Le Nozze di Figaro

"Aprite un po' quegli occhi!"

“Aprite un po’ quegli occhi!”

There are many operatic comedies, but if there’s a work that ends on a more joyous note than “Le Nozze di Figaro,” I’ve yet to see it. Indeed, Saturday’s finale to Mozart’s opera, courtesy of the Met’s Live in HD telecast, was cause for elation.

There’s just so much in “Figaro”: servant vs. master, long-lost parents, assignations in the garden, a randy pageboy who enjoys dressing as a girl, and most of all, that incredible Act Two, with its musically intricate and plot-twisting finale. Not to mention the funniest moment in opera—when Susanna, not Cherubino, steps out of the closet, to the Count’s complete stupification. (For the record my other favorites are Mistresses Ford and Page discovering Falstaff has sent them both the same love letter, the ménage à trois of “Le Comte D’Ory” and Almaviva and Rosina singing of how they’ll make their getaway instead of making their getaway while Figaro is “andiam”–ing them onward).

Richard Eyre’s production, which opened the current Met season, sets “Figaro” in 1930’s Spain. In my experience putting the singers in contemporary dress often frees them, not only from the literal constraints of corsets and powdered wigs, but from a type of formality that can be distancing. In short a modern dress production seems to enable them (and the audience) to relate to their characters and each other more easily than in a traditional staging. Such was the case here—the singers seemed to be enjoying themselves to the hilt.

There’s been a great deal of debate as to what that ’30’s setting signifies in view of Franco and the looming Civil War. I see it in a different light. Let me give you a hint: think Renoir’s “The Rules of the Game,” not politics. In fact if memory serves, Renoir precedes the action of his film with a quote from the source of the opera, Beaumarchais’ “Le marriage de Figaro.” Like the world of that film, the regime Eyre portrays is corrupt and dying; what’s left is love, the chase and other divertissements.

Eyre begins the production with a prequel that accompanies the overture. I didn’t care for his use of this device in his production of “Werther” last season, but I very much enjoyed it here. The scenes on the revolving set featured a maid running to work from the Count’s chambers while hastily dressing en route; the knowing looks of her fellow servants when she finally reports to her post; the gardener Antonio, already tippling in the a.m.; and the Countess, restlessly tossing in her bed—alone.

This was the 75th performance of “Le Nozze di Figaro” conducted by James Levine at the Met, and musical matters were as crisp as ever. The cast was excellent. Ildar Abdrazakov, shorn of his beard and Prince Igor’s long locks, is an engaging and enormously attractive Figaro. He and Marlis Petersen made an interesting team. Somewhat cast against type (she was a sinuous, dangerous Lulu at the Met several seasons ago), she proved a slightly older and definitely wiser Susanna than usual. Susanna is no ingenue, and variations on the role are most welcome. Years ago I saw Catherine Malfitano (pre-Salome and Tosca) perform a lovely, vulnerable Susanna, while Judith Blegen brought her sharp intelligence to the role. During the second act jousting with the Count, her expression wasn’t just “How did a nice girl like me end up in a mess like this?” it was “How did a nice smart girl like me” etc. In the current production the modern era works to Petersen’s advantage—she could have given Carole Lombard a run for money in any 30’s screwball comedy.

I have to admit one of my main reasons for buying a ticket to this performance was to hear Peter Mattei sing “Contessa, perdono.” For sheer beauty of sound, there are few currently active baritones who can touch him. His Count Almaviva possessed the most important attribute necessary to putting the role across—authority, which he never lost despite the many times he was outfoxed by Figaro, Susanna and nearly everyone else on stage. I would have liked to have seen a Countess who could truly match him, but Amanda Majeski isn’t quite there yet, though she may well be in the future. I thought her performance a bit one-note—this Countess should have been on Prozac, though she eagerly joined in the many twists and turns of Act Two. I tend to think the overdone depression was more Eyre’s take on the character than hers, so there may be some tweaking in the future.

