Melvin and Howard (1980)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Melvin meets Howard Hughes.

The film is based on the true story of Melvin Dummar (Paul Le Mat), who on one night in December, 1967 came upon what he thought was a homeless man (Jason Robards) on the side of the road of a lonely desert highway after he parked his pick-up in order to take a pee. He gives the man, who is banged-up from a motorcycle stunt gone wrong, but who refuses medical attention, a lift and they have a long conversation as he takes the man to the Desert Springs Hotel in Las Vegas. During the trip he admits to being Howard Hughes, who at the time was one of the richest men in the world. Melvin does not believe him initially and goes about his life working odd jobs including that of being a milk man. He lives with his wife Lynda (Mary Steenburgen) and daughter Darcy (Elizabeth Cheshire) in a rundown mobile home, but Lynda leaves him and becomes a stripper. Melvin marries another woman named Bonnie (Pamela Reed), but his financial troubles continue until he receives an envelope stating that he’s been given $156 million from Hughes in his final will and testament. Melvin thinks his struggles are finally over, but they’re just beginning as he must go to court and defend himself from those who feel that the document was a forgery.

The star of this film is Jonathan Demme’s superb direction. He first directed while working under Roger Corman and doing a couple of cheap exploitation/drive-in flicks before branching out on his own with the quirky Citizens Band that had plenty of potential, but didn’t quite gel. This one clicks from beginning to end and helped greatly by the Academy Award winning script by Bo Goldman. I really enjoyed the dry, offbeat humor with the funniest moment being inside the little white chapel when Melvin decides to marry Lynda a second time after she gets pregnant. The scene where Lynda almost gives an elderly man (played by Herbie Faye in his final film appearance), who was acting as a witness to the proceedings, a heart attack when she kisses him after the wedding is over, s hilarious as is Melvin and Lynda working as witnesses to other weddings that go on there and being kissed, sometimes quite sensuously, by the other brides and grooms. The film also shows a good understanding of working class people, showing their struggles in life without ever demeaning them. The on-location shooting in both Utah and Nevada where many of the real-life events happened gives it a nice, gritty feel and look.

While I’ve complained about Paul Le Mat’s acting in some of my other reviews his performance here is perfect in a role he was born to play. He looks very much like the real Melvin Dummar, who can be seen briefly standing behind the counter at a bus terminal, and even more ironically is that now, in the year 2022 with his gray beard and hair that he sports as seen in pics from his twitter account, exactly like Howard Hughes in this film. Steenburgen, who netted the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, is a lot of fun particularly when she strips off her clothes and walks around fully nude in a public bar in a scene that had to be shot 9 different times as she was so nervous doing it. Dabney Coleman, in a small bit near the end, is quite good as the cynical judge, but I was disappointed that Gloria Grahame is given only one word of dialogue. Supposedly she had more lines, but her scenes got cut, but why bother to bring in a famous Academy Award winning actress if you’re not really going to use her?

My complaint comes mainly with the TV game show that Melvin and Lynda enter that works as a talent contest and called ‘Easy Street’. It was meant to be a hybrid of the ‘Gong Show’ and ‘Let’s Make a Deal’ where a contestant does some sort of act showcasing their talents and if the audience is pleased with it the contestant wins a prize by choosing what’s behind one of three doors. The problem here is that it’s made too look too easy as Lynda’s tap dancing should’ve gotten her booed off of the stage instead of cheered. Having them get lucky and win a big prize, $10,000, negates the hardship theme. It doesn’t propel the plot either as Melvin quickly misspends the money and they end up in the exact same situation there were in before with Lynda walking out on him, for a second time, which comes-off as redundant. The satirical elements of the game show isn’t played-up enough and the segment is more surreal than amusing.

I also felt the opening sequence where Melvin picks-up Howard should’ve been saved until the end. In the real-life event there was speculation that Melvin was a part of the ruse as his second wife Bonnie had worked for a magazine called ‘Millionaire’ that had access to Hughes memos and signature and some had felt that she had used this inside knowledge to forge the will, which was rife with spelling errors and other discrepancies. The film though doesn’t bring any of this up and acts like Melvin is totally innocent where as adding in some nuance where the viewer isn’t completely sure if Melvin is complicit could’ve added some interesting intrigue and then having the scene where he picks-up Howard, showing that he was telling the truth after all, be the surprise reveal instead of giving it all away right at the start. The title is also misleading. Makes it seem like it’s going to be some sort of buddy movie when really Howard is in it only at the start and then pretty much disappears.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: September 19, 1980

Runtime: 1 Hour 35 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Jonathan Demme

Studio: Universal

Available: DVD, Blu-ray

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