Tuesday, February 09, 2016

OVP: Swing Shift (1984)

Film: Swing Shift (1984)
Stars: Goldie Hawn, Kurt Russell, Christine Lahti, Ed Harris, Fred Ward, Holly Hunter
Director: Jonathan Demme
Oscar History: 1 nomination (Best Supporting Actress-Christine Lahti)
Snap Judgment Ranking: 2/5 stars

Watching older films always has a bit of a catch, especially in terms of where we're at with progressive politics.  I suspect twenty years from now, in fact, we'll watch films ranging from Legally Blonde to August Osage County (not sure why those were the first two that came to my mind-just go with it) and wonder about specific angles of the film and their portrayals of what is considered politically correct or important at the time.  Swing Shift presented this problem, but in a way I hadn't really anticipated.  As the cinema gets older, and in the 1980's it was pushing ninety in terms of age, it starts to revisit eras where the cinema was already an option.  Indeed, we frequently find allusions to that era in Swing Shift, mentally picturing actresses like Rosalind Russell or Susan Hayward taking on the roles that here are played by Goldie Hawn and Christine Lahti.  The chief problem with the film, which has a host of them, is that even in the 1980's the politics of the movie, and the way they present them, feel regressive.  The film has too many directions it gets pulled, and you can tell that there were troubles behind-the-scenes of the picture as the end product doesn't really know what it wants to be.

(Spoilers Ahead) The film famously hosted a major fight between director Jonathan Demme, then just starting out in his Hollywood career, and Goldie Hawn, who was one of the biggest stars on the planet when Swing Shift was hitting theaters.  The film tells the story of Kay (Hawn), a woman in a happy if a bit stifled marriage to Jack (Harris), who sits around waiting for her man to come home each day and occasionally passes judgment on her provocatively-dressed neighbor Hazel (Lahti) who moonlights as a nightclub singer.  The film takes a turn when World War II breaks out, and Jack is sent to the South Pacific, and much to his chagrin, Kay takes up as a factory worker to fill the gap left by the men going to war.  She slowly befriends Hazel and falls in love with a musician named Lucky whose heart condition keeps him from fighting in the war.  The film ends with Kay going back to Jack, Hazel ending up sleeping with Lucky and then randomly marrying the guy who first promoted her as a singer, and Lucky returning to the road, all the time watching all of the women lose their jobs so that the men coming home could have them back.

The film's tonal problems are what deserve its harshest retribution, in my opinion, as the politics of the 1980's are less familiar to me (though not so much that I don't have some comments on the way that women are portrayed here).  The film cannot decide for the life of itself whether or not it is a comedy or a drama, and that was a direct result of Hawn (who wanted it to be a comedy) fighting it out with Demme (who wanted a more dramatic picture).  The film, from scene-to-scene, underwrites certain elements of the film and you cannot tell whether or not the movie is going to be light-hearted or especially what drives the main character of Kay.  The film gets bonus points for being unpredictable, but that's more due to bad plotting than anything else.  We never really get any insight into Kay, whom Hawn plays entirely surface-level, and whether or not she's upset about losing her job or whether she really wanted Jack back or just settled with him because Lucky left and it was easier this way.  The ending, with Kay and Hazel making up also feels cloying and ridiculous, partially because we never understand why Kay and Lucky, who don't really care for each other, slept with each other in the first place. In the TCM introduction to this film (I want to be Ben Mankiewicz-how do I get that job?) he says that Hawn, after Demme got fired, had the film re-edited, and you wonder if part of Lahti's performance got cut in the dust-up which explains some of her character's more erratic decisions.

After all, it's Lahti who got the praise here.  Despite Hawn being the star, Lahti managed to turn this into a major career move, and in fact won the film's only Oscar nomination.  At first I didn't really get the nomination, as after all this was just Christine Lahti and she has always had incredible onscreen presence (part of me wonders if the nomination was simply a way to tell casting directors "hire her!"), but as the film goes on Lahti makes the most out of a thankless comic side role.  She finds depths in Hazel that no one else is really pining for (watch the way that she has to continually abandon her dreams, and the way she doesn't really know what happiness is-that's not really in the script, but Lahti makes sure you notice it), and she steals literally every scene she's in in the movie.  Lahti would have benefited from a better screenwriter (I wonder if she'd have won the Oscar if we'd received Demme's original vantage of the script), but she's way better than the movie and (in my opinion) one of those rare random Oscar nominations of the 1980's that actually deserved inclusion.

Before I go I would be remiss if I didn't come back to the feminist argument here, as it's interesting to watch this film or a movie like A League of Their Own and wonder how tragic it was that America decided it didn't have room for women in the workplace and the athletic field decades earlier than the Women's Liberation movement of the 1970's (think of what we might have accomplished!).  We get little sense from either Demme or Hawn over the unfairness of the women, who now have more experience in the factory, getting fired just so their husbands can go back to work, or the complicated political ramifications of such a decision (since their husbands were forced to go to war and give up their jobs due to a draft and national pressure).  That would have made an interesting picture, but Hawn and Lahti let on little other than the occasional complaint from a random coworker that they shouldn't have to be fired to give their job to a man.  As a result, the film feels decidedly anti-feminist which is the exact opposite of what it was going toward.

All-in-all, I left this film thoroughly disappointed, save for the excellent work being done by Christine Lahti, and also with a newfound (ahem) appreciation for Ed Harris in a naval uniform.  If you've seen the picture, what are your thoughts-do you agree the film feels disjointed and lacking a clear vision?  Are you also wondering why Lahti didn't become a bigger film star as a result of this movie?  And which of the 1984 Supporting Actresses gets your vote?  Share in the comments!

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