Thursday, February 12, 2009

What a Way to Go! (1964)

Apparently this was one of those movies set up to be a big deal with a notable cast and grandiose budget, but nobody really liked. I'm not sure why. Shirley MacLaine stars as the recently widowed Louisa May Foster, who tries to give a multimillion dollar check to the IRS. She is sent to a psychiatrist, Dr Victor Stephanson (Robert Cummings), to whom she unveils her tale of numerous and woeful marriages. She was raised humbly in a small town run by the wealthy Leonard Crawley (Dean Martin), who was dead set on marrying her. Louisa denies his advances and instead marries Edgar Hopper (Dick Van Dyke), a laid back storeowner who'd rather fish all day than run his store. She lives happily with him for awhile until Crawley intimidates Hopper into becoming a huge success. He buys out all of Crawley's stores and becomes rich but also a workaholic, eventually working himself to death. Heartbroken, Louisa moves to Paris, where she meets Larry Flint (Paul Newman), a starving expatriate artist. They marry and live blissfully simply until Louisa inadvertently invents a special machine that creates paintings through music. Flint becomes an overnight success, makes tons of money, and tirelessly works with these machines until they backfire and kill him.

Intending to head back to America, Louisa meets the affluent playboy Rod Anderson, Jr (Robert Mitchum) and accepts a plane ride home. They fall in love and marry, with Louisa hoping that since he was already rich before she met him, her apparent curse won't have an effect. She suggests they return to the humble farm life he knew before he made his money, but he's soon killed by a farming accident. By now Louisa is pretty averse to love and especially marriage, but ends up falling for comedian/dancer Pinky Benson (Gene Kelly), who maintains a desire to never become famous and whose hokey act ensures he never will. Of course one night she persuades him to put on his show without his over-the-top clown costume and props, and it turns out he is very talented as a straight dancer/singer and becomes a huge, self-obsessed film star. He is crushed by his fans and leaves Louisa the huge check we saw in the beginning. Will the jaded and cursed Louisa ever find love without becoming rich and killing it?

This was a surprisingly clever black comedy (well not that surprising when I saw the screenplay was by Betty Comden and Adolph Green). It sets up a formula and reuses it four times, but I really like the formula: for each marriage there's a film genre parody to illustrate how Louisa saw her married life. With Hopper it was a slapstick silent film, with Flint, artsy French erotica, with Anderson a big-budget fashion-focused Hollywood romance, and with Benson a fluffy Astaire-like musical. I loved seeing these self-effacing homages to classic film styles, and they also made the character of Louisa incredibly endearing for her vivid imagination. Though I'm prone to adore Shirley MacLaine in any role, she truly led the show here, soaring high above her well-known male costars as she rocked hundreds of crazy outfits and narrated Louisa's tale with unassuming humor. Of course her male counterparts were incredible as well; I especially enjoyed seeing Dick Van Dyke being his likable self and Gene Kelly dancing around with exceptional flair even at 52.

What a Way to Go! was nominated for its art direction and Edith Head costumes and wow, that is so apparent. The visuals are really impressive, often involving heavy colour saturation amidst grandiose and unreal sets. It is pretty cool. MacLaine's warddrobe is often laughably complex or over-styled, feeding into the lampooning of big-budget romances. That being said, I think the film sometimes ventured into being too over the top, but considering its silly story and visual surrealness I guess it's not really a fault. It's just a really entertaining film, especially for fans of classic comedies.



  1. Great blog!
    I'm a spanish student of Audiovisual Communication and I love cinema and Billy Wilder. I saw The apartment for class and found it great. Yesterday I saw an Irish film, maybe you like it: Once.
    If you know spanish I wrote about it in my blog unaimagenunahistoria (one image, one story)
    See you

  2. Thanks! I enjoyed Once a lot- it had great music. I'm sorry but I don't read Spanish so I can't enjoy your blog. But thank you so much for reading mine!