Old Boyfriends (Joan Tewkesbury, 1979)

by October 14, 2019 6 minutes (1262 words) 35mm Aero Theatre/American Cinematheque

It was a second day of wandering off from watching lots of good stuff at Hollywood’s Beyond Fest (with the first day having led to me finally catching up with Quentin Tarantino’s latest – and greatest movie so far – at his very own theater, the New Beverly) to seek cinematic treats elsewhere. This day brought me first back to the New Bev, for a children’s matinee of a film I’d never heard of, That Darn Cat!, which turned out to be nothing less than an absolutely engaging experience — a shining example of the best of the assembly-line craftsmanship the studio system of the 1960’s was capable of (with the screening including all those by-now-expected New Bev’s pre-‘Main Feature’ celluloid goodies, including the joyously irreverent and heart-felt seven minute Merrie Melodies, Chuck Jones directed, classic cartoon Feeding the Kitty). The evening then brought the chance to catch one of those films I’d been wanting to see for a long time and just hadn’t gotten around to; one with an interesting pedigree; namely, a rare female director (her first film, after winning acclaim as a screenwriter for Robert Altman) and a script by the Brothers Schrader (Paul and Leonard).

One thing that becomes clear, watching director Tewkesbury’s constant returning still shots on the face of Rocky’s own Adrian, Talia Shire – this time, as Dianne, a suicidal psychiatrist on a road trip, a quest to uncover her identity by reconnecting with past romantic entanglements – detailing in probing close-up, the constant quirky smiles and awkward shifting expressions, is just how much the camera likes her… and interesting to consider why she never really became a star beyond the two Oscar nods in the 70’s.

Perhaps it was bad choices in roles (not that I have anything but respect for anyone appearing in that wonderfully wonky killer-mutant-bear ecological horror film Prophecy, as well as the sleazy weirdo thriller _Windows_… just not sure they were exactly thoughtful career moves)… or maybe she was just never offered the right parts. It seems clear to me; what she could have used, with all the cute eccentricities of the kind that the director normally gets smitten by, was to be a one-time muse of Woody Allen, the filmmaker who was busy at that time elevating the reputations of Diane Keaton and Mia Farrow with showcase roles (along with later providing Oscar winning parts for the likes of Diane Wiest, Penelope Cruz and Cate Blanchett… gee, makes you wonder, has any American director provided more award winning, meaty roles for female actors over the years than the Woodman?).

Old Boyfriends is an interesting character study, admirable in its chosen dramatic execution, relying as it does on script and performance. It’s the type of film that caters to an adult audience, taking on later existential issues, such as mid-life crisis’s and regrets, that most of today’s cinema has zero interest in.

Along with the impressive Shire, the three main male actors Dianne dredges up along her voyage, are all familiar 70’s faces doing reliable work. Richard Jordan, playing his part in relaxed fashion (perhaps a tad too much so), is the secondary narrative anchor, playing Jeff, Dianne’s first visit, a suddenly rekindled old flame who goes on a multi-state detective mission to find her after she’s disappeared just after they (re-)began their affair… in which he begins to unravel the nature of the angst the mysterious Dianne was suffering (as well as unwrap a few of the lies she has told him about how she got to this place).

John Belushi’s inclusion, as the second old fling Dianne seeks out (not really a boyfriend, we discover, as a high school sports star she was infatuated with, who barely had time for her, other than to embarrass her during an unconsummated date) may be a bit of stunt casting, but spices things up nicely anyway, adding a level of fun interplay (with the usual eye-brow twitching and manic Belushi managing to navigate successfully on the acting fence, but surprisingly never tipping over into – perhaps due to the guidance of Tewkesbury – being broad or over-the-top). You can see his comeuppance, with Dianne getting her high-school revenge, coming a mile away, yet it remains dramatically interesting for the overall arc of the Dianne character.

The blues number that Belushi gets to play (with many of his usual members from the “Blues Brothers” band) seems an obvious capitulation to the infamously drug-addled late comic performer (“Come on! Do the film! It’s just a few days… and we’ll even let you do a number with your musician pals!”), but they manage to work it into the narrative (Belushi’s character is one of those lonely people we’re all familiar with, one who is still living in the past when he was king in high school and still desperately trying to re-capture, as Bruce Springsteen called them, those “Glory Days”) is a small-town musician playing local venues, telling Dianne to meet her at one, so he can impress her.

Carradine plays Wayne, the mentally and emotionally stunted brother of Dianne’s ex-lover, another high school star, only this one mysteriously deceased. As discussed in the Q&A after the film between director and actors, Carradine has an impressive ability to project innocence (something director Robert Altman would use so well in his great 70’s films). This section is the most intriguing, yet also the most confusing and least satisfying, with the reasons for why Wayne’s smothering mother and the stern psychiatrist (the regal John Houseman) who cares for Wayne are so angry at Dianne for eventually romancing the boy seemingly somehow lost between script and carry-through of the movie.

Old Boyfriends is an odd experience, giving the impression of conflicting creative visions fighting for authorship… with none of them quite able to take control. Based upon the narrative itself (a damaged individual on a sole journey to discover self) – and the fact that the original script was called Old Girlfriends with all the gender flip flops that that implies – makes it pretty obvious that for scriptwriters Paul and Leonard Schrader this was originally crafted straight from Paul’s usual playground – i.e., a journey into Hell of a near mythic Lonely Man into ultimate destruction (or salvation through destruction, or some such similar fascinating outcome) brought to us from Paul’s usual detached, observational and intellectual perspective.

As director Tewkesbury discussed in the post-film Q&A (one of the pleasures of seeing a rep film in LA… the talent usually lives there and isn’t hard to get for screenings!), once she got involved (and re-jiggered and re-genderfied the story), her and Shire began, in their words, a process of ‘softening’ the story and ‘warming’ up the characters… something they never quite managed, instead creating an incongruous amalgamation that doesn’t quite work. On top of it, throwing things into even stranger waters, the score by Talia’s husband-at-the-time David, is too big and works overtime to sell the film as some kind of dark suspense thriller – something that might have been original scripter Brothers Schraders’ intention, but doesn’t play out at all under the guidance of Tewkesbury.

Old Boyfriends is a film worth catching, even with the uneven qualities created by the creative tug-of-wars going on. Tewkesbury’s sure hand with performances is certainly on display… and Shire could have been a real star… if she only had gotten Woody’s attention.

joan tewkesbury   paul schrader   robert carradine   talie shire