No More Parties in L.A.
Charles Bramesco on S.O.B.
As Terry Southern’s novel Blue Movie begins, the party is about to end. The vibe has turned at a Malibu bacchanal well-stocked with showbiz guys and the barely legal teenyboppers on which they sexually subsist, all of them too fucked up on a night that may have started out as rowdy fun but has since curdled into a grim exercise in hedonism. Wending his way through the tangle of lechers and jailbait is Boris Adrian, introduced as the greatest director in the world, seven of his last ten films having claimed the top prize at one of the prestigious Euro-festivals. His unparalleled success has left his career at a dead end, however, stultifying him much like these repetitive soirées with their prescribed itinerary of intoxication and penetration. Describing Boris, Southern writes, “…by now, he was very tired. He had seen too much, though he was only thirty-four, and yet he had not seen what he was looking for.” He will soon be galvanized out of this malaise by a bolt of inspiration. He’ll make a dirty movie, and not just any bush-league (ahem) porno, but the first stag flick to qualify as a major, monocultural Event.
Blue Movie was published in 1970, the same year that Blake Edwards premiered his WWI-set romance-espionage-musical Darling Lili. In it, Julie Andrews, Edwards’ wife by opening night, the recent divorcées having fallen for one another fast and hard during filming, stars in the title role, a buttoned-up English dancehall singer moonlighting as a spy for German forces. She’s gotten in good with an American major and wants to report back to her superiors about this “Operation: Crepe Suzette” he discusses with his cohort, if only she knew what it was. She’s distressed to learn that it’s not a planned bombing or ground maneuver, just a euphemism for a randier cabaret act the blokes like to go check out on the down-low. Out of concern that she’s losing her viability as both a sexual prospect and an effective conduit of intel, Lili massages some hot-cha-cha into her own routine, a sequence replayed as a frisky striptease parody of its former self.
On dollars and cents alone, Darling Lili was a monumental failure, its returns so dire that the film would be used by trend-charters as evidence of an ever-hipper public’s declining taste for musty musicals. Fittingly, the shoot’s recreation of a bygone Paris had to be moved to Brussels in order to avoid the unruliness of the May ’68 protests. Paramount pointed the finger at Edwards for more than doubling the agreed-upon budget, while he and Andrews blamed the studio for kneecapping their earning potential with forced reediting and a lackadaisical marketing campaign. The same thing happened when Edwards went to MGM for his next film, the Western Wild Rovers, another contentious tug-of-war that ended with him locked out of the editing bay and his negatives confiscated. “It was my best film, and they butchered it,” he’d tell Playboy. While a new generation of iconoclasts flourished in Hollywood, he spent the ’70s repeatedly butting heads with C-suite pencil-necks convinced they knew better than he did. Ground down by years of corporate meddling and spats with Peter Sellers on Pink Panther sequels meant to re-establish his box office bona fides, Edwards condensed all his exhaustion into 1981’s majestically profane S.O.B. He channeled the pent-up sexual and artistic frustrations of an era in both his own career and filmmaking culture at large and let loose with a provocation that heralded the new order to come.
Drawing on Edwards’s real-life experiences from his decade of studio squabbling and mirroring the plot of Blue Movie, his blistering satire advances the idea that the only way to bust through a creative impasse is to climb further down into the crevasse of bad taste. S.O.B.— that’s short for Standard Operational Bullshit, as in Tinseltown’s daily order of phoniness and philistinism, though those letters also nod cheekily to a different sobriquet—presents a man and industry at the end of their respective ropes. Power producer Felix Farmer (Richard Mulligan, fresh off the similarly media-savvy sitcom Soap) has been driven to despondence by his first flop, a conceptual musical called Night Wind that’s generated trade-rag headlines like “Critics Break ‘Wind.’” What’s more, Felix takes its rejection by moviegoers as proof that the seventh art has gone kaput, as he posits in a raving epiphany following four stymied attempts to off himself. The people don’t want craft, they want tits, and by god, that’s exactly what he’ll give them by refashioning Night Wind as a softcore skin picture.
Cynical in its outlook to the point of nihilism, jacked up in its tone to the edge of hysteria, S.O.B. portrays Hollywood as a falling Rome crazed with despair and horniness, masturbating itself to death in the corner of the orgy chamber. Much of the first act occupies a beachfront bash identical to Southern’s, all drugs and derrieres, two of which belong to a pair of hitchhikers (Jennifer Edwards, the director’s own daughter, and a pre-fame Rosanna Arquette) picked up by Felix’s right-hand man and go-to director Tim Culley (William Holden). Though they’ve probably been around long enough to know what they’re in for, the girls have entered a hotbed of jolly chauvinism, subject to a barrage of off-color come-ons and double entendres from the men in attendance. Benumbed to pleasure, a suicidal Felix wanders the soirée like La Dolce Vita’s Marcello Rubini, his lowest low of misery spun into a series of slapstick gags announcing Edwards’s take-no-prisoners comic mentality. If this inward gazing seems solipsistic, don’t worry, he’s well aware; his blackest joke checks in with the corpse of a forgotten character actor rotting on the shore just beyond the Farmer residence, mourned only by the dog the poor stiff was walking as his heart attack struck, until the crew of Night Wind observes a hollowly performative moment of silence for him.
