The Rejected Flower: A Heartfelt Defense of Peter Bogdanovich’s Romantic Freefall Through Space, ILLEGALLY YOURS

by James Kenney

And there’s a real good chance when you play with fire/sometimes you might get burned…

Johnny Cash, “Love is a Gambler” written by Earl Poole Ball & Peter Bogdanovich

What value could there be in being angry at Peter Bogdanovich’s 1987 blissful, swoony, busy romantic daydream, Illegally Yours? It is like disapproving of a convivial mutt rescued from the pound that cannot stop licking your face; there is a logic to your derision, sure, but I would not want to be you.

As Oscar Wilde once wrote, “it is not the perfect, but the imperfect, who have need of love.” Illegally Yours is a movie that makes me care for it. It’s smart in a way that a lot of more wholly worked out movies are not – Bogdanovich plants quizzical gags early that pay off in offhanded ways much later– and it is entertainingly antic while also being, well, kind of messed-up, like a wobbly, colorful Frisbee. But Yours has a lunatic charm, offbeat characterizations and throwaway lines that catch you off the elbow and, upon further investigation, you are surprised at the frolicsome comic bits you missed. The film does fly by, throwing everything and the kitchen sink at you, but often subtle gags and ideas boomerang back and connect upon second thought or viewing.  Viewed as a long shot, frustrations about the inscrutability of the plot (shades of The Big Sleep!) or that there are a few too many car crashes in the stretched-out climax are not exactly invalid, but looking in tight closeup reveals humor, invention, and refreshing idiosyncrasy in the film’s many nooks and crannies.

Brian De Palma’s Body Double or Home Movies, Robert Altman’s Popeye or Health (or Quintet or O.C. & Stiggs, Altman’s got quite a list), Howard Hawks’ Man’s Favorite Sport or Land of the Pharaohs, Billy Wilder’s Kiss Me, Stupid, Blake Edwards’ A Fine Mess, Jerry Lewis’ Hardly Working, Vincent Minnelli’s Yolanda and the Thief, Michael Mann’s The Keep, Spike Lee’s Girl 6, Karl Reisz’s Everybody Wins, Elaine May’s Ishtar.  They are all heady reminders that brilliant directors have a movie in them that is destined to infuriate most comers upon release, to be considered a rebuke to all that the fans hold holy in their hearts. The above are notorious examples of unquestionably imperfect films by directors we expect all the marbles from every time, that were reviled upon release, leaving audiences (if they came at all) scratching their heads, critics livid, and sullen studio accountants picking at their wounds. 

But with time passed and oversized expectations replaced by reason and distance, enthusiasts can and do come back to these works and appreciate their qualities.  Sure, anyone can and should adore Red River, Rosemary’s Baby, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, The Last Picture Show and Paper Moon.  But it takes a Blake Edwards aficionado to fully appreciate Blind Date or Darling Lili, a Howard Hawks auteurist to wholly embrace Redline 7000. 

While accepting that these are not necessarily fully realized masterworks, neither have they earned the prolonged sentences they have served in movie jail, as they offer a great deal to principal fans attuned to the artists’ sensibilities; thus it is with Peter Bogdanovich’s sweet, disorderly paeon to love and second chances, the violently rejected Illegally Yours.  Unpretentious, fanciful, optimistic, convivial, whacked-out and hard-working, Bogdanovich Illegally Yours deserves reconsideration.

Original release poster, 1987 MGM

Is Illegally Yours a classic on the level of Bogdanovich’s They All Laughed, Paper Moon or Noises Off?

Nope. 

But my mouth is open to every breeze, to pinch a phrase from French poet Pierre Reverdy, and Illegally Yours is what I happily term a “humpback movie,” an imperfect creation that, looking in the rear-view, we can embrace for what it is, an intriguing contraption that has all sorts of “stuff” in it, and that perchance in some ways exposes more of the authors’ personality and personal obsessions by way of its imperfections.

Films like Illegally Yours, A Fine Mess, or Steven Spielberg’s 1941 (which all share certain antic, making-it-up-as-they-go-along qualities) do not provide decreased returns upon frequent viewing; it is upon further investigations that you can see past what did not initially quite click to all the terrific stuff that you were distracted from appreciating in the first place. In “desperation,” on troubled productions, filmmakers work on primal impulse, which ain’t the best way to do it, but it means their messy thumbprints are all over the work.