Isabel Leonard is a beautiful woman with a lovely voice, but I wasn’t really impressed until seeing her performance as Cherubino. She’s inside his skin, and looked quite dashing in that white suit. However, I was somewhat disappointed by “Voi che sapete.” She acted the lyrics to the aria, which resulted in some abruptly terminated phrases. But the aria is really a performance piece, and I would have preferred to have heard it as pure music rather than a vehicle by which Cherubino too obviously shows his befuddlement and anxiety to the Countess. Since it’s such a calling card for lyric mezzos, I can’t imagine this was Ms. Leonard’s idea, but it needs to be thrown overboard forthwith.

The rest of the cast was exemplary: Greg Fedderly’s Don Basilio seemed like Paul Lynde revisited, Susanne Mentzer, a former Cherubino of distinction, was a wonderfully arch Marcellina and John Del Carlo blustered becomingly as Bartolo. There was also a star in the making—Ying Fang, whose Barbarina had far more voice that you usually hear in this role. She’s got the limpid sound and the charm to be a wonderful Mimi, and I look forward to hearing more from her in the future.

What a lovely way to start a season of opera.

Some food for thought: Here’s a snapshot of what’s wrong with opera in America today. At my local multiplex there were only about 40 people in attendance for the “Figaro” HD telecast. I spotted one couple in their early 30’s, another in their 40’s, and a young woman in her 20’s who arrived with her mother. No one else in the theater would see 55 again, and in fact, the majority of attendees appeared to be in their late 60’s and far beyond. And, sad to say, the situation is no different at the university where I usually attend HD telecasts. So the marketing folks better get cracking pronto, before there’s no audience remaining to appreciate some of the greatest works ever created.

Sayreville

map_of_sayreville_njThere’s a tragedy that’s still unfolding in Sayreville, New Jersey, and unfortunately its nature comes as no surprise. This fall has seen domestic violence perpetrated by Ray Rice and an admitted “whupping” administered by Adrian Peterson to his four-year-old son, preceded by countless instances of college professors complaining (and litigating) over received threats, coercion and actual job loss to force them to award passing grades to football players so that they can remain eligible to play.

But this?

In the event you’re not familiar with the situation, seven high school varsity football players between the ages of 15 and 17 have variously been charged with aggravated sexual assault and other crimes allegedly perpetrated on several members of the freshman football team. As reported at nj.com , the alleged behavior consisted of attacks on freshmen in the locker room that began with a wolf howl, signaling a dowsing of lights, followed by forcibly pinning the boy to the floor, then standing him up and—forgive the graphic description—a varsity player’s shoving a finger into the victim’s rectum and then (same finger) into the victim’s mouth. While this was going on, one or two varsity players stood lookout and prevented anyone from entering or leaving the locker room. As of this writing, four such incidents have been identified; I have no doubt more freshmen will be coming forward, and the seven varsity players will most likely be implicating others, particularly if the county prosecutor seeks to try them as adults.

The reveal began in murky fashion. The Sayreville Superintendent of Schools announced at a press conference that all football games were cancelled for the coming weekend. He spoke of serious allegations concerning the safety of the players, but refused to be more specific, thus raising more questions than answers. He also spoke of the possibility of cancelling the rest of the season, which angered many parents. Even this former band nerd, who loathed every pep rally she was forced to play for, was taken aback, given the potential loss of college scholarships if the players could not be assessed by scouts during the games remaining on the schedule. However, all became clear two days later when a parent whose son had been the victim of one of these attacks provided details to nj.com under cover of anonymity. In short order the alleged perpetrators were taken into custody and charged as juveniles.

Where to begin?

With the perpetrators who, despite all that’s been in the news, apparently can’t comprehend that physically violating another human being is wrong, not to mention a crime?

With their parents, though these young men are certainly old enough to bear responsibility for their own choices?

With the coaches, who evidently failed to supervise the locker room, and, more importantly, to teach the young men in their care that being a member of the team is in no way consent to assault?