Felix and his entourage—most amusing among them Irving Finegarten (Robert Preston), a doctor feelgood and self-proclaimed quack who teases a former junkie, “Would it endanger your amateur standing if I asked you to use a sterilized needle?”—are a bunch of aging perverts, but not the true objects of scorn. Edwards takes their irrepressible horndoggery in good spirits, instead designating the real epicenter of degeneracy as the studio headquarters crosscut into the plot. The president of Capitol Studios (the same name as the fictitious studio from Barton Fink and Hail, Caesar!, linking two takes of varying vitriol on a screw-loose Los Angeles) is the sniveling David Blackman (Robert Vaughn), a craven parasite with no vision of his own beyond the instinct to micromanage, neuter, and dilute. After Felix resolves to pornogrify Night Wind, David sells the rights to the producer, only to turn around with underhanded legal maneuvers once he gets word that the new cut could be a hit. The ensuing battle of wills leads to Felix shut out of the edit, a familiar position for Edwards, ratcheted into morbid absurdity by an armed standoff ending in his death. David wastes no time stripping the proverbial rings from the body.
David is so keen to get his mitts on the revised Night Wind because its star and Felix’s wife, Sally Miles, has tentatively agreed to the first topless scene in her wholesome filmography, as did the actress playing her: Julie Andrews. People like to run their mouths about which films “couldn’t get made today”; here’s one that can’t be replicated, if only because we have so few movie stars with as squeakily chaste a public image as Andrews’. After meeting the woman famed as both Mary Poppins and a guitar-strumming nun, Edwards remarked at a cocktail hour that she must have had “lilacs for pubic hair.” The crack got back to her, and in an early sign of the shared sense of humor that would bond them for life, she had a bouquet of lilacs sent to his home. Her alter ego Sally won’t utter a word harsher than “damn,” and when she does bust out the D-word, she hastily appends a whispered “…sorry.” She only agrees to bare her chest as a last-ditch ploy to evade financial ruin, and after balking upon the call of action, it takes a dose of some sketchy narcotic potion to loosen her up enough to follow through with the suggestively warped riff on “Polly Wolly Doodle.”
Though the immodest, straight-on shot of her exposure seems to mark some nadir of corrupted purity in the film, the dynamics between Felix’s cohort and their suited nemeses paint a far muddier picture of who’s responsible for her debasement. Sally ends up with the Oscar, yet if she’s a casualty of a tarnished reputation, it’s at the hands of Felix’s production unit rather than the creeps at Capitol. He and Dr. Finegarten are the ones who dope her up, no more principled than the business-side bottom-feeders they hold in such contempt. Crucially, the creatives match their much-hated studio overlords in sexual rapaciousness, the only difference being the forms their libidos assume, making Hollywood look less like an artistic infrastructure governed by an unspoken economy of sexual exploitation and more a trafficking operation laundered by the output of movies.
The first clinical reports of AIDS surfaced less than one month before S.O.B.’s premiere, but at casa de Felix, sex is still safe, just as in the Boogie Nights blowouts that also signaled the changeover from the ’70s to the ’80s. David’s kinks, conversely, have been placed in an unnatural light meant to emasculate. In Blue Movie, the studio head gets his rocks off by slipping an elephantine prosthetic penis over his own and humping the bejesus out of fresh corpses; in S.O.B., he merely dons women’s underthings. Edwards draws deep from the well of humiliation for David, a cuck oblivious to the fact that another man is servicing his girlfriend while he talks to her on the phone. An accident breaks his middle finger, which spends the rest of the movie splinted in a permanent bird being flashed his way.
The whiff of snobs-versus-slobs dankness recalls Animal House, another inebriated face-off between irreverent, lusty louts and the slick-haired establishment types harshing their buzz. The seminal (in both senses) campus comedy split the ’70s and ’80s along with S.O.B., two movies thought of as “anarchic” when in fact they reinforce a very familiar power structure, both joined in their liquor-soaked sendoff to a period of cultural supremacy for unathletic, post-hippie artists. The ’70s ideals of the slim, erudite swinger and the giggling post-free-lovers who fell for him would soon be supplanted by the augmented breasts, roided-up muscles, and baby-oiled suntans of Reagan’s America. Dominion over sexual permissiveness was about to oscillate from the left to the right, and a wave of men hurtling toward midlife crises had a sinking feeling that their time was up. Edwards conflates the flameout of a carnal heyday with a larger declinist attitude toward the integrity of filmmaking, equating the New Hollywood set’s tamped-down professional latitude in the face of the blockbuster age with their flagging ability to get laid.
S.O.B. pivots to sincerity in its final scenes, as Felix’s loved ones make off with his carcass to give him a more dignified funeral not crowded by acquaintances squeezing out crocodile tears. There’s a palpable sense of the elegiac even before they send him adrift on a Norse-style pyre, a decisive closure to a wild time. But if this really is the end of the good ol’ days, it’s worth asking for whom they were good. One blithely racist recurring gag involves an Asian chef’s inability to speak English and his employers’ insulting attempts to communicate. Women get a raw deal as well, from the drugged-and-derobed Sally to a punching-bag gossip columnist left in a full-body cast after Felix collapses both psychologically and through the ceiling, onto her head. Edwards’s rollicking, uncouth end-of-the-world rager is a drunken-high blast, even as it inevitably gives way to the sour aftereffect of a comedown, with all its stinging regrets about the words that shouldn’t have been said and passes that shouldn’t have been made.