Andrew Sarris in discussing Edwards’s A Fine Mess, another perceived misfire with a scant release, said “I remain interested in Edwards ideas about comedy, even when they simply seem misguided at first, second, and third glance.” Without a sound blueprint (i.e., a viable screenplay), one can see upon fourth glance Bogdanovich compensates for a putrid script by devising on-the-fly gags, chases, witty banter, and eccentric characters that reveal, via his messy thumbprints, what Bogdanovich is all about.  When adapting, say, the late Larry McMurtry, a director is given lots of superior material he is driven and obliged to respect and honor.  When given a one-dimensional character like Richard Dice in a laugh-free script like Double Duty (the original version of what became Illegally Yours), Bogdanovich has no choice but to throw whatever he feels would work, what he himself responds to, at the screen to bring this wayward ship to shore.

Peter Bogdanovich directing Rob Lowe In St. Augustine, Florida
used via Creative Commons license CC BY-NC 4.0;
taken from https://www.staugustine.com

A hack director shamelessly puts in his day on schedule and on time, while an artist, having trouble getting his footing, will, like the narrator of The Pit and the Pendulum, devise all types of touchingly baroque plans to engender unlikely success. There is something illicit to what Bogdanovich is doing here I find weirdly appealing, as everyone involved, starting from the top, knows it’s all wrong, wrong, wrong and in the process of averting their eyes from the major issues in the script keep popping loony grace notes out of the margins.

And what results, from one of the great humanists of Hollywood cinema, is a kind of blissful romantic daydream, with characters often taking intermissions from the overstuffed narrative to look for four-leaf clovers in the grass or engage in numerology or get confused by Canadian accents, only to be suddenly swept back into the whirring mass of lumpy oatmeal that is the plot because of contractual obligations. The film wants to get away from itself in certain ways–with its best effects resulting from the congenial asides Lowe makes to himself throughout, the animated banter between Lowe and his family and the cute girls helping him skulk about, and from Bogdanovich’s silent-movie love of human faces reacting to unfolding developments.

There’s a bit of jazz to Illegally Yours, as if Bogdanovich, given a defective melody, stretches outside the bars, maintaining just enough of the plot on the edge of the scenes while spewing mad notes on it.  So does Illegally Yours hang together as a sustained routine? Not quite, except in Lowe’s committed, unwavering performance, going through the whole movie with a by-design transparent normality battling the knotted-up mental processes of his uncontrolled, resilient romantic looniness. 

Do all the jokes land? No there is a bit of fatigue towards the end where the plot, largely besides-the-point for three-quarters of the running time has to finally be dealt with, getting in the way of the film’s “romantic freefall through space” (to quote Colleen Camp’s character describing Lowe’s quixotic quest as a jurist to rescue her from a murder rap and salvage their bungled first-grade love story).  But what Illegally Yours ultimately is, to borrow a term Bogdanovich used when describing the then-reviled and increasingly revered At Long Last Love, is “quite a nice little picture.”  (Love has proven much more than that.)

Whatever Collen Camp and Rob Lowe do with that cannon, it doesn’t show up in the finished film! (MGM, From the author’s collection)

Too many have unjustly slagged on the film for three decades that it feels rebellious– liberating, even (fifty cents to the Bogdanovich admirer who gets the reference)– to declare my complicated love of it.

Illegally Yours, possibly, needs to draw viewers into a conspiratorial relationship with it, there’s no other way. 

I hear people, particularly women, admit their fondness for it, but only after I go first.   

It is both consistently speed-freak manic in design and gentle in tone, a personality that is wholly unique to Yours.  It can be overpowering in its farce, but it is happy sunshine overpowering us, and we may need to squint and modify our approach to fully appreciate its warmth. If I need perfection from Mr. Bogdanovich, Targets, The Last Picture Show, What’s Up, Doc?, Paper Moon, Daisy Miller, At Long Last Love, Nickelodeon, Saint Jack, They All Laughed, Mask, Noises Off, A Dime a Dance, The Price of Heaven,  and Squirrels to the Nuts (the director’s cut of  She’s Funny That Way) are my go-to works of brilliance, with The Thing Called Love, Song of Songs, and The Cat’s Meow close-enough approximations.  Illegally Yours is no masterpiece, but it’s still the work of a master filmmaker, and as such I prefer a sloppy meatball sandwich or a lopsided cake from a justly celebrated chef over a mass-market ready-to-ingest frozen pizza or perfectly realized Entenmann’s cake on the supermarket shelf.

This endearing misstep resonates with me more than fully realized works by lesser directors. It is anything but anonymous and impersonal and it is a film like Illegally Yours, with it surprising effects, where I recognize I am relying more on my own taste, which is most certainly for Bogdanovich’s flavor profiles, then on cultural approbation, for my kicks.