With those adult residents of the town who treat the varsity football team like demigods, parade around in Sayreville Bomber jackets, and so bitterly reacted to the cancellation of the season that nj.com’s sources requested anonymity for fear of reprisals?

But I have a particular bone to pick with the media which all so often stops short by referring to incidents such as this as “hazing.” You want to stop outrages such as this? Then drop that word and call it what it is—in this case, rape. And the next time some college freshman dies of alcohol poisoning in the house of the fraternity he’s pledging, call it aggravated assault. Because labelling it as hazing connotes “it’s only” behavior, i.e., “Boys will be boys.” It’s dishonest reporting that perpetuates the belief that the victim, by participating in sports or seeking to pledge, is more or less asking for whatever may come his way, including the brutality of his own teammates or fraternity brothers. While I’m well aware that the legal definition of hazing prevents consent from being a defense, this is one instance where the law and public perception sharply depart company.

The Sayreville story is far from over. In fact each day brings a new outrage. This morning I heard on news radio that defense counsel for one of the young men charged is insisting that her client’s suspension from school be lifted to enable him to return to the classroom. “He’s owed an education,” she reportedly stated. Certainly. But not on school grounds where the county prosecutor’s investigation is on-going, not to mention the possibility of his encountering his freshman victims.

Common sense, anyone?

Boardwalk Empire: What Might Have Been

 

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It has to end with Repeal.

“Boardwalk Empire” is now in its fifth and final season. The mood is elegiac—the time is 1931, we’re deep in the Depression, and Nucky Thompson, political as always, seeks to co-opt a malleable U.S. Senator to push for the end of Prohibition (Fashion note: Steve Buscemi looks great in his sharply tailored, early 30’s suits). Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky are in open warfare with Doctor Narcisse, who refuses to pay them protection. Margaret, having siphoned money from Abe Redstone’s Arnold Rothstein’s stock account since his demise, has been handed an ultimatum from the Widow Rothstein re: the missing funds. Gillian is in the booby hatch, Chalky White is on the run, and Joseph P. Kennedy doesn’t drink.

Is this where we wanted to be?

Although I’ve enjoyed “Boardwalk Empire” for what it’s been, I have a strong sense of missed opportunity. I would love to know what the show runners originally had in mind after that first intriguing season. In addition to Prohibition, they started us off with a fair sampling of what made the nascent 1920’s tick—the winning of votes for women, Margaret Sanger, Eddie Cantor and an endless supply of great music. But their having to deal with two reportedly obstreperous/difficult/whatever actors who were dropped/fired/left of their own accord, depending upon your source of information, forced some changes. The subtraction of one, Paz de la Huerta (Lucy Danziger, Nucky’s discarded mistress and Van Alden’s baby mama), caused only a minor ripple. However, the loss of the other, namely Michael Pitt as Jimmy Darmody, has been felt ever since his character’s murder at the end of Season Two. That father/surrogate son dynamic he had with Nucky was the heartbeat of the show. Its replacement, an ever-diffuse gangster epic, has not proven to be as intriguing as the show runners had hoped. We’ve seen it before and quite honestly, it’s been done better.

The Real Atlantic City, 1920's

The Real Atlantic City, 1920’s

As a native New Jerseyan, I would have liked more of Atlantic City in the show. Historically it was one of the premiere resorts of the East Coast during the era in which “Boardwalk Empire” is set, yet we’ve really had little of this since Season One. We’ve rarely seen the fabled hotels, the ballroom on Steel Pier, a salt water taffy machine, the Diving Horse, or had a real grasp of the extent of the tourist trade. After all, Atlantic City was known as “the lungs of Philadelphia,” and was a regular stop on the try-out circuit for shows headed to Broadway. We’ve been “Boardwalk-less Empire” for quite some time, what with Atlantic City having to take a back seat to goings-on in Chicago, New York, Florida and now Cuba.

