MELVIN AND HOWARD—–rewatching this 1980 classic every so often is like getting an occasional visit from a long-time friend. A little shaggy, a little older & wiser, still somewhat daffy and unrealistic, but hopeful and endearing, there with a smile if you need them.
It helps immeasurably that director Jonathan Demme and scenarist Bo Goldman have affection for their lower-middle class characters (and for an unlikely savior); the sentiment doesn’t glop into sentimentality, and the chuckle at their recognizable foibles and fantasies never becomes a condescending smirk (pay attention, Mss. Wes & Paul Thomas Anderson).
Amiable milkman (Of The Month!) Melvin Dummar (the perfectly cast Paul Le Mat) picks up a decrepit old man in the desert outside Las Vegas and gives the crusty geezer a lift. The ‘bum’ (Jason Robards) casually informs Melvin that he is Howard Hughes. Dummar puts this incident to the side—his life is full of odd moments and quirky people— and concentrates on his dreams; first with one wife, ditzy Mary Steenburgen, who gets fed up; then another, the earthy, practical Pamela Reed. One day, out of the hot blue desert sky, comes the answer to his dreams.
Whether you believe Dummar’s story or not (the director did, the judge who ruled against him later did, I do –hey, what more do you need?), it’s a humane and refreshing, smile-stuffed 95 minutes of Americana, keenly observed in details like sets and props, clothing and attitudes, music and place.
Le Mat, so good as ‘John Milner’ in American Graffiti, is the essential guy-next-door and he makes Melvin’s kindly humor, unlikely schemes and basic honest decency ring touching and true. Robards only has a few scenes as the ‘lost’ Hughes—strong enough to get him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Steenburgen, then 27, won that award in the ladies category, in only her third movie role. Her awful dance number on the marvelously dumb game show (Robert Ridgley eats it alive as ‘Wally ‘Mr.Love’ Williams’) is hilarious. Reed is charming and sexy-challenging—she aced another hot part that same year in The Long Riders.
Packed with great supporting actors in small but telling bits—Michael J. Pollard, Jack Kehoe, Rick Lenz, Dabney Coleman (his first acting job, nailing it as a hardass judge), Martine Beswicke (stunning Bond girl/cult fave from Thunderball and From Russia With Love), Gloria Grahame, Elizabeth Chesire, Charles Napier, Charlene Holt, John Glover and Joe Spinell.