SOAP BOX COWARD

Based on William Bradford Huie’s novel, The Americanization of Emily is one of the most pleasant surprises of the 60s—a low-scale, sassy anti-war/love story. Adapted by Paddy Chayefsky, it’s a precursor to his irreverent, anti-establishment screenplays The Hospital and Network. Fronting as a Navy Commander-aide de camp to Admiral Melvyn Douglas, James Garner is one of the infamous “dog-robbers” of WW II, those notorious personal assistants as foxy purchasing agents who made sure that every imaginable need and vice were provided for their bosses. (The robbers continue today.) Garner’s not supposed to be quite so attractive, what with his shit-eating grin, his practicing cowardice, his ever-ready boxes of Hershey’s and—to the amazement of all who see it—his small warehouse of contraband suggesting a miniature Harrods. But in that those he encounters—especially Julie Andrews as Emily—have all suffered from the mounting death from war, his recreant’s honesty is magnetic yet acid-laced: “God save us from all the people who do the right thing.” Sizing up Andrews’ reserved smugness, he cracks, “You’re something of a prig.” Irritated by her bemoaning his party mood in the middle of war, he says, “Lay off, Mrs. Miniver.” Garner’s Charlie is Huie’s creation, but it’s Paddy who put Charlie on the soap box: his word heaps have the unmistakable pitch of Paddy’s rantings on hypocrisy. (Viewers not having seen Emily but who have seen Network will be reminded of both Peter Finch’s Howard Beale and William Holden’s Max Schumacher.) Never better, Andrews’ Englishwoman’s shell has cracks in it, some secrets oozing out—confirmed by Andrews to Mike Wallace on “60 Minutes,” during which she admits that she had a “wonderful time” doing those love scenes with Garner. (When those takes were finished, she said, “My knees buckled.”) Emily as introduction to Andrews gave me a goodie-goodie immunization and for this I’m still thankful, because I was lucky enough not to have first suffered shattered ear drums from her piercing-like singing or feel oppressed by the sugar-weighted baggage of Poppins or Maria. Her Emily is a priggish bitch and if her novice movie acting shows, it’s fitting: English Emily is a closet case, outwardly the stoic martyress, inside as much of a sensualist as extrovert Charlie. In the role Holden was originally to star, Garner’s waggish, effortless sleaze is irony of the most charming kind: his Charlie’s rapid-fire ravings reverb as wisdom even while admitting, despite prangs of conscience, he’s “not equipped to deal with the truth,” most particularly in light of the hero worship he’ll receive as the first victim on Omaha Beach to come back from the dead. If there are too many harangues—like an addiction, Paddy often didn’t know when to stop—Garner makes them worth listening to; you sense that he knows as an actor that he might never get dialogue this meaty again. He didn’t, but the consolation is that this isn’t only his best screen work, it’s the best performance by an American actor in 1964. Also pretty much unchallenged that Emily remains Arthur Hiller’s top movie; with a thrifty budget, he very effectively manages an otherwise confining, pedestrian style to showcase Paddy’s zesty pontifications and the cast’s equally joyful verve in reciting them. (In the autobio The Garner Files, Garner speculates that William Wyler as first choice director pulled out because, having made Mrs. Miniver and The Best Years of Our Lives, he, as well as the studio, had concerns that the theme of anti-war would be highly unpopular with audiences, which in fact was initially the case.) Douglas, who won the Oscar for Hud the year before, proves once again there’s gold to be mined in character parts. With James Coburn, Edward Binns, William Windom, Joyce Grenfell, Liz Fraser, Keenan Wynn and small bits by Judy Carne and Alan Sues.

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Text COPYRIGHT © 2000 RALPH BENNER  (Revised 8/2014) All Rights Reserved.