Directed by: Blake Edwards
Starring: Julie Andrews, William Holden, Robert Preston, Richard Mulligan, Larry Hagman
The very fact that Blake Edward’s 1981 film S.O.B. (“Standard Operational Bullsh*t”) is a Blake Edwards film is both why it works when it does, and why it falls flat on its face when it doesn’t. It’s a brilliantly vicious—sometimes outright uncomfortable—attack on Hollywood that is prone to every weakness inherent in Edwards’ work—notably excessive length and a tendency to wander off into extraneous and often clumsily executed slapstick. Much like Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd. (1950), it’s a Hollywood insider’s attack on the very system that supports him, but unlike Wilder’s film, Edwards’ movie flirts with autobiography. There’s little doubt that Felix Farmer (Richard Mulligan) is a thinly veiled version of Edwards. Farmer is a Hollywood director, loved by the studios until he makes a huge, expensive flop called Night Wind that also happens to star Farmer’s wife, Sally Miles (Julie Andrews). Considering that Julie Andrews is Edwards’ real-life wife and that she starred in his mega-flop Darling Lily (1970), the similarities are hard to miss.
What’s fascinating—and fascinatingly convoluted—is that S.O.B. operates on the very basis that it seems to be decrying. It is, after all, a film in which the hook is the baring of Julie Andrews’ breasts, which is the exact same hook Felix Farmer is pinning his hopes on with the recut and partially reshot Night Wind. It’s inescapably exploitative, but it also feels like something that just needed to be done since the then 46-year-old Andrews had never quite been able to shake her Mary Poppins/Maria von Trapp image. (I remember a neighbor of ours went with us to see Torn Curtain in 1965 and was horrified to find Julie Andrews in bed with Paul Newman. Whatever did she make of S.O.B.?) The attempt here—tinged with sadness (see the final image of Andrews in the deliberately ghastly “Polly Wolly Doodle” number)—is to finally put that image to rest.
The rest of the film plays with Hollywood legends of various eras. Robert Preston’s venal, injection-happy medico is in part patterned on Louella Parson’s husband, “Docky.” Robert Vaughn’s studio head is clearly supposed to be Robert Evans. The business of stealing a famous person’s corpse is grounded in the possibly apocryphal tale of director Raoul Walsh borrowing John Barrymore’s body as a practical joke on Errol Flynn. And so on. Most of it works—at least in part—and even when it doesn’t, it remains an intriguing look at the movie industry.
The Hendersonville Film Society will show S.O.B at 2 p.m. Sunday, June 28 in the Smoky Mountain Theater at Lake Pointe Landing Retirement Community, 333 Thompson St., Hendersonville. (From Asheville, take I-26 to U.S. 64 West, turn right at the third light onto Thompson Street. Follow to the Lake Point Landing entrance and park in the lot on the left.)