Another problem has been the depressing disposability of the female characters of this show. Given the fate of these ladies, I had the clear impression, week after week, that the show runners were charter members of the Old Boys Club. Daughter Maitland, Maybelle White, Billie Kent, Lucy Danziger, Babette and of course, Angela Darmody, met untimely ends, disappeared or otherwise suffered. Angela’s murder, in itself one of the more horrible acts on “Boardwalk Empire,” also deprived us of a potential window to the Greenwhich Village scene, something which was foreshadowed in Season One. Considering the explosion of the arts in America in the 1920’s, not following through with this storyline was a considerable loss—it would have been an intriguing counterpoint to the world of bloodshed and booze.

Nevertheless, there’s always been something to relish in “Boardwalk Empire.” Various characters stay with you: Michael Stulhbarg’s Arnold Rothstein (the one reason why I wish they hadn’t hopscotched to 1931, past his final days). Michael K. Williams’ Chalky White. Eddie Cantor (Stephen DeRosa), Esther Randolph (Julianne Nicolson). Mickey Doyle (Paul Sparks)—and his giggle. Eli Thompson (Shea Whigham) and Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon), truly this season’s Odd Couple. But Valentin Narcisse, played by the elegant Jeffrey Wright, is a special delight. He’s a master of the quiet bon mot. Witness his recent sit-down with Charlie Luciano and Meyer Lansky. Narcisse politely inquires how they wish to be addressed. “Charlie” “My ma called me pitseleh” (Yiddish for “little one”). Narcisse’s response? A small smile. “What friendly little names.” And the other two actors are blown right off the screen.

I’m particularly intrigued by how Margaret intends to play Nucky in order to set herself right with the Widow Rothstein and the feds, though I’m sure Eli’s kid is about to help. And the flashbacks to Nucky’s boyhood are a treat—I’m enjoying how they play at a slower tempo, befitting simpler times. And whoever cast John Ellison Conlee as the young Commodore deserves a special Emmy. Vocally he’s a perfect match for Dabney Coleman and while he’s heftier than the older version of the character, his facial expressions more than suggest the man we first met several years ago.

There are only five episodes remaining in this final season. Despite its flaws, I’ll be sad to see it go.

 

 

 

 

 

Layers

"Masters of Sex": Prelude

“Masters of Sex”: Prelude

We seem to be in a golden age of drama, whether cable or streamed. There may be more water cooler shows than water coolers these days, as “Breaking Bad,” “Orange is the New Black,” “House of Cards” and a number of others can easily attest. What marks each, regardless of subject, is the complexity of the writing and the astonishing ability of the actors to play the intricate levels of emotion demanded by their roles. It’s a welcome feast.

Case in point: A scene in an early episode of the recently concluded season of “Last Tango in Halifax.” You’ll recall that Caroline (Sarah Lancashire) and Kate (Nina Sosanya) have finally, sort of, gotten together, though they’re not out at work (Caroline is the headmistress of the rather tony school at which Kate teaches). On this occasion, as they walk to school assembly, Caroline flapping in her academic robe, they discuss Caroline’s suggestion that Kate sell her house, move in with her and help finance Caroline’s buy-out of her soon-to-be ex-husband’s interest. Kate’s not sure Caroline is making this offer for the right reasons until Caroline blurts out “I want to spend the rest of my life with you.”

"Last Tango in Halifax": Negotiations Await

“Last Tango in Halifax”: Negotiations Await

Talk about a game changer. From that point on, as the characters discuss property appraisals, they wear the dippiest smiles—both realize Caroline has in essence proposed. But then Kate, pressured by that chapel of students waiting on the headmistress, as well as a desire to put her own cards on the table, comes out with “I want to have a baby.” In the stress of the moment Caroline bursts out laughing—at the incongruous setting of the discussion, at her own audacity in moving things along with Kate, at Kate’s desire to have a first child at the age of 42. Fortunately Sarah Lancashire has the talent to make us see all of this in an instant, which is why this scene is one of my “Tango” favorites.

