Melvin and Howard (Jonathan Demme, 1980)

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Shout SelectA TRUE STORY?

Jonathan Demme adapts the stranger-than-fiction life of Melvin Dummar to the big screen, celebrating the fair-weather fortunes of an affable everyman who offers a late-night ride to the world’s richest man, Howard Hughes. Dummar returns to his workaday life, struggling to get ahead with dead-end jobs and game show fantasies until a letter arrives out of the blue naming him as a possible heir to Hughes’ fortune. Being poor was hard, but Dummar discovers in this slice-of-life satire that the prospect of being rich is even harder.

Melvin and Howard is a feel-good story about tough luck starring Paul Le Mat and Jason Robards as Melvin Dummar and Howard Hughes, a pair of scruffy outcasts at opposite ends of the economy. Featuring an Academy Award-winning screenplay by Bo Goldman and supporting performances by Pamela Reed, Michael J. Pollard, Gloria Grahame, Charles Napier, Dabney Coleman, and Mary Steenburgen in an Oscar-winning role as Melvin’s first and second wife, Jonathan Demme’s tale of hard work and easy money is an under-appreciated American classic.

Special Features:

  • Audio Commentary With Director Jonathan Demme And Cinematographer Tak Fujimoto
  • Being Melvin – An Interview With Actor Paul Le Mat
  • Living Lynda – An Interview With Actress Mary Steenburgen
  • A Bonnie Situation – An Interview With Actress Pamela Reed
  • I Am Melvin – Interview Excerpts With Writer Bo Goldman
  • Melvin And The Master – Director Paul Thomas Anderson On Melvin And Howard
  • “Melvin And Howards” – An SCTV Parody Sketch
  • Theatrical Trailer

melvin-and-howard-tall-posterMMC! has long considered Jonathan Demme’s Melvin and Howard (1980) as a potential Criterion Collection title. After all, if Demme’s Something Wild (1986) can wear a wacky “C,” then certainly this double-Oscar winner could do the same. But with the Shout Select label now making regular release announcements, we thought Melvin and Howard might be an opportune choice to launch into the new imprint. It’s difficult to say what exactly a Shout Select film is given only 10 spine numbers accounted for and titles that range from 1970s kung fu flicks to ’80s adventure-comedies, stylish action thrillers, and TV movie dramas. That said, the label’s choices are well-reviewed and popular fare, and so we’re hopeful that Melvin and Howard fits the Shout Select bill – a credible, distinctive film with a popular pedigree and offering a sense of nostalgia to now-middle aged film fans.

Melvin and Howard‘s title refers to reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes (Jason Robards) and Melvin Dummar (Paul De Mat), a good-natured blue-collar guy whose life became unexpectedly and inseparably linked to Hughes. Demme’s film opens with an extended passage depicting Dummar’s discovery of an injured Hughes in the Nevada desert and their shared night in Dummar’s truck traveling to Las Vegas where Dummar drops off Hughes behind the Sands Hotel in the early morning. During this 20 minute opening section, Dummar is skeptical of the bedraggled man’s claim but Melvin’s enthusiasm wins both of them over and the two eventually spend their time together sharing songs and goodwill. Melvin and Howard‘s final 25 minutes attends to Dummar’s discovery of the “Mormon Will,” a holograph will purportedly written by Hughes that left Melvin with one-sixteenth of Hughes’ estate, an inheritance of $156 million. This closing section is less interested in the legal process that eventually labelled the document a forgery and is more focused on the circus that surrounded Melvin Dummar’s life during this period.

This titular pair complement one another in intriguing ways. The two obviously contrast, with Hughes standing atop a massive fortune in isolation and Dummar surrounded by fast friends and without two coins to rub together (especially after giving Hughes his last quarter as they part). On the other hand, the title’s use of first names alludes to the duo’s natural kinship borne from a mutual appreciation of the limits of money and the value of ambition and camaraderie. For the intervening 50 minutes of the film, before Howard re-enters Melvin’s life by way of the handwritten will, the movie focuses upon Dummar’s workaday life and the challenges he faces in carving out a meager slice of what he considers the American Dream. Dennis Bingham cites Melvin and Howard as the first example of the “biopic of someone undeserving” subgenre (the “BOSUD”), in this case celebrating with empathy and geniality a marginal life of middle class aspiration.

