Friday, August 18, 2017

Neglected Gem #105: Made for Each Other (1971)

Joseph Bologna, Renée Taylor, and Paul Sorvino in Made for Each Other (1971).

THEDA: Read Melanie Klein. They say Sigmund Freud is the father of psychoanalysis . . . Well, Melanie Klein is the mother.
VITO: And who are you, the cousin?
– Renée Taylor and Joseph Bologna, It Had to Be You (1981).
When Joseph Bologna died this week at the age of eighty-two, the obit writers quite reasonably showcased his uproarious performance as King Kaiser, the TV comedy star modeled on Sid Caesar in the 1982 movie My Favorite Year. But though Bologna was a prolific character actor with a long string of credits, much of his energy went toward the writing he did with his wife Renée Taylor for the theatre, movies and TV, beginning with the comedy Lovers and Other Strangers in 1968. That play, a series of sketches on the relationships between women and men, was reconceived as a movie two years later. In the film, the central event around which the action coheres is the wedding of a young couple (Bonnie Bedelia and Michael Brandon) who have, unbeknownst to their traditionalist parents, been living together for more than a year but are now experiencing eleventh-hour trepidation about tying the knot. It’s an entertaining picture with a remarkable cast – Gig Young, Bob Dishy, Richard Castellano, Bea Arthur, Anne Meara, Diane Keaton, Harry Guardino, Cloris Leachman, Marion Hailey and Joseph Hindy play the other characters – and it was the only script Bologna and Taylor produced that garnered much attention. Made for Each Other, about the Loony Tunes courtship of a pair of chronic losers and misfits, which they wrote and starred in the following year, didn’t make it onto many people’s radar in 1971 and it’s been forgotten, but I think it’s amazing – one of the few great comedies of its era. (You can view it complete on YouTube.)

As a piece of filmmaking it’s scrappy and sloppy; the director, Richard B. Bean, who also shot it, never made another movie. (Elaine May, a year away from directing The Heartbreak Kid, would have been the ideal match for the material.) As a piece of writing it’s dazzling, though it’s hard to imagine how it would play with anyone but Taylor  and Bologna in the leading roles. It’s Method-infused revue-sketch comedy, and though the performances – not just of the two stars but of Paul Sorvino and Olympia Dukakis as his parents and Helen Verbit and Louis Zorich as her parents – are wildly stylized, it’s clear that Taylor and Bologna, a Jew and an Italian (happily married for more than half a century), are drawing on parts of themselves as well as on their personal and professional chemistry for scenes where the shifts in tone and the emotional reach are so staggering that you would think they’d be impossible to pull off. Made for Each Other feels like a period piece now, not because its observations have dated but because no one would try to make this kind of movie today; it’s far too daring, both in style and in its non-doctrinaire depiction of a romantic relationship.

Renée Taylor in Made for Each Other.
 And its genre, Freudian analysand comedy, is no longer popular since Freud himself is out of fashion. The movie begins in an “emergency encounter group” where Pandora Gold (Taylor), a struggling actress with a terrible track record with men, is a regular participant and that Giggy Pinimba (Bologna), a womanizer whose erratic work life is a series of impulsive reactions against his Italian family, has wandered into after his latest girl friend tried to off herself with pills. And, beginning as it does with the births and childhoods of the two protagonists (shot in sepia-tinted black and white), it’s largely about how their difficult relationships with their parents shape their adult lives and establish the patterns they can’t seem to prevent themselves from falling into. Pandora – or Panda, as she’s usually called – has an indulgent mom who puts her faith in astrology (though her predictions rarely come true) and encourages her to anticipate greatness; her father is a chronic adulterer who doesn’t bother to invent plausible excuses for his absence. Giggy’s parents – his father is a yeller, his mother is a screamer – expect him to conduct himself like a macho Italian male, so while he continually rebels against them in other ways, his sexual behavior perpetuates those attitudes. Panda has had, she explains, ten years of analysis but still gets screwed up about men. Giggy finds therapy so weird and uncomfortable that he almost runs away before opening up to the group. Panda has to drag him kicking and screaming into self-examination, while he’s openly critical about her appalling self-authored cabaret act as, apparently no one else ever has been – least of all her mother, who uses words like “witty,” “pithy” and “trenchant” to describe it.

Writing about Made for Each Other in 1971, Pauline Kael compared the cabaret act to Marilyn Monroe’s performance of “That Old Black Magic” in Bus Stop; I’d add another analogy, to Gwen Welles’s striptease in Nashville (which came out four years later). It’s deeply embarrassing and hilarious and touching, all at once. Incapable of restraint, of not revealing too much, Taylor’s Pandora sashays onto the tiny stage of a fourth-rate nightclub in a pink feather boa and a flaming orange gown, and removes her wig to make jokes about her sex life (long before the age of confessional stand-up). Then she does a terrible impersonation of Marlene Dietrich singing “Falling in Love Again” in The Blue Angel; when she get to the line, “And if their wings burn I know I’m not to blame,” she pronounces “burn” as “boin,” slipping into Fanny Brice.

Taylor’s is perhaps the greatest virtually unknown performance given by a leading actress in the early seventies – part musical theatre, part 1930s movie-star glamor (which is why she invites comparisons to Barbra Streisand), part screwball comedy, part sketch comedy. She manages to evoke bravado and vulnerability at the same time, like Giulietta Masina in Nights of Cabiria. She’s the most original needy heroine since Cabiria, and the movie is a little like Fellini’s masterpiece, except that she’s not the only character fighting for romantic redemption; Giggy is, too, though for much of the movie they’re fighting at cross-purposes. Taylor is phenomenal in scene after scene, and Bologna holds his own with her. In their final tête-à-tête, where – after a New Year’s Day party at Giggy’s parents’ home that must be one of the funniest family-explosion sequences ever put on film – he goes from protesting that they’re an impossible match to capitulating to his feelings for Panda in a single rush of emotion that would have an audience cheering and stamping if they were performing it live. How the hell did a movie as good as this one fall through the cracks?

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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