Michael Ritchie’s Ford-era satire of beauty pageants, consumer culture, and suburbia as a Teenpic? Well, the so-called adults come off as deluded, lecherous, ineffectual, or just plain buffoons, while the audience’s sympathy is with the awkward teenagers, so I’d say that it qualifies (besides, it’s a sentimental favorite of my own teen-girlhood).
The wisp of a plot follows the chaos the Jaycee-sponsored state finals of the national Young American Miss pageant wrecks on the town of Santa Rosa, California- a location you may remember from Shadow of a Doubt, Alfred Hitchcock’s evisceration of small-town life.
Chief among the local Young American Misses are Robin (Miss Antelope Valley), a naïve and earnest first timer played by Joan Prather;
her roommate, Doria (Miss Anaheim, played by a very young Annette O’Toole)
is a hardened veteran of the pageant circuit and tells Robin that she should be a shoo-in, since she’s a straight-A student who plays the flute and has a dead father. Filling out the roster of 33 contestants are Miss Simi Valley (an even-younger Melanie Griffith);
the hilariously insincere Miss Salinas, the pageant’s first Latina candidate who waves the twin flags of her Mexican-American heritage so hard that she basically dares the judges to not select her;
and Miss San Diego, a hilarious wide-eyed comic turn by Denise Nickerson (Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory’s Violet Beauregard) who inadvertently antagonizes the pageant’s musical director over the course of the week.
While the movie may start out laughing at the gangly and awkward teenagers and their ridiculous “talents” (the film opens at a local pageant, where Miss Imperial County-elect is demonstrating how to properly pack a suitcase because “it’s the only thing she could do without falling off of the stage”), the girls quickly establish themselves to constantly being two steps ahead of the adults who have been charged with their care.
Chief among these is the Dean of Judges, Motor Home Salesman Big Bob Freelander, introduced giving the hard sell to a young married couple regarding the merits of a particular RV in the era of Energy Crisis: “With all of these crazy Arabs around, who knows they’re going to do next? It’s a heck of a safe feeling to sleeping on 50 gallons of gas!”
Played by Bruce Dern (taking a break from playing psychos), Big Bob is best described by Pauline Kael: “Big Bob speaks in homilies that express exactly how he feels. He’s a donkey, but he doesn’t have a mean bone in his body.”
Big Bob is assisted by Brenda DeCarlo, the pageant organizer (Get Smart’s Agent 99, Barbara Feldon), a tightly wound suburban matron for whom the pageant is the sole creative outlet in her life. Her sad-sack husband has grown disillusioned with the suburban idyll of Santa Rosa to the point of becoming unhinged, and is deep in the throes of an existential crisis. Or as Brenda calls it, “another night of sarcasm and self-pity.” It would be easy to make Brenda a shrew, but Feldon manages to instead make the character hysterical in every sense of the word.
And finally, Tommy French, the deeply cranky and cynical pageant choreographer, played by real-life choreographer and sometime-actor Michael Kidd. His years of Broadway and Hollywood A-list gigs behind him, Tommy has taken on the local pageant because he is in desperate need of money. He intends to exert as little effort as possible, and then go back to motel room and get drunk in front of the Tonight Show; but when push comes to shove he is the only one to actually care about the young women.
And these are the most sympathetic of the adult characters; everyone else is a leering sleazebag. And unlike other movies with the setting, parents are almost entirely absent from the equation: no overbearing Pageant Mothers here. While one of the girls explains during the interview segment that the “biggest influence on my life, after my parents, is my accordion” and Doria urges Robin to slip in more references to her dead father, the only parents we actually see on-screen are Miss San Diego’s mother (she inquires of Tommy if her daughter has a future in show business and he dismisses her with “only if Florence Henderson dies”); and at the very end Robin is tearfully reunited with her mother while Doria looks on with a little envy. Largely the film is about teenage girls navigating society’s expectations of them without parental guidance, probably for the first time in their lives, and how they are (mostly) successful.
Doria urges the unpolished Robin to wise up and learn to play by the judges’ rules; she is unbothered by the fact that she was elected Miss Teenage Complexion in a phony pageant run by “a horny old dermatologist”; after all she “won $500 and had a wart removed!” Doria’s carefully-calculated talent is performing an ersatz striptease while delivering a personal essay on Inner Beauty which includes copious Bible quotes. When she fails to place in the “Vim and Vitality” category she devotes herself wholly over to coaching Robin, reasoning “if the judges didn’t like me taking my clothes off, they’re going to hate my grades.”
Robin stammers her way through the judges’ interview, in which she is instructed to answer questions “in your own words, dear”, but not knowing that she’s supposed to utter that necessary phrase “…because I like helping others” (sensing that Robin is more interesting than the other contestants, the Catholic priest on the judges’ panel abruptly asks her how she would advise a unwed mother seeking an abortion, which baffles Robin even further). In contrast, Doria is a pro at glad-handing the various groups of Shriners, Jaycees and Moose Lodge members, smoothly delivering a speech to the Order of Bear about how “I thought the shopping mall in Anaheim was great until I saw yours. It is a credit to the vision of your business community!”
Still a few years away from the point where the Women’s Movement can impact them directly, Doria and Robin debate the values being espoused by the pageant. Doria reasons that “Boys get money and scholarships for making a lot of touchdowns, why shouldn’t girls get them for being cute and charming?” When Robin questions if boys should be getting scholarships for their athletic feats, Doria doesn’t follow; she’s going to take the system for what she can get.
Meanwhile the adults are having their own crises. The president of the Jaycees wants to take away part of Tommy’s stage or dock him a much-needed $500 off of his salary, reasoning that they need to sell more seats for the grand finale: “Our chapter is almost bankrupt from this meat show! And if we don’t break even we’ll have to cancel the rodeo for the retarded!” (When Doria takes a belly-flop off of the missing stage, Tommy furiously takes the salary cut and informs the president that he’s going advise her to sue their pants off and promises to introduce her to a lawyer “who is not a Jaycee”).
In the one truly dark-comic turn the movie takes, Brenda’s husband Andy decides to end it all and blow his brains out; when Brenda yells at him for doing it on her freshly-shampooed carpet he turns the gun on his real problem and shoots her instead (she’s fine: in the next scene she is explaining to her assistant to tell people that “she simply fell and sprained her arm”).
This turn of events (along with his son being picked up as a Peeping Tom) manages to momentarily shake Big Bob’s faith in his optimistic philosophy of life. Moreso when he goes to bail Andy out of jail and starts quoting said philosophy, which Andy recognizes as coming verbatim from the Young American Miss handbook, and declares Big Bob to be the biggest goddam Young American Miss of them all.
In the end, Doria is named fourth runner-up and some non-threatening nobody is crowned the winner; Robin doesn’t even place. Congratulating her friend, she admits that she’s just glad it’s all over. “No shit!” agrees Doria.
Ultimately, one is left with the feeling that there’s no reason to worry that the new generation of Young American Misses are going to fall into the same suburban traps as the adults. Well, at least not Robin or Doria.
In addition to the bizarre and wonderful talent acts (I am partial to the girl who sings “Delta Dawn” while accompanying herself on the saxophone), the movie is loaded with riches for the late-middle 20th century design fetishist (ahem): the camera lovingly lingers on every chain restaurant, airline terminal, ranch-style house, knickknack, swath of flocked wallpaper and set of novelty barware.
Additionally, movie is eminently quotable:
“Has anybody seen my butter churn?”
“…and that girl had a wooden foot!”
“Last night she gave our host family a piñata.”
Availability: DVD and streaming video.