The second season of “Masters of Sex,” though at the darker end of the spectrum, plays at the same level. It began with a bang (no pun intended), when Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan) was forced to fend off a series of passes from the leering doctors who thought hers was the orgasmic body in William Masters’ lecture film. While there have been other fireworks along the way, the best scenes this season have been those exploring the relationship between her and Bill (Michael Sheen). In Season 1 we saw them become subjects in their own study, as they practically swore an oath they were only doing it for the good of science. But despite their best efforts, things became complicated.

Their scenes together are a fascinating study of emotional layers, both as they accrete and as they’re peeled away. We see their hotel room trysts and watch as they fantasize for each other, revealing more about their lives than they’re otherwise capable of doing. A romantic relationship it’s not–at one point Ginny prevents Bill from kissing her, reminding him “That’s not what we do”—but they’re certainly obsessed with each other, both sexually and in terms of who has the power in their relationship. Bill is a physician, so his credentials outshine Ginny’s, the college dropout. Ah, but she’s divorced and free to embark on any relationship she wants, despite his protests, while he’s in a marriage that clearly isn’t fulfilling for him. At this point his need is greater, and she’s not as available as he would want.

All of this is beautifully played by Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan. The nuances they bring to their roles are astonishing—I especially enjoy her self-conscious “educated” accent. In a recent episode they repaired to their usual hotel suite and the methods of their sexuality study easily morphed into foreplay (She ordered him to strip and, stopwatch in hand, monitored his physical responses as he masturbated). Every moment was charged with about six different emotions, and these actors made it feel as if we were eavesdropping, as well we were.

Michael Sheen is a fascinating Bill Masters—I still can’t believe he wasn’t nominated for an Emmy. Masters’ confrontation with the black newspaper editor who intends to publish a profile detailing his troubled employment history is a showcase of great acting. To stop publication, Masters threatens to reveal that his study can confirm every conceivable stereotype of African-American sexuality (false). He blusters, he pounds the table, yet Sheen simultaneously makes us sense his uneasiness and self-disgust. He has the talent to distinguish this scene from the one we saw last season when Masters blackmailed Provost Barton in order to have his study reinstated at the hospital. During that conversation Sheen made us see Masters’ confidence, since Barton had something to hide; in contrast, despite the noise he makes to the newspaper editor, Masters is mentally cowering. It’s quite a performance.

We’ve seen the same level of complexity in other relationships on the show, especially Ginny’s friendship with Dr. Lillian DePaul (Julianne Nicholson), her one-time boss who’s now dying of ovarian cancer. Lillian is fighting the good fight, undergoing debilitating radiation treatments to combat the metastases in her brain, but she’s reached a point where she just wants some peace. Yet Ginny refuses to conceive of someone’s wanting to stop; giving up is not in her lexicon. In the “Blackbird” episode, Lillian finally had her own way and in doing so, taught Ginny how to let go. On a different note, Betty, a former prostitute and early subject of Masters’ study, sees her marriage end when her lesbian relationship comes to light. But she’s a survivor, above all, and goes on to become a real estate broker, a CPA and evidently the manager of Bill Masters’ practice. The fact that he’s now taking orders from her is a delightful twist.

If you’re not watching “Masters of Sex,” you should. It’s some of the best TV around.

Robin Williams

 

"Clash!"

“Clash!”

What a loss.

Yes, he was T.S. (“Terribly Sexy”) Garp, Adrian Cronauer, Armand Goldman and a host of other men—and occasionally women—but most of all he was the fastest brain (and mouth) around.

To listen to him improvise was astonishing. I remember the Sunday afternoon he and Billy Crystal invaded the Mets broadcasting booth at Shea Stadium to promote the first Comic Relief. This was definitely foreign territory for Billy, a diehard Yankees fan. But Robin Williams, who professed to never having attended a baseball game before, was nevertheless right at home. Taking on the persona of a fey fashion designer, he proceeded to give new meaning to the term “color commentary” with his nonstop views on the players’ uniforms (“Can’t they be more stylish?”), batting helmets and everything else in view. Tim McCarver, the Mets’ play-by-play man, was laughing so hard he was beside himself. And I had fallen off the sofa the instant Robin opened his mouth.

