Thursday, April 21, 2011

1973 - A Touch of Class

Last chance to vote for which year from the 1940s we will investigate next. The poll is over there on the right and down a little.

Closing out our current shortlist, the last nominee from the 1973 Best Picture race is...

A Touch of Class
Melvin Frank
Melvin Frank & Jack Rose
George Segal, Glenda Jackson, Paul Sorvino, K Callan, Hildegard Neil
Academy Awards:
5 nominations
1 win, for Best Actress (Jackson)

In the classic screwball style of 1940s Hollywood, A Touch of Class follows the shamelessly unfaithful Steve Blackburn (Segal), an American living with his family in London. By chance, he meets divorced English designer Vicky Allessio (Jackson) and, after sharing a flirtatious cab ride, they arrange a date. A couple of rendezvous later, Steve takes Vicky to a hotel for some, ahem ... action. Apparently unperturbed by beginning an illicit affair, Vicky is more concerned that a hotel room is not the ideally romantic place for it. No sooner does she suggest a weekend getaway together than Steve is on the phone organising a trip to Spain. After making excuses to his wife (Neil) and her visiting parents, Steve and Vicky head to the airport, where they hit a small stumbling block. An annoying old friend of Steve's named Walter (Sorvino) is flying to the same vacation spot. Encountering various other hindrances on their romantic getaway, the two forbidden lovers do their best to keep their affair fun and frivolous while trying to avoid the big question - what happens when they get back home?

Despite the overtly 1970s hair and fashion, A Touch of Class is reminiscent of those fast-paced screwball comedies of decades gone by. It's not difficult to imagine, say, Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn as the two smitten lovebirds, trading witty barbs and throwing clothes at each other. There are plenty of hilarious misunderstandings and slapstick pratfalls to keep the audience's journey fun and amusing. There are even elements of British farce, not surprising given the London setting. Yet, the film avoids venturing too far into the absurd, managing to convey sincerity when necessary.

What sets this picture apart from the screwball genre, however, is that Hollywood in the 1940s would never have gotten away with such blatant infidelity - certainly not when the adulterous man escapes the affair with no consequences. Granted, there are clearly psychological consequences as Steve alludes to in his telegram, but his wife is none the wiser about the whole ordeal, so presumably, they continue to play happy family. Which brings us to the film's unavoidable pitfall. As a romantic comedy, one expects the traditional happy ending, but when one of the participants in the romance is married with two kids and shows no desire to leave his wife, a traditional happy ending is out of the question. Things are going to get complicated. And that's more the territory of romantic drama, not romantic comedy. Of the two women in Steve's life, the audience has just spent an hour and a half getting familiar with the other woman, hardly getting to know his wife at all. Consequently, the conclusion is a little unsatisfying, if perfectly inevitable.

George Segal and Glenda Jackson both deliver the snappy dialogue with just the right amount of nonchalance. Jackson won her second Oscar (and a Golden Globe) for her intelligent performance, despite it not being traditional Oscar bait. Segal won a Golden Globe but received no love from the Academy for a portrayal that he does so well, that of the neurotic but likable everyman. Also endearing is Paul Sorvino as the bothersome but ultimately insightful friend.


  1. I guess the best place to start a discussion of A Touch of Class is with Cary Grant. As you pointed out, A Touch of Class is a throwback to those great screwball comedies of the late 30s, most of which starred Cary Grant. Over the years, a number of actors have been dubbed the new Cary Grant: Ryan O'Neal, Hugh Grant, George Clooney - and while they have their own strengths, none of them are Cary Grant.

    In 1973, George Segal, on the basis of Blume in Love and A Touch of Class, was being touted as the new Cary Grant. He had his own nebbish charm and did have a good year, but again no Cary.

    A Touch of Class was the surprise nominee for 1973, and probably the least remembered of the nominees today. Watching it again, it does have some of the charm of the old screwball comedies, but I can't say it fully satisfies. Perhaps as you say, its morality, while hip and adult, just doesn't sit quite well with me.

    Speaking of surprises, Glenda Jackson's win was a shocker. I still remember watching the broadcast and seeing Ellen Burstyn's stunned expression when Jackson's name was read. But God, she was a presence though. The only actress that has captured some of her power since her retirement is Cate Blanchett, I think.

  2. Mike, I'm glad you agree about the ambiguous morality. I was beginning to wonder whether I was just too young to fully grasp the whole "free love" attitude of the 1970s... :-)

  3. I was about your age today when I saw it in 1973. I must say that back then, the swinging attitudes did not bother me as much. However, my wife of two years at that time let me know that if I tried anything like that, I better have my bags packed. :) Guess I took her seriously; we celebrate our 40th anniversary this September 4th.

  4. Bad math on my part. I was actually 26 not 36 when I saw A Touch of Class in '73. Maybe that's why the infidelities didn't seem such a big deal at the time.

  5. I always lament the lack of a nod for Segal here. The movie leaves a slightly bitter taste in my mouth at times, but it's good fun and Jackson and Segal are something special here with the dialogue.

  6. Just noticed Mike's comment: and I've always thought that Glenda and Cate have the same features, those strong cheekbones because I was thinking that Cate would have made a good modern-day Hedda Gabler.