A helpful epiphany for me was to not judge the movie so much as a product (a finished result that a studio then tries to market to the largest possible audience), where Illegally Yours is, well, objectively troubled, but as a process (Bogdanovich and confederates riffing ascending and descending phrases off of the given premise for surprising oddball effect while definitely jeopardizing the stability of the dramatic architecture). It is no way to make most pictures, perhaps, as the good things seem to spring out of nowhere, but it’s the only way Illegally Yours could have been made, and I’m grateful for its one-off existence and also grateful that Bogdanovich didn’t repeat the experiment. Don’t try this at home, folks, but there’s something here worth pursuing for fans of Bogdanovich or Lowe.  It is not unlike my appreciation of Paul McCartney’s discography; albums that may have initially thrown me upon release are all, without fail, gradually more fascinating as part of a 50-year collection of a musical genius’s idiosyncratic work.

Colleen Camp, Rob Lowe, L.B. Straten and Kim Myers hatch a plan in ILLEGALLY YOURS (MGM, From the author’s collection)

However, to borrow a quote from the Johnny Cash song Bogdanovich co-wrote with longtime companion Earl Poole Ball (part of Colleen Camp’s “Manhattan Cowboys” backing band in They All Laughed and K.T. Oslin’s right-hand man in The Thing Called Love) that plays over the opening and closing credits, Bogdanovich got burned playing with fire. The critics were merciless when Illegally Yours came (or basically did not come) out in 1987, tearing it and Lowe apart.  The film was shelved, partially due to the critical and audience response and partially to the DeLaurentiis Entertainment Group’s financial woes (the studio, famous for producing Blue Velvet and Manhunter, is also infamous for producing King Kong Lives and Million Dollar Mystery). 

It was indeed a setback for Bogdanovich, coming off the Academy-Award nominated Mask, made as he was still trying to heal from the murder of his lover Dorothy Stratten by her estranged husband after Stratten had completed her work on his dazzling They All Laughed.  Bogdanovich had bought Laughed back from its distributors and attempted to release the film on his own, putting him in a harmful financial position, and despite Mask’s commercial and critical success, had threatened to sue the producers for cutting out several minutes behind his back and replacing the Bruce Springsteen song score with a cheaper one featuring Bob Seger.  While Bogdanovich was justified (and his version of Mask, with the sequences and music restored, is the one presently available) he was temporarily anathema to the studios for his loud complaints in the wake of a hit.

So upstart DeLaurentiis’ fledgling company offered Bogdanovich a script called Double Duty (credited to Michael Kaplan and John Levenstein), about a jurist in love with a defendant, having known her in grade school, who attempts to stealthily prove her innocence while serving on the jury.  Not a seeming bad premise for a screwball romantic comedy, and Bogdanovich, still grieving over the loss of Stratten and smarting from the sour experience dealing with Universal Studios over Mask, sensibly took on a light comedy with a current star in Lowe, combining the slapstick lunacy of his classic What’s Up, Doc? with the dreamy voyeurism of his personal favorite film, They All Laughed. 

Colleen Camp and Rob Lowe in peril in ILLEGALY YOURS (MGM, From the author’s collection)

Rewatching it recently, I was happily surprised at how buoyant and resilient, and how Bogdanovichian, the film is.  He gets a possessory credit at the beginning, he co-wrote multiple Johnny Cash songs for the soundtrack, and several of his favorite players show up: trusty and loyal George Morfogen, who acted in and produced many of Bogdanovich’s films, is in it, as is They All Laughed’s Colleen Camp and Linda MacEwan.  Kenneth Mars returns from What’s Up, Doc?, Harry Carey, Jr. from Mask and Nickelodeon.  Dorothy Stratten’s sister, here credited as L.B. Straten, makes her screen debut.  Newcomers to the fold were no slouches: cinematographer Dante Spinotti had done great work in Italy and had already photographed Michael Mann’s Manhunter and Beth Henley’s Crimes from the Heart for DEG, and production designer Jane Mursky (who would later work with Bogdanovich on Squirrels to the Nuts, aka She’s Funny That Way) had just come off working with the Coen brothers on Raising Arizona and Blood Simple.

While certain sequences (including, Bogdanovich shared with me over the phone, a lengthy one where most of the cast get stoned from some marijuana that washes up on the Floridian shore) were removed before release against his wishes, his style of editing in the camera, shooting only the coverage he personally requires, seems to have allowed him to retain clear authorship of the footage that remains.  In temperament and philosophy, Illegally Yours has more in common with the madcap sophistication and chaste romance of the classic Hollywood screwball comedy than the puerile sex comedies of its era, although the presence of “Brat Packer” Lowe and some of the bad guys dressing up like Don Johnson in Miami Vice undeniably date it to the 80s, and as such add a supplementary layer of fascination to it as the only film Bogdanovich made that wholly belongs to that colorful era.

