Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Unsung Heroine of "Smile" (1975)

Michael Ritchie's beauty contest satire "Smile" (1975) was one of the most underrated and funniest films of the 1970s.  It told the story of one-week in the lives of various participants of a state-wide beauty pageant taking place in Santa Rosa, California.  Overlooked at the time of its release (it was probably eclipsed by the similarly-themed and structured "Nashville," which came out a few months before), its reputation among serious film aficionados has justifiably grown through the years.  It's one of my favorite films and I have read many reviews and articles written about the film.  Many of the treatises that discuss "Smile" usually mention Bruce Dern as the pageant's overly optimistic Chief Judge; Barbara Feldon as the former beauty queen-turned-pageant coordinator; Michael Kidd as the cynical, yet humane, veteran choreographer staging the pageant; Annette O'Toole as the shrewd, yet vulnerable, veteran beauty pageant contestant; Maria O'Brien as the manipulative Mexican-American contestant; and Colleen Camp and Melanie Griffith as two other nubile, yet vengeful participants.

Strangely overlooked in most serious discussions of the film is Joan Prather's beautifully realized and delicate performance as Young American Miss pageant contestant Robin Gibson from Antelope Valley, California.  Hers is the sort of performance you scratch your head at wondering why it did not catapult her to greater acclaim and stardom.  Jerry Belson's skillful script makes Robin the central protagonist in the overall film (sorry, Bruce Dern), the one character that we the audience can truly identify with in a gallery of eccentrics.  Robin is an admirable person from any objective viewpoint: raised by a single mother (her father died when she was little), she is a straight-A high school student who is a talented flutist and who got involved with the pageant, evidently, for the scholarship money.  She's naive as to the competitive nature of the pageant, but she soon wises up once she gets a whiff at potential victory.  The dilemma Robin faces in terms of how far she must submerge her genuineness in order to put up an idealized facade for the judges is truly compelling.  Robin's interview with the judges is one of my all-time favorite scenes in the history of cinema.  When asked if it was difficult for Robin to maintain her 4.0 grade point average during her Senior Year of High School while working a part-time job at JC Penny's, the unassuming girl simply responds "Of course!" which evokes a silent reaction of unease from the judges who had, based on the interviews with her competitors, come to expect a flowery and elaborate response to that question from her.  (You can see that scene here.)  Later in the interview, while being interrogated about her musical ability, Robin finds herself forced to provide the sort of stock answer ("I think my music is one of the best ways I can help others!") the judges expect from her in an effort to avoid alienating them.  In the end, however, Robin's healthy skepticism of the pageant helps to ensure that she won't lose her identity or her ethics in the course of trying to win.

What I liked about her character was her ability to take a step back occasionally and assess the madness of the situation without ever seeming condescending or superior about the other characters or of the pageant.  It's as if she has acknowledged to herself "Who am I to judge this when I'm a willing participant in it?"  Robin is that "smart" character who never gets on our nerves or loses our sympathy because, while she has compassion for everyone around her, she is still human enough to have to try and restrain from giggling when Maria O'Brien's contestant has her talent act ruined due to Colleen Camp and Melanie Griffith's sabotage.  Even though she is more self-aware, she is imperfect and flawed like the other characters in "Smile," and that's why we like her.

Some of the best moments in "Smile" are the scenes depicting the evolving friendship between Robin and her roommate, Annette O'Toole's Doria Houston.  They are great together and it's a shame that Prather and O'Toole have never worked together in anything else.  I have always found it touching how O'Toole's Doria starts off as seemingly self-possessed, until her insecurities start to show when she does not win any prizes on the first night.  Naive Robin ends up being the stronger person as the seemingly assured Doria eventually drops her facade and shows how vulnerable she really is.  An absolutely great sequence is one where director Ritchie stages the presentation of preliminary winners from the first night of the contest, with the Beach Boys's "California Girls" underscoring the scene.  Ritchie cuts back and forth between both girls as Doria becomes more and more anxious and desperate when she sees the other girls being chosen instead of her.  Robin is so concerned for the mental and emotional well-being of her new friend that she is too preoccupied to notice when her own name is announced as the winner of "Vim and Vigor" (whatever that's supposed to be) and wins a silver platter in the process.  As the curtains close, rather than savor her own victory, Robin runs to find the weeping Doria and puts her arms around her roommate/friend to give her a comforting hug.  Because they started out as wary yet friendly competitors, it's one of the most touching moments I've ever seen in a movie.  Later, at the end of the pageant, when Doria wins 4th runner-up and Robin ends up being the one left empty-handed, it is Doria who tries to comfort Robin by saying "I wanted you to win, too....Maybe I'm not an opportunist."  But ever sensible Robin responds, "Hey Doria don't worry about it!  I'm just glad it's over."  Prather and O'Toole have such great rapport that you hope that their characters will remain lifelong friends long after the pageant has faded into background. 

