The title of What a Way to Go! (1964) reminds me, inescapably, of the demise of Nelson A Rockefeller, but J Lee Thompson's mortals have a less romantic idea of getting lucky. Each of them is a happy-go-lucky fella until Louisa May Foster (Shirley MacLaine) enters his life, after which, sooner or later, he becomes ambitious, makes pots of money, and dies, literally, of success. Edgar (Dick van Dyke) goes simply enough, keeling over in a fit of overwork. Painter Larry (Paul Newman) and singer Pinky (Gene Kelly), however, die more directly: Larry perishes at the hands — the many hands — of the infernal machine that paints his pictures, while Pinky is trampled by stampeding fans. The one husband who's already rich when he hooks up with Louisa May, Rod (Robert Mitchum), comes to grief when, having thrown over his conglomerate captaincies for the simple life, he makes the mistake of trying to milk a bull named Melrose.
Louisa, convinced that she is a witch, seeks counsel from Dr Stephanson (Bob Cummings), a therapist with an office that looks a lot like an automobile showroom. On the wall is a portrait of Sigmund Freud as the chairman of Shrinks, Inc. The very modish filing cabinets stand on one edge of a vast blue-tiled floor. The enormous couch is mounted on a hydraulic lift, as if vouching that the worthy doctor services what he sells. It is probably healthier not to inquire into the inspiration for this setting, to which the film recurs as Louisa May, stretched out in her widow's weeds — the veils of which are considerably longer than her skirt — tells her life story The laminated, polychrome artifice of the scene approaches the surreal, but it stops well short of the disturbing. What a Way to Go!, after all, is a romp.
It is a very desperate romp, grimacing where it means to grin, a cry for help that is supposed to be a laugh. As such, it embodies what was wrong with Hollywood in the early Sixties. It's the perfect corrective to any idea that Those Were Simpler Times. Hamstrung by the Production Code, bewildered by television, and obsessed with the possibility that the Lowest Common Denominator might be unfathomably low, Hollywood began the decade by pretending that it could sail through the transformation of American society as imperturbably as a jetliner negotiates turbulence, and one watches What a Way to Go! with fear and wonder: how much longer could audiences be expected to pay for such glittering rubbish? At the same time, the movie is so knowing, so winkingly honest about its tomfoolery, that it's hard not to love.
What a Way to Go! is flagrantly insincere on many levels. At its deepest, this insincerity cuts against the heart of Louisa May's predicament. All Louisa May wants is bucolic happiness in a cottage — moviespeak for "plenty of uncomplicated sex." Her mother's* attempts to marry her off to Leonard Crawley (Dean Martin), the sleazoid lord of Crawleyville, Louisa May's home town, meet with stiff resistance, and she marries feckless Edgar Hopper instead. Edgar is content with their simple life until Leonard shows up at their shack and insults him. Where a more traditional man might seek the restoration of his honor in a duel, Edgar pursues his rehabilitation in a typically American way, by piling up a fortune even bigger than Leonard's. The movie pokes fun at Edgar's manic pursuit of Mammon, but its title is there to remind us of its admiration for a success without which there would be, among other things, no occasion for its fascination with extravagant lifestyles. Ditto with Larry, Rod, and Pinky.
More superficially, What a Way to Go! is insincere about telling Louisa May's story. It is much more interested in the life story that she is not leading. This is recounted in four little movies-within-the-movie, ostensibly movies that Louisa May's actual life reminds her of. "One of those old-fashioned silent movies..." "One of those Hollywood musicals." The quality of these pastiches is very uneven; the silent movie and the Hollywood musical are rather super, but the "French movie" that Louisa May's affair with Larry puts her in mind of is a bit flat, reminding us that the very term "foreign movies" was code, in those days, for extensive, if not total, nudity; and, as for Imitation of Mink, the "Lush Budgett" production evoked by life with Rod (to the Twentieth-Century Fox tune and all — but don't the initials "LB" point to a rival studio?). a better title would be Gowns for Empty Calories, by Edith Head. Yes, Edith Head! Did I say that Nelson Riddle wrote the score? With a song by Comden and Green? "Lush Budgett" is not a joke, after all. What a Way to Go! cost six million dollars, making it a very expensive bit of fluff.
Another must-see reason: Paul Newman's performance. Mr Newman was not exactly a new face in 1964, but he would not become the superstar that he is today until 1969's Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Even so, his presence in What a Way to Go! is an anomaly among his credits. When he is not speaking (quite passable) French, his performance is as silly as he can manage to make it. Where his male co-stars soldier bravely through the film's sea of tripe, Mr Newman calls attention to its preposterousness, quite as urgently as one might call for an ambulance. Piling Ossa upon Helion, the bearded actor looks like nothing so much as a bronze Poseidon, salvaged in all its Greek glory from the Mediterranean seabed. A true embarras de Lush Budgett!
A few years ago, Peyton Reed's Down With Love was hailed as a glamorous send-up of the old Doris Day/Rock Hudson pseudoromances, but, if you ask me, it is actually a remake of What a Way to Go! — after a good deal of counseling, hydraulic couch and all. (February 2008)
* In the role of Mrs Foster, Marx Brothers veteran Margaret Dumont establishes once and for all the considerable limits of her ability to act.
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