Thursday, July 09, 2015

Let a Smile Be Your Umbrella

"Isn't she lovely? Aren't they all lovely? Isn't everyone lovely?"

Ted (Dick McGarvin)

When I first saw "Smile," which premiered on this day 40 years ago, I was a hot–blooded teenage boy. If I had been asked before going into the theater what the movie was about, I wouldn't have been able to say much. I knew it was about a beauty pageant, and I recognized the names of a couple of the young female stars — but, frankly, I was just hoping to see them in bikinis.

After all, pageant contestants wear swimsuits during part of the competition. "Smile" was a satire about a fictional beauty pageant, and I figured that the contestants wouldn't necessarily be wearing the one–piece bathing suits that beauty pageant contestants traditionally wear. Bikinis might be part of the satire.

Anyway, that was my logic on the Saturday afternoon that I saw it.

It was 1975, and I guess the Hays Code that had dictated how movies were made for 40 years was still in charge — but its grip was slipping. In the movies I had seen previously, nudity was never shown, merely suggested.

"Smile" was rated PG, and nudity was still mostly implied in R–rated movies, let alone PG–rated ones, in 1975. It's fair to say I wasn't expecting to see any skin that afternoon that you couldn't normally see on any sidewalk or beach in the summer.

It's also fair to say that has changed considerably in the last 40 years. It is no big deal now if there are scenes of partial nudity in PG movies and full frontal nudity in R movies; in fact, it is almost routine. It was very different in 1975.

Anyway, I was watching the movie, still hoping to see some bikini shots, when there was a brief — ever so brief — scene in which a couple of the girls could be seen changing their clothes and for a second or two, parts of the female anatomy that were usually covered in the movies — and in public — were not.

To put it in the context of the story, the son of one of the pageant organizers (Bruce Dern) was going to use his Polaroid camera to take candid pictures of the girls in the dressing room, then he would sell the pictures. But his plans went awry when he was caught after snapping only a few pictures of Annette O'Toole and Melanie Griffith, who played two of the contestants.

Much of the movie, you see, was centered around the week of preparations for the pageant. In addition to their individual work, the girls all had to participate in a range of musical productions. The actual competition part took very little screen time.

One of the girls (I think it was O'Toole) wore panties with the day of the week embroidered on them. They punctuated the film, informing viewers which day of the pageant week they were about to see unfold, but only the words were visible on screen. The viewers never really knew — until the very end — that they had been looking at embroidered panties.

In his review, film critic Roger Ebert recalled the county fairs of his youth, which featured livestock judging and a beauty pageant (on different nights). "[E]ven in those days before women's liberation," he wrote, "it struck me that the two competitions had points in common. Even some of the judges were the same."

Ebert acknowledged that the cows "weren't expected to sing, dance or play musical instruments, nor did they change costumes. But both they and the girls in the beauty contest were essentially being sized up as meat on the hoof, and that depressed me. Here were girls I'd grown up with, and this dreary and demeaning ritual was forcing them to walk around in bathing suits on a stock–car track."

I gathered from the start of Ebert's review that he didn't go into the movie in the same frame of mind that I did. And I'm quite sure he did not. My state of mind reflected the sexist attitudes that dominated many areas of life when I was growing up. It is probably too easy, too simple to say I was the product of the times in which I was raised, and perhaps I am passing the buck when I say that. But it is true to a great extent.

Ebert's assessment was that the movie was "a sometimes funny, more often harrowing look at a teen–age beauty competition."

In many respects, I suppose, "Smile" must be viewed in an unflattering light.

The girls in the movie, Ebert observed, were "judged in all the categories such events pretend are important — talent, grades, personality, 'pep' — but everyone seem[ed] in tacit agreement that physical appearance is the crucial criterion."

In other words, it's what's on the outside that really matters.

And that really shouldn't come as a surprise, should it? I mean, after all, that is what those pageants really are all about, isn't it? Some of the girls were oblivious to it, but some were hip to what was going on, sharing their beauty secrets with their assigned roommates. In hindsight, cynical is probably the best word to describe the story.

Still, it is worth remembering something that Dern's character says when asked if anything ever gets him down.

"I get my apple cart upset sometimes," he says. "I just learned a long time ago to accept a little less from life, that's all."