• The Buddy Holly Story • Return from Witch Mountain • F.I.S.T.
• Careers of actual persons, living or dead, are always tempting material for films, since "the story is already there"; yet all too often the cinematization is a failure—the central character becomes either a whitewash or a stereotype. This is especially so when the historical person is a musician, and so much of the film's running-time is devoted to the music that little is left for proper development of character or plot.
Many misgivings arise, then, in seeing a film about a composer of music only recently dead, particularly when the reviewer would usually prefer silence to the kind of music being performed (country/western and rock-and-roll and various points between). THE BUDDY HOLLY STORY is, indeed, not profound in its characterizations, nor is the script particularly remarkable other than for simplicity and consistency. Yet the film turns out rather better than most of its kind, mainly for two reasons:
1. The main character, acted by Gary Busey, is performed with enthusiasm, spontaneity, and total dedication. An actor in unremarkable parts in recent films (e.g. Big Wednesday and Straight Time), he is completely in his element in this one, and acts as if he was born specifically to play this role. Character and actor are here perfectly matched.
2. A remarkable amalgam occasionally emerges from the elements in this film; incidents which seem quite unpromising turn almost into sheer magic—as when a Harlem producer has hired the three musicians from Texas solely on the basis of hearing their recordings (which he takes to be "black music") and finds to his dismay when they arrive at the Apollo Theater for a week's run that the performers are white. The audience claps, the curtain goes up, and there is a stunned silence; but when the beat of the first number becomes evident the black audience's resentment slowly transforms into enthusiasm and by the third piece they are dancing in the aisles. Several scenes of this kind, unassuming, unpretentious, with no attempt at "social significance," are extremely well rendered, and they go a long way toward making this film more engaging than many a film biography of great composers such as Chopin, Liszt, and Mahler, where one has the music to be moved by but not the cinematic treatment. The standard term "heartwarming" is not an inappropriate one for describing this film.
• Disney films haven't been the same since the death of Disney. They aim at the same audience as before, but the humor tends to be strained, the intrigues are not very intriguing, and the mysteries not very mysterious. The characters are made of cardboard. All this holds true of the latest Disney production, RETURN FROM WITCH MOUNTAIN. (One is tempted to ask, which mountain? since no witches appear, nor any mountains by that name.) In spite of its being filmed largely in Pasadena, this one falls in the general category of science fiction, since it begins and ends with a space ship, containing human beings with distinctly midwestern accents; but it has more to do with telekinetic powers than with outer space. It is a sort of poor man's Star Wars.
One remembers Bette Davis as a fine actress; she still is, but what she is called upon to do in this film could have been done equally well by a thousand others. The villains are very villainous, and the good guys exude virtue through their pores from the very opening shot. There is little suspense and still less characterization. The special effects (mostly levitating objects) are interesting and sometimes mildly comical without being spectacular. At least one can say that the story-line is clear and unmuddied. And that it's a very diverting film to which to take your children—"you will probably enjoy their reactions more than the picture. The G rating, rare these days, assures the film's innocence—and usually, alas, its insignificance as well.
• In 1937, after Roosevelt had spent billions of Americans' dollars "to get the economy moving again," there were still 10 million unemployed in the United States—as many as there had been in the worst days of the depression—and Roosevelt admitted to his aides the failure of his vast federal spending programs. (See John T. Flynn, The Roosevelt Myth.)
But not one film viewer in a hundred thousand is likely to be aware of this, or of the causes of depressions in general, nor have they read Rothbard's or Robbins' books on the subject. What they do see in the opening scene of F.I.S.T., which is set in Cleveland in 1937, is hundreds of men competing for one job and only one getting it. The clear inference is that the employer is a cold-hearted villain for not hiring the entire 500. There is no suggestion of the fact that the employer may have been having a hard time himself trying to survive under an alphabet-soup of New Deal regulations, and that if he had hired the whole 500 every time there was an opening for one, he would soon have had to charge so much more for his product that he would have to close down his business, which in turn would mean that all his employees would be out of jobs.
This scene is typical of the abyss of economic ignorance prevalent throughout the film. When the head man at the factory will not give in to strikers on fringe benefits, the audience boos, and the inference is drawn again that he would have been handsomely able to do it but refused because he was a cold-hearted Scrooge. It is assumed that he could have taken the amount out of profits indefinitely and still kept the price of cars low enough ($500 for a new Ford in 1937) to meet competitors' prices and also enable customers to buy them. This film not only does nothing to correct such economic ignorance, it adds a strong dose of emotionalism in the direction of sticking with one's already entrenched interventionist prejudices.
The film's central character is Johnny Kovak (Sylvester Stallone) as the striker who becomes a union leader and "to get ahead" makes deals with organized crime. His character is so tarnished by the time the film is half over that the senator leading an investigation into his criminal connections (Rod Steiger) looks quite moral by comparison. (A Chicago company where employees are already getting superior benefits resists forced unionization: the employer says, "I don't want to force my men to do things they don't want to do," and Stallone replies, "We can't make no exceptions, Frank." No doubt this is supposed to illustrate his devotion to principle.) Yet the writing and direction of Norman Jewison is slanted so as to direct the sympathies of the audience in favor of Stallone to the very end; never mind that he had people clubbed and even indirectly got his own brother killed; he got his union members what they wanted, so everything is all right—any means to a good end, you know.
The film is a thinly disguised life of Jimmy Hoffa, and it is quite wonderful (in the non-colloquial sense of that word) how in spite of the depiction of one detail after another counting heavily against Kovak's character, the film still tries to palm him off as a hero. Besides, well before the end the audience, accustomed to the simplicity of all-white and all-black characters ("the goodies" and "the baddies"), is probably somewhat confused as to how Kovak fits into that categorization, and since he is not all black they still think of him as on-the-whole-white.
Character deterioration is one of the most difficult things to portray, whether by the author of a novel or by an actor playing a role. It was done brilliantly, for example, in the character of Hurstwood in Theodore Dreiser's novel Sister Carrie, and by Laurence Olivier in the film version of that novel: both the novel and the film are among the finest produced in America, and among the most neglected. No such portrayal is achieved by Sylvester Stallone, who blunders through the part with the subtlety of a 10-ton truck and no sense whatever of cumulative character delineation.
This aesthetic fault is compounded by the moral one of presenting one economic fallacy after another as if it were a profound and moving truth. Not all of Jewison's careful attention to period detail and atmosphere recreation can make up for these grievous faults. To evaluate a film aesthetically is not the same thing, of course, as to evaluate it ethically, but because of the subject-matter of this film it is the second aspect that stands out, and whose mistreatment is likely to wreak the most damage.