Photo taken on the set of ILLEGALLY YOURS in St. Augustine, Florida;
Creative Commons License CC BY-NC 4.0
from https://www.staugustine.com

Bogdanovich generally prefers filming on location, and the film ends with the disarmingly convivial text:

We Thank
The People In and Around
Saint Augustine, Florida,
In Whose City
This Picture Was Filmed.

This message of thanks was also given to the people of Singapore at the end of Saint Jack and the people of Manhattan at the end of They All Laughed. It would seem Illegally Yours has the fixings that Bogdanovich loves – a clumsy but well-meaning romantic lead, robust women quicker than the men pursuing them, a unique picturesque location where he and his merry pranksters could run around shooting without studio heads leaning over their shoulders. 

So why didn’t it click?

Shown on the set: Director Peter Bogdanovich (MGM/ Photofest)

Well, for starters, the aforementioned script.  A March 1986 third draft script of the film still entitled Double Duty is an excruciating read.  While few points are given by a paying audience for effort, to see what Bogdanovich pulled off with the material he was given is inspiring to an enthusiast like me and insightful to anyone. Richard Dice, the lovelorn protagonist is a rather snotty, whiny and unpleasant screw-up in the original script; when he finds out he has jury duty, the best the (multiple) writers can come up with is for him to say  “Jesus. Fuck. Jesus.”

To his mother.

(Yes, Bogdanovich removes this). 

Bogdanovich is a romantic, and Illegally Yours, with a most-wanting text as its springboard, drove him to devise a harum scarum floppy-eared collection of private amusements. Bogdanovich doesn’t make fun of his protagonists, or, like in the Saturday Night Live films prevalent at the time, the squares who aren’t in on the joke. He does place his characters in ludicrous, potentially humiliating comic situations but then empathizes with their efforts to muddle through, never mocking them. The too-referential humor of contemporary hits such as Wayne’s World (also featuring Lowe) bore me in their success while Yours in its lack of success intrigues me, its “private amusements” shared by this viewer. This movie deserves to find its audience. I know they’re out there.  The amassed incidental offbeat details, such as a floozy on the stand declaring proudly for the jury “I can’t imagine any woman needing to arm herself with more than feminine wiles” are what keep the film’s byways playing out long after I would have thought possible.

Photo taken on the set of ILLEGALLY YOURS in St. Augustine, Florida
Creative Commons License CC BY-NC 4.0
from https://www.staugustine.com

Illegally Yours is trivial in a way that the rest of Bogdanovich’s work isn’t, perhaps because he knew the material wasn’t worthy of the effort, he just said “F— it!” and endeavors to keep us amused, if scratching our heads, for an hour and forty-two minutes. Yet the film sticks with me, little exuberances throughout adding up:

  • In the prologue, a mailman accidentally shot by Collen Camp’s Molly Gilbert, gets up and continues to deliver the mail (“Neither rain nor snow…”)
  • The dialogue-free credit sequence where Lowe loses his girl, gets soaked, has his credit card cut in two, needs a tow then ends up driving the truck himself back home because the driver is drunk, only to have his brother greet him with “Hail, The Conquering Hero!”
  • Lowe’s guileless attempts to hug or kiss his brother being consistently thwarted
  • Lowe’s efforts to make everyone happy at all times, so that even when he’s trying to get out of jury duty he tells no one in particular “I like juries. I believe in the jury system, in fact I believe in our whole system of American justice!” in case they disapprove
  • The sideways glances of puppy dog lust screwball heiress Kim Myers gives him throughout the film
  • Lowe’s mom explaining her relationship with the protofascist local police chief to her son with “he’s tall!”
  • The same police chief being thrown by a crime scene witness sharing the kind of candy bar he eats so that, worked up, he starts asking everyone else what candy bars they eat
  • Morfogen as the judge poking a passed out Lowe outside the courtroom with his walking stick   
  • The odd, rather wan Christmas decorations in the unseasonable sun-baked Saint Augustine locations – no one seems to be celebrating, they’ve just put up a tree here or there—at one point Lowe is running at night across a long clearing decorated with one lonely, decorated tree;
  • Lowe’s constant losing of one shoe to the point it becomes a story in the local newspaper
  • A Dutch woman on the jury mistranslates folksy Danish aphorisms she’s using to protest Camp’s innocence
  • Camp’s ex-boyfriend (and the film’s accidental murderer) pulling flowers from her garden to give to her seconds later at her door
  • The same ex-boyfriend, on the stand, testifying about Camp: “Letting her put me through travel agent school was a big step for her”   
  • Lowe masquerading as a woman in a pink bathrobe telling Camp to sign him up for twenty years of cable TV; 
  • And, at one point, Bogdanovich, recognizing the hopelessness of the plot, has Straten exclaim “He knows what we’re involved in but does he know exactly what we’re involved in? Even I have trouble figuring that out, and I’m involved!” 
George Morfogen poking at Rob Lowe (MGM, From the author’s collection)
One Lonely St. Augustine Christmas Tree (MGM, Screencap)