Garp and Jenny Fields (Glenn Close)

Garp and Jenny Fields (Glenn Close)

Fortunately he left behind the many characters he brought to life on film. To this day, nothing brings me out of a funk faster that Adrian Cronauer’s first broadcast in “Good Morning, Vietnam.” Unless, of course, it’s Robin’s whirlwind make-up tests in “Mrs. Doubtfire,” aided and abetted by Harvey Fierstein. But my all-time favorite is the bit he improvised for “The Birdcage,” when he provides motivation for Nathan Lane’s hunky yet exceedingly clueless dance partner. His lightning quick demonstration of about six different choreographic styles sent me into hysterics as soon as he pulled his shirt over his head at “Martha Graham, Martha Graham.” And when he galloped around at “Michael Kidd, Michael Kidd,” I totally lost it. Pure genius.

Perhaps my favorite among Robin Williams’ “serious” roles is Garp. The mania is tamed, but the vibrancy remains. Needless to say, the cast is amazing: Glenn Close as his mother, Mary Beth Hurt as his wife, John Lithgow as the inimitable Roberta Muldoon and Swoosie Kurtz as a prostitute-turned-women’s rights supporter. He takes us through Garp’s triumphs, only to trip and fall and then succeed again. There are times you just want to smack him one, but Robin Williams is so likeable in the role you just root for the character no matter what.

He will indeed be missed.

A Team at Last

The New Face of the Franchise?

Jacob deGrom: The New Face of the Franchise?

The Mets are back.

The pitching’s been there all season, but it hit a new high with the recent emergence of Jacob deGrom, an unheralded righty with pinpoint control. For months other young Mets pitchers like Zach Wheeler and prospect Noah Syndergaard grabbed the lion’s share of attention (not to mention Matt Harvey’s Tommy John surgery). I had never even heard of deGrom until he was brought up to start in place of the injured Dillon Gee. What a lovely surprise.

After an inconsistent beginning, deGrom is now locked in. He and Giants starter Jake Peavy treated the CitiField crowd to the unheard-of experience of a double perfect game through six innings this past Saturday night, causing the TV announcers to scramble for their record books. Although deGrom yielded the first hit, the Mets made the roof cave in for Peavy in the bottom of the 7th, eventually winning the game 4-2. Even though they got their clock cleaned the next day 9-0, courtesy of Madison Bumgarner, they’re now a team to savor.

The pieces are coming together: Lucas Duda, Daniel Murphy, Juan Lagares (what a centerfielder!), Wilmer Flores and amazingly Travis d’Arnaud, who came back from his demotion to the minors a decent hitter with pop, plus the veterans David Wright and Curtis Granderson. This on top of what should be a great pitching staff next year when Matt Harvey returns. Yes, they still need a Big Bopper in the outfield, but that will happen.

It’s fun to be a Mets fan again!

Smile

"Tell us about that, dear...in your own words"

“Tell us about that, dear…in your own words”

Somewhere during the last three or four decades American film lost its talent to produce good-natured satire. Now everything is played for keeps, mirroring the scorched earth politics that have been the norm in recent memory. Just as an example, I doubt a movie like “His Girl Friday,” released in 1940, could be made today. The left would picket over the gender, ethnic and racial jokes, though the film is most definitely an equal opportunity offender (and funny as hell); the right would complain that the anarchist Earl Williams should have been hanged, and that the poor sheriff was done dirt by the lefty newspaper reporters (that era’s version of the “lamestream media”).

