Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The Ritz (Courtyard Films/Warner Bros., 1976)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was The Ritz, a 1976 farce comedy set in a Gay bathhouse and reflecting the relative innocence of the Gay subculture in the 12 years between the start of the Queer liberation movement in 1969 and the advent of AIDS in 1981. (There’s a sort of sinister drumroll of fate in the wisecrack, when the protagonist worries about catching athlete’s foot from walking around the place barefooted and he’s told, “You’re lucky if that’s all you catch here.”) The Ritz began life as a Broadway play by Terrence McNally, back when he was still trying to get out of the shadow of his formidable partner and prove to the theatrical world that he was a major writer in his own right and not just Mrs. Edward Albee. The first scene of McNally’s script — he got to adapt his own play for the film and most of the principal actors carried over from the stage production — is the obligatory “opening  up,” set in a palatial (as palatial as the revenues from a Mob-controlled garbage business in Cleveland could make it, anyway) mansion in which a dying gangster named Vespucci tells his son Carmine (Jerry Stiller, who had a brilliantly funny stand-up act with his wife Anne Meara and the two later produced Ben Stiller, who had a brilliant success as a screen comedian even though he wasn’t anywhere nearly as funny as his parents), “Get Proclo.” At first he — and we — merely means the old man is summoning Gaetano Proclo (Jack Weston), the younger Vespucci’s brother-in-law, but it soon becomes apparent that what it really means is the older Vespucci is ordering his son to kill Proclo. (Needless to say, this scene is shot in the dank brown lighting of The Godfather, a virtually inevitable reference for a 1976 movie spoofing the Mafia.) When this dawns on the rather thick Proclo, he flees to New York City and tells his cab driver, “Take me to the last place in New York the Mob would think of looking for me.”

Accordingly the driver takes him to the Ritz, a free-swinging Gay bathhouse patterned on the real-life Continental Baths, which offered not only the usual attractions of a Gay bathhouse — including quite a lot of hot (and not-so-hot) men walking around wearing nothing but bath towels and available for quick on-the-spot sex — but entertainment as well. The real Continental Baths helped launch the career of Bette Midler — she was spotted there by a talent scout and signed to Atlantic Records (and the musical director for her first album was the young, and then equally unknown, Barry Manilow) — and I’ve long been amused by the Johnny Carson Tonight show where he clearly edges around the actual nature of the place where she was discovered while introducing her (“She was found in a Turkish bath … a men’s Turkish bath”). Alas, the fictitious Ritz has only been able to attract a singularly lower level of talent: aspiring star Googie Gomez (Rita Moreno, who clearly had to “dumb down” her performance to play someone considerably less talented than she is for real), who performs a version of “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” from the musical Gypsy, screeching the high notes and singing in a thick Latina accent that makes the lyrics virtually unintelligible. (At that she’s not that much worse than the song’s originator, Ethel Merman.) Proclo finds himself in this world of prissy queens, drag performers, wanna-be cowboys and the rest of the Gay world as it existed (and as Hollywood was willing to depict it) in 1976 — and it’s to the credit of director Richard Lester and his casting director, Mary Selway, that they didn’t pick a whole bunch of drop-dead gorgeous men but instead filled the Ritz with the same mix of physical “types” one would have found in a real Gay bathhouse. Among them is “chubby chaser” Claude Perkins (Paul B. Price), who sees Proclo and immediately falls in lust with him; Chris (F. Murray Abraham seven years before Amadeus), the sort of decently attractive but not wildly hot Gay man who tends to get ignored in places like this and responds by trying way too hard; and Michael Brick (Treat Williams, easily the hottest guy in the cast physically but speaking in a high-pitched voice — was it a “trick” voice he worked out for the role, or was he dubbed?), who isn’t Gay at all but is a private detective who’s been hired by Vespucci to trace Proclo and has discovered him at the Ritz, where he’s infiltrated and has used the house phone to bring Vespucci there. Vespucci duly arrives — where he’s handcuffed to one of the Ritz’s beds by the insatiable Claude (who turns out to be an old Army buddy of Proclo’s — don’t ask) — and so does his sister, Mrs. Proclo (Kaye Ballard, who’s billed third even though she has all too little screen time), who gets let into the Ritz because her clothes are so baggy and her general demeanor so butch the doorman mistakes her for a man.

The Ritz is pretty much a French-style sex farce, differing from a million other similar plays only in that it features Gay people, and it gets pretty loud and formless towards the end, but it’s still quite a funny movie and a nice reminder of how good a comic actor Jack Weston was in his prime — as the clueless straight guy who’s literally fearful for his life as well as his sexuality, he’s marvelous and the glue that holds this whole piece together. A more sensitive author than the Terrence McNally of 1976 (including the McNally of his later, more “serious” plays) might have made Googie Gomez, with her aspirations and pretensions, a figure of genuine pathos like Marilyn Monroe’s character in Bus Stop, but she’s fine the way she is and Rita Moreno’s performance is a marvelous send-up of every clichéd “Mexican Spitfire” role a young, attractive Latina actress has ever been put through. One of the choicer bits is a sequence in which Weston’s character joins two other men in doing a lip-synch routine to the Andrews Sisters’ record “The Three Caballeros” as part of the Ritz’s amateur talent contest (naturally the sign advertising it is misspelled “amatuer”!). The Ritz’s greatest value is as a period piece, showing the cheery insouciance of Queer male culture c. 1976 before first the growing maturation of the movement (like other civil-rights struggles, the early leaders of Queer rights were people on the fringes with little or nothing to lose, and their successes paved the way for more “mainstream” people to come out and join) and then the advent of AIDS (which became mythologized in Queer history as the catastrophe which turned us away from sexual liberation and multi-partner lifestyles and made us all want to get married — that’s an oversimplification but not much of one) pretty much ended the party and led, among other things, to the closure of virtually all the Gay bathhouses, to the point where younger Gay men watching this movie would probably have to have the whole concept explained to them. The DVD of The Ritz included the original trailer, which proclaimed it “Richard Lester’s funniest movie!” — an odd thing to say when you consider this is the man who made A Hard Day’s Night — and some other people who worked with Lester on his Beatles projects, including Help! composer Ken Thorne and Apple Films producer Denis O’Dell (note the spelling of his first name; this film got it right but some of his other credits have it wrong), also worked on The Ritz, which effectively re-created New York City on the soundstages at Twickenham, England.