Bogdanovich himself said in the press materials for the film, “It’s all in the characters – rich, colorful people who appear on the surface to be one thing, but turn out to be another. Whether they’re the good guys or the bad guys, you have fun with them.”  This attitude is reflected when Myers, playing a screwball heiress somehow involved, speaks of Lowe’s character, and says most directly what is Bogdanovich’s overarching comic philosophy – in his various films, characters philander, lie, cheat, finagle, plot and scheme but that doesn’t necessarily make them bad people, and if done, it is always in the name of love or longing – “There’s something about him I trust, even though he seems to be lying all the time.” This reminds me of something Jonathan Rosenblum wrote about Bogdanovich, in discussing Texasville: “romantic relationships typically count for everything with Bogdanovich and social concerns for practically nothing.” Certainly, Bogdanovich is no shrill scold, and when someone points out Lowe’s meddling in the case is against the law, Lowe says “the law doesn’t have to know.”

When I told Brad Stevens, writer for Sight and Sound, novelist, and author of books on Abel Ferrara and Monte Hellman, about this piece, he wrote to me about his shared admiration for Yours:

Peter Bogdanovich has never made a bad film…but Illegally Yours is the film that has perhaps the fewest friends , with even its auteur dismissing it as a failure.  Like Blake Edwards output of the 80’s, Illegally Yours feels like something which, despite (indeed in many ways because of) its lack of pretensions, has deliberately positioned itself in opposition to the period’s dominant trends, working from the assumption that comedy might aspire to something beyond food fight movies, inert genre parodies, or the overt misogyny of Ghostbusters. One sign of this ambition is the voiceover, reportedly added after test audiences protested the plot was hard to follow.  Bogdanovich was, of course, working in a Hawksian tradition in which plot is easily the least important thing about a film, and the narration from Lowe, far from remedying this perceived flaw, ends up underlining the narrative’s incomprehensibility (“This is kind of confusing, isn’t it?”); it immediately dumps so much information in the viewer’s lap that the only message it ends up conveying is: Don’t’ even think of trying to follow any of this.  There is, oddly enough, an echo here of those games played by Jean-Luc Godard when he responded to his producer’s complaint that Le Mepris (Contempt) did not contain enough nude shots of Brigitte Bardot by adding a scene which both satisfied and deconstructed these commercial demands.

The motif of They All Laughed – romantic voyeurism — is reintroduced, but in a Doc universe— and Yours has more of the wild goose in one of its wits than most Hollywood films have in their whole five, to paraphrase Shakespeare, although those other films might exhibit more common sense.  Bogdanovich ups the ante – observing, spying, getting involved in a narrative that is not your own – but we have moved past John Ritter and Ben Gazzara as detectives paid to watch Dorothy Stratten and Audrey Hepburn, to Rob Lowe, paid by no one, minus a shoe, gazing at Collen Camp from behind a bush while two hitmen watch her from a different standpoint and screwball heiress Myers and her zonked-out-on-bad-mushrooms best friend Straten observe all of the above. 

Lowe the voyeur (MGM, screencap)

Most crucially, no one really knows what is going on, or is very good at what they are doing, but unlike the often-cynical viewpoints of two of Bogdanovich’s contemporary comedy peers, Blake Edwards and Woody Allen, Bogdanovich likes his characters.  His heroes are never sneering, nor sneered at, but instead are generally too affectionate; Lowe loves Camp beyond all reason (he hasn’t seen her since he was in the first grade), like Ritter loves Stratten (who he has never met) but in the end they, and love, wins out. Illegally Yours takes up a key Bogdanovich obsession, the ability to outlive and make peace with past mistakes, if not totally rectify them, and coming after his personal tragedy and professional misfortune, it feels there is more of him in this daft mélange than he, or his estimable fan base, realized upon release. In an odd but appealing detail, Lowe’s character is very much into numerology and blathers on about ancient bitch goddesses at one point, echoing Bogdanovich’s search for deeper understanding in the wake of Stratten’s senseless murder, manifested in his interest in the works of Robert Graves such as The White Goddess that intimate the world was once a matriarchy before men screwed it all up, a philosophy that Bogdanovich holds to this day and that reappears in his director’s cut of his most recent film She’s Funny That Way, Squirrels to the Nuts.

It is touching, Bogdanovich turning to extreme silliness to chase the still-lingering blues away, and for auteurists it is uniquely riveting to watch a top-level director trying to whip an utterly hopeless script into some kind of fighting shape. 

