Saturday, December 12, 2015

Robin Williams' First Starring Role

Poopdeck Pappy (Ray Walston): Children. They cry at you when they're young, they yell at you when they're older, they borrows from you when they's middle–aged, and they leave you alone to die — without even paying you back.

I remember watching Popeye cartoons when I was a child, but I don't think those cartoons ever told the story of how Popeye came to be in the coastal town of Sweethaven or how he met his future bride Olive Oyl. So I never knew how that happened — until the movie "Popeye" was released on this date in 1980.

Popeye was one of my favorites when I was a little boy. In fact, there was a time — when I was probably 4 or 5 — when I really believed that my muscles would grow like Popeye's if I ate my spinach. And I remember eating spinach and then flexing my muscles, and my mother would ooh and ahhh — not because my muscles really grew but probably because I was eating at least one of my vegetables. Like all mothers, she liked that idea.

Like most kids, I suppose, I didn't care for vegetables. I love spinach today — and not because I think it will make my muscles grow, either. I just honestly like it. But I can't eat spinach, even today, without thinking of Popeye. He has had a permanent influence on my life.

For those of us who grew up with Popeye, the movie was a treat. In his first starring role in a movie, Robin Williams played Popeye, which was something I struggled with before I saw the movie. In hindsight, I have to say it was the right role for him at the time. He was in his Mork from Ork period, arguably the most outlandish, off the wall phase of his career — and the role of Popeye gave him an opportunity to really spread his creative wings.

I thought the casting of Shelley Duvall as Olive Oyl was positively inspired. Since the movie's debut 35 years ago, I have heard many people say that Olive Oyl was the role Duvall was born to play. I don't know if I would take it to that extreme, but I do think Duvall was the only actress in 1980 who could have been a plausible Olive Oyl.

Ray Walston, who was probably best known for his sitcom My Favorite Martian, was a little over the top as Poopdeck Pappy, Popeye's long–lost father, but he was only in the movie in its last half hour.

At the time I recall reading reviews of the movie that were rather lukewarm, but critic Roger Ebert said it was "lots of fun," and I agreed.

Ebert was one of those critics who said Duvall was born to be Olive Oyl. As I said earlier, I'm not sure I would go quite that far, but I can't argue with Ebert on this: "She brings to Olive a certain ... dignity, you might say. She's not lightly scorned, and although she may tear apart a room in an unsuccessful attempt to open the curtains, she is fearless in the face of her terrifying fiancé, Bluto."

I guess "Popeye" came along at the right time for me. John Lennon had been shot and killed only a few days before, and I badly needed something like "Popeye," a reassuring reminder of my childhood.

Calling the comic strip (which of course was where Popeye began) "one of the most artificial and limiting of art forms," Ebert acknowledged that director Robert Altman's movie "suggests that it is possible to take the broad strokes of a comic strip and turn them into sophisticated entertainment. What's needed is the right attitude toward the material."

As I recall, Harry Nilsson's score was pretty well received, as it should have been. As Ebert wrote, the songs "fit into all of this quite effortlessly. Instead of having everything come to a halt for the musical set pieces, Altman stitches them into the fabric. Robin Williams sings Popeye's anthem, 'I Yam What I Yam' with a growling old sea dog's stubbornness. Bluto's 'I'm Mean' has an undeniable conviction, and so does Olive Oyl's song to Bluto, 'He's Large.'"

Nilsson's music was dripping with irony, which may well have been lost on younger viewers.

"Popeye" got a bad rap from the critics of the day. It was better than many thought and deserves to be seen again through fresh eyes.