The year was 1982. Shoulder pads and leg warmers were in, mutton chops were out, and the computer was Time Magazine’s Man of the Year, even though most of us were still pounding things out on our electric typewriters.At forty-six, and a full ten years after his centerfold in Playgirl magazine, Burt Reynolds was still fit enough to take it all off – again, in the old-school romantic comedy, Best Friends.
Goldie Hawn, his thirty-seven year-old co-star, brought her own star-power to the project, thanks to a highly successful turn as the producer and star of 1980’s Private Benjamin.Though neither Hawn nor Reynolds was young by Hollywood standards, they had yet to turn to injectables and cosmetic surgeries—a good thing. And while Best Friends wouldn’t garner any awards, or pump up their careers in any discernible way, it was, and remains a highly watchable film.
At its best, it is simply terrific. There are at least three scenes within its 116 minute frame that are truly unforgettable. The first takes place in a wedding chapel. No more than four minutes long, it is a classic. The other two scenes, featuring the divinely talented Jessica Tandy, are equally as good if not more so, and not to be missed. For these three scenes alone, this film is worth watching.Burt and Goldie play Richard Babson and Paula McCullen, a couple of screenwriters who work and live together. They are a winsome twosome, much like Barry Levinson and Valerie Curtin―the film’s cowriters, on whom the film is loosely based.
Richard and Paula are the ideal Hollywood couple. Great looking. Crazy about each other. Sexual. Smart―a team in every way. As writing partners, they make a pretty good living turning out saleable but ultimately forgettable screen plays for a sleaze of a producer named Larry Weisman. Ron Silver slivers into the part, bringing this goofy, slimy, jerk of a bad boy to life. No one does sleaze like Silver.As we meet Paula and Richard, they are in the midst of writing yet another screen play for Weisman’s studio. It’s going slowly, but undeterred, the couple takes some time out to shower and deflower.
While it is never stated, we understand that this is a long-standing relationship, and while Paula is of the “if it ‘ain’t broke, don’t fix it” school of thought, and content to leave things as they are, Richard, who is nine years her senior, yearns for something more.Eventually, a still-wary Paula sets her marriage reservations aside, and makes a couple of others: booking two tickets on an Amtrak train headed east, where they will meet the parents for the first time.
But before they shuffle off to Buffalo, where Paula’s parents await, the couple makes a pit stop at a no-frills wedding chapel, where Richard Libertini in an inspired bit of casting, marries them in a quick but unforgettable exchanging of vows.Then it’s on to the station, and a cross-country train ride that rivals 1981’s Continental Divide. Not many people travel across country by train these days, but, like making love on the sand (think Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr) or sleeping under a star-lit sky (i.e. Jane Fonda and Robert Redford), there is something wildly romantic (if not realistically comfortable) about the idea of lovers bedding down in a small but cozy cabin for two. But as we soon see, it is as challenging as it is romantic.
There is, on one-hand, the heavenly combination of starry skies and wind-swept snow falling just outside their cabin's window as the train rocks along, while on the other hand, there are the two foot-by-five foot bunk beds that would test the ardor and dexterity of even the most enthusiastic of lovers.
Just watching Richard and Paula trying to fit into the same lower bunk, is hilariously sweet. Concessions to the limitations of the cabin, even more so. What can I say? It’s a great ride.
But all good things must come to an end, and before we know it, we’re in snowy, frigidly-cold Buffalo, New York, where Paula’s elderly parents (Jessica Tandy and Bernard Hughes) are ready and waiting at the station. Tandy is dandy as Paula’s eccentric mother: her comedic timing never better, especially in those two truly unforgettable scenes I mentioned earlier.
The first takes place in Paula’s teenage bedroom, where Richard finds himself all alone by the telephone – or more to the point, the frigidly-open window. Paula, it seems, will be sleeping in another bedroom, as in this household, she will always be a virginal sweet sixteen. Here, all beds are twin beds, and never the twins shall meet.
As Richard prepares for bed, Paula’s mom stops by to tuck him in for the night. Pulling the bed covers up just below her son-in-law’s nose, she tucks him tightly, throws open the sash, kisses him on the forehead, turns out the light and closes the door behind her. Beautifully written and executed, it is cold gold: a true bit of window silliness.
But as good as it is, another Tandy scene, is even better. Set in the master bathroom, it involves a mother-daughter heart-to-heart: a comedic tour de force tinged with the bitter-sweet realities of a long-standing marriage and joys and foibles of growing old together.Leg two of the trip finds the newlyweds in the senior Babson’s Virginia condo, where Richard’s sister (Veronica Cartwright) has come home to roost after her recent divorce. More caricatures than characters, Richard's side of the family―including his parents (Audra Lindley and Keenan Wynn) are both overdrawn and overacted.
To be fair, I should tell you that I am not a fan of broad comedy, and what I may think of as too broad, may not be broad enough for your taste. I also admit that some of the situations in this section of the film may strike a familiar chord, as most of us have found ourselves in situations where we needed some sort of help to get through the day.
The traumatized couple eventually makes their way back to L.A., where, despite the fact that they are barely talking to each other, they must finish a script that is, by this point, long overdue. Can they pull it off? Will the marriage survive? Was Paula right after all? Should they have remained best friends, or―to steal a more current title, Friends with Benefits? It’s a romantic comedy. What do you think?
Before you press the ‘Happily ever after button” remember that the film was loosely based on the real-life relationship of its writers, who, sad to say, divorced in 1981— roughly the same time as the movie was being filmed.
Whether Levinson and Curtin wrote the script before they separated, I do not know. But at least on the screen, their sense of humor and respect for each other remained intact to the apparently not-so-bitter end. As for Paula and Richard’s relationship, well, that’s another story. Let’s just say that outside of Roman Holiday, I am hard-pressed to think of one romantic comedy where the couple didn’t live happily ever after―together.The music, which is very much of the time, is similar to other film scores of the period. Masterfully penned by Marilyn and Alan Bergman and Michel Legrand, its theme song (“How Do You Keep the Music Playing?”), garnered an Academy Award Nomination, and was subsequently recorded by everyone from Frank Sinatra to Céline Dion.
For director Norman Jewison, who had put his thumb print on a couple of Doris Day flicks some years earlier, Best Friends was another jewel in his romantic comedy crown. But it wasn’t until 1987’s Moonstruck, that he really hit his stride in that genre.
Barry Levinson would also go on to write and/or direct a series of highly successful films, including The Natural, Avalon, Rain Man, Diner, Good Morning Viet Nam, And Justice for All, and the uncredited scripting of 1982’s Tootsie. That’s a lot of great movie making, and he’s still going strong.If any of the above films are on your “hit” list, I think you’ll enjoy this underrated, overlooked and generally forgotten film. Better yet, make it a double feature, tacking on Neil Simon’s Chapter Two. Like Best Friends, it too is based on the writer’s real-life marriage. Like Levinson and Curtin, Simon and his wife Marsha Mason ― who played a celluloid version of herself in the film, would also part, though they would remain together for another five years before calling it a wrap.
But hey, this is Hollywood, and while the song has ended for these real-life couples, the melody lingers on in the form of these two hopefully romantic movies. Despite it's flaws, Best Friends delivers some of the silver screens’ most memorable comedic moments. Like a newlywed's first roast, it is surprisingly tasty and ultimately satisfying, despite the fact that it may be slightly overdone.