Sweet Charity

Film Review by Dean Duncan Mar 28, 2015

Really square! 1969’s Sweet Charity is so outside of, so clueless about the contemporary counter-culture as to be positively mind boggling. Mind boggling, and really fascinating. Get a load of those hippies at the very end. Get a load of that Sammy Davis, Jr. number. (He’s so good in this misbegotten thing that he strikes you as a tragically underused resource. Couldn’t anyone have figured out what to do with this guy?) Who’s responsible for this? Writer Neil Simon? Director Bob Fosse? The studio? Adults entire? Whoever’s guilty, this film won’t tell you much about the youth movement in the late 60s. It will tell you a ton about what show biz pros, and maybe its intended and even actual audience, thought about youth culture. In fact in some ways Sweet Charity sort of plays like a contemporary, warts-and-all parallel to The Sound of Music. The difference is that here, instead of willfully ignoring the present, Sweet Charity renders the present preposterously. Either way, inadequate! Instead of sweetly problematical proto-nuns and mountains that you climb every of, we’ve got the musical theatre community, which incidentally, palpably, also grapples with its own jadedness and turpitude.

This is a really long movie. It’s also really gimmicky. Some of those gimmicks are actually pretty good. Hollywood was in the throes of enormous commercial instabilities at the time, and these co-existed in an often productive way with a real, broadbased adventurousness in formal and technical areas. The results might drive you nuts, but they’ll still draw your eye, and start you thinking.

This is a really sadistic movie. It manipulates its protagonist to a positively Lars von Trier-degree. Inevitably, the same humiliations are visited upon the woman essaying that part, which is to say Ms. MacLaine. How embarrassing! How brave and occasionally, often affecting! Amazing, even: dig, if you will, the endless numbers in that swinging party sequence. Still, Sweet Charity really is a record of a genre in decline. It’s not a classical musical. It’s not a revisionist statement. It’s not a parody. It’s a muddle, going in several directions at once, though it’s probably safe to say that every direction leads downwards. In fact, indirectly, this is the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. (Here comes All that Jazz, or Salo, not to mention the manner and fact of this film’s director/perpetrator’s eventual death.)

Speaking of which, this adaptation (from the stage) of Federico Fellini’s original near-classic film Nights of Cabiria (q/v.) actually puts me in mind of Luchino Visconti’s more or less contemporary film about the fatal extremes of German fascism, The Damned. It’s Italian title was The Twilight of the Gods, or, as Wagner had it, Götterdämmerung. Fosse’s film is much less direct a portrayal the end of all things, as manifest in a conspicuous 20th instance of gross and then terminal moral erosion. A much less, not even conscious portrayal, probably. But that’s what we’ve got here, basically.

Significantly, faults aside, maybe by accident, Sweet Charity still tells that story quite effectively. The “Hey Big Spender” number, for instance, is absolutely electrifying. It’s world-beatingly good, prefiguring the acclaimed but, for me at least, decidedly mixed triumphs of Fosse’s subsequent Cabaret. More concise, more death-masked, more poignant. Wow! The “I Love to Cry at Weddings” number is also really good, a reminder of how beautifully staged and blocked and shot this film so often is. A film with such problems! Or, hats off to it, and especially to Fosse, photographer Bruce Surtees, the designers!

The Oscar/John McMartin character is quite interesting, and he raises an important, straightforward issue in the midst of all this confusion. He loves Charity, and then he decides to leave her. His actions might not be simply dismissable. Fosse, and Federico Fellini before him, actually raises one of the deepest of questions. It goes beyond this film’s tin ear concerning the counter-culture. Can you forgive/be forgiven? Can we transcend our errors and limitations, or let others do so? Ultimately Oscar says no. The film itself, unconvincingly, says yes. Its conclusion isn’t quite, isn’t even close to what Giulieta Masina gave us at the end of Fellini’s original. And even that prodigious resolution strained credibility. MacLaine still manages to carry it, a bit. A mess, but with something to salvage from the rubble. Pretty 1969, sounds like.