Pairs of Dreamers

Pairs of Dreamers

Posted by Mike Finnegan on Mar 29th 2019

Melvin Dummar and Howard Hughes were very real people who may have shared a very real encounter in a Nevada desert, and though the reclusive aviation pioneer/movie studio head/billionaire entrepreneur Hughes could claim a more history-spanning and media-fueled aura of the pair, the two chief creative collaborators on the acclaimed movie dramatization of their intersection delivered a dreamier and more delightful take on their intersection than one might expect. Screenwriter Bo Goldman has made a specialty of the pain and the passions of fallible dreamers; consider The Rose, Shoot the Moon, Scent of a Woman and his Academy Award®-winning calling card: One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. As the director of 18 narrative features and 15 documentaries and creative mentor to other filmmakers, Jonathan Demme (1944-2017) crafted edgy comedies (Something Wild, Married to the Mob), heart-pounding thrillers (Last Embrace, his Oscar®-winning The Silence of the Lambs), musical celebrations (Stop Making Sense) and deeply affecting personal stories (Philadelphia, Rachel Getting Married, Ricki and the Flash), the embodiment of a versatile, inclusive artist. Of the Goldman-Demme vision of the Dummar-Hughes duet, the Chicago Sun-Times’  Roger Ebert nailed it simply: “The genius of Melvin and Howard [1980] is that it is about Melvin, not Howard.” 

Specifically, it starts with Melvin (Paul Le Mat, from American Graffiti and Demme’s earlier Citizens Band), a hard-luck but doggedly optimistic everyman who believes in the American Dream, driving in the dark and unexpectedly finding a banged-up, cranky old codger lying by the roadside, to whom he gives a lift to Vegas. The two strangers exchange a halting conversation in which the passenger (Jason Robards, later to appear in Demme’s Philadelphia and Beloved) casually refers to himself as Howard Hughes, share a couple of songs, and say goodbye after reaching the grizzled coot’s destination. Halfway through the film, word comes that Hughes has died, and Melvin is surreptitiously given a will that bequeaths to him a substantial chunk of the reclusive mogul’s fortune, sparking a media and legal maelstrom. “What Demme sets out to do, and what he accomplishes,” Michael Banks and Christina Banks write in What Goes Around Comes Around: The Films of Jonathan Demme, “is to inquire what it’s like to be a true believer in America, to be someone who openly embraces the opportunities and oddities (and the concomitant problems associated with a devotion to capitalism) that characterize the nation. In this sense, Melvin is very similar to the greatest innocent ever to appear in American literature: Huckleberry Finn. Like Mark Twain’s book, Melvin and Howard uses its main character as a foil against which it sets into relief all of the obsessions and foibles of America in order to effect social and political commentary. Here’s a man who so strongly trusts in people’s goodness that he’s not even disappointed at the film’s end when he knows that he’s never going o get the $16 million that Hughes supposedly left him. What pleases Melvin most is that he and ‘Howard Hughes’ had a musical interlude together.” 

What is most pleasing in this film, lensed in California, Nevada and Utah locations where the story’s events occurred, are the details of rambunctious Melvin’s unsettled blue-collar, striving-for-the-big-score life (he works as a day laborer, magnesium-plant technician, milk truck driver and service station operator, all the while yearning for songwriting success) and relationships with his first wife Lynda (Mary Steenburgen) and second spouse Bonnie (Pamela Reed). “In Melvin and Howard,” Pauline Kael wrote in The New Yorker, Demme “shows perhaps a finer understanding of lower-middle-class life than any other American director. The picture suggests what it might have been if Jean Renoir had directed a Preston Sturges comedy. Demme’s style is so expressive that he draws you into the lives of the characters, and you’re hardly aware of the technical means by which he accomplishes this – the prodigious crane and tracking shots that he worked out with his cinematographer Tak Fujimoto and the fluid, mellow colors that probably owe a lot to Toby Rafelson’s production design. The comedy doesn’t stick out; it’s part of the fluidity. The dialogue is as near perfection as script dialogue gets – it’s always funny, without any cackling. The people in the movie – the large cast includes Charles Napier, John Glover, Gloria Grahame, Dabney Coleman, Michael J. Pollard, Martine Beswick, Susan Peretz, Naida Reynolds, Herbie Faye and Robert Wentz – all seem scrubby and rumpled and believable; you feel that if you hung around Anaheim or L.A. or Reno you’d run into them. Maybe if you had been at the Sex Kat Klub at the right time, you’d have seen the dancer next to Lynda who was strutting her stuff with a broken arm in a plaster cast.” 

Hailed by The New York Times’  Vincent Canby as commercial American moviemaking of a most expansive, entertaining kind,” Melvin and Howard garnered several 1980 honors – Best Picture (National Society of Film Critics), Best Director/Demme (National Society of Film Critics, New York Film Critics), Best Screenplay/ Goldman (Academy Award®, National Society of Film Critics, New York Film Critics), and Best Supporting Actress for the vivacious Steenburgen (Academy Award®, Golden Globe, Los Angeles Film Critics, National Society of Film Critics, New York Film Critics) – and remains one of the best examples of a writing/directing team getting all the particulars blissfully correct in crafting a true classic of cinematic Americana. Its April 16 arrival on Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray includes a wonderfully informative Audio Commentary conversation between Demme and Rafelson, plus an Isolated Music-and-Effects Track that illuminates the marvelous musical contributions of Bruce Langhorne, who worked with Demme on Fighting Mad and Swing Shift. Preorders open April 3.