James Garner, Julie Andrews, Melvyn Douglas. Dir: Arthur Hiller
I have a knack for turning on the tv and catching a movie from the very same point somewhere about 2/3 of the way through every time it’s broadcast, which is something that I did with this one for a couple of years. But FINALLY, a few months ago, my losing streak ended and I saw this film from beginning to end, and I’m so glad I did. I saw it again after that when our dear Mr. Garner passed away. He counted it as his greatest film, and I’m inclined to agree.
Whenever I talk about war movies, I always preface my remarks with, “I don’t like war movies, but…” So, I’m not going to do that this time, because it is already established. (See how I didn’t say it?) It takes place in the weeks leading up to the Normandy Invasion. James Garner plays a guy stationed in London who is in charge of keeping the brass happy by importing American things and supplying English girls for…entertainment. Julie Andrews plays a driver named Emily, who appears to have no time for humor or emotion of any sort apart from disgust. They meet and (redacted). Later, Garner is called upon to film the storming of the beach at Normandy, as the mentally unbalanced Rear Admiral, played perfectly by Melvyn Douglas, has demanded that the first man to die on Omaha Beach “must be a sailor”. War happens, lives are lost (google “war”), there is sadness, there is anger, there is humor, the are credits.
For Andrews, this movie was made between the two roles that would define, however erroneously, her image for decades to come. Sandwiched between Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music, this was a rare non-singing role for her which she played with great skill. But, as I said, the other two movies were, and still are, the ones for which she is best known, and so, doing things like sleeping with James Garner (in the film, of course), or sleeping with James Garner (in another film), or baring her (spectacular) breasts, in yet another film, have not done a lot to dissuade people from the idea that she is as pure as the driven snow. But when you think about it, neither Mary Poppins nor Maria were pure as the driven snow either. Let’s examine first Ms. Poppins. She was actually a jerk. She was rude to everyone most of the time and fixed things so that everyone got their priorities in order. Then she left. She said it was so she could go help other kids, but I’m pretty sure she was just between opium binges. And now we address the problem of Maria, who apparently had ADHD and couldn’t remain a nun, behaving as a clown who couldn’t be pinned down and whatnot. Now, she wasn’t a jerk in this one, and it is possible to have ADHD and remain pure as the driven snow, but she took a woman’s boyfriend away from him. Timeline: nun drives other nuns crazy, leaves convent; former nun corrupts children; former nun steals and marries another woman’s man. With all of this in mind, pigeon-holing Andrews in such a persona was absolutely insane.
I don’t mean to minimize Garner’s skills or performance. He’s James Garner. And I don’t feel the need to go on and on about him. Garner essentially played the same character most of the time, and this is one of them. And I love him. Everyone does.
So this is where it is important to talk about Melvyn Douglas’ performance. Because it’s amazing, and heartbreaking, and encouraging. I mentioned that his character is mentally unbalanced. The problem in dealing with his character is that he wasn’t unbalanced at first but then became so, and it was difficult to know that until it was too late, which caused a great many problems for everyone. To play this believably, Douglas had to be very subtle with his characterization. He nailed it. I have mentioned Mr. Douglas before, and I feel it necessary to say again that, even though he is a big tough military man, I still want to hug him. There’s an expertly portrayed vulnerability underneath the gruff exterior. I just can’t think of any other way to describe it. The man was a master.
I wouldn’t write this if I didn’t think you needed to see it, and now that I’ve done my part, you need to do yours.