Thursday, March 22, 2018

Play It Again, Sam

Play It Again, Sam (Herbert Ross, 1972) Woody Allen was well into his directing career in 1972, but when Paramount Pictures brought his play, "Play it Again, Sam" to the movies, he was relegated to adapting the script and starring in it (despite the fact that his agents Charles H. Joffee and Jack Rollins—who would be the long time producers on his films—were also part of the production team). The directing duties were given to Herbert Ross, who'd done the musical numbers for Funny Girl, and had directed the musical version of Goodbye, Mr. Chips (for MGM), The Owl and the Pussycat (again with Streisand for Columbia) and a drama T.R. Baskin (for Paramount), possibly because one of the producers was Arthur P. Jacobs—who'd produced the musical of Mr. Chips. It might have been that Allen's films up to that point—Take the Money and Run, Bananas, and a couple of short satire films for PBS—had a rough, low-budget feel to them and Ross could give them the necessary big-screen gloss. 

Allen explained that his impetus was three-fold: he had no interest in directing one of his plays for the screen (a rule he forgot when he directed 1994's TV movie of Don't Drink the Water); he was tied up with trying to get his farce of the best-seller Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex*; and he thought that if someone could make something charming of the film, it could only help build an audience for his own films.
Good choices, those; He was right on all counts. Play it Again, Sam reached a wider audience than Allen's previous movies and set up an audience attracted to his comedy (and his nebbish persona) for his subsequent films. He also must have gotten some pointers from observing Ross on this film as his following films exhibited a better directorial panache, while still keeping the autonomy he enjoyed as a talented independent film-maker outside the studio system.
In the film, Woody plays Allan Felix, the recently-divorced editor of of a fringe film magazine ("Film Weekly") and "one of the life's great watchers" (as his ex describes him). She's left him because he's no fun, risk-averse ("I'm red-haired and fair-skinned—I don't tan, I STROKE!"), and just watches movies, while she wants to have a happy, active life. He worries that will give him a heart attack. When we first see him, he's watching Casablanca, (probably for the umpteenth time), rapt. He's much more comfortable in a movie theater, where he can passively absorb and not act, or engage, or "be" in the world (the movie is set in San Francisco, rather than New York). He's a bit adrift, but that might be less a result of his divorce, than a symptom of his own, which probably contributed to it.
He begins to ruminate over his situation, going over his split in his mind, and having imaginary conversations with Humphrey Bogart (Jerry Lacy) whom he idolizes and wants to emulate. But, Bogart's advice isn't very realistic: "Dames are simple, kid," Bogart's spirit tells him early on. "I never met one who hasn't understood a slap in the mouth or a slug from a 45." Bogart is much more comfortable in his own skin (if he had skin), and he basically advises Allan to "man up" (or the 1972 equivalent as  filtered through the '40's). And as far as being dumped is concerned? "Nothing a little bourbon and soda can't fix."
Alcohol, however, makes Allan nauseous. He pours his heart out to his best friends, Dick Christie (Tony Roberts), a preoccupied stock-broker and his model-wife Linda (Diane Keaton). Dick tells Allan his divorce is an opportunity to be free, "to sow wild oats", to go and meet women, but when they set Allan up with some of their friends, he is beset with insecurities and a false brio that make every date a disaster—even their friend, a nymphomaniac, rejects him. Barely able to sustain anything more than half-a-date, Allan starts to become a third wheel in the life of Dick and Linda.
Allan: That's quite a lovely Jackson Pollock, isn't it?
Museum Girl: Yes, it is.
Allan: What does it say to you?
Museum Girl: It restates the negativeness of the universe. The hideous lonely emptiness
of existence. Nothingness. The predicament of Man forced to live in a barren,
Godless eternity like a tiny flame flickering in an immense void with nothing but waste,
horror and degradation, forming a useless bleak straitjacket in a black absurd cosmos.
Allan: What are you doing Saturday night?
Museum Girl: Committing suicide.
Allan: What about Friday night?
Allan wants a relationship ("Where'd you learn THAT word, a shrink?" scoffs Bogart) like they have, but even that marriage isn't all it's cracked up to be. With every change of venue, Dick has to check in with "the office" to make sure they know where he can be reached (this is in 1972—the pre-history of cell-phones) and his frequent absences make the neurotic Linda feel abandoned and needy and she ends up spending more time commiserating with the equally needy Allan. With so much in common, pretty soon, their friendship turns to affection and Allan starts envisioning having an affair with her, but struggles with his conscience about cheating with his best-friend's wife.
Egged on by Bogart, Allan pursues Linda, even as he has visions of the result such an indiscretion will have—Dick dramatically walks into the sea in one, and in another he's a vengeful Italian (eh?) seeking to filet Allan for making him a cuckold. But, the Bogartian prodding, like a gat in the lower spine, has him pursuing the low hanging fruit with self-esteem issues that bothers to give him the time of day...if only she'd give him a night.
What's interesting about Play it Again, Sam is what it gets wrong. In the same way, that the lead male of (500) Days of Summer achieves his idea of romance from "a mis-reading of The Graduate," Allan's Bogart-familiar is a mis-reading of the Bogart persona, emphasizing all the things that Allan lacks with not much else. Lacy's Bogart is ostensibly in the guise of the early 1940's Bogart in the era of his Sam Spade-Richard Blaine-Philip Marlowe personas. But, as hard-bitten as Bogart's character would appear in their respective films, there was always a sensibility of decency deeply rooted in the character, less interested in scoring with the ladies than in doing the right thing and living to a code of ethics that this Bogart would probably mock. It's an over-simplification to say that Allan's Bogart manifestation is Bogart—or any amalgam of his screen persona's (unless you throw in a couple of his gangster parts), so much as a projection of what Allan thinks he lacks. He ultimately has to abandon Bogart's advice and look to himself to do the noble thing, for which he's awarded with a boost in his self-esteem, a chance to re-enact one of his favorite movie scenes, and a salute of sorts from his errant bad angel.
Looking at the film today with 21st Century sensibilities, there are some cringe-inducing lines and a general sensibility—insensitivity, more accurately—that the world of women is a bit like a buffet for an indiscriminate least from a man's perspective (which is the only perspective this film has). "Playboy" for nerds. It's funny, sure. Funny and churlish. And one imagines the real Bogart, head bowed, sadly contemplating the glowing end of his cigarette, over being misused and misrepresented in the name of a misogyny he'd probably have curled his lip at. Woody Allen's Bogart is not the one I remember—tearing his guts out while confessing "I won't because all of me wants to..."**
It makes me recall that when I watched Play it Again, Sam all those years ago, my loyalties shifted subtly and radically away from Allan Felix to Linda Christie and her predicament (in much the same way that Allan Felix's character must also shift what's right by her). A lot of that has to do with Keaton's winsome playing of the character. But, a lot of it has to do with the realization that heroes...even projected ones...have to be heroic, if they have to win our trust and admiration. And you don't do that by looking around for heroes, but by looking for it within.

Here's looking at yourself, kid.

* but were afraid to ask. 


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