The 70’s was a great time for movies. Many of the films of that decade have a unique feel, I’m not quite sure how to describe it. It’s a sort of “fly on a wall” type of vibe. You end up feeling like you’re watching events unfold as they would in real life. It feels unplanned, kind of rough around the edges, if you know what I mean. I often associate this style with the 70’s films of Robert Altman…movies like “M*A*S*H” and “Nashville.” That’s the kind of feeling I had watching Michael Ritchie’s 1975 look at a suburban beauty pageant, “Smile.” That is, without the actors all talking on top of each other like Altman would do.
The film concerns a pageant in suburban Santa Rosa to crown California’s representative for the national Young American Miss Pageant. Brenda DiCarlo (Barbara Feldon) is the driven executive director of the pageant, but her husband Andy (Nicholas Pryor) is spiraling into depression and alcoholism. Since his wife is never around, he survives on TV dinners…and when she is around she has absolutely no interest in him sexually.
The head judge of the pageant is the always chipper RV salesman Big Bob Freelander (Bruce Dern). Bob is very gung-ho for the whole pageant and is disturbed by his best friend Andy’s condition. He is especially bothered by Andy’s unwillingness to take part in an upcoming ritual for their lodge which involves the members dressing in Ku Klux Klan type outfits and kissing the rear end of a dead chicken.
Then there are the contestants in the pageant, many of whom are played by young ladies who would eventually become pretty notable actresses. Among them are Melanie Griffith, Annette O’Toole and Colleen Camp. You can also spot Denise Nickerson who as a child actor turned into a blueberry in “Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” and dated Peter Brady on “The Brady Bunch.” But we spend the most time with a girl named Robin (Joan Prather), who is just glad to be in the competition at first, but becomes obsessed with winning by the end. The ladies spend much of their time practicing the big musical numbers for the show which are under the direction of a Hollywood choreographer there to collect a paycheck, played by real-life choreographer Michael Kidd. Oh, and as the girls change costumes during their rehearsals, parked outside the window with a Polaroid camera is Big Bob’s son, Little Bob (Eric Shea).
There really isn’t much of a story to “Smile.” We just get to be that fly on the wall as we buzz around and visit these different characters. But you don’t need a story to have a funny movie, and “Smile” is a very funny movie. At the same time, it’s also hard to call “Smile” a flat-out comedy. The film does get pretty dark. Ultimately, the Young American Miss Pageant is what brings us into the lives of these different characters, but it’s not the real beauty pageant that this film is about. This is about the beauty pageant of suburbia, about the image that folks like Big Bob try to live up to. It’s not always easy to watch, but you will laugh.
Bruce Dern’s portrayal of Big Bob is definitely the highlight of the movie. He has many great scenes but one moment in particular just nailed the character. It’s a simple scene where Big Bob is trying to get Andy to quit moping around and get back in the spirit of things. Andy asks Bob “doesn’t anything ever get you down?” And Bob cheerfully explains how he learned long ago to expect less out of life. He then proceeds to tell a story about how he learned this lesson when he was stood up for a date by Elizabeth Taylor. Watching Big Bob’s facade start to crack as he tells this story is an amazing piece of acting. I think everyone has probably known someone like Big Bob. Somehow Dern manages to tap into that. It’s a great performance!
“Smile” is a film worth seeking out. It’s a wonderful slice of the 70’s…it’ll make you squirm a bit, but mostly it will make you…well, you know, smile.