Melvin and Howard (1980)
Starring Paul Le Mat, Mary Steenburgen, Jason Robards, Pamela Reed, Michael J. Pollard, Jack Kehow, Dabney Coleman, Charles Napier
Directed by Jonathan Demme
Produced by Art Linson, Don Phillips
Written by Bo Goldman
Music by Bruce Langhorne
Cinematography by Tak Fujimoto
Edited by Craig McKey
Distributed by Universal Pictures
(1:35) Twilight Time Blu-ray
Melvin and Howard may just be “The Great American Movie,” but you’d probably have a hard time convincing most people to believe it. Its revelations are small, with no fanfare, brash music, or flashing lights (except for the scenes set in Las Vegas and Reno, which include all of the above). The limited presence of those elements is mostly non-revelatory, pointing your attention to things that really aren’t important at all. Director Jonathan Demme saves the real revelations for quieter moments, reflections that might creep into your mind while you’re, say, driving through the desert at night. Somewhere during the process of making Melvin and Howard, Demme decided not to make a conventional wacky comedy (which, unfortunately, many of its posters and DVD covers seem to promise) or a “based on a true story” biopic about an out-of-luck Everyman finding himself at the right place at the right time. Instead, he presents us with a portrait of America that sneaks up on us, revealing its small revelations in the quiet of a warm evening as the sun slips away beyond the horizon.
In the opening scene, an old man with long gray hair rips through the Nevada desert on a motorcycle, wiping out in no time. Later that evening, a gas station owner named Melvin Dummar (Paul Le Mat) pulls his truck over on a lonely stretch of highway to take care of business, and discovers the old timer’s body. He’s still alive, but mostly unresponsive.
Dummar convinces the man (Jason Robards) to get in the truck; he’ll take him wherever he wants to go. Although filled with distrust, the old man reluctantly puts up with Dummar’s attempts at conversation and grudgingly joins him in singing a truly awful song written by Dummar, a wanna-be songwriter. Maybe it’s the realization that a ride in a rickety old truck listening to the world’s worst songwriter is still better than walking, or maybe it’s Dummar’s clumsy charm, but the old man finally relaxes. It’s in this moment that these two men share a ride, the desert, and one of those brief, beautiful unexplained snapshots of life, the kind that transcends ordinary days of drudgery that tend to pile up on an endless treadmill. And then the old man reveals to Dummar that he’s Howard Hughes.
Audiences watching this movie in 1980 knew this was the premise, and we know it too, but the film’s original viewers were probably more aware of the 1976 story behind it: Howard Hughes, in his will, left $156 million to Melvin Dummar (pictured above).
At least that’s what Dummar claimed. In the case of the movie, the facts really aren’t important and the will doesn’t even come into play until the film’s last act. What makes Melvin and Howard a contender (if not the outright champion) for “The Great American Movie” stems from Demme’s examination of Dummar and the American Dream.
Melvin Dummar isn’t a bad guy. He loves his wife Lynda (Mary Steenburgen), his daughter Darcy (Elizabeth Cheshire), and works hard, but he’s a loser. When men from the finance company come to repossess Melvin’s motorcycle, Lynda hightails it out of their trailer with Darcy in tow, headed for Reno to start over. The scene feels familiar and lived-in, as if Lynda has performed these actions before. Lynda truly loves Melvin, but she can’t tolerate a loser and divorces him. But before long, she marries him again.
Such is the stuff of bad, or at least routine romantic comedies that are both conventional and predictable, but Demme eschews conventionality and predictability, focusing instead on character. Melvin lives his life on opposite ends of the spectrum. When he gets a little money, he spends it rapidly and foolishly, his purchases usually getting repossessed in short order. He makes love to Lynda, she leaves him, he gets her back, she leaves again. There’s no comfortable middle in Melvin’s life, just extremes. If we know Melvin’s going to inherit this massive fortune from Hughes, we also know he’s going to blow it, right?
Melvin’s talent is clearly not songwriting, but he has the uncanny ability to correctly guess the best options available to contestants on a TV game show (a Let’s Make a Deal knockoff). Yet when Lynda finally lands a spot on the show and is faced with the “Door #1 or Door #2” challenge, she ignores Melvin’s advice, instead taking that of the Native American stranger sitting next to Melvin. Is this small dismissal of Melvin a larger indicator of something deeper? Yes. Does Lynda make the right choice? I won’t tell you. In a different movie with a different director, this scene may signal a major turning point upon which rests the remainder of the film, and in a way, this is exactly what Demme has in mind, just not in the way we’re expecting.
When we arrive at the point where Melvin might (or might not) stand to inherit $156 million, we - and Melvin - realize something about winning and losing, and perhaps something about ourselves and our country. It has little to do with the fanfare, brash music, or flashing lights of the world around us and has everything to do with the quiet, serene moments of Melvin and Howard’s midnight drive. Here we have two vastly different men who, for a brief time, treat each other as equals and find a connection somewhere between the sage and the distant sounds along a desert highway. You might say the entire film is summed up in the connection implied in Melvin’s simple statement coming late in the film: “Howard Hughes sang Melvin Dummar’s song.”
Melvin and Howard forces us not only to reexamine our concepts of winners and losers, it also asks us to take a close, honest look at ourselves. What do we really want out of life, and what happens if we get it or if we don’t? The film suggests that Melvin and Howard have more in common than a brief ride through the desert, and by implication, that we all have something in common with the people we come into contact with every day. We’re all looking for something and maybe we’re all looking for the same thing.
In the film’s final scene, Demme presents the audience with a moment that was withheld from Melvin and Howard’s desert ride early in the story. Flashbacks are often used as cheap devices in the movies, but they can also provide tremendous impact, which is what happens here. If Hughes’s singing of “Bye Bye Blackbird” doesn’t move you, I suspect you’re not human.
Melvin and Howard is available on Blu-ray from Twilight Time.
Photos (not taken from the Blu-ray): Twilight Time, Movie Addicted, UPI, DVD Beaver, Trailers from Hell