Hollywood satires often shred the industry from top to bottom.
Think “The Player,” Robert Altman’s take-no-prisoners assault on Tinsel Town, or the Coen brothers’ nightmarish “Barton Fink.” Even “The Big Picture” took cynical swipes at the industry’s soul-sucking ways.
The punches thrown in Alan Alda’s 1986 satire “Sweet Liberty,” by comparison, never leave a bruise. It’s not really the point. Alda uses Hollywood as the backdrop for a farcical look at love, indecision and the choices made along the way.
Alda stars as Michael Burgess, a professor who sold his nonfiction book on the American Revolution to Hollywood. He can’t wait to see how big movie stars bring his tome to life. The film’s director (Saul Rubinek) has other ideas.
The film production ignores the historical record, checking off what we’re told are the critical boxes for a Reagan-era smash:
- Defy authority
- Destroy property
- Take people’s clothes off
Today’s Hollywood bows to fraudulent doctors and governors alike, while mega-stars complain when their beauty is leveraged to spike a scene.
Miss the ’80s yet?
Michael is understandably aghast at the creative liberties with his text. He teams with the film’s hacky screenwriter (Bob Hoskins) to bring some history back to the project.
FAST FACT: “Sweet Liberty” earned $14 million at the U.S. box office in 1986. The comedy now sports a 79 percent “fresh” rating at RottenTomatoes.com.
The film with a film’s cast isn’t making Michael’s mission any easier.
Leading lady, Faith (Michelle Pfeiffer), will do whatever it takes to nail her part. The dashing Elliott (Michael Caine, oozing movie star charisma) cares more about sleeping with as many women as possible than hitting his marks.
Michael is torn between committing to his long time girlfriend (Lise Hilboldt) and the look Faith shoots him whenever he describes her character.
Can Michael save the film, or will he go Hollywood, too?
Alda’s TV and film career speaks for itself – even without his iconic work on “M*A*S*H*.” His curious ’80s fame, epitomizing the sensitive male ideal, fueled his flirtation with auteur status.
He started strong with “The Four Seasons” and peaked with “Sweet Liberty.” Lesser projects like “A New Life” and “Betsy’s Wedding” soured Hollywood on his commercial prospects, and he went back to being an actor for hire.
“Sweet Liberty,” finally available on Blu-ray, shows just how good he can be as a triple threat. His Michael hits the usual Alan Alda notes – he’s always losing his temper without a hint of actual malice. Here, he’s given a gentle Lothario streak that makes Michael more compelling, and conflicted.
Alda the director keeps the various story threads alive without sacrificing the film’s humor and wink-wink satire. The comedic beats flow seamlessly from the characters, the slapstick graceful by mainstream comedy standards.
Caine is a hoot, particularly during an early fencing scene against Alda’s Michael. Credit the sound design team for arguably the film’s biggest laugh.
Hoskins is over the top without ever being annoying, a near-magical feat. And then there’s screen legend Lillian Gish as Michael’s doddery Mom. She’d be a hardcore Alex Jones fan today given her penchant for conspiracy theories, and her battles with Michael are sweet, hilarious and oddly relatable.
Alan Alda and Lillian Gish on the set of Sweet Liberty, 1986… pic.twitter.com/faGOL8mlx4
— Classic Movie Hub (@ClassicMovieHub) October 15, 2019
“Sweet Liberty” mocks Hollywood’s vacuous spirit, but there’s an affection for the industry that’s never far off screen. The film indirectly honors the commitment A-listers bring to the gig. Faith’s commitment to her character is so powerful she’s willing to sleep with various men to heighten her screen performance.
She’s just as hungry to read her character’s diaries.
Alda never stopped working since wrapping “Sweet Liberty,” not even after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in recent years. The film’s Blu-ray edition, free of extras beyond a chatty audio track with film historian/filmmaker Daniel Kremer and film historian/biographer Nat Segaloff, reminds us when he could do no wrong behind the camera.
HiT or Miss: “Sweet Liberty” wasn’t a blockbuster, nor did star Alan Alda enjoy a lengthy directorial career. It’s still that rare comedy that doesn’t talk down to its audience.