Mary Steenburgen, Melvin and Howard

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Pauline Kael

“Mary Steenburgen was oddly tremulous in Goin’ South, and though in Time After Time she was very sweet in an out-of-it way—a stoned cupcake—she didn’t have the quickness or the pearly aura that she has here. Her Lynda Dummar has a soft mouth and a tantalizing slender wiggliness, and she talks directly to whomever she’s talking to—she addresses them with her eyes and her mouth, and when they speak she listens, watching their faces. When she listens, she’s the kindo f woman a man wants to tell more to. Mary Steenburgen makes Lynda the go-go dancer so appealing that you realize she’s the dream Melvin attained and then couldn’t hang on to. Melvin is a hard worker, though, and he believes in family life. When Lynda leaves him, he’s appaleed by here exhibiting herself in strip joints; he keeps charging in and making scenes. Lynda is hurt by his attitude; she loves to dance, and she doesn’t think there’s anything lewd about what she’s doing. In a way, she’s right: Lynda could shimmy and shake forever and she still wouldn’t be a hardened pro. Her movements are sexy but with a tipsy charm and purity. When her boss bawls her out because of a commotion tht Melvin has just caused, she quits on the spot, whips off the flimsy costume that belongs to the boss, throws it in his face, and walks through the place naked, and she does it withoug making an event of it—it’s her body….

“This is a comedy without a speck of sitcom aggression: the characters are slightly loony the way we all are sometimes …. When the people on the screen do unexpected things, they’re not weirdos; their eccentricity is just an offshoot of the normal, and Demme suggest that maybe these people who grew up in motor homes and trailers in Nevada and California and Utah seem eccentric because they didn’t learn the “normal,” accepted ways of doing things. When Lynda is broke and takes her daughter, Darcy (the lovely, serious-faced Elizabeth Cheshire), to the bus station in Reno to send her to Melvin, she’s frantic. Her misery about sending the child away is all mixed up with her anxiety about the child’s having something to eat on the trip, and she’s in a rush to put a sandwich together. She has bought French bread and bologna, and she takes over a table and borrows a knife from the man at the lunch counter so she can cut the bread; she salvages lettuce and tomatoes from the leftovers on someone’s plate, and sends Darcy back to the counter to get some mustard and then back again to get some ketchup. The unprturbed counterman (played by the real Melvin Dummar) finds nothing unusual in this, and asks, “Is everything all right?” There’s no sarcasm in his tone; he seems to understand what she’s going through, and he wants to be helpful. She says, “Everything’s just fine, thank you very much.” She has dominated everyone’s attention—she has practically taken over the station—yet the goofiness isn’t forced; it’s almost like found humor. It’s a little like a throwaway moment in a Michael Ritchie film or a slapstick fracas out of Preston Sturges, but there are more unspoken crosscurrents—and richer ones—in Demme’s scenes. While you’re responding to the dithering confusion Lynda is causing in the bus depot, you’re absorbing the emotions between mother and child. Darcy is often very grownup around her mother, as if she knew that Lynda is a bit of a moonbeam and needs looking after. But at the depot Darcy herself is so excited she becomes part of the confusion….

“Demme stages a segment of “Easy Street” (modeled on “Let’s Make a Deal”) which … transcends satire. Lynda, who has been selected as a contestant, appears in an aquamarine dress with tassels and an old-fashioned bellhop’s hat, and when she does a tap dance that’s as slow as a clog dance the audience starts to laugh. But she keeps going, and though she has more movement in her waving arms than in her tapping feet, she’s irresistible. It’s the triumph of adorable pluckiness (and the uninhibited use of her beautiful figure) over technique. The host of “Easy Street” (Rober Ridgely) combines malicious charity with provocative encouragement, and the enthusiastic applause confirms the notion that every TV audience loves someone who tries sincerely. In Ritchie’s Smile, it was plain that the teen-age beauty contestants were not nearly as vacuous as they were made to appear (and made themselves appear), and here it’s evident that Lynda the winner, jumping up and down like a darling frisky puppy, is putting on the excitement that is wanted of her. She’s just like the pretty women you’ve seen on TV making fools of themselves, except that you know her; you know the desperation that went into choosing that tawdry dress and that’s behind the eagerness to play the game—to squeal and act gaga and kiss everybody….”

Pauline Kael
The New Yorker, October 13, 1980
Taking It All In, pp. 75-78

Stephen Schiff

“Mary Steenburgen has been a vague little bunny of an actress in her previous films—Goin’ South and Time After Time—but here she’s hit upon a comic balance that really works. With her strange, logy drawl, she’s bright and sleepy, sexy and silly, all at the same time. Her performance is translucent: you watch events touch her, watch her think things over and come to a decision, and when she talks or listens to somebody, you can’t see her acting; it’s as though she really had no idea what the next line of dialogue would be. Tall and slender and frizzy-haired, Steenburgen has a slinky body and a Kewpie-doll face. When she first leaves Melvin, she becomes a go-go dancer, and though she knows that her flirty wiggling tantalizes the denizens of the bald-headed row, she’s so unaffected and guileless that it’s as though she believed her audience were yelling and hooting out of happiness for her. When Melvin comes barging into the Sex Kat club, she’s thrilled, and so she shimmies in his direction. She doesn’t mean to taunt him, just wants hihm to share in her fun; when she says she’s working there because she loves to dance, you believe her.

“Steenburgen’s Lynda is a nymphet with the body of a sexpot, and people are drawn to her. For Melvin, she’s like a little piece of that providence which keeps leaving and coming back. In fact, she’s an investment, too…. Melvin just knows that if he can get Lynda on the [TV game show Easy Street], Easy Street will open before them….”

Stephen Schiff
Boston Phoenix, date?