Butterflies are Free (1972)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Blind man digs blonde.

Don (Edward Albert) lives alone in a studio apartment as a blind composer trying desperately to break into the music scene while his mother (Eileen Heckart) wants him to move back home with her, but he resists. In comes free-spirited new neighbor Jill (Goldie Hawn) who has a hard time remaining in long-term relationships. The two quickly hit-if-off, but when Don pushes for a commitment she begins to back away.

The film manages to retain the charm of the hit Broadway play that it is based on and this is mainly due to the fact that that Leonard Gershe, who wrote the play also did the screenplay and Milton Katelas, who directed the Broadway version also does the film, but the claustrophobic setting becomes a detriment. To some degree I liked the apartment’s layout, which was shot on-location in an actual apartment building that still stands today at 1355 Grant Avenue in San Francisco, but the gray decaying walls and overall grimy interiors become depressing to look at and having almost all the action take place in it makes the film visually boring.

Changing the story’s setting from New York to San Francisco though is a major plus. The bit done over the opening credits showing the hippie subculture of the area gives off a great vibe and helps to explain Jill’s very free-spirited ways that may not make much sense to viewers living in today’s world. Seeing a man staring at her from the neighboring apartment may scare most women today and have the guy considered a ‘creep’, but Jill instead sees it as a ‘turn-on’ and even playfully flashes him, which is something that back then, in a more trusting, experimental, and ‘anything goes’ culture might have been even predicted and this goes along with her hopping into bed with Don on the first day she’s met him without even a second thought.

The scenes showing the couple walking down the city sidewalks has an eclectic energy because regular people were used in the background instead of paid extras, which helps to create an  authentic feel. All shapes and sizes of the subculture folks that made up the city’s neighborhoods get captured including one guy seen walking around with what looks to be a headcast. More scenes should’ve been done outdoors as it’s the one thing that gives the film an added ambiance and the fact that there aren’t enough of them causes an unintended static quality.

Albert, who is the son of actor Eddie Albert, is pretty good, but I was surprised why the introducing label gets listed next to his name in the opening credits as if this were his first film when just 7 years earlier he appeared prominently in The Fool Killer with Anthony Perkins. Hawn is solid too in a part tailored made for her persona and she also looks great running around in her skimpy underwear, but Blythe Danner who played the role in the stage version, might’ve given the character a more earthy quality.

My favorite person though was Heckart who adds some much needed drama with her presence and the film drags when she’s not in it. She is portrayed as being a heavy, but instead I found her to be completely relateable with her worries about her handicapped son living alone and something I would think most any other parent would also have. The fact that she starts out as controlling only to eventually let go and allow her son to finally spread-his-wings at a most critical time is the film’s best moment and deservedly helped her net an Oscar.

Unfortunately there are some dumb parts to the story as well. The first is the fact that it all takes place over a two day period, which makes Don’s emotional devastation at finding out that Jill plans to move in with some other guy seem too severe since he didn’t even know she existed just 48 hours earlier. Jill’s willingness to get involved in the personal affairs of Don and his mother and at one point even lectures the mother on her parental failings seem almost over-the-top since she technically barely even knows the woman. All this would’ve made more sense had the  relationship been going on for several months before either the mother or rival boyfriend arrived.

The segment where Jill tells Don that she’s moving in with her newfound boyfriend, which she knows will hurt him, and then goes back to her apartment to pack while Don has it out with his mother is problematic too since it was made clear earlier that the walls between the two apartments were paper thin. Therefore you’d expect that Jill would’ve overheard the conversation between the two and yet the film makes it seem like she hadn’t.

Spoiler Alert!

Having Jill reject her boyfriend and comeback to Don was a bit hard-to-swallow as most people don’t change their lifelong behaviors so quickly especially for someone they’ve just met, but fortunately the film doesn’t overdo it by having her rush back into his arms, but instead just shows them sitting down on the floor and talking. To me this signified a long lasting friendship as opposed to a romance, which in these types of circumstances is better and ultimately helps to make the movie, despite some of the grievances described above, a winner.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: July 6, 1972

Runtime: 1 Hour 49 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Milton Katselas

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Available: DVD, Amazon Video, YouTube

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