Thursday, July 21, 2016

cinema obscura: Stanley Donen's "Lucky Lady" (1975)

20th Century-Fox's "Lucky Lady" (1975) seemed to have everything going for it. A script by Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz of "American Graffiti" (1973) fame, a legendary director (Stanely Donen) and a cast including one major box-office draw (that would be Burt Reynolds), a respected actor (Gene Hackman in an atypical comedy role) and the era's resident lovable kook (Liza Minnelli, newly Oscared at the time).

It was to be Fox's B.H.E. - Big Holiday Entertainment. (It was a Christmas release.) But it turned out to be Fox's Big Holiday Embarrassment.

What went wrong? The plot - about a trio of unlikely rum-runners (Burt, Gene and Liza) - sounded like it could be a pleasing romp, particularly with that cast. Plus Huyck-Katz added the titilation of Minnelli going back and forth between Reynolds and Hackman, romantically, with coy hints of ménage à trois doings (coy enough to avoid an R rating, natch).

Actually, now that I think about it, none of this sounds very good at all. In performance, the film is forced, with everyone pretending to have a blast and Minnelli, in particular, irritating in her trademarked giggly/jittery way.

Two additional endings were filmed when Fox became understandably anxious over the original in which the film takes a jarringly tragic turn with Hackman and Reynolds ending up dead and Minnelli ending up alone.

In the early 1980s, the Fox syndicated self-promotional show, "That's Hollywood," included this footage in an episode on outtakes.

The sequence is haunting and painterly as Hackman and Reynolds are gunned down on a beach, with the waves pushing their dead bodies towards a traumatized, immobolized Minnelli who walks, zombie-like, towards the shore.

It's a sobering, fatalistic moment but one has to ask what it had to do with what preceded it. What on earth were Donen, Huyck and Katz thinking? Not surprisingly, Fox (which presumably approved the original script) demanded a happy ending. Donen shot two - one in which the three characters are still together in old age (see out-of-focus photo below) and the one which went into the release print, where everything turns out rosy and the implied ménage à trois continues uninterrupted. The End.

Hackman came through the ordeal essentially unscathed, while the ever productive Reynolds didn't have a care in the world as he had churned out three other titles that year (John G. Avildsen's "W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings," Peter Bogdanovich's ”At Long Last Love” and Robert Aldrich's "Hustle"). He operated as an old-style studio star.

But the film effectively ended the film careers of Donen, Minnelli and Huyck and Katz, who would go on to write a negligible sequel to "American Graffiti" and the notorious "Howard the Duck" (1986).

"Lucky Lady," reportedly never released on any home entertainment format, had disappeared until the Fox Movie Channel started airing it (and in wide screen, no less) when it was still screening vintage titles from the Fox library.

Not a good film but, for some bizarre reason, worth catching. If you can.


Bx6207 said...

I'm catching it as I post this. It's worth for this reason: It's not a masterpiece (far from it) but (to me) more enjoyable than current films. I haven't set foot in a movie theater in four years (except for revival houses, such as the Silent Movie Theatre in Los Angeles & even that is rarely) because the majority of movies released these days (especially with major stars) are awful.
I noticed you gave "Inception" a good review. The media saturation for this flick (started in May!) was so deep I feel I've already seen it. This practice is commonplace. Maybe I'll catch this in 10, 20 years & find something in it to appreciate. Between 3 channels on basic cable (Turner Classic Movies, Fox Movie Channel & Independent Film Channel) my movie needs are fulfilled & I don't have to subject myself to LA traffic (an added bonus).

Unknown said...

I love this movie and considering some of the Grade Z garbage all over DVDs it is really very entertaining I love the music and the old costumes so that helps/I know it was a bomb but it is way better than much of the stuff released.

j.k. said...

I've never seen it, or felt the need to. Just as I tend to avoid movies with the name Michael Bay attached, I avoid movies with the names Gloria Katz and Willard Hyuck as well. Never seen "Howard the Duck" and hope to go to my grave that way.

Laurence Klavan said...

Interestingly, Gene Hackman was the third one in the role. It was originally a (then popular) Michael Moriarty, who was in turn replaced by George Segal, who was replaced by Hackman.

joe baltake said...

Laurence! Terrific info. Thanks. Now, who was Bob Fosse's original pick for the lead in "All That Jazz" before he settled on Roy Scheider?

Laurence Klavan said...

Wasn't Richard Dreyfuss actually cast and then fired from All That Jazz?

joe baltake said...

Laurence! You got it. Dreyfuss was Fosse's first choice but, for the life of me, I can't imagine him playing a choreographer.

Laurence Klavan said...

Probably Fosse's conclusion, too.