By James Kenney
Largely forgotten at this point, Blake Edwards’ 1983 release The Man Who Loved Women, starring Burt Reynolds, Julie Andrews, Marilu Henner, Kim Basinger and a dozen more lovely women, suffered from being in the shadow of Francois Truffaut’s highly regarded French original, released in 1977. Also, many felt the casting of Reynolds obfuscated the point of Truffaut’s original, which cast an unprepossessing Charles Denner as the dedicated skirt-chaser, not a handsome Hollywood charmer like Reynolds at the height of his seductive powers.
The Man Who Loved Women is a humpback movie, one that opened to middling-to-negative reviews and little business, portending Reynolds’ plunge from the summit of Hollywood celebrity, which now only adds to the film’s retroactive, plaintive appeal; the protagonist David Fowler’s outwardly together but inwardly brittle emotional state is underpinned by Reynolds’ equally fragile state, as we know now that this film was pretty much the last of his where he was the major star many of us never forgot and always hoped would return. We were all so grateful for the belated opportunity P.T. Anderson supplied Reynolds to regain his dignity in Boogie Nights, even if Reynolds inevitably squandered it. Women is a most unusual movie, a slapstick tragedy, and superior to both its reputation and Truffaut’s original classic in its thematic concerns and in its lead performance.
As Pauline Kael accurately describes Truffaut’s original, Denner’s protagonist Bertrand is “dead even when he’s supposed to be alive, an unsmiling man whose basic repression is morose.” I find Denner’s efforts to be seductively charming anything but, agreeing with Kael’s perception that when he attempts reflectiveness, or wryness, or whatever it is he’s doing, he “just keeps working his mouth, twisting it around as if he were trying to hold his dentures in.”
Reynolds, the “man with the smiling eyes” (as described by a hooker he’s about to arrest in the previous year’s Sharky’s Machine) is crucial casting because it would be churlish to deny that it would be imaginable, inevitable even, for him to be an equal-opportunity womanizer who all kinds would respond positively to, as he is both extremely handsome and completely charming. His eyes are smiling, all right, but even when wounded his David Fowler doesn’t use his male prerogative to lash out or torment; he gently pouts like a misbehaving dog or an admonished child, all while still looking like Burt Reynolds.
David Fowler, a high-end, esteemed Los Angeles sculptor, generous to a fault, is an inveterate womanizer whose desperate inner struggle with his own romantic indeterminacy renders him “socially, artistically, and, finally, sexually impotent” (to quote the Columbia Pictures press release at the time of the film’s release). David is so frustrated with his powerlessness to satiate his endless desire for romantic connection he keeps falling all over himself, and Edwards in fact kills him off with his final trip-up, no head reshaping itself from a frying-pan shape at the end of this slapstick farce.
Despite my not looking anything like Burt Reynolds, it is easier to have compassion for his inability to remain faithful than it is with Truffaut’s protagonist; Reynolds simply has perpetual opportunities inaccessible to mere mortals and, in any specific moment, his David Fowler is exclusively immersed in creating a genuine connection, not using a woman as an instrument, a vessel – in Reynolds’ situation, anyone might do the same thing, whereas Denner’s impulses feel less clean, less well-intentioned.
As Edwards himself wrote in “Blake Edwards on the Man Who Loved Women,” created by Columbia Pictures as a defense, one supposes, for David’s licentious behavior, “the physical act of sex tells you nothing about what is going on. Everything is defined mainly by what happens at a mental level. From that point of view, ‘making love’ can be normal or a perversion, tender or hateful, generous, or narcissistic, depending entirely on what the participants fantasize rather than the act itself.”
For a film bursting with sundry screwball comedy elements and sequences, Women has an autumnal feel to it, starting, as Truffaut’s original does, with the funeral of the protagonist, whose unending efforts to love women lead to his demise. Much more than in Truffaut’s original I feel for the good-hearted David in Edwards’ film, which might affect one’s response to the comedy because he, from the very beginning, doesn’t feel like a pure comedy device but like a real person—Julie Andrews, in the press materials provided with the film, described the character as a “sad one,” which doesn’t notionally make for promising screwball possibilities.