It may be that Bogdanovich should have again followed the advice George Cukor gave him when he held an advanced screening of They All Laughed in 1980: “Slow it down,” Cukor said, referring to the lengthy wordless opening introducing the characters.  Yours begins at such a pace, with six characters rushing around and stalking, arguing and in one case murdering each other, that it does task the viewer who is used to focusing more on his popcorn in the early moments of a film to pay attention. It is not made easier that none of the six characters are Lowe (and Bogdanovich hedged here after an early poor test screening, adding a narration by Lowe, mentioned by Stevens above, that sort-of explains the unfolding events, despite the film ultimately revealing all the necessary info at its own pace later—for a film that rushes around, Bogdanovich attempts to withhold key information as long as possibleYours is silly, but he’s not trying to insult anyone’s intelligence).  Despite the film being as broad as comedies come, he does not jam anything home through closeups or turn to lazy pop culture references to get a cheap reaction. 

Kenneth Mars and Marshall Colt (MGM, From the autho’s collection)

Fairly early is a scene which acts as a litmus test, where you must ask yourself whether you are willing to give yourself over to the film’s stubborn nuttiness.  Lowe, following Camp on her part-time job trying to get the good citizens of St. Augustine to sign up for cable, and knowing she is in imminent danger, decides to warn her.  But he cannot do it directly, as he is a juror in her trial.  So Lowe, in short order:

  1. Climbs in the open window of a house she is approaching.
  2. Decides to dress up in a pink bathrobe and use a not-particularly convincing voice to pretend he is a woman.
  3. Realizes he said he was in the shower, and sloppily splashes water all over his face and glasses.
  4. For some reason determines he has to wear high heels to really sell the disguise.
  5. Pulls her into the house just as the two hitmen are approaching, telling her “I love cable!”
  6. Realizes that this “woman” he has created could not reasonably explain any knowledge of Camp’s life, so he grabs some extremely large playing cards and proceeds to read her fortune, mentioning “attempted murder,” a “trial,” and “danger!”
  7. After an understandably nonplussed Camp leaves, Lowe learns the house belongs to the trial judge (!) and must feign being the wife while the judge flirts with him.
  8. Lowe sneaks out the front leaving the judge to find Lowe’s left-behind shoe on the floor, causing him to now suspect his poor wife of infidelity, and say, gravely, “what the hell is going on here!?” looking up towards the camera (but not directly), as James Finlayson would have done after dealing with Stan Laurel in a dress.
Not Lowe’s brightest plan in ILLEGALLY YOURS (MGM, screencap)

There’s all sorts of ways Lowe’s St. Elmo’s Fire fans might not take to this scene, but it’s in this baldly naked absurdity, just going for it, that tells me that Bogdanovich, having no use for the screenplay (the draft I read has Lowe’s character put on a beekeeper’s mask, and it’s a random house, not the judge’s), is just coming up with any madcap lunacy that he finds amusing, and he hopes someone finds it amusing too.  This kind of ridiculous, baroque solution to a problem is worthy of prime Jerry Lewis if not Laurel & Hardy. 

Fans of Fire and About Last Night might already be having trouble with Lowe playing a loser, but one who, in a romantic whirlwind, comes up with a plan as bad as this?  However, with thirty years of comedy success behind him in works like Wayne’s World and on television’s Parks & Recreation I think time has come to reassess Lowe’s performance.

The film plays well with his heartthrob standing at the time—when Lowe trips entering the jury box, the women melt, breaking out in charmed smiles at his apologies, and when Myers and Straten argue about who saw him first, Straten says “He’s not my type.  He’s so cute it’s scary.” Lowe stepped into the “Harold Lloyd” screwball comedic protagonist role previously essayed by Ryan O’Neal in What’s Up, Doc? and John Ritter in They All Laughed and was given much grief at the time, but I’m here to say that he is quite funny, his timing on point, his ability to not oversell a gag copacetic with Bogdanovich’s accurate belief that comedy is funnier in well-timed, choreographed long and medium shots than in punched-in closeups.  It’s perhaps hard to discern because the basic glib adjective to describe the performance is “frenzied,” by design.  Lowe is unfailingly flustered, skulking behind trees or dangling off ledges, rattling off lies and half-truths to get through and out of hairy situations, but it’s in the little asides and unforced visual gags where Lowe comes off a winner, as does Bogdanovich in devising and choreographing them. 

