At Long Last Love
One of the very few movies that, as far as I can tell, has never been released on VHS, much less DVD. I suppose that’s because the director, Peter Bogdanovich, actually apologized for it in an open letter published in many newspapers. I first saw it when HBO was a baby. I don’t recall much about it. Now it’s available on Netflix streaming, and I’ve finally been able to see it again. There are no less than 16 Cole Porter songs, lots of singing and dancing. I love Cole Porter. How bad could it be?
A bit of history first. For some reason known only to him, Boggy (as opposed to Bogey) decided to go back to the early history of sound recording in movies. That is, all sound would be performed live, not recorded first with the actors lip-synching later. Nobody had done that since the early 1930s, and there