Interestingly, Kael (who never reviewed the Edwards film) might have been read by Edwards, as his reworked scenario addresses what she felt was the fatal flaw of Truffaut’s work: “If Bertrand were a highly respected, honored man – a man with children and friends, possibly a man with a deep commitment to his work (an artist, perhaps?) – and if he were split between other drives or goals and this, to him, shameful, somewhat incomprehensible compulsion, then there’d be a comic horror in his plight.” Edwards recasts his American protagonist as a most successful artist, one who knows “the language” of his cooled-out colony of Los Angeles, Southern California, a place that is all summer breezes, providing no inherent antagonisms. He is surrounded by friends (no children, though), and respected by all, and seems to have to self-create crisis at this point in his life so he has something to overcome. You’re not human if you don’t hate yourself for something.
Knowing this, and anxiously hoping to break free of or at least comprehend his compulsion, David turns to a therapist played by Andrews that he, naturally, falls in love with as well. You do “have it all” when you have his chic, sunstruck upscale lifestyle, and as the film begins the good-natured and gorgeous Cynthia Sikes (best known from St. Elsewhere) is happily in his bed, which is why this film has a tension that Truffaut’s lacks. The impossible question that Edwards poses in Women is “what’s the difference between truly loving women and merely making love to women? Who is the lover, who the womanizer?”
His answer is David loves women, every inch of them, and makes love when he feels it will be a reciprocally positive experience, which might sound supercilious and self-aggrandizing but is practiced in a remarkable sequence where he picks up a street prostitute, Nancy (played by Edwards and Andrew’s daughter Jennifer Edwards) with only the intention of allowing her to get off the street and dry off from the rain. He ultimately gives her a job working in his studio with him, free of any sexual overtures, that allows her to regain her dignity and self-worth and break free of her drug addiction. Reynolds’ underplaying throughout this entire sequence is impressive, as Edwards here and throughout does not allow him to call on his various cutesy and occasionally macho ticks. Reynolds stays modestly in character throughout the film, a mean feat when his character is supposed to be effortlessly seductive, but, then, Fowler’s modesty is part of his allure.
David is able to tune into the unique aspect of each woman he meets, and has a different type of relationship with each one, which shows acute sensitivity on his part but also indicates his relationships are all determined by the women’s needs, him delivering what they need without ever fulfilling or even identifying what he needs (the film at its weediest resorts to fairly passé issues with his mother as an explanation; better to have left his impulses ambiguous and unsolved). The perversion explored in this film is spiritual, as Reynolds can’t break free of his cheerful compulsion, and even when he apparently has it all plus the new self-knowledge of what drove him before, he can’t stop himself, resulting in the funeral that opens the film. What a sad, funny movie, and what a curious way to have to describe a movie. This is why Edwards’ The Man Who Loved Women is a superior film, superior to its shaky reputation and superior to Truffaut’s overvalued original.
Columbia Pictures seemed most concerned that somehow Reynolds’ character’s womanizing would turn away audiences (perhaps they were right!), as in tandem with Edwards’ statement expounding the film’s philosophy, they supplied in the press kit a profile of Reynolds where he argues the unfairness of the press’s representation of women: “They give the women’s ages but make no mention of the men’s. Our obsession with age is stupid anyway, but if they’re going to tell how old ladies are, shouldn’t they do the same with the men?” This may seem a sop to a certain audience, although it should be noted that one of Reynolds’s most famous relationship to that time was with the more mature Dinah Shore.
One of the most frustrating aspects of Reynolds’ career is that he could balance the macho calisthenics of Deliverance and Smokey and the Bandit with a warm sensitivity exhibited in At Long Last Love, Starting Over, and here, a rare gift. But he was always self-doubting about it, mocking Peter Bogdanovich in Hal Needham’s inconsequential tribute to macho camaraderie, Hooper, when Bogdanovich got better performances from him in their two projects (the astonishing Love and the ambitious, captivating Nickelodeon) than any director other than John Boorman had at that point. In due course, of course, Reynolds chose to legendarily forgo Jack Nicholson’s Oscar-winning part in Terms of Endearment for the awful Needham monstrosity Stroker Ace.
