Fools of the Game

A pleasant seasonal diversion, A MIDSUMMER’S NIGHT SEX COMEDY, Woody
Allen’s 1982 celebration of what can only be termed as hummer solstice, comes to limited edition Blu-Ray from the gang at Twilight Time/MGM Studios/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment.

Set during the early part of the last century, SEX COMEDY (big surprise) owes much of its inspiration from the writer-director’s idol, Ingmar Bergman, and his 1955 classic Smiles of a Summer Night; yet, it concurrently borrows many a riff from (obviously) Shakespeare’s spritely sprite fest and Jean Renoir’s brilliant Rules of the Game, a 1939 dramedy of manners set on a country estate overrun with horny couples uncoupling to couple.

The main characters of this farce comprise three pairs of philandering scamps, tramps and vamps.  There’s Andrew and Adrian (Allen and the wonderful Mary Steenburgen), a dysfunctional duo of the worst kind.  Lecherous Allen, an inventor, hasn’t had “relations” with his supposedly frigid wife (the reason being a rather climactic shocking one) apparently since the Grover Cleveland administration.  She’s all ZaSu Pitts a-flutter and appears to want it too, just not with the Woodman (INSERT your own opinion here).  Perhaps a weekend soiree with their friends to celebrate Steenburgen’s aging kin’s upcoming nuptials might melt the ice during the torrid late July nights?

Which brings us to couple number two, smarmy New York doctor Maxwell (Tony Roberts) and his fill-in-the-blank twist.  Maxwell is the guy parents warned their daughters about, and likely has his tintype proudly displayed in Warren Beatty’s wallet.  Thinking nothing of violating his patient’s/friend’s/relative’s marriage vows, Roberts redefines the moniker of Dr. Feelgood; in short, no uterus is safe, and we’re not relegating that to human.  Unfortunately, all his paramours are busy for the weekend, so he approaches his new, fetching receptionist, Dulcy (Julie Hagerty), who readily accepts; this proves to be a blessing in disguise, as she’s the doc’s female equivalent – a master of moves the Kama Sutra missed, including the daring Mexican Cartwheel.

Last, but certainly not least, is the raison d’etre for the bash, the revered professor Leopold and his trophy wife, the ravishing Ariel.  These eyebrow-raisers are played (as far as I’m concerned) to perfection by Jose Ferrer and Mia Farrow (although, at the time, the latter received 1982’s Golden Raspberry for Worst Actress).

But there’s mischief a-foot(-sie).  Farrow’s reserved demeanor is a sham; to quote a studio worker to a nervous Regis Toomey when asked about his costar Clara Bow for his 1931 entry The Kick-In, “she’s laid everything at Paramount except the carpet.”  Insult to injury, Andrew has lusted after Ariel for years, and once even dated the woman, but was afraid to physically approach her (being a Woody Allen production, Farrow’s character, it turns out, was itching to have him jump her Rosemary’s Baby post-delivery bones).

The sexual tension is, if nothing else, aromatic (“The moment I smelled her, I loved her,” announces one character to another) – causing more pressure on the about-to-bust Andrew, the can’t-get-enough Maxwell/Dulcy and even the elder statesman Leopold, who’s request to Hagerty for some final wild oat sowing before being shackled to his lady ball-and-chain is deliriously approved.

As one might expect, this is a featherweight, yet extremely entertaining foray; while no Annie Hall, it’s definitely worth a peek, if only for the actors and the narrative’s unusual magical mystery tour.  While Allen’s Andrew is a crackpot inventor, he’s a successful crackpot inventor – whose denial of coitus has proved to be a boon to the Edison community.  His crazed contraptions genuinely work, and there’s an ethereal sequence wherein he and Farrow take a ride upon his flying bicycle (sadly, he hasn’t mastered landing, but that’s what derriere jokes are for).  More amazing is his prowess at conquering the afterlife, with a spirit box that that would have delighted Conan Doyle.

It should be noted that the males in SEX are pretty much one-dimensional shallow types (which works, as it follows the scenario); the women, on the other hand, are fantastic.  A highlight of the pic showcases the femmes’ escape to a wooded area to smoke and discuss “ways of the world” (aka being a captive audience awe of the experienced Hagerty).

