Format: DVD from Mokena Community Public Library through interlibrary loan on rockin’ flatscreen.
I’ve said for years that my ideal job would be being an heir to a great fortune. I’d be really good at that. I’d devote my life to some cause or some scientific study or another. I’d set up foundations. Seriously, if I ever win the lottery, you can expect scientific and educational foundations coming out of my home town with my name on them. Melvin and Howard is sort of the sad fantasy version of inheriting a fortune, kinda. This is the first of what has been called a BOSUD, or “biography of someone undeserving.” That person is Melvin Dummar (Paul Le Mat).
As the film opens, we see an old man (Jason Robards) riding a motorcycle through the Nevada desert. He has an accident and ends up lying on the sand. It’s not until that night that he’s picked up by Melvin and driven back into Las Vegas. Melvin does his best to engage the old man in conversation, asking him to sing with him to pass the time. Eventually, he does, and he also claims to be Howard Hughes. Eventually, Melvin drops him off at a Hughes-owned hotel in Vegas and drives home to discover that his wife Lynda (Mary Steenburgen) is leaving with their daughter Darcy (Elizabeth Cheshire).
Melvin more or less forgets about his encounter with Hughes and goes about his life. Darcy returns home to him, and he tracks down Lynda, finding her working in a strip club. Eventually, he grants her a divorce—one that gives him custody of Darcy because of her job—and even more eventually the two remarry when Lynda discovers she is pregnant. The two struggle along, their lives essentially being the lower-middle class American reality of one step forward, two steps back. The biggest problem is that Melvin dreams a hell of a lot bigger than his wallet can handle. Lynda wins a considerable sum on a talent show, and the two buy a house, but Melvin blows money on a Cadillac and a boat, causing Lynda to leave with the kids again.
And so, still falling deeper and deeper into debt, Melvin takes up with Bonnie (Pamela Reed), the dispatcher at the dairy for which he works. The two take over a gas station owned by one of her cousins, and they continue to try to make ends meet. One day, a man (Charles Napier) shows up at the gas station, buys a pack of cigarettes, and leaves behind a will purportedly from Hughes, who had recently died. Hughes never left an official will, and the one dropped on Melvin’s desk suggests that he is among the various claimants to Hughes’s fortune, being left $156 million.
Now, I have no idea how much of Melvin Dummar’s life is accurately reflected in Melvin and Howard, but there was a Melvin Dummar who claims to have given a ride to Howard Hughes from the Nevada desert. That same man claims to have received a copy of Hughes’s will leaving him that huge inheritance. Hughes has never had a will discovered that has been legally declared real, which means that Melvin Dummar never inherited a dime, and came close to spending time in prison for allegedly forging the will that he claimed had been left in his gas station.
Melvin and Howard was nominated for three Oscars, winning two. The screenplay won, as did Mary Steenburgen in a supporting role. It’s a good performance from her, and manages to There is a myth that nudity equals Oscar for Best Actress, and in Steenburgen’s case, it seems to have been true for Supporting Actress—at one point, she strips off completely in an act of defiantly quitting her strip club job. Even without that, it’s a fine performance from her, although I’m not sure it tops Eileen Brennan’s work in Private Benjamin. The screenplay is also quite good. It’s not laugh-out-loud funny, but it’s sweet and real, kind of sad and funny in the same way. The other nomination here was for Jason Robards, which seems very interesting to me. Robards is only on screen for maybe 15 minutes, but he’s a looming presence in the opening and at the end. I’m an admirer of Robards, and for as short as this is, it’s a hell of a good performance.
Melvin and Howard isn’t the sort of film I’m apt to watch that often. It feels like one of those films that is essentially about nothing, because it is more or less a character study of Melvin Dummar. As the BOSUD label (also applied to movies like Ed Wood and The People Vs. Larry Flynt) implies, there’s nothing exceptional or even that interesting about Melvin Dummar. The film takes his story at face value, assuming that the man is telling the truth. As depicted, there’s nothing really in Melvin’s character that would indicate the creativity necessary to create his story of Hughes from whole cloth.
What do I think? I don’t know. I think that Melvin and Howard is probably a better movie than Melvin Dummar deserves whether he’s telling the truth or not.
Why to watch Melvin and Howard The characters are surprisingly sympathetic.
Why not to watch: The BOSUD label is entirely appropriate.
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