"Smile" represents the greatest role Joan Prather ever enjoyed in her career.  It should have led to other roles in major movies.  Nevertheless, she was very prolific in both films and television from the mid-1970s through the 1980s.  She appeared notably in "Big Bad Mama" (1974) as a snooty kidnap victim; as Tom Skerritt's terrorized wife in "The Devil's Rain" (1975); and as Dick Van Patten's smart attorney daughter-in-law on TV's "Eight is Enough" from 1979 to 1981 (a role she reprised in the two reunion TV movies in 1987 and 1989).  She later married and focused her attention on raising her family.  Prather gives an incredibly underrated, unaffected, and natural performance in "Smile," which is why her character is so touching and has such resonance and impact.  She is never mannered nor resorts to a bag of tricks that actors normally use to try and stand out.  She is so skillful at embodying that character in the movie that you don't think of her as "acting," even though I believe she has the most difficult role in the entire cast.  I think the other characters in "Smile" were arguably easier to play because they were so broad and unsubtle.  It's always easier to play characters who are more overt because it's all there on the page.  It's much harder to play a nice, "normal" person and still make them interesting and compelling to watch, and that's what Joan Prather achieves here.  She is the Unsung Heroine of "Smile."


  1. You forgot "Rabbit Test" with Billy Crystal. I believe it's the only film Joan Rivers directed.

  2. Actually, I didn't forget about "The Rabbit Test," I think I was trying to block that one from my mind. :-)

  3. Sorry to say this is another film I have missed. Thanks, Hill Place, for giving us so many films to look for as we search the 500 channels of cable TV, never finding anything. Now, when I see the films you recommend, I will have the chance to watch something worthwhile.

    Keep up the good work!

  4. This is the most thoughtful and honest review of Smile, 1975 that I've ever read. I think you're right in noticing that Robin was the central character in the film. I've seen the movie several times and I sometimes would like to have been able to go back and talk to Ritchie about his vision for the film to see if he would have done it differently if he could have a "do over". I know what his goals were, but that was the problem I think, he was trying to say too many things at once. The pageant culture had several things going on all at one time - the contestants, the men's groups that sponsored the pageant, the women's groups that shepherded the contestants, the pageant itself - and he tried to show all of them in one movie in an endearing, yet sardonic way. I think it was just too much to do all at once.

    The actors were all wonderful in their roles. The reason Joan Prather did so well in hers is because she was just like her character in real life. She was a nice young lady at the time. I have a feeling she didn't go much further in her acting career because she was just nice. She was sincere, kind, sweet, quiet. I can't be sure, but that may have been the reason at the time. It's difficult for directors and producers to look at a performance from an actress like that and understand how good she really is in the role. I'm glad you have pointed it out.

    I've been interested in the fact that this film has become somewhat of a small cult classic. I enjoyed it because Barbara Feldon and Bruce Dern were in it, as were some other people who later became successful, as you pointed out. I was living in Petaluma when the movie was filmed, and because I wanted to meet Bruce Dern (who was the first person to kill John Wayne in a movie) I took a bet from a friend and went to the auditions in Santa Rosa. Much to her and my surprise I was eventually hired as one of the YAMs and I got to spend the summer in the War Memorial Auditorium filming with all those wonderful people. It was an incredible experience; I learned a lot about the making of films, music recordings, bad dancing from an excellent teacher (the great Michael Kidd), SAG; and I made a few special friends. My family got to come to a couple of the nights of filming when we put on fake "real" pageants, and ticket sales were donated to the local arts council.

    Since the filming I've enjoyed following the careers of Annette O'Toole. Maria O'Brien, Melanie Griffith, Colleen Camp and Caroline Williams. It's been interesting to see how they've grown as women and actresses, and remember how young and different we all were back when we were Young American Misses.

    Deborah Coy Gregson
    Miss Cloverdale
    (Aba Daba Honeymoon)

    1. Deborah,
      Thanks for the very interesting personal remembrance. This is one of those excellent "small" movies that too many people have never heard of. I saw it when it first came out and have watched it again many times. Just a great story, great direction, and spot-on performances by the whole ensemble of actors, both famous and not so famous. I am glad it is at least celebrated by those of us who recognize this as a classic commentary on American life, meaningful but not heavy-handed, rather, hilarious in its humor on so many levels. I am sad every time I see the passing of the key creators, Michael Ritchie, Jerry Belson, Michael Kidd, etc.
      Rick Sinclair

  5. Have to agree with the Hill Place review. Absolutely superb, especially on Joan Prather. Saw Smile only once, that was the night it came out on national TV, but forty years later I can remember over a hundred lines from it, all the way to Bruce Dern's concluding "we held them at Chosin Reservoir" which deserves URRRAHHH from the ceremonial marines who ignored him, just as Robin deserved first place, but didn't get it.

  6. SMILE is a masterpiece alongside many others in the 1970s As deep and significant as anything by Altman and more celebrated directors. Thanks for writing as you did here about this film treasure.


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