One word that comes up repeatedly in reviews of Melvin and Howard is “prosaic.” Certainly the film attends closely to Dummar’s banal working class existence where he spends his time bagging magnesium or delivering milk, riding the inconsequential ups and downs of his relationship with his first and second wife Lynda (Mary Steenburgen in an Oscar-winning performance), and settling into a pleasantly mundane existence pumping gas at a Utah service station owned by his third wife Bonnie (Pamela Reed). The film offers no single goal or challenge that corrals Melvin’s energy. Instead, Melvin and Howard meanders through Dummar’s life basking in what Pauline Kael called the “beautiful dippy warmth of its characters.” Demme’s success comes in understanding that the film’s characters would be easy to like, but tricky to identify with, understand, and not condescend toward. In the words of screenwriter Bo Goldman (another Oscar-winner for the film), Demme declared his aim, “Not affection — but respect.” The strength of Melvin and Howard is that its characters make unpopular choices (walking out on marriages, over-extending themselves financially, taking disreputable jobs, preferring tacky, short-term pleasures over long-term goals) but never doing so maliciously or with purely selfish attitudes. As such, the film allows us to appreciate the distinctive values of its characters without asking us to endorse them. When Melvin declares to Lynda, “We’re not poor! Broke, maybe, but not poor!” the film allows us to understand the distinction he draws.

Another word that frequently appears in reviews of Melvin and Howard is “lyrical.” Commenting on the film’s camera work as evoking fantasy amid its shabby setting, Vincent Camby calls Demme “a lyrical film maker for whom there is purpose in style.” Camby further describes Melvin’s life as “a series of repossessions,” and the film can be read at large as revolving around the rhythms of Melvin’s acquisitions and repossessions – of vehicles, of homes, of wives. Melvin and Howard is consequently an episodic film full of ellipses and often revealing minute, but relevant, facts in unexpected and offhand moments. We see Melvin frequently change residence and occupation with little explanation. It’s enough to know that Melvin plays the cards he’s dealt and is never too proud to make the best of a given situation. This approach provides Demme’s film with an incomplete, but nonetheless understated and sophisticated view of Melvin Dummar. It explores his character without reducing or narrativizing his life. It resists defining him by the Mormon Will and reflects the inherent uncertainty surrounding the document by offering no exhaustive answer to Melvin or anyone else.

With no complete narrative and no total truth offered, Melvin and Howard instead clarifies a spiritual and material honesty inherent to the film, one at the heart of Melvin’s challenged socio-economic condition and his distinctly American ambitions. Roger Ebert, in proposing Melvin Dummar as a hero, describes him as a man who “ventured single-handedly into the jungle of American consumerism, and lived.” A.O. Scott, presumably channelling Lynda’s “can’t live with him, can’t live without him” affection, calls Melvin “innocent but untrustworthy,” “lovable but maddening.” Dummar’s grace and curse comes by modestly, but constantly, overextending himself – buying a car and boat when he can barely afford a house, spending the last of his cash so the “Hawaiian War Chant” can play at his second wedding to Lynda. For Melvin, things can be repossessed and money will come and go, but their transitory achievement evidences a man who inherently believes in himself and a society that welcomes iconoclasts though second (and third and fourth) chances. When he tells Lynda that his purchase of clearly depreciating goods are an investment, he is speaking not about any accruing financial value, but rather a confirmation of their personal value as individuals – they are the kind of people able to own a boat, even if it is temporary. And the film often proves Melvin’s belief in the cyclical nature of American opportunity. After scrounging together all of his money (and the money of his friend) for the accoutrements of a full-blown Vegas wedding, his party steps in to earn back their cash and more by filling in as witnesses to subsequent ceremonies (beautifully represented in a montage of close-up kisses between Melvin’s group and a variety of newlyweds), only to gamble their winnings in a casino immediately after.  Easy come, easy go!

Dave Kehr suggests that the motivating question of Melvin and Howard is “how can a man lose $156 million and not care?” Kehr offers a dim assessment in response.

The will doesn’t even come as a blessing-it’s more of a burden to Melvin, one more false promise. He’ll go through the motions, give it its due, but he’ll never really believe in it-and Melvin and Howard is the story of how Melvin Dummar, dreamer, game-show addict, and perennial hatcher of get-rich-quick schemes, learned shrug off a fortune.

