…Out of nothin’ at all

Arthur Hiller died on August 17. Here is the review I wrote of Making Love in 2011. I resisted the temptation to change sentences and arguments. However, these days I have a kinder response, thanks to my reading of Robin Wood’s analysis of Making Love in the essay “From Buddies to Lovers” collected in Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan…and Beyond

I mistrust the habit of insulting a movie for the timidity of its intentions, especially compared to the supposed “progress” we’ve made since its release, but Making Love was as anachronistic in 1982 as Gentleman’s Agreement was in 1946. This film, the first coming-out story approved by a Hollywood studio, is both mired in a TV land conception of homosexuality and its effects and presages the neutered way in which filmmakers would present  Gay Issues in the years when GRID became AIDS. Don’t forget: 1982 was when the gay community fully registered the consequences of the so-called gay plague.

When fluffy-haired doctor Brad (Michael Ontkean, who later played the sheriff in “Twin Peaks”) meets “writer” Bart (Harry Hamlin), one of those free spirits who won’t even spare ten minutes to indulge a trick’s wish for a 3 a.m. hamburger, his TV producer wife (Kate Jackson) reacts with the usual — the usual what? I’m not sure. Jackson is so bewildering in this thing that it’s hard to figure out what she’s playing when Hiller directs her to stare doe-eyed while hurling sychoanalytic platitudes at Ontkean as if a production assistant were holding the cue cards upside down. She’s awful in a puzzling way, like most of a movie that confuses cute with three dimensionality. I assume a Des Moines audience in 1982 would have tittered knowingly when we learn that Brad and Claire announce they’ll name their unborn child Rupert after Rupert Brooke. That Rupert Brooke. Requiring solace, Claire and Brad both sit at the feet of an old biddy who quotes Coleridge in sonorous English and later in the movie gives Claire the kind of advice that Greer Garson herself would have rejected for its high-mindedness (it’s to this woman that Claire admits, “I didn’t let him be human” — did the audience in 1982 hiss?). As Liam Neeson said disgustedly to the pliant, piteous Mia Farrow in Husbands and Wives, “Stop being so bloody ‘understanding’!”

Give Making Love some credit: it got the director it deserved in Arthur Hiller, who from Love Story to Author! Author! never knew a story he couldn’t sanitize for mainstream sensibilities (the exceptions: the Paddy Chayevsky-scripted The Hospital and the scabrous Peter Falk-Alan Arkin comedy The In-Laws). This is no slapdash effort a studio can dismiss as a write-off; its makers expended much thought and effort, most obvious in Miller’s use of interludes in which the three leads face the camera and discuss their feelings. The hoariest of seventies cliches, already exhausted in Woody Allen’s Interiors: in theory, the exorcism of feelings adduced their humanity, when it really replaced one set of pre-Method tropes with another.

It must be said: Harry Hamlin, last seen as a strapping, heterosexual Perseus in Clash of the Titans, gives a game performance, with no camp or winking at the audience, surviving even the naming of his character “Bart.” Haughty, preening, and impatient with psychobabble, he comes closest to cutting through Hiller’s medium-shot banality. We learn in The Celluloid Closet that Hamlin didn’t work in Hollywood again until cast in “L.A. Law.”

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