1975’s “Smile,” directed by Michael Ritchie, is the type of gentle satire that’s somehow lost its place in today’s humor. Despite its potshots at those eternal targets, beauty pageants and small town life, there’s a sweetness here. Ritchie leaves you with more winners than losers. He deliberately refrains from inviting the audience to feel superior to the characters; instead, he brings you into their world. Christopher Guest is the only filmmaker working today whose tone approaches that of “Smile,” though he’s definitely more pointed at times.

“Smile” covers the week in which small town Santa Rosa hosts the California state finals for the teen-age Young American Miss pageant. As expected, the event sponsor is the local Chamber of Commerce, among whose leading lights is Big Bob Friedlander (Bruce Dern), car dealer extraordinaire and the pageant’s Chief Judge. Relentlessly optimistic, he’s congenitally unable to open his mouth without a cliché, a catchphrase or a meme tumbling out. As can be imagined, Big Bob’s Number 1 pet peeve is anyone who “wallows in self-pity.” Nevertheless, there’s not one mean bone in his body, so it’s quite painful when events force him to question his values.

His polar opposite is Tommy French (Michael Kidd), a somewhat down on his luck director-choreographer, who’s been reduced to staging local beauty pageants. Despite all this he remains a total pro, and his frequent clashes with the squarely upright Jaycee in charge, Wilson Shears (Geoffrey Lewis), usually find him on the winning side, even if victory comes at a cost. Above all, though, Tommy’s a realist. When a stagehand congratulates him on the fine job he’s done, French wryly replies: “Yeah. I took a nice bunch of high school kids and turned them into Vegas showgirls.”

Watching the newly-minted "Vegas showgirls"

Watching the newly-minted “Vegas showgirls”

Ritchie has a keen eye and a good sense of balance. While he does go after some obvious targets like the smarmy pageant emcee, the above-mentioned Wilson Shears and Brenda DiCarlo (Barbara Feldon), former Young American Miss and now professional martyr married to Andy, the town drunk (Nicholas Pryor), he shows us a fond yet rueful view of small town life. There’s the Elks Bears breakfast honoring the pageant contestants, presided over by the local funeral director (Paul Benedict, who should have been used more), and the Jaycees blowing off steam at their Exhausted Rooster Ceremony (though their rooster garb uneasily resembles the KKK’s white sheets). Yet Ritchie also shows us that Santa Rosa is like every other small town that people need to leave in order to grow up. Not because it’s a bad place—only a stifling one. When Big Bob urges Andy to stay in Santa Rosa to solve his problems, the latter, with a defiant gleam in his eye, replies “Who wants to?”

Ritchie takes a sympathetic view of the pageant contestants. We’re spared the horror of stage mothers and professional coaches; Ritchie is too smart to waste our time with that. Instead, we experience the pageant through the eyes of a contestant, Robin (Joan Prather), a sweet, naive kid who to her surprise catches the fever to win. Then there’s her roommate, Doria (Annette O’Toole, giving the type of performance you remember for years), a pageant veteran who’s used to dealing with horny dermatologists and Vaseline on her teeth to help her maintain that smile, among other travails. Her talent spot in the pageant is perhaps the high point of “Smile”—a striptease scrubbed clean by an accompanying poetry recitation, capped off by an unforgetable ending. This bit alone is worth the cost of the DVD. Trust me.

As Tommy French says, the girls are basically your average high school kids. They’re not goody-goody, they’re certainly not Ginger Rogers—they’re simply playing the game, one whose values Robin questions. We catch her in the middle of a conversation with Doria, who points out: “Boys get paid for making touchdowns. Why shouldn’t a girl get paid for being pretty?” Robin’s reply always gladdens this former band nerd’s heart: “Well, maybe boys shouldn’t get paid for making touchdowns.”

Ultimately Ritchie’s view is somewhat ambivalent. While he shows us the silliness of the pageant and the clichés that prevail (not to mention the loot the winner collects), we also see the camaraderie of the contestants, their refreshing ability to see through a ton of adult b.s. and their resilience. A pity we lose this as we grow older.

“Smile”—a lovely reminder that once upon a time films were actually made for grown-ups.