's as satisfying a reason as any. The writers' overall take on marriage is a good one: Objective reasons for why particular people should get married, stay married, or break up, just aren't there.
The production is reasonably attractive. The film is visually undistinguished, which keeps the theatrical thread up front at all times; this is no The Graduate- type farce with big messages to deliver. David Susskind's producing coup was obviously rounding up the terrific cast. It's hard to know what novelist David Zelag Goodman contributed to the script; his oddball screenwriting career veered from the obscure brilliance of The Stranglers of Bombay to the utter sludge of Logan's Run.
MGM's DVD of Lovers and Other Strangers is an okay show but a visual disappointment. The ABC-sourced master is an adapted pan-scan of a flat movie that blows up the full frame a bit, showing more top and bottom than is necessary but often getting rather tight on the sides. As much of the movie plays like a sitcom this seems less destructive than usual, but every show should be given its full chance. I reserve my ire for bad formatting as on Columbia's Castle Keep, but we can't keep forgetting what happens to the general run of product. In this case, it's possibly because the ABC-owned pictures all came to be distributed by MGM as a group. MGM is given masters and puts them out with little opportunity to upgrade - there probably is no letterboxed or 16:9 transfer of this title.
The audio is a clear mono. Before I forget, the big historical deal with Lovers and Other Strangers is its theme song For All We Know. Very popular as a Carpenters radio hit, it was heard at weddings for the next 20 years, ad infinitum.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Lovers and Other Strangers rates:
Video: Fair ++ (formatting issues)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 1, 2004