Happy Birthday, Wanda June (1971)

 

happy birthday wanda june

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 5 out of 10

4-Word Review: Macho men are annoying.

Since today is my birthday I’ve decided to spend the next two days reviewing films with a birthday theme. Today’s review is based on a play by celebrated writer (and Indianapolis native) Kurt Vonnegut Jr., who also wrote the screenplay.  It examines what happens when an egotistical man and war hero from the past (Rod Steiger) returns home after abandoning his family eight years earlier.

Vonnegut’s script takes a lot of shots and makes some great comments about the empty bravado of the male image and the male’s changing role and expectations in modern society.  The protagonist, Harold Ryan, is deftly written as a relic from the past harboring all the age-old macho characteristics and clinging onto embellishments of the past while unable to evolve, or even communicate with those around him. Dr. Woodley (George Grizzard) represents the more educated and new-age man who is peaceful, sensitive, and cultured. The story revolves around the two battling for the same woman (Susannah York) and culminates with an interesting and off-beat symbolic type of showdown.

Director Mark Robson does an adequate job of implementing a cinematic quality to what is otherwise a filmed stage play. The cutaways involving dead characters that are now in heaven and speak directly to the camera help, but there needed to be more of them and more evenly placed. I would have also liked a few scenes shot outside and in the daytime as the perpetual indoor scenery becomes stagnating and claustrophobic.

Steiger, normally a very good and diverting actor, seems miscast here. He is never convincing as a tough guy and it affects the story’s impact. York, another fine actress if given the right role, doesn’t seem right for her part either although she does look surprisingly sexy in a skimpy waitress outfit during a flashback scene.

I did like the child performers and felt that they did better than their adult counterparts. Steven Paul is excellent as Paul Ryan who initially idolizes his father until exposed to his many flaws. Pamelyn Ferdin is cute as Wanda June, the girl who gets hit by an ice cream truck and spends the entire time jaunting through heaven. Ferdin later became a famous animal activist and was runner-up for the Regan MacNeil role in The Exorcist. Linda Blair was of course great, but Ferdin’s uniquely piercing gaze always made me wonder if she might have ended up playing the part better.

William Hickey is engaging and amusing as Harold’s best friend. Don Murray almost steals it from everyone as Herb Shuttle a very vapid man whose pathetic attempts at trying to be macho are hilarious and make up most of the film’s humor.

The one thing that eventually ruined it for me was the main character who is too obnoxious. At least Archie Bunker in ‘All in the Family’ had a vulnerable side, but the guy here is ignorant without being funny and having to watch the callous way he treats everyone is straining and unpleasant. Also,the musical score is dreary and almost non-existent.

My Rating: 5 out of 10

Released: December 9, 1971

Runtime: 1Hour 45Minutes

Rated R (Adult Theme, Language)

Director: Mark Robson

Studio: Columbia

Availability: None 

One response to “Happy Birthday, Wanda June (1971)

  1. Pingback: Slapstick (Of Another Kind) (1982) | Scopophilia

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