From the part in the kitchen where Lowe, late for jury duty, absent-mindedly stuffs toast and bacon in his pocket while ranting about the case to his family, to the bit where he punches his fist when making an emphatic point, crushing the cookies he just took from a jar, Lowe pulls off the gags with a minimum of fuss and absolutely no mugging.  And ultimately, his hard work wins you over if you free yourself of suspicion and hostility – he is indeed so good-looking that combined with his character’s big heart and loyal nature who wouldn’t give in? Lowe’s performance is all-in, open-faced, shamelessly silly fun, in constant darting motion for the whole picture; Yours stands for me as the most likeable performance of his career.  Bogdanovich has generally been positive on Lowe’s performance through the years, while down on the film itself, and allowed that “He was good!” when discussing the film with me.

Lowe carries the film on his back, more than even O’Neal and Ritter did as similar Bogdanovich protagonists – he’s in every scene and almost every scene is from his perspective. It’s an odd kind of comic performance, his off-kilter asides and earnest but lost line-readings seeming to come out of his awkward physicality- he’s a marionette and what holds the strings are the Gods of Romantic Love.  It was a risky move casting him off-type at the time that wasn’t rewarded by suspicious critics still unsure if Lowe could act, but with almost forty years as a leading man and Lowe’s comedy ability now recognized, it’s perhaps easier to appreciate how he throws himself into the pratfall slapstick with gusto—there are no quotation marks around his performance; he is absolutely driven to liberate the woman he loves, who doesn’t know he exists (one laugh-out-loud moment is when Camp realizes she does remember him– “You’re not that little pervert!? From the bathroom?” — and he latches onto this epiphany with delight: “Yes, that’s me! You remember!”).

Camp seeing past the glasses. (MGM, From the author’s collection)

The talented Camp lacks the moonglow elegance that might  really sell her part and keep the slapstick reverie in high gear until the very end – she was wonderful as the most earthbound of the young good-humored goddesses of passion in They All Laughed, but someone like Maria Conchita Alonso, who Pauline Kael described at the time as an “unself-conscious cutup” who had a “happy sizzle” might have kept the sparkly screwball energy up towards the end where plot dictates Lowe and Camp must run from one earth-tone St. Augustine exterior to another to tie up the plot threads and bring the attempted-murder case, the thing we and Bogdanovich least care about, to a close.  By this time inspiration does occasionally give way to exhaustion and we can sense how the film is kind of slammed together with spit and bubblegum – for every winning sight gag like the kid who shoots a rubber dart square on the lens of Lowe’s glasses, or the guests at millionaire Kenneth Mars’ big party (for what? Who knows!) sticking their fingers in their ears as he gives himself a 21-gun salute every few moments, there is an equal amount of frantic running here-and-there with milder payoff. 

Illegally Yours (1988) Directed by Peter Bogdanovich Shown:Jessica James, Ira Heiden, Rob Lowe (MGM/Photofest)

During the final sequences, I missed Lowe’s banter with Jessica James as his mother and Ira Heiden as his brother, as well as with Myers and Straten – the spry give-and-take is muted to a certain degree by Camp’s character being sane and not just getting into the, um, “zany” swing of things (Lowe’s loving family, despite protestations, easily gives into his various plots and escapades throughout the film).  These exchanges come off like a series of fizzy riffs, and have a distinctive, fluky personality.  Brad Stevens makes an interesting parallel between these sequences and the work of Orson Welles (you weren’t getting out of this article without one Welles reference, but at least it didn’t come directly from me!):

One of the most impressive things about Bogdanovich is how thoroughly he assimilates his influences, as opposed to simply paying homage to them. Homage is certainly there in Illegally Yours; an early scene showing Lowe’s character in the family kitchen clearly evokes the kitchen scene from Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons, with a complex interaction between characters inhabiting the image’s foreground, background and middle ground. But Bogdanovich is not content with summoning up memories of cinema’s past; his use of Ambersons suggests the extent to which stylistic devices derived from a dramatic work can be used in the service of a comedy, one in which, moreover, verbal and visual humor, far from being opposed, frequently run in tandem. Bogdanovich’s cinephilia is always of this kind, his unfashionable refusal to demonstrate a snide sense of superiority to his characters, aligning him here, as so often, with a humanist cinematic tradition.

These sequences certainly feel more thought-out then the logistics of the big noisy climax, which offers some broad, ineffective action tropes before Bogdanovich, knowing how ridiculous we must find all this is, has Lowe verbalize a plan worthy of Lou Costello to recover a murder victim’s body encased in a sculpture being lifted on a crane to a ship heading to Cairo, Egypt: “I’m going to throw this wrench thought that truck window, knocking the gear shift into neutral, the truck will roll back against the hydro pole, snapping the crane cable, the crate will drop, breaking the base, the body will fall out!” to which Camp, finally giving into his optimistic long-shot worldview, replies “oh well, give it a shot.”

