You’re a Big Boy Now (DVD Review)29 Nov, 2010 By: Mike Clark
Available via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
Stars Peter Kastner, Geraldine Page, Rip Torn, Elizabeth Hartman.
Just by themselves, a Lovin’ Spoonful soundtrack and eccentric casting would be enough to make this artifact of an era one juicy curio. But there’s more. A thematically unintended warm-up for Mike Nichols’ then imminent, California-based The Graduate, Warner Archive’s most provocative current release (well, maybe after all that teacher/student high-school sex in Pretty Maids All in a Row) was Francis Ford Coppola’s first major studio outing. Though in this case, it’s a New York narrative all the way.
Haphazardly released at the time despite the gallons of ink that were given to Coppola’s instant jump from film school right into the majors, it subordinated Coppola’s earlier scrub-league work for Roger Corman on Dementia 13 (from which clips are excerpted here in a disco-ish party scene) — and, before that, some “nudie” employment that included directing 1962’s unambiguously titled The Bellboy and the Playgirls (starring 40-22-35 June Wilkinson, who was pretty unambiguous herself). This was not exactly like Nichols making his own screen debut with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.
Like The Graduate’s Benjamin Braddock, Big Boy‘s significantly younger Bernard Chanticleer (indifferently played by Canadian actor Peter Kastner) knows that perhaps the first step in “finding himself” is to escape his smothering parents. The more serious offender is mom, played by Oscar-nominated Geraldine Page as an inveterate whiner who’ll never find a Bernard girl friend she can stand. Slightly less impossible is dad, played by a mustached Rip Torn (then married to Page in real life). He’s a big deal at the main branch of the New York Public Library, where employee Bernard roller skates in the stacks for legitimate work reasons (kind of like Angelina Jolie’s phone company supervisor in Clint Eastwood’s Changeling or the car-hops at Mel’s Drive-In from American Graffiti).
So it’s off to a Greenwich Village apartment from Great Neck — and another smothering influence played by Julie Harris (somewhat out of her oeuvre). She’s the landlady in a walk-up that also houses a rooster and a burly cop played by Dolph Sweet, an actor who soon got cast as a Southern variation on this character in Coppola’s still underrated follow-up to Big Boy: his zesty screen version of Finian’s Rainbow. Bernard would probably be better off with the “nice girl” who’s smitten (Karen Black in her screen debut), but instead, he gets obsessed on a pair of legs and a go-go dress. Well, who didn’t in those days?
The last belong to a scheming off-Broadway actress played by Elizabeth Hartman, who is the movie’s revelation. A troubled actress who (it is thought) took an intentionally fatal five-story leap out of a Pittsburgh building in 1987, Hartman’s too-few films usually cast her as someone mousey or oppressed: think The Group, The Beguiled or her unforgettable Oscar-nominated turn opposite Sidney Poitier in A Patch of Blue. But here, she is all sex bomb, playing head games with Bernard and even the supposedly cooler Bernard buddy played by Tony Bill, who kind of comes off here as the Ashton Kutcher of his day.
Whenever Hartman is on screen, the comedy ratchets up several levels, though you can feel the movie breathing like someone running the 440 to generate mirth. In addition to the rooster, Harris’s landlady is named “Miss Thing,” while the Hartman character has had an unfortunate past involving a fake leg and an albino psychotherapist. Hartman does, however, brandish a name that is exactly right: Barbara Darling.
Big Boy’s other great distinction is its location shooting, which includes department store scenes that look a lot like the ones in the just-out DVD of the Stephen Sondheim teleplay Evening Primrose (they were shot not that far apart in time). There are also wonderfully evocative images of movie marquees from the then scuzzy 42nd Street area, soon to be immortalized in Midnight Cowboy. But I keep wondering, judging from one shot: what kind of person was going into one of those theaters to see Father Goose?
If Big Boy played in your city at all, it was probably long past Page’s Oscar nomination. The movie fell through the distribution cracks and, in my hometown, got what I recall as a five-day opening maybe a year after its L.A. release (though oddly, my 25-mile drive to see it was rewarded by its exhibition in one of the most posh local movie houses — where, for instance, The Sand Pebbles had had its exclusive engagement). By that time, Coppola was off to other things and trying “to find himself” as well — which he would soon enough. But until the recent Tetro, I don’t think I’ve seen the director as loose as he is here or in 1969’s The Rain People (also available from Warner Archive, bless ‘em, as well).