The Man Who Loved Women was the last attempt by Reynolds to be a sensitive romantic lead in a Hollywood feature, save the underrated Ted Kotcheff remake of His Girl Friday, Switching Channels, that snuck out long after Reynolds’ star had disintegrated. Here, still the leading man he should have remained, Reynolds gives a dexterous, proportioned performance: beautiful, clean, softhearted and miserable.
Of course, The Man Who Loved Women needs women equal to the man’s desire for them, and Edwards put together a terrific ensemble of dissimilar, pleasing types. Andrews, a great comedienne as displayed in the previous year’s Victor/Victoria, also helmed by Edwards, was often used as a model of sanity by him (she was his real-life wife), whether in his romantic spy thriller The Tamarind Seed, as Dudley Moore’s even-tempered long-term romantic partner in 10, as the pragmatic and focused movie star wife of Richard Mulligan in S.O.B., and again here in the role of patient, empathetic, intelligent psychiatrist Marianna. As Andrews put it at the time, “Marianna has been one of the more difficult roles for me because I’ve never had to be so still and keep my mouth shut for so long.”
She does it well, though, and between this and her physical attractiveness and maturity, it is wholly imaginable that she could be what Reynolds feels he needs after the stormy affair with sex and danger-crazed Kim Basinger, winning over the slightly tentative but game aerobics instructor Marilu Henner, and the also level-headed but much younger Sikes. Andrews’ character acts as a brilliant, beautiful downer to counteract the high he gets from the California girls peppering every corner of his landscape and as such is equally desirable and plausibly seen by him as a viable solution to his dilemma. She, of course, is not so sure.
One crucial aspect of the film’s success is Kim Basinger’s early-career performance as Louise, a bored, married Texas trophy wife, her each breath a sensual enterprise, who is preoccupied with facilitating dangerous assignations with David in public. Basinger, at the time of release, had been called “the prototype of a galactic New Woman” by Fellini, owning of a “special quality most actors pursue with an unpleasant zest, but only a few possess” by Bob Fosse, and had, as Roger Vadim insisted, “this quality, absolutely indispensable for an actress, specifically for a beautiful actress, which is not to know that she is beautiful.” With this kind of press hard to live up to, she nevertheless storms into the picture about half an hour in and dominates it for its middle third, a radiating sensualist with a physical gift for comic timing that has never since been appropriately exploited, as she has often been cast as the femme-fatale who smolders a lot, whether to good effect in L.A. Confidential or to lesser effect in No Mercy and such. Basinger’ auspicious, unrestrained pleasure-seeking comic performance in Women should be cherished, as it is underseen and has not been matched in her subsequent work.
Edwards is an odd director, sometimes subtle, sometimes obvious, and he has an ability to make viewers feel guilty about laughing at his work; films such as a A Fine Mess and Blind Date have been reviled because of their superficially inconsequential natures, although to me they are the best efforts by any major talent to devise modern feature-length equivalencies to the Laurel & Hardy two-reelers beloved by all sane, sentient beings. Women is much more ambitious thematically, alternating slapstick sequences of Reynolds staging car accidents to meet women and hiding from Basinger’s husband in a hotel room, with scenes of Reynolds laid out on the couch, exposing himself to Andrews, miserably hating himself.
Its tonal shifts and overall tenor of humorous anguish can throw off viewers who want more sexy, slapstick lunacy, and come off spurious to those who think the film should explore more of Reynold’s ultimately fatal psychosis (and with Days of Wine and Roses and Experiment in Terror under his belt, we know Edwards is exceedingly capable of keeping a straight face if he chooses so). The Man Who Loved Women maintains the tone of a light joke told with a tortured smile, as if all the successful, ingenious Southern Californians who have made it are well aware they have it all and yet feel miserable at some core level. Perhaps Edwards is exploring the despair all rich, fruitful Los Angeles creatives have; steeped in success, good weather and beautiful, interesting people, how do they find ways to nonetheless self-destruct (as Reynolds himself largely did soon after making this)? The uncertain, troubled The Man Who Loved Women should not be a footnote in either Edwards or Reynolds’s fascinating careers.