Michael Ritchie and His Satirical Moment

Michael Ritchie shoots Bruce Dern in a scene from “Smile” (1975)

Some tribute today for the late film director Michael Ritchie (1938-2001). Ritchie was primarily associated with comedies, which is the main reason we are moved to write about him this morning. He has been called an “uneven” or “inconsistent” director, but my instinct is that his variable track record has far less to do with Ritchie’s own abilities and more to do with the environment in which he was forced to work. During the 1970s (the New Hollywood heyday) he specialized in smart satires when those were popular and his work was rated high. But by the ’80s, Hollywood was only making really stupid comedies. Like many of his contemporaries (Hal Ashby is another example) his legacy suffered when he was forced to work on these kind of films.

Ritchie first established himself while at Harvard, when he directed the first production of Arthur Kopit’s Oh Dad Poor Dad, Mama’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feeling So Sad. Much like Robert Altman, he went on to direct lots of television, on shows like The Big Valley, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Dr. Kildare, and Run for Your Life (a now-forgotten show that starred Ben Gazzara). The 1968 TV movie The Sound of Anger with Burl Ives was his introduction to feature length. This led to his getting to direct the hit Downhill Racer (1969) with Robert Redford and Gene Hackman. The success of this skiing drama gave Ritchie’s Hollywood career the push it needed to get into high gear.

Ritchie’s reputation for satire came with his next film The Candidate (1972) with Redford, Peter Boyle, and Melvyn Douglas, about a callow young Senatorial candidate who wins an election with no clear plan or purpose in running. The film is an obvious influence on such subsequent stuff as Altman’s Tanner ’88 and Tim Robbins’ Bob Roberts (1992), and, most hilariously is said to have inspired the political aspirations of future Vice President Dan Quayle, who was apparently so stupid he didn’t know The Candidate was a satire.

Smile (1975) may be Ritchie’s masterpiece. An acerbic portrait of a small town beauty pageant, it features a killer ensemble cast of recognizable faces, including Bruce Dern, Geoffrey Lewis (Juliette Lewis’s dad), Barbara Feldon (99 from Get Smart), real life Hollywood choreographer Michael Kidd, Paul Benedict (Mr Bentley from The Jeffersons), Dennis Dugan, Eric Shea, Titos Vandis, and early career Melanie Griffith and Annette O’Toole. Unfortunately for Ritchie, however, Smile was released the same year as Altman’s Nashville, otherwise it might be remembered as THE great cross-section takedown/lampoon of American hypocrisy of 1975.

Smile was followed up by The Bad News Bears (1976), one of the favorite movies of our childhood, which we wrote about in depth here. And this was followed up by the smash-hit Semi-Tough (1977), which we wrote about in this post on football comedy.

In the ’80s Ritchie became associated with lesser films of the new generation of comedy starts and his reputation began to suffer. The films of this period include The Survivors (1983) with Robin Williams and Walter Matthau (Ritchie had worked with Matthau in Bad News Bears, of course); Fletch (1985) and Fletch Lives (1989) with Chevy Chase; The Golden Child (1986) with Eddie Murphy; The Couch Trip (1988) with Dan Aykroyd, Matthau and Charles Grodin; Cops and Robbersons (1994), with Chase and Jack Palance; and A Simple Wish (1997) with Martin Short. He continued to be associated with sports comedies although not with the same level of wit of past years. A turning point seems to be 1978, when he produced (but did not direct) The Bad News Bears Go to Japan, with Tony Curtis in the Matthau role, which only has a 6% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Ritchie’s later sports comedies were Wildcats (1986) with Goldie Hawn; Diggstown (1992) with James Woods and Lou Gossett Jr; and The Scout (1994) with Albert Brooks and Brendan Fraser.

When possible, it seems like he attempted to each back for a little of the old glory. The HBO TV movie The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleading Mom (1993) with Swoozie Kurtz, Holly Hunter and Beau Bridges seemed to harken back to Smile, as does his 1997 series pilot Comfort, Texas. 

Occasionally Ritchie ventured into other genres. Prime Cut (1972) was a gangster picture with Gene Hackman and Lee Marvin, featuring controversial sex and nudity. The Island (1980) was a bizarre thriller penned by Jaws’ Robert Benchley about a remote island populated with latter-day pirates, played by Michael Caine and David Warner! He directed the 1980 Bette Midler concert film Divine Madness. And in 1995 he returned to his theatrical roots to direct the screen adaptation of the off-off-Broadway musical The Fantasticks, which didn’t receive a release until 2000, following 23 minutes worth of cuts under the supervision of Francis Ford Coppola. Even so, the film was only released to a few cinema and suffered a major financial loss.

Ritchie was only 62 when cancer took him in 2001. If he had lived it is more than possible he might have made more movies that could have restored his reputation, though my bet is that these would have been made for television rather than for cinematic release. Some trivia: at the time of his death he was living in the same house where Marilyn Monroe died of an overdose in 1962.