Again, don’t try this at home, kids, but Lowe made me laugh out loud at that moment.

At this point, with the plot finally out of the way, Bogdanovich is free to return to the blissful romantic daydream the whole movie has been at its best, with blink-and-you’ll-miss-it thrown away gags, bringing Yours to a pleasing resolution.  In a funny amplification of the happily-ever-after ending, apparently every character has found, if not love, contentment.  Myers is coupled with a handsome hunk deus ex machina handyman who shows up in the third act to help Lowe and Camp in one of their escapes; Harry Carey Jr. looks likely to be Lowe’s mom’s 8th husband; the Judge shows up with his statuesque wife, apparently now knowing it was Lowe he was calling “honey bunny” earlier; and even the four criminals are shown rather happily chattering away for television cameras in their respective jail cells—they seem to like their new notoriety as St. Augustine’s criminal set.

St. Augustine has put up a sign outside Richard’s house commemorating his actions, but instead of basking in the spotlight, he and Camp steal away to a nearby park and hunker in the grass, finding a four-leaf clover.  What an odd, pleasant moment!  Bogdanovich, increasingly interested in patterns in the universe after Stratten’s passing, ends with this symbolic token of romantic promise that probably had the local Florida crew scratching their heads – “This isn’t in the script!” (And from what I understand, this was only the second film to shoot extensively in St. Augustine, the first being Revenge of the Creature!)

As the Bogdanovich co-penned Johnny Cash song reemerges on the soundtrack, Lowe and Camp drive off to their shared future armed with their four-leaf clover and some earlier promising readings from Richard’s dice, with the standard but still funny gag of their car hitting a bump, resulting in a few bags and boxes falling off the back of their trailer. 

And I’m glad to have made their acquaintance.  I find that for the uneven qualities of the film, I would never call it a guilty pleasure; it’s more of a good (and good-hearted) friend with some personality issues. Yours is a film that reveals many of Bogdanovich’s sensibilities, from overriding thematic concerns to throwaway gags that make him chuckle. With a hopeless script, Bogdanovich just focuses on what strikes him funny – fast-paced witty exchanges, well-meaning but clumsy guys in impulsive, voyeuristic love, numerology and goddesses, the music of Johnny Cash, male camaraderie, mysterious women, unexpected romantic pairings, all played deadpan straight, no smirking at the audience.  When Myers asks Lowe why he’s following Camp, he replies that she’s in danger, and as nonsensically as it can get, adds, “I’m a biogenetic researcher, that woman is a biological time-bomb,” as if that would explain anything (later Myers calls him “some sort of biodegradable researcher”).  Instead of calling him out on his outrageous lie in the moment, Myers simply responds with a doubtful “hmm” because he is too damn cute to dismiss out of hand.  As Lowe says in the film, “the laws of love” trump “the law,” and Myers will not turn her back on a potential love interest, even one pursuing another woman. 

This is Bogdanovich country.

Lowe and fellow jurists argue in ILLEGALLY YOURS (MGM, From the author’s collection)

When Lowe tries to remind Camp of their schoolyard past and his attempt to romance her in the first grade, he says “I’m Richard Dice of the rejected flower.” Like Camp, audiences should perhaps accept this flower, better late than never. As Shakespeare wrote “Striving to better, oft we mar what’s well” and no doubt initial responses focused on why Yours wasn’t simply “better,” as we have high expectations from Bogdanovich, as he has from himself.  If the material in Illegally Yours is not perfect, and it is not, it is still the work of a Major Artist, and a lesser artist’s work, more successfully realized, would still move me less. 

But while it is not Peter Bogdanovich’s most symmetrical and gloriously constructed film, it exists to be itself and not something else, and to borrow from Louise Erdich, I find Illegally Yours to be tremendous, foolish and human, a lively work of sustained chaos. It is peculiarly funny, and part of the pleasure of the movie is figuring out why it holds up to multiple viewings and deeper investigation. It’s time for Illegally Yours to be freed from movie jail, and blinking as it reemerges in the sunlight, be given the chance to become a contributing member to society once again. It certainly is not a film marching to fulfill any obvious, received purpose.  It is a noisy, cheerful, sun-burnt thing, half slapstick anarchy, half offhand, plaintive throwaway moments; as Bogdanovich himself told me, “I still don’t like the picture, but I’m very happy that you do!”

I’ll take it!

Now hopefully Kino-Lorber or Scorpion or someone will get on the ball and put out a Blu-ray and get this thing back into the rotation.

Case closed!

2 thoughts on “The Rejected Flower: A Heartfelt Defense of Peter Bogdanovich’s Romantic Freefall Through Space, ILLEGALLY YOURS

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s