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WUSA (DVD Review)

14 Feb, 2011 By: Mike Clark

$24.95 DVD
Rated ‘PG-13’ for mature thematic elements involving violence, drug and alcohol use, sexual content and nudity.
Stars Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Anthony Perkins, Laurence Harvey, Wayne Rogers, Pat Hingle, Moses Gunn, Don Gordon, Cloris Leachman.

When a superstar headlines a sturdy supporting cast in a 41-year-old drama whose subject matter resonates loudly today, there’s probably a good reason if the movie is infrequently shown and remains generally obscure. So welcome to WUSA. In terms of Paul Newman’s career, it’s a farrago to rank with Lady L, The Secret War of Harry Frigg and Quintet in terms of begging the question, “Why?”

Personal politics no doubt had a lot to do with it, though what we get is a movie that conservatives will always be able to use as a bludgeoning instrument with which to clobber so-called “Hollywood liberals” over the skull. Released in late summer of 1970, when I managed to catch it during an approximately two-minute theatrical run, WUSA feels like a direct off-shoot of the Democratic Convention riots from Chicago in 1968 — and of the burgeoning paranoia that all but Elephant trolls were beginning to sense was oozing out of the Nixon Administration. But in terms of making its points, the movie is tone deaf — the kind that almost telegraphs its stinker-dom with the vanity screen credit: “… and Laurence Harvey as Farley.” Yet as an artifact of its age, it may keep you going just enough to keep from switching it off, saving its one semi-memorable production number until fairly close to the end for at least a little forward momentum.

The title alludes to a New Orleans radio station’s call letters, which the station owners encase in red-white-and-blue lettering. According to scripter Robert Stone’s dialogue (the film is adapted from his own novel A Hall of Mirrors), WUSA is a big local deal. But as visually portrayed, it looks like the kind of flea-bitten enterprise where Rush Limbaugh might have begun his career, provided he agreed to sweep out the joint and douse the lights after the nightly sign-off. Into its daily operation walks boozily cynical announcer Newman, who hits the city travelling light in Newman-cool fashion: a small briefcase and a clothing bag to hold his sport jackets. Harvey’s “Farley” (a crook of the cloth who operates a shelter) tells him of job opportunities at the station, but how this ragged charlatan has ever managed to connect with the Right-wing nuts in charge of the operation is a constant mystery. Another one is how Newman manages to sustain his employment when his listless announcing deliveries couldn’t get him hired at the ninth most popular station in Shreveport.

We also get Joanne Woodward as a scar-faced former prostitute who immediately shacks up with Newman; Anthony Perkins as a neighbor who’s no less unstable than the characters Perkins usually played; Cloris Leachman (the year before her Oscar-winning performance for The Last Picture Show) as a physically handicapped friend of Woodward’s; Pat Hingle (perfectly cast) as the station string-puller; Bruce Cabot (frequent co-star and buddy of ultra-conservative John Wayne, so what’s he doing in this picture?); Hal Baylor, the actor who gets into the big fight with Wayne at the end of 1952 anti-Commie screed Big Jim McLain; Leigh French, from "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour," as a hippie; and, in deliciously gonzo casting as one of the WUSA hangers on, Skip Young (aka “Wally” from "Ozzie and Harriet," the most ubiquitous of that show’s soda shop regulars).

The movie reunited Newman with director Stuart Rosenberg, who’d enjoyed his an undeniably great moment in the sun with 1967’s Cool Hand Luke. Olive’s Panavision transfer is faithful to WUSA’s harsh grainy look, which was atypical of Paramount releases of the period. But all too typical of the era is Rosenberg’s peripatetic overuse of the zoom lens, which only Robert Altman and Sam Peckinpah (or at least they’re the ones who come immediately to mind) found a way to finesse to artistic satisfaction. On a couple levels, WUSA ends in such wannabe tragic fashion that these two payoff scenes might have carried some major emotional clout had the set-up been competently finessed. See if you don’t think the final shot, which asks everything of Newman’s star power, wasn’t a desperation move to salvage a movie that just wasn’t working.

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