Friday, April 15, 2016

OVP: What a Way to Go! (1964)

Film: What a Way to Go! (1964)
Stars: Shirley MacLaine, Paul Newman, Robert Mitchum, Dean Martin, Gene Kelly, Robert Cummings, Dick van Dyke
Director: J. Lee Thompson
Oscar History: 2 nominations (Best Art Direction, Costume)
Snap Judgment Ranking: 3/5 stars

There's nothing better than a surprise when it comes to a movie, and I will admit I wasn't paying very close attention to the opening credits to What a Way to Go! so imagine my delight in this black comedy as a cascade of the biggest names in Hollywood came out to woo Shirley MacLaine in What a Way to Go!.  It's not really a spoiler alert (they get top-billing and all of that), but it's still a sheer joy to watch a bunch of game performers, particularly the likes of Newman and Mitchum who so rarely worked in comedy, come out in such an interesting and lovely way in a film that is heavy on repetition, but has such a game cast that it's hard to fault it.

(Spoilers Ahead) The film follows Louisa May Foster, a black widow of sorts, as she tries to donate $211 million to the US government, and we hear during a long session with a therapist how she ended up in possession of such an enormous sum of money, despite spending most of her life hoping for "the simple life."  The film is a black comedy, so know that we're going to see a number of different major Hollywood stars die a comic death, but the film watches as MacLaine marries men who seem hapless and not remotely capable of success, and then through her inspiration, manage to become mega-tycoons who then die comically as part of hubris from neglecting their wives.

The film's heart is MacLaine, who is one of my favorite performers and always a joy to watch.  Her Louisa was originally intended for Marilyn Monroe before her death, and then for Elizabeth Taylor (who wanted a larger salary), but while both of these women are the sort that random men would give their fortunes to obtain, MacLaine sells both the sex angle and has the comic skills to back it up (that Monroe and Taylor probably lacked, let's be honest).  MacLaine's constant blustering toward her paramours, particularly as the film gets more predictable, is wonderful and she is certainly the best part about the movie.

Which of the men is your favorite will probably depend on which of these men are your favorite actors in real life.  The five husbands (Newman, Mitchum, Martin, Kelly, and van Dyke) all play some version of their Hollywood personas, albeit for laughs.  Kelly is fun to watch as he, in many ways, starts to mirror Lina Lamont, but for my money Paul Newman is the winner of the bunch, as he so rarely got to be funny so watching him as a "starving" artist (despite being broke he's eating in literally every scene he's in) is lovely, and it's worth noting that he has rarely looked this sexy, considering he's sporting some otter-inspired realness with a beard and a gigantic artistic chip on his shoulder.  It's easy to see why he was the one who, in a series of cinematic vignettes that run throughout the movie, got the Fellini-inspired motif.

The film nabbed two Oscar nominations, for Art Direction and Costume, and both were wildly deserved.  The art direction occasionally runs into the category of "most" rather than "best," but considering the film's comedic sensibilities it's gaudy enough that it works as a visual punchline.  The best moment surely would be Pinky's (Kelly) randomly pink mansion, going places even Jayne Mansfield wouldn't have wanted to tread, but the entire film from the elevating psychiatrist chair to the impeccably structured art machine created by Paul Newman to the garage sale beginnings of Dick van Dyke's store show touches that you don't normally get from a comedy.  The costume work was done by Edith Head, so you know this isn't a nomination due to coasting, and indeed MacLaine is outfitted from head-to-toe in elaborate gowns, a costuming budget that felt like it never got cut from when Liz Taylor was still in negotiations, and we see MacLaine in nearly every hair color and style imaginable.  Some highlights (for me) included MacLaine (in a pink wig) sporting a pink mink sable, her incredibly sexualized widow's outfit, and her elbow-length gloves in a yellow-blue-and-pink gown that recalls Newman's paintings.  All-in-all, both of these are massive triumphs in terms of Oscar ingenuity, so well done all-around.

The film is a bit silly and predictable, so I'm going with three stars, but a hearty three stars so if you have a few hours and want a good time, catch this movie.  For those that have seen it, what are your thoughts?  Can you imagine this movie with Taylor or Monroe?  Which husband would you succumb to (Paul Newman is the only acceptable answer)?  Share in the comments!

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