THE BETSY, a derelict junk barge that sludged by in 1978, puts a number of respected actors through the Harold Robbins morals-grinder in what’s often described as a more puffed-up movie version of, say, Dynasty, for those who care to dredge that 9-season wallow in TV ooze. Though this has the big screen’s allowances for sex scenes and swear words, it’s not as much fun as that hoary old series, or similar Show The Dough fests that are apparently supposed to leave us thankful we don’t have millions of dollars at stake to make our plebeian existence more f’d up than it already is.
Aged automobile lion (or panther in this case) ‘Loren Hardeman Sr.’ (Laurence Olivier) wants the car-making division of his conglomerate to develop a slick economic rig to catch the changing times and let him go out with a winner. Naming his visionary vehicle ‘Betsy’, after his great- granddaughter (Kathleen Beller), he convinces auto racer ‘Angelo Perino’ (Tommy Lee Jones) to help design it, even while grandson ‘Loren III’ (Robert Duvall) tries to run the old man’s dream into a dead end. Angelo, being a car racer, is of course a stud, bedding hungry-eyed ‘Lady Ayres’ (Lesley-Anne Down) Loren III’s mistress, and eventually comely Betsy—once she’s 21: this shows he has a moral compass. Meanwhile randy Gramps has a lusty history, including a fling thing (cue flashbacks) with ‘Sally Hardeman’ (Katherine Ross), mother of Loren 3, once married to gay (before the word was in vogue) ‘Loren Jr’. Toss in gangsters.
Purportedly Robbins thought this pseudo-opulent, studiously empty exercise, narcoleptically directed by Daniel Petrie, trace-paper scripted by William Bast and Walter Bernstein, was the best film adaptation of one of his pulp steamers: taste is where you find it, or, in Robbins case, spit it out. Now The Carpetbaggers is flashy 60s fun, and The Adventurers is so over-the-top it’s almost compulsory, but this pretentious peek into the bedrooms and boardrooms of the rich and infamous kills the cardinal goose of Badness: on top of its other faults—unlikable characters, miscasting, lugubrious pacing, it’s just plain dull. The plot propeller—creation of an economy car—doesn’t exactly crank a drive shaft: would you buy a car named ‘Betsy’?
Olivier’s twangy American accent (somewhere between Kansas and vaudeville) wavers: he seems to be enjoying the chance to ham on wry. Jones doesn’t martial sufficient charm, Duvall is flatlined, Ross listless (on a roll of duds–the same year she was lost to The Swarm and The Legacy). Besides Lord Larry’s fitfully amusing indulgence, the most torque is provided by Lesley-Anne Down, smart-sexy and sly enough to sell the silliness.
Besides locations in Michigan (Detroit) and Wisconsin (an American Motors assembly plant in Kenosha), a slew of mansions were showcased in Newport, Rhode Island and in California (paging Palm Springs and Santa Barbara)
The 125 minutes feel like 180. A take of $17,685,000 registered 40th place back in ’78. With Jane Alexander (stuck being a “cuckquean”—who knew this was a thing, word, or hobby?—to cheating crumb Duvall, she also is rooked out of a nude scene), Edward Herrmann (on smirk patrol), Paul Rudd (unlucky Loren Jr.), Joseph Wiseman (a gangster, wait’ll you see his costume), Titos Vandis, Roy Poole, Richard Venture.