Sunday, September 2, 2018

Check Out Billy Wilder's AVANTI! (1972)

Hollywood had changed. Society had changed. The production codes and censorship that limited movie storytelling when Billy Wilder started his directorial career at Paramount Pictures were gone.  In the 1970s, his films didn't meet with the stunning critical and award-winning success of his 1950 to 1960 period (SUNSET BOULEVARD to THE APARTMENT), but his 1970s period still gave us some Wilder work that, I feel, is worth watching.  Today, I watched Billy Wilder's AVANTI!  This is definitely a romantic comedy that Wilder could not have made back in the 1950s.  We see bare breasts and Jack Lemmon's bare bottom.  A comedy classic? No.  A very good and entertaining comedy?  Yes.  This current age of Hollywood movies seems to be one that has lost its way in the art of making romantic comedies that would be great date movies.  AVANTI! has Wilder touches that I love, touches that put a big smile on my face.  The movie stars Juliet Mills and Jack Lemmon.
"I'm short, fat and unattractive."  That's the way British Pamela Piggott describes herself during a phone call in Italy.  She may very well be to some.  However, American businessman Wendell Armbruster, Jr., also in Italy, is falling in love with her.
There can be a touch of cynicism in Billy Wilder's world -- look at how he feels about the insurance business in DOUBLE INDEMNITY, THE APARTMENT and THE FORTUNE COOKIE.  He gave us the first "media circus" of journalism in ACE IN THE HOLE.  But there's also his sly, subversive and sophisticated humanity.  That's what I love most.  He sees the emotional high price Hollywood puts on women to maintain youth and beauty.  Look at SUNSET BOULEVARD and 1978's FEDORA.  For all its touting principles of Christianity, Wilder was condemned by the Catholic Church for showing that even a hooker is worthy of true love and possibly marriage.  Look at his KISS ME, STUPID and IRMA LA DOUCE.  In THE APARTMENT, he gave us a young woman who attempts suicide at Christmastime because of her humiliating affair with a married man.  Wilder makes us see that she's one of the most lovable, endearing characters in a 1960 movie. We root for her to have a happy ending.  And, to use a modern term, is there any character more "sexually fluid" than the sweet, screwball millionaire played by Joe E. Brown in SOME LIKE IT HOT?  Wilder had an affection for society's kind-hearted outsiders and misfits.

I won't go into detail about all the plot of AVANTI! I will give you the basics.  Lemmon plays the American businessman who has to travel to Naples to claim his Baltimore millionaire father's body.  Dad died in a car accident during a month-long vacation.  Come to find out, the woman who died with him in the accident was his long-time mistress.  Her daughter, played by Juliet Mills, is in Italy to claim her mother's body.

Pamela, the totally charming daughter, has had an unhappy love affair. She reveals to strait-laced Wendell that she tried to kill over-eating.

Pamela has a healthy appetite.  She eats with pleasure and without.  She is very comfortable in her own skin.  So comfortable that she goes skinny-dipping in Italy, a freedom that rattles Wendell.

I saw this movie when I was just starting college.  By then, I was already a hardcore Billy Wilder and Jack Lemmon fan.  I thought that I was too young, too unsophisticated in cinema art to see what some critics were seeing because they described Pamela as overweight.  I saw absolutely nothing overweight about Juliet Mills.  She looked just fine to me.  Today, I think perhaps that's a point Wilder was making.  In the American male gaze, Pamela is seen as being 20 lbs. overweight.  To the Italian males, she's sexy and they pursue her while she's eating a few ice cream cones.

Especially in close-ups, Wilder shoots the Juliet Mills Pamela character as if she's a bouquet of lovely spring flowers.  This is 1972.  Fast forward a few decades and think of a plump female lead character like Renee Zellweger's BRIDGET JONES of 2001, 2004 and 2016.  In Billy Wilder's AVANTI!, the "short, fat" Pamela is never portrayed as physically and socially awkward.  Neither her full figure nor any article of her clothing is the sight gag.  There's no fat-shaming in Wilder's direction. Pamela -- like her dear, late mother -- will become the object of affection.  In 2018, I found this female character and image refreshing.  Click onto this link to see a trailer.

If you watch it, there's an in-joke of sorts that made me chuckle.  The lead role in COOL HAND LUKE was offered to Jack Lemmon.  Lemmon didn't think he was right for the role of Luke but the script was so good, that he decided to produce the film, starring Paul Newman, through his production company.  I visited Chris Lemmon, the actor's son, at his home in Connecticut. He gave me that info on his dad being offered the lead role in that 1967 hit film.  In AVANTI, while standing up in a bathtub, Jack Lemmon does a twist on COOL HAND LUKE's most famous movie line.

There are revelations and complications.  About ten minutes could have been chopped off one of the subplots but the excess doesn't feel heavy and repetitive like in some modern comedies starring Jason Segel such as THE FIVE-YEAR ENGAGEMENT and FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL.  I think that's because Billy Wilder had the gift of adding lively, funny supporting and bit players in his films.  Here, one stand-out in that category is Clive Revill is Carlo Carlucci, the hotel director.

Watching Jack Lemmon at work with Billy Wilder material, seeing his conservative and uptight American character slowly shed his inhibitions and open his heart to a most unlikely romance with a woman who doesn't fit into the American image of beauty is a beautiful thing.  Check out AVANTI!  There are laughs and some lovely moments in it.  Afterwards, have a nice meal.

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