Overlooked Gems: Smile (1975)
This week, one of my favorite films of the year so far, Nebraska, begins to roll out in theaters. Bruce Dern deserves all the praise he’s receiving for his role in the film as an old man with a history of alcoholism who convinces himself that he’s won a million dollars and goes to Nebraska to claim his piece of the American Dream before his time runs out. It’s a film with a very subtle but intelligent statement about our dreams of “hitting it big” and undeniable desire to be a big shot, even in the smallest community.
For me, the perfect pairing of Nebraska is a little known film Dern starred in in 1975 titled Smile. While best known for playing violent crazies, Dern was a skilled actor with range and flair for comedy when given the chance (just watch his performance in Joe Dante’s The Burbs). But as Dern joked when he hosted Saturday Night Live (yep, he hosted…twice!), no one went to see him when he was a nice guy in films. So movies like Smile went unseen, despite being a brilliant satire about American culture in the post-Vietnam, feminist era, pre-yuppie suburbs of California. And the best part is, as pointed as the satire is, the movie is also hilarious with the best performance Dern ever gave (including Nebraska).
In Smile, Dern plays Big Bob (as opposed to his son, Little Bob), the head judge of a national beauty pagent, The Young American Miss. Big Bob is the kind of man who grew up believing in the American Dream taught to him in school and popular culture in the 1950s and he lives his life accordingly – he’s ambitious and hard-working, a loyal family man, and pillar in his community. He’s the exact opposite of his best friend Andy (Nicholas Pryor) who has become so disillusioned by society (and his controlling wife) that he’s decided to completely drop out, burying his head in the sand with booze and depression. His wife Brenda (Barbara Feldon) could care less about his state of mind, concerned only with the appearance of their marriage. Brenda runs the Young American Miss, which includes 50 ambitious young women, some desperate to win the money for college.
The incredible thing about Michael Ritchie’s direction in Smile is the way it catches you off guard. He is essentially using the same approach Robert Altman used, following a character until we are in the presence of another and then following that character, like a hermit-crab looking for his next shell. It is subtler and funnier than many of Altman’s films, with fewer characters to keep track of. But by focusing on just 6 characters in detail, he allows us to have an intimate view of them, which is rare in ensemble films. And the more we begin to empathize with the other characters, the more I begin to dislike Andy for the disdain he has for the community we were quick to laugh at when the film first started. After all, his misery does nothing to help himself, or his community. As ridiculous as Bob is, his beliefs in community and America are earnest and honorable, even if they now seem passé.
Which is the reason Smile is such a good double bill for a film like Nebraska. Because as presented in both films, Dern plays an American man destroyed by his disappointments in what he believed was the promise of the American Dream; dreams he once believed in with an open heart. Big Bob is a man of action, oblivious to how antiquated he seems, until he’s laughed at for speaking the same cliche mottos taught to teenage beauty queens. Smile is the story (or one of the stories) of Big Bob’s awakening to the fact that the American Dream he’s been focused on all his life may have already passed him by…if it ever existed. And once that dream was lost, the ambition destroyed, men like Woody Grant in Nebraska emerge, broken in their youth before they’d even had an opportunity to try and make it big.