S.O.B. ★★★★½

Watched as part of the January 2017 Letterboxd Scavenger Hunt
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#12: A film featuring any actor or made by any director who died 17 years ago

2017 movie viewings, #58. For a guy who's largely starting to get forgotten by the general culture, Blake Edwards had a remarkable career, a writer/director who started in the prestige television drama anthologies of the Mid-Century Modernist 1950s, effortlessly transitioned into the edgier material of that era like Breakfast at Tiffany's and Days of Wine and Roses, created a hugely lucrative franchise in the Pink Panther movies, and had a career resurgence in the Postmodernist years with naughty comedies like 10, The Man Who Loved Women, and the gender-bending Victor/Victoria, before turning back to the live theater in his elderly years and then sadly suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome in the 15 years leading up to his death in 2010. (And this is not even mentioning that he was married to Julie Andrews for about half that time, the creator of pretty much every post-family-film hit of her career, and was the guy who nearly single-handedly established the reputation of composer Henry Mancini.)

1981's S.O.B. is very firmly from the "naughty Postmodernist" part of Edwards' career; an acronym that usually means "son of a bitch" but here stands for "Standard Operating Bullshit," and very loosely based on Edwards' real-life experience making the expensive 1971 flop Darling Lili (the film that was supposed to establish a new adult persona for Julie Andrews but instead almost killed her career), it's the metafictional story of a hugely successful manic-depressive Hollywood director (Richard Mulligan at his most entertainingly spastic) who convinces his studio bosses to let him make the most expensive movie in history, a huge showy family musical starring Julie Andrews that instead turns into one of the biggest flops in history, plunging Mulligan into a suicidal rage when not lounging in a catatonic state around his Malibu beach mansion. The first half of the movie, then, is a look at the ways the studio executives around him try to spin the disaster, as well as shield the media from the fact that Mulligan is on a suicidal kick, all while a bacchanalian '70s party full of coke and naked 18-year-olds commences for days around him in his house; then in the second half, Mulligan (seemingly now suffering from a nervous breakdown) has a flash of insight, and decides to use the still existing sets to completely refilm the movie as a hard-R exploitation film, the highlight of which will be the act of Julie Andrews appearing topless for the first time in her career (accomplished here by the real-life Julie Andrews actually appearing topless for the first time in her career, ironically making the real-life S.O.B. the exploitative hit that's being fictionalized within the running time of S.O.B.). Whew!

It's pretty heady stuff for a raunchy T-n-A comedy; and this is to say nothing of Robert Vaughn as a sociopathic, cross-dressing studio executive who is clearly a parody of real-life studio executive Robert Evans, and Robert Preston in his career-best as a shady, leisure-suit-wearing Doctor Feelgood, running around shooting up every Hollywood star he can get his hands on with his potent hypodermic cocktails of prescription painkillers. Yet the whole thing holds together pretty well anyway, mostly because of Edwards' deft balance here between comedy and tragedy, inserting lots of silent-movie-style slapstick moments like he so famously did in the "Pink Panther" films, yet giving the film breathing room for lots of serious moments regarding mental illness, the open manipulation accomplished by the trillion-dollar entertainment industry, and how grizzled veterans manage to form sincere and abiding relationships in the middle of that whirlwind anyway. (The poignant end of the movie, which I'll let remain a surprise, is especially touching, and not what you would expect from a film featuring naked 18-year-olds running around doing coke in a Malibu beach mansion.) Not a perfect film by far, it's nonetheless an overlooked little gem from a career full of them, a wonderfully nasty send-up of the Hollywood film industry that should be in the watchlist of any serious movie buff who sees a lot of the movies that come out of this industry. It comes strongly recommended today in that spirit.

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