See It or Die: Michael Ritchie's Beauty Pageant Epic "Smile"
A weekly feature in which a writer answers the question: if you could force your friends at gunpoint to watch one movie or TV show what would it be?
This week: Richard Rushfield on “Smile”
Anyone wanting to know what it was like to have been alive in the 1970’s should look no further than “Smile,” director Michael Ritchie’s 1975 satire of the beauty pageant circuit. Four decades on, the film might as well be about the lost continent of Atlantis; seeing it from today’s vantage it is hard to imagine that such a time could have existed, that any era could have ever been so odd, so almost hallucinatory in its weirdness.
But that’s how it was. The 1970’s were the moment when after the civil war of the 60’s, Ward Cleaver America and the new libertine subculture threw up their hands, said, “Oh what the hell!?” And for this brief frozen moment lived side by side, intermingled; bound together by a shared discovered affection for giant lapels and bushy sideburns.
“Smile” isn’t even really a satire of this moment as much as a perfect photograph of it. Ritchie heightens the comic moments just a fraction of a decibel for effect but pretty much, that’s how it was.
Through the prism of a “Young American Miss” pageant, held in small town Santa Rosa, California, Ritchie captures the blend of middle-American boosterism combined with a new strand of dreamy free-spiritedness. Captured with Altmanesque naturalism, “Smile” as funny as any great comedy. The preparation, the hopes and dreams of the contestants are portrayed in as painstaking detail as a season of “American Idol” with all overwrought agonies therein. One sequence involving the pageant’s MC lifting a completely unrelated pep talk for his opening monologue is perhaps the best encapsulation of the strangle stilted formality of 1970’s tuxedo’d banquet culture in all of film.
More so than Martin Scorsese or any of the celebrated American auteurs of his generation, Michael Ritchie might well be the true bard of the 1970’s. Through the decade, he had a near perfect run of films, which “Smile” fell right in the middle of: “The Candidate,” “Prime Cut,” “Smile,” “Bad News Bears,” “Semi-Tough” and “An Almost Perfect Affair.” His deceptively low key style allowed him to take audiences into some of the most intimate spaces of the most light-touch and intimate of eras, without ever calling attention to how deep he was getting. The seemingly lackadasical pacing of his films perfectly reflected the era’s drifting, aimless spirit.
In the 1970’s, America stood at the crossroads of its history and thought things over for a while, before taking a hard leap into the world we know today. No film better captures where the country stood at that turning point than “Smile” - the film I would most like to force my friends to watch, at gunpoint if necessary.