There is the usual plethora of clever self-deprecating Allen lines, by way of Bob Hope, and some are tres amusing.  When a clawing-the-walls Allen begs Steenburgen to let him defile her, she responds with an uncomfortable “I can’t!  It’s disgusting,” to which Andrew replies “How can it be disgusting?  I don’t even have my clothes off.”

That said, the award chops for the movie go to Ferrer, who steals the proceedings hook, line and stinker.  Throwaway dialog becomes hilarious laugh-out-loud funny when mouthed by the veteran thesp.  Asked by his equally stuffed shirt colleagues about his upcoming honeymoon, Ferrer proudly and dryly comments that nothing he can fathom derives more spousal pleasure than “an opportunity to show her Thomas Carlyle’s grave.”  It’s my favorite exchange in the movie (and if you’re not chortling now, try repeating it aloud in Ferrer’s voice).  It’s Ferrer’s picture in other ways too, specifically in the satisfying mystical resolution involving “pure essence.”

The problem with A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S SEX COMEDY is that, in Allen’s own words, “I wanted to do for the country what I’d done for New York in Manhattan.”  Of course, that’s not entirely possible, as the director doesn’t harbor the love for the bucolic as he does for the metropolitan joys of La Grosse Pomme.  Nevertheless, in the gifted hands (and eyes) of cinematographer Gordon Willis, the pastoral establishing shots of the upstate New York locations are stunning, recalling works of such 19th century artists as Worthington Whittredge, Alexander Wyant, Asher B. Durand and others.

I recall first hearing about the production of this movie, and reveling in the thought of teaming Steenburgen with Hagerty, whom I figured would be playing sisters.  As is often the case, I was wrong, but their vocal similarities interestingly triumph since sexually they are diametrically opposed bedroom participants.

Most prominently, SEX was the initial collision between Allen and Farrow.  Farrow, in her 1997 autobiography What Falls Away, reminisced that all did not begin grandly.  It was a stifling hot and oppressive summer in 1981 when the movie was lensed (I can attest to this since I despise New York from June-August, and still have horrific, vivid memories of that sweltering year).  Under the blazing lights, the broiling sun and the layers of authentic period female apparel, the actress was near collapse (“By mid-movie I had an ulcer andwas taking Tagamet four times a day”).  She was giving much contemplation to calling it quits, at least in front of the camera. “I asked [Woody] if in the future, if there was a future, I could be his assistant, so I wouldn’t have to act.  He looked at me doubtfully and said, ‘It’s hard work being an assistant.’”  One assumes that Farrow was tempted to whack Allen with a 2 x 4, which, if nothing else, would have changed a future movieland collaboration, or, at least, sped it up to its outcome.

In one of the great modern show business stories, SEX continues to provide anecdotal gales of laughter due to an off-camera event.  During the production, Jose Ferrer appeared on a local New York talk show.  It was also the same building where Dustin Hoffman was filming Tootsie.  On a lunch break, Hoffman, deciding to keep his lady garb intact, jumped into an elevator, populated by Ferrer, his assistant and a male intern.  Hoffman gushed all girly-like toward the former Cyrano star, and the tolerantly embarrassed Ferrer quietly thanked “her.”  Tootsie then went one step further, giggling how she’d like to perform oral on the stunned actor.  At the next floor, “she” merrily exited, skipping down the corridor.  Once the elevator doors closed, Ferrer growled to his companion, “Who was that scumbag broad?!”  Again, recite it aloud in his voice.

The Twilight Time Blu-Ray of A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S SEX COMEDY captures all the beauty of Willis’s formidable abilities (more so than any previous video incarnation).  The crisp audio is perfect for reveling in the numerous asides, and, particularly Ferrer’s swipes at the dastardly Roberts.  The classical music, culled from Felix Mendelsohn-Bertholdy (also utilized in Max Reinhardt’s 1935 filmic depiction of the Shakespeare fantasy), can be accessed as an IST.  There’s also the inclusion of the original trailer.

Those looking to up their summer viewing from the glut of idiotic fast-food animated fare might well consider delving into this enticing grown-up dessert, undeniably light, but compellingly flaky.

A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S SEX COMEDY.  Color.  Widescreen [1.85:1; 1080p High Definition]; 1.0 DTS-HD MA.  Twilight Time/MGM Studios/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment. CAT # 8-11956-02067-3.  SRP: $29.95.

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