S.O.B. (Blu-ray Review)10 Apr, 2017 By: Mike Clark
Available via Warner Archive
Stars Julie Andrews, William Holden, Robert Preston, Richard Mulligan, Robert Vaughn, Shelley Winters.
Referring to “standard operating b.s.” as opposed to the more commonly employed slur on some male crud’s poor mother, Blake Edwards’ indisputable auteur work was sandwiched between “10” and Victor/Victoria as part of a farcical triumvirate that revitalized the writer/director’s critical rep to the upper levels after a spotty dozen or so years. Commercially speaking, this bile-laden satire of Hollywood and its overpaid players proved to be nowhere near as popular as the other two — possibly due to the supposition, as some advanced, that S.O.B. was too much of an insider’s comedy for mass consumption. Though I’ll have to note that when I caught its first-run engagement at a Georgetown theater in Washington, D.C. (a company town where the company isn’t movies), the paying customers were laughing their behinds off.
The picture’s main claim to fame is probably as the vehicle in which top-billed Julie Andrews bared her breasts for the screen demographic that harbored sack-time fantasies over Mary Poppins but more importantly as the source of William Holden’s final screen appearance. After a long string of DOA’s not named The Wild Bunch or The Towering Inferno, Holden began specializing in playing show biz or media “old hands” very late in his career — as in Network, Billy Wilder’s Fedora and this one. As a germane footnote, one of the more-acceptable films of the remaining pack that made up the actor’s, say, post-1962 filmography had been as co-lead in Edwards’s own Wild Rovers, a movie whose editing got mangled in the then totally dysfunctional MGM machine under then studio chief James T. Aubrey’s non-leadership. The experience contributed to the filmmaker’s jadedness toward the industry as much as his Darling Lili experience had at Paramount a decade earlier — though in fairness to studios, “cost overruns” became, more than once, the filmmaker’s middle name.
In terms of what we get on the screen, a typically hyperactive Richard Mulligan plays a hitherto Midas Touch producer (split from wife and frequent squeaky-clean lead actress Andrews) who has just directed such an expensive musical folly with her that the result threatens to do a “full Heaven’s Gate” on its backers. When he eventually brainstorms a reshoot salvation job on her already filmed production number of “Polly Wolly Doodle” by now electing to cap it with a newly filmed nude scene, S.O.B. starts to play like a project whose script had been around a while. By 1981, Andrews’ commercial viability (at least in musicals) had been silenced for more than a decade, and no one was making her kind of movies. We were also almost a decade beyond Deep Throat and Behind the Green Door, which further rendered S.O.B.’s underlying premise a tad quaint. If it had been made in 1973 or ’74, we might have been talking about a wave-maker.
Yet, Edwards lover that I am, the picture is something of a personal pet — full of the filmmaker’s trademark tension between elegantly composed Panavision blocking (and he has Malibu to work with) and crude physical gags that are not infrequently cruel. What’s more, several of the performers are spot-on, including Robert Preston as a Dr. Feel-good kind of show biz quack (the actor would get a Victor/Victoria Oscar nomination the next year), Robert Vaughn as a dyspeptically abrasive production head and a blowsy Shelley Winters as a Sue Mengers type of agent from the days when Mengers had lots of clout. She, by the way, did not like the movie.
Through a coincidental fluke that had to do with my job at the time, S.O.B. marked the only instance where I ever got to see a movie’s preliminary cut in a studio screening room with most creative principals present before an editing-room facelift took over. In that version, the “Polly Wolly Doodle” number — it’s such a deadly song under any circumstances that I suspect only Fats Domino could give it life — came much later in the film and so slowed things down that I remembered thinking that this was something close to an irresolvable problem because it was so much the crux of the story. As it finally stood, the set piece was moved to open the picture in slightly more satisfactory fashion, though not ideally so. It’s a little like the opening scene of Elia Kazan’s otherwise underrated movie of The Last Tycoon (which, as a joke on the audience, is supposed to be bad but still drags down the picture).
Fortunately, this admittedly overlong outing with huge visual compensations rebounds almost at once, and the Malibu party material is pretty close to Edwards at his best, as cops, comely hitchhikers and movie-industry old-school types “mingle” amid sundry breakage of limbs (Loretta Swit’s is the funniest, though I also like the cast on Vaughn’s busted finger that results in a permanent bird-flipping stance). Also happily, Holden had a good role as swan songs go, and though Edwards was always a better director than creator of first-rate dialogue, the actor’s wry response to Rosanna Arquette nonchalant and even bored removal of her upper apparel is to me one of the great howlers of all time.