Classic Film Guide

Leading Ladies Collection, Vol. 2

A Big Hand for the Little Lady (1966) - produced and directed by Fielder Cook and written by Sidney Carroll (The Hustler (1961)), this above average comedy Western stars Henry Fonda and features Joanne Woodward in the title role. The exceptional cast also includes Jason Robards, Paul Ford, Charles Bickford, Burgess Meredith, Kevin McCarthy, Robert Middleton, and John Qualen. Fonda plays a reformed "on the poker wagon" gambler now homesteader that happens upon the high stakes annual game between Robards, Bickford, McCarthy, Middleton, and Qualen in a remote town. Though his wife (Woodward) and his preteen son Jackie (Gerald Michenaud) try to keep him out of it, Fonda is unable to resist joining the game even though the $1,000 entry fee is a quarter of their life savings intended to be used to buy a 40 acre farm in San Antonio, Texas. When Fonda has all $4,000 of his family’s money in the pot and he’s $500 short of being able to call the most recent bet, Woodward bursts into the room where the game is being played (the back room of a hotel/saloon run by James Kenny). While explaining the situation to her, he suffers a heart attack and must be attended to by the beloved but poor local doctor (Meredith). Because wealthy farmer Robards left his daughter in the middle of her wedding to play poker, and defense attorney McCarthy departed the courthouse just before he was deliver his closing remarks to keep his client from the gallows, the men are impatient to finish their game. Though she professes to know nothing about poker, Woodward pleads to play on her husband’s behalf because of their dire financial situation. Though undertaker Bickford hates women, Middleton is persuaded to bend the rules and allow her to leave the room (with the others save Qualen in tow) to go and see banker Ford about a loan. Convinced that he’s being put on by the others, especially since the only collateral Woodward offers is the hand she shows him, Ford has his clerk (Milton Selzer) throw them out. However, shortly thereafter, Ford arrives at the game to verify that they were joking, only to find that they were not. Then, after a soliloquy about how conservative his investment philosophy has been, Ford says that he’s backing Woodward, based on her hand, calls the $500 and raises the rest of them $5,000, after which each of the others folds. Though they lost, the men feel charmed to have been in the presence of the little lady so devoted to her husband. But the story doesn’t end there, and I won’t spoil the denouement which includes a couple of different sequences and a surprise ending.

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I'll Cry Tomorrow (1955) - capsule review!

Rich and Famous (1981) - an inferior remake of Old Acquaintance (1943) in color with sex and vulgar language thrown in to update the story. Though it was impossible to top the Bette Davis-Miriam Hopkins classic, George Cukor (directing his last film) tried anyway. The plot differs in some other minor ways: the motivation Candice Bergen’s character has for writing and who uses the word sausage to describe it, that the failure of Jacqueline Bisset’s relationship with Hart Bochner’s character isn’t due to Bergen’s daughter (Meg Ryan in her film debut), and two completely unnecessary (and quite frankly offensive) sex sequences (contrived to sell tickets) involving Bisset with an uncredited Michael Brandon and (Olivia Newton-John’s soon-to-be) boy toy Matt Lattanzi. David Selby plays Bergen’s husband; Steven Hill is the ladies’ publisher.

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Shoot the Moon (1982) - is about hearts, not the card game but the breaking of humans’ that occurs when a successful writer George Dunlop (Albert Finney) splits with his homemaker wife Faith (Diane Keaton). Besides the adults’ sadness, there is that of their children, four daughters headlined by their eldest and only teenager Dana Hill as Sherry, but also Viveka Davis, Tracey Gold (3 years before she’d play Carol Seaver on TV’s Growing Pains), and Tina Yothers (just before she started playing Jennifer Keaton on TV’s Family Ties). It was directed by Alan Parker (Midnight Express (1978)) and written by Bo Goldman (Melvin and Howard (1980)). While accepting an award for his latest book at a banquet, George publicly thanks and credits his wife for her support. But after sitting down back down and kissing her, she realizes it’s true that he’s been having an affair. That night, they sleep in separate bedrooms and in the morning, after an emotional confrontation, he walks out with the bags she’d packed for him the night before. So he lives with his mistress Sandy (Karen Allen), who loves but is not committed to him, and her young son. Shortly thereafter, Faith makes the acquaintance of a laborer she’d hired to build a tennis court in their grove; Peter Weller plays Frank Henderson, who becomes an opportunist when he hears that her husband has just left her. George begins to appreciate the job that Faith has been doing with the children when he starts taking their three youngest daughters to school three days a week. His eldest Sherry "hates him", and will have nothing to do with her father. Without filling in the details of their marriage or the motivations for George’s straying, the film-makers have made a truthful, realistic movie about marital troubles, and the actors give it their all. Though estranged, George is unwilling to give up control over Faith, the house, indeed access to their former lives. The daughters bind them, of course, but George also grasps at the relationship he had with his now dying father-in-law (George Murdock), leaving both his lawyer (Robert Costanzo) and hers (Irving Metzman) befuddled. There’s also a fascinating scathing argument between the Dunlops in a restaurant (where Kenneth Kimmins is the maitre d') which leads to their defending each other against an offended couple, and more. George’s growing frustration causes him to become ever more violent as the story progresses, leading to a riotous yet ambiguous ending.

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Up the Down Staircase (1967) - if you’ve seen the other teacher movie that was released just a few weeks before this one - To Sir, With Love (1967) - then the clichés and the stereotypes that are recycled in this one will be familiar to you. The only new ground covered is the suffocating bureaucracy that educators in New York City’s system (and throughout the United States?) had or perhaps still have to endure on a daily basis. Set in an overcrowded urban environment, a first time idealistic teacher (Sandy Dennis) must cope with unruly students who don’t appear to care or want to learn. Because of the time that they’ve been there, the other teachers have become so desensitized to the dysfunctional situation that, with one exception (Ruth White), they no longer care about their charges and have become content to just pass them along to the next year, or let them drop out. Director Robert Mulligan (To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)) focuses on Dennis’s facial expressions to convey her initial frustration and inability to handle the demands of the job. During her tribulations, Sylvia Barrett (Dennis) learns to deal with the bureaucratic demands of a system whose administrators are more concerned with the "dotting every i and crossing every t" on the avalanche of forms that are stuffed in her mail slot each day than her teaching. Jean Stapleton plays one (the main office manager), Frances Sternhagen plays a librarian who’s more concerned with having a book returned than the welfare of a student that just attempted suicide, and Elena Karam plays the school nurse who’s under so many restrictions that her function is useless; it consists of serving tea to injured students. Miss Barrett comes in contact with the usual suspects: the ass-kissing class president (Salvatore Rasa), the tough youth with a high IQ that underachieves (Jeff Howard), and another teacher that comes on to her. Patrick Belford plays Paul Barringer, a fellow English teacher and frustrated writer, that appears initially to be interested in dating Miss Barrett. But later he demonstrates that he’s become immune to feeling anything for his students when a painfully shy student (Ellen O'Mara) with a crush writes him a love letter that, instead of acknowledging her feelings, he corrects for punctuation; this leads to her jumping out of his classroom window. Of course, just when she’s ready to quit, Miss Barrett finds that she’s made a difference in one student’s life (Jose Rodriguez), which causes her to tear up her resignation form, and she decides to be different from her peers by walking up the down staircase. Eileen Heckart plays a fellow teacher, Sorrell Booke plays the principal, Roy Poole plays the disciplinarian (Dean of Students?), and Florence Stanley plays a counselor that strives to fit each student into one of her neat little boxes (types). Tad Mosel wrote the screenplay from Bel Kaufman’s novel.

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