Race to the Finish
Farihah Zaman on Spellbound and Smile

Towards the end of Jeffrey Blitz’s independent 2002 documentary Spellbound, Alex Cameron, longtime pronouncer of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, describes a quintessentially American belief in the power of work, repeating the familiar idea that with enough effort and desire, anyone can achieve anything in the United States. What he does not discuss explicitly, however, is the logical extension of this idea, that it is not enough to work hard, you must work harder—or smarter, or faster, or more cunningly—than those around you to succeed. What is hard work worth if you are not in some way better than the millions of other people who want the exact same thing as you? In a capitalist society, competition is just as crucial to success as effort, and as such, ideas of fighting, striving, and winning are part and parcel of the American Dream, regardless of how much they may appear to contradict such a noble ideal.

Few phenomena are as competitive or more American than the pageant, subject of The Bad News Bears director Michael Ritchie’s lesser-known 1975 film Smile, a United Artists release. This loose, energetic satire chronicles the unexpectedly wide-reaching effects of a California Young American Miss contest taking place in Santa Rosa, from the cynical, disturbingly ambitious teenage participants, to the well-meaning but short-sighted local judges, to other citizens just trying to get on with their lives in the face of vaguely defined failure in stifling suburbia.

While the first American Beauty Pageant, held by P. T. Barnum in 1854, was a mere measure of physical attractiveness, as women’s role in society shifted over the decades as a result of greater legal rights and access to education, so did pageant culture try to embrace assessments of inner beauty (with such now-familiar tests as the question and talent portions of the competition). Smile captures a strange historical moment, sort of the seed of the impossible “having it all” ideal, in which women were expected to be both feminine and feminist, able to prove their independence and intellectual worth, but not in a way that threatened traditional roles and values. Ritchie presents pageant logic as being full of such uncomfortable paradoxes. Those organizing and supporting the pageant claim it exists in order to reward and benefit morally deserving girls, but simultaneously create an environment in which those girls have to scheme and connive to win. The pageant stresses the appearance of wholesomeness, but the actual “intellectual” portions are a perfunctory joke, with the real stress resting on how a contestant looks parading around in a swimsuit while older men in the audience offer barely concealed leers.

Ritchie exploits this tension between sincerity and façade in the pageant world not only as a commentary unto itself but also as a winking allegory for the hypocrisy and tawdriness of American life and our secret penchant for competition in general. The pageant is a device for entering and exploring a “typical” small-town community—everyone in that community clearly desires to “win” at something that has much larger yet less clearly defined stakes than a beauty contest. Pageant organizer, former beauty queen, and seemingly perfect housewife Brenda (Barbara Feldon) remains in a marriage suffocated by her emotional frigidity and her husband’s psychotic break simply to keep up appearances. Her husband, Andy (Nicholas Pryor), feels crushed by the pointless expectations and emotional emptiness of his superficial relationships despite the pleas of his pathetically earnest best friend, Big Bob (Bruce Dern). Meanwhile Bob, a longtime pageant judge who takes his job seriously, desperately tries to maintain his faith in his duties and his town despite embarrassing troubles with his delinquent teenage son and the bizarre, Scorpio Rising-esque homoerotic rituals that pass for displays of masculinity at the local men’s club. Smile is ostensibly about a contest, but is really about the small-town, middle-class mentality that breeds such pageantry, yet refuses to acknowledge its discomfiting adoration of competition, consumption, youth, virility, and publicity.

Unlike Smile, which reveals the ugliness behind a seemingly glamorous endeavor, Spellbound takes a decidedly unglamorous activity, the National Spelling Bee, and gives it the red carpet treatment, depicting its young subjects as heroic mental athletes. Just as pageantry has long been a part of American culture, so has the National Spelling Bee, a pervasive test of academic acumen despite the fact that it requires a kind of mechanical rigor that has gone out of favor with modern educational systems in this country.

Spellbound follows the competition’s 2001 edition, from preparations to ESPN coverage to the announcement of the winner. The first half of the film introduces a diverse series of frontrunners from across the country, providing a brief peek into not only their hard work and study methods but also socioeconomic status and day-to-day home lives. The second half zeroes in almost entirely on the competition, teasing out a level of intensity and drama so delightfully unexpected that it helped make the film one of the most highest-grossing documentaries of its decade. In a way the film’s more conventional structure and dedication to chronicling every last detail of the contest itself suggests that Blitz has no particular message to deliver, just a compelling story. By the end of Spellbound, however, it becomes clear that the film is just as concerned with the link between competition and our national identity as Smile, using context-providing narration from the scholarly Cameron and, only slightly more subtly, the stories of the children themselves, many of whom come from immigrant or low-income backgrounds where the importance of striving and overcoming as is part of their family’s makeup.

The differences in the two films’ outlooks may be a function of genre. Sincerity is a rarity in competition narratives that wish to retain a sense of humor; while it abounds in schlocky but heartfelt dramas like Akeelah and the Bee, which explores many of the same themes of struggle and triumph as Smile. Conversely, it would be considered distasteful to ridicule the real subjects of a documentary film in the same manner as a relentless satire like Smile. While Smile is a forerunner to other, usually gentler competition satires like Drop Dead Gorgeous or Bring It On, its style also seems to have directly influenced mockumentaries of the Christopher Guest oeuvre. In other words, sincerity can be so numbing to narrative comedy, and satire so distasteful to documentary, that an entirely different hybrid genre had to be created in order to get the “feel” of a documentary with the tempering of a satirical perspective.

In his role as unofficial historian of Spellbound, Cameron explains that in the late 1800s there was a period of change in America when people began to believe it possible to ascend out of one’s class, and that the essential factor in doing so was education. Spellbound essentially supports this idea without question; Smile deconstructs and satirizes this dream, suggesting that while Americans would like to pretend success is determined by education and effort, it is really about good looks, luck, and a kind of ruthlessness, and even if all of those qualities are present, the standards have been set so unrealistically high that ultimate satisfaction may be impossible.

Who does the American Dream actually belong to? Who really dreams it? The fact that the answer to this question is very different in 2002 than in 1975 can also help account for these films’ incongruent perspectives on the same topic. While Spellbound includes children of many different backgrounds, some of whom have the benefit of a team of tutors and private schools that wealth can afford, it is the poor and immigrant families that best reflect the film’s belief in the American Dream. The mother of Ashley White, a bright but financially struggling young black girl from Washington D.C., describes the sacrifices she has had to make in order to give her daughter a better life than the one she led. Illegal Mexican ranch hand Ubaldo emotionally declares that seeing his daughter Angela’s academic achievement being recognized on a national stage has made the difficult journey across the border all worth it. The parents of both Indian contestants introduced in the film, Nupur and Neil, speak explicitly of their amazement at the amount of opportunity in America, and their children mirror their parents, with Nupur at one point saying “In India, there are no second chances.”

Smile includes just one minority character, the Mexican-American contestant Miss Salinas, a buffoonish caricature who constantly references her background and brings a bowl of guacamole as a gift wherever she goes. While Miss Salinas is no angel, having the same dogged desire to win as any competitor, the other girls’ mockery of her seems pointedly related to race. When access to the American Dream has been limited to a narrow band of young, pretty, suburban white girls, as Smile suggests, a critique seems perhaps more appropriate than Spellbound’s cheerful, insistent optimism. The beauty pageant girls seem entitled and insensitive when compared to the children of Spellbound; perhaps it takes a new American to really attain and appreciate that dream.