In our view, Melvin’s resignation in part relates to his recognizing the will as being too good to be true, but also because it potentially represents the total demise of his ambitions. With all respect to Dave Kehr, Melvin’s schemes are never designed to get rich, just to get a little farther ahead, and by Melvin’s standards, $156 million means all his minor victories are attainable without any effort at all. Without struggle, there are no achievements, no rewards, and Melvin knows this, having seen the circus that comes with just sniffing at such a fortune and having ridden through the night with a worn-out man who possessed that wealth sixteen times over. For all his plastic, pre-fab ambitions, Melvin is a man who enjoys the chase more than the reward, the momentary experience over the prolonged care-taking – better to have owned a boat and lost it than to have never owned a boat at all – and by the film’s end, Dummar’s appreciation of those shared songs with Hughes stand among his true riches.

It’s worth noting the importance of the songs and music in Melvin and Howard, as Demme ably uses the film’s soundtrack to elaborate on his film’s fragmented biography. The movie opens to the sounds of Melvin’s truck’s radio scanning through talk radio and televangelism to the sounds of “Tennessee Stud” and “Amazing Grace,” signalling Dummar’s restless nature early on. Melvin and Howard’s midnight drive is most pointed in their shared musical experiences, singing Melvin’s gaudy Christmas original, “Santa’s Souped-Up Sleigh,” and Hughes’ bittersweet  “Bye Bye Blackbird.” Melvin arrives home to his trailer to the sound of CCR’s “Fortunate Son,” an anthem for absent privilege, while Lynda later strips and taps to “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” a description of her own frustrated dreams that seems to necessarily nod at her marriage to Melvin. From the “Hawaiian War Chant” to Howard’s soothing coda of “Bye Bye Blackbird,” Demme’s film inscribes its class-consciousness into its tuneful atmosphere.

Melvin and Howard failed to breakthrough at the box office, but was critically embraced. The National Society of Film Critics named it the Best Film of 1980. In addition to her Oscar win, Mary Steenburgen received Best Supporting Actress honours at the Golden Globes and from the New York Film Critics Circle, the Boston Society of Film Critics, and the National Society of Film Critics. Jason Robards was also honoured by the Boston Society of Film Critics and received Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations. Bo Goldman’s script received an Oscar and awards from the Writers Guild of America, the New York Film Critics Circle, the National Society of Film Critics, and the Boston Society of Film Critics. Perhaps the most lovely endorsement of all, Pauline Kael suggested the movie represented “what might have happened if Jean Renoir had directed a comedy script by Preston Sturges.” Overall, Demme’s film is more than qualified to receive a special edition and with Shout Select’s emphasis on ’80s quirkiness, Melvin and Howard could be a welcome film to this growing catalogue of titles, qualifying as an acknowledged classic, a cult favourite, and an unheralded gem all at the same time!

Credits: Shout Select seems to heavily prefer retrospective interviews for its special features and so we’ve tried to load this imagined disc with plenty. We’ve added an appreciation by filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson, who is a devout fan of Jonathan Demme and Melvin and Howard, having cast Jason Robards and Robert Ridgely is his own films and having emulated Melvin and Howard‘s cinematography in The Master (2012). The interview with Bo Goldman is intended to excerpt his The Writer Speaks interview for The Writers Guild Foundation (see Goldman speak on the film in the second part of the interview). We’ve included a director’s commentary in order to fully elaborate on the fascinating history of Melvin and Howard – originally developed by Mike Nichols with Jack Nicholson in mind for Melvin, briefly considered for Hal Ashby (it does feel a lot like an Ashby film), and replacing Gary Busey with Paul Le Mat upon the entry of Jonathan Demme to the project.

This post drew upon a number of great sources including Robert Ebert’s review, Max B. O’Connell discussion at The Film Temple, Vincent Canby’s reviewAltscreen‘s page on the film, Dave Kehr’s discussion in When Movies Mattered, Richard Linklater’s discussion at an Austin Film Society screening, A.O. Scott’s Critic’s Pick video, and the Film Society of Lincoln Center Q&A with Jonathan Demme and Paul Le Mat.

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