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S.O.B.

S.O.B.(1981)

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Filmmakers love making movies about people making movies. There's a bizarre inverted voyeurism at work and almost always a critical element that seems to recognize the ego driven ethical horrors at Hollywood's center while keeping the filmmaker's nose clean because, after all, he's the one pointing it out. Blake Edwards' 1981 comedy S.O.B. takes on Hollywood by focusing on a single disastrous bomb by filmmaker Felix Farmer (Richard Mulligan) and the studio efforts to turn its box offices woes around and make it a success.

The movies have been making movies about movies for years. Some of its greatest efforts, such as Sullivan's Travels or 8 , have taken an autobiographical angle, relating the filmmaker's frustration with his art. Others have gone for blistering looks at the underbelly of the business, from Sunset Boulevard to Day of the Locust. Edwards' S.O.B. achieves a kind of middle ground. It's clear that most of the story centering on actress Sally Miles (Julie Andrews) is, indeed, based directly on Julie Andrews. Her husband happened to be the maker of this movie, Blake Edwards, and perhaps in Felix Farmer there is a projection of frustrations that Edwards himself felt casting his wife in his own movies. Andrews' reputation, despite movies like The Americanization of Emily and Star, was one of a celibate good girl, based squarely on movies like the blockbuster The Sound of Music. Edwards used her in his adult comedies, like 10, but even there he heard grumbles that he didn't have the guts to put his wife's sexuality on display. A bogus claim, especially since 10 deals directly with her sexual relationship with her partner, played by Dudley Moore, but it's the kind of shallow, surface level criticism that sounds legitimate if you don't explore it too deeply. In S.O.B., Edwards decided to explore it.

In the movie, Felix Farmer has just seen his latest family epic, Night Wind, bomb so badly with critics and audiences alike that its failure is in every headline in every trade paper that crosses his path. He's catatonic, depressed, and suicidal. Sally decides to leave him. After attempting, and failing, suicide several times, Felix is reinvigorated during an orgy at his house, thrown by an actor living nearby to cheer Felix up, to re-edit Night Wind and turn it into a full-bore sex epic that would mean, among other things, having Sally Miles bare her breasts for the camera. The scene where Julie Andrews prepares to do so, as Sally Miles of course, may or may not have been based in reality but the brilliance of trying to convince her to do it by coming up with the names of respectable actresses leads to one of the best moments in the movie. Desperately grabbing for names, her publicity agent Robert Webber blurts out, "Liv Ullmann!" Richard Mulligan asks, "Are you sure?" "I think so," responds Webber to which Mulligan turns to Andrews and says with grave sincerity, "Liv ULLMAN!" If it's good enough for a Bergman movie, it's good enough for Night Wind.

The real achievement of S.O.B. is in assembling the greatest cast Blake Edwards ever worked with. There's not a weak link anywhere in the chain. Richard Mulligan, known primarily to audiences at the time as the star of tv's Soap, does an incredible job of playing Felix Farmer through a broad range of mental states, from catatonic to manic, from depressed to angry, from resigned to excited. It's done in broad strokes that are so tonally perfect that when things turn against Felix, the audience feels it as acutely as if they were watching Norman Maine on his last day.

Julie Andrews does superb work as well, in fact, it's some of her best work. She has to play herself without ever winking at the camera. This is no meta performance where every line is dripping in self-awareness. No, it's a performance by an actress in a similar career situation portraying a completely different actress coming up with a wholly different solution. In other words, she had to use herself as inspiration but play the role as uniquely as any other role in her career. It's a beautiful performance.

It probably goes without saying that William Holden does a great job as the crusty and cynical Cully, a director friend of Felix's, but let's say it anyway. It's possible that no one ever played crusty and cynical better than William Holden and he only got better at it as he aged. Starting with The Wild Bunch he took on the persona of the over the hill cynic bitterly looking back on finer days and from there to Network , Fedora, and then S.O.B., Holden played the part to perfection. At one point Felix is trying to convince Cully that sex is where it's at in the cinema. Cully's response is not only perfect but maybe the best line of William Holden's career: "It's been my experience that every time I think I know where it's at, it's usually somewhere else."

The rest of the cast is a roll call of some of the most talented people in Hollywood at the time: Robert Vaughn, Shelley Winters, Robert Preston, Robert Webber, Loretta Swit, Stuart Margolin, Robert Loggia, and Larry Hagman, all in prime form. And they all work together perfectly. A big part of that reason is the sharply observed details of sycophantic, phony Hollywood that Edwards' puts in every scene. So much so that many moments are simply throwaways that still perfectly hit the mark. When big time producer Robert Vaughn says to his staff of toadies, of his own editing skills, "That's one thing I can say, I'm a damn good cutter," you hear his staff in the background mutter, "Oh yeah," "You know it," "The best!" Perfect.

The comedy is broad in S.O.B. and the satire is blunt, but it works from start to finish. It wasn't as big a hit for Edwards as some of his other works (for whatever reason, movies about movies are never as interesting to audiences as they are to the people making the movies) but critics loved it. It showed a real talent for satire that Edwards never really returned to. It's a shame because it's exactly the kind of approach where blunt force works. Blake Edwards 1981 scorching Hollywood satire, S.O.B., makes its points with a sledgehammer, yes, but it's a sledgehammer that never once misses its target.

ByGreg Ferrara

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