Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Sex and Several Cities

Film: A Touch of Class
Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.

I’m not really sure what I expected with A Touch of Class, but I didn’t expect a film that looked this dated. To suggest that this was considered one of the best films of 1973, enough that it was nominated for Best Picture, is surprising to me, because there’s very little here that translates to an audience 40 or so years removed. Glenda Jackson won the Oscar for her performance, and I like her performance here, but she is just about the only thing about this film that I thought was worthwhile.

This is a simple story. Vickie Allessio (Jackson) is a divorcee with two kids living in London. Steve Blackburn (George Segal) is married and has two kids and also lives in London despite being an American. The two meet in a park, then meet again the next day when sharing a cab in a rainstorm. Steve is obviously interested in Vickie and she hasn’t had a relationship for a while and admits that she could use some good non-committal sex, but not in the cheap hotel he has lined up for them. Instead, she expects a weekend away, which he agrees to since he claims to have never been unfaithful to his wife in the same city.

This results in a week-long trip to Malaga, Spain, and there are (of course) a number of comic occurrences, including problems with the travel arrangements, Steve having to agree to take his wife to Malaga and then convincing her not to go, Steve meeting his friend Walter Menkes (Paul Sorvino) at the airport, a problematic rental car, medical problems, and a series of arguments. And of course, despite this, the two fall for each other and agree to get a shared apartment that neither of them actually lives in in Soho. And, of course, there are problems once they start meeting up for sex at their place since he in particular has to manufacture reasons to leave the house for hours at a time.

That’s really it. A Touch of Class is a comedy about a guy cheating on his wife and having a bunch of comic misadventures while doing it. Never has the potential destruction of a family been so wacky and lighthearted. Or something.

So there’s that as a significant problem with the film. It’s tonally very strange in that respect, and I think that’s very much a product of its time. I may well be naïve in that respect, but the idea of making a comedy about extra-marital affairs strikes me as strange. A black comedy, perhaps, but this is meant very much to be fun and funny, not creepy and kind of dismal. Perhaps that worked better in 1973, but today, it comes off as, well, icky to the point where I hate the fact that I share a first name with the main male character.

It also can’t decide when to end a joke. There’s a long scene in the airport at Malaga where Steve tries to rent a car but his friend Walter wants the same car…and it’s the last decent car the rental agency has. Walter, suspecting nothing, of course, comes up with perfectly reasonable plans to either drop Steve at his hotel or have Steve drop him off. Of course, Steve can’t have that happen because he has to drive Vickie. Instead, he lets Walter take the car and he winds up with a crappy vehicle with a dodgy clutch. It’s funny for a couple of seconds when he’s struggling to get the car out of second gear on the highway. But we get multiple car jokes of the car bouncing along because of the bad clutch. Worse, those multiple car jokes are all actually the same car joke, not even told differently each time. It’s literally the exact same joke over and over.

We also have the issue that Steve Blackburn is a macho dick. There’s a long sequence where he plays golf and rather than just playing golf, he has a bet with his Spanish caddy who plays alongside him. And the caddy is 13, but he can’t let it go that the kid might actually beat him at the game. And he’s pissed off that she doesn’t think that sex with him wasn’t the greatest experience of her life. I honestly can’t tell if he was supposed to be sympathetic or not. If he was, pretty much every aspect of his character fails on all fronts, and this from a film nominated for Best Original Screenplay.

The lone bright spot here, and I do mean that exactly as it lies, is Glenda Jackson. She’s good, and Vickie Allessio is actually a very modern woman in a lot of respects. Vickie wouldn’t look out of place in a movie written this year. She’s funny, knows exactly what she wants and isn’t afraid to go for it, has no illusions about anything going on around her, and takes no shit from anyone. And Jackson plays her beautifully, even giving her the odd noticeable quirk, like wearing her glasses so that the earpieces are over her hair instead of under it. Jackson is the single reason this film isn’t complete shit.

As you might guess, that’s not enough. If you have a need to watch every Oscar-winning performance in history, you’ll be rewarded here with a fine performance from Glenda Jackson. But not a bit of the rest of this film is worth a minute of your time.

Why to watch A Touch of Class: Glenda Jackson and not much else.
Why not to watch: It has aged extremely poorly.


  1. ...and to think Serpico, The Way We Were, Mean Streets, Papillon and Soylent Geen were *not* nominated for Best Picture that year...

    1. Yeah, that's exactly my thinking, too. Well, I'll get to Best Picture 1973 soon enough...

  2. I have not seen this since 1973, I barely remember it and it was a bit of a surprise that Glenda Jackson won. You are right about the odd comic take on infidelity. This was very common in films at the time, the sexual revolution was in full swing and the reactionary morality movement had yet to appear. Cactus Flower, Plaza Suite, Same Time Next Year were all films that started off as plays about comedic infidelity, I don't recall if this was a play or not. I'd be interested in seeing it again just to see Jackson and to experience the mood of the times.

    1. There's something ugly in this film somewhere. I'm not sure exactly what it is, but there's a part of this film that feels like it's covered in a thin coating of oil. Cousin Cousine has the same plot in a lot of ways and is even comic in some of the same ways, but I enjoyed that film a lot.

      I think it's that A Touch of Class feels so desperate. It's all about the sex and so much of it feels like it's geared for a cheap, predictable laugh that's different this time because there's sex involved. "Look, he got a crappy rental car...and sex!" "He had to eat the same dinner twice...and sex!" It's so forced.

  3. Wow. I couldn't disagree with you more. I enjoyed this film quite a bit, laughed a lot, and had no hang ups about the subject matter. Pretty much every third comedy in the 1970s was about sex and infidelity. And that was hardly new territory. Think back to any number of romantic comedies from the 30s from Preston Sturges or Maurice Chevalier that essentially touched on the same subjects. The only difference is they could show more in the 1970s.

    The fact that this was a common story theme doesn't necessarily make it correct, of course. That's up to each person to decide for themselves. As a source for humor, though, it is deep well, which is why so many films use it.

    I found this to be a pleasant surprise to have a lighthearted comedy nominated as Best Picture instead of the usual depressing, make you want to kill yourself films that normally get nominated.

    1. We'll disagree on it. It's not even so much the subject matter--as I mentioned above, I really enjoyed Cousin Cousine which has a lot of the same themes. I think my issue here is that the George Segal character is such an asshole that I can't get around it. I like Glenda Jackson's character quite a bit, and I simply don't see what she likes about this guy to keep going back to him.

      I didn't crack a smile once watching this, and in retrospect, I blame it not on George Segal, but on the character he's forced to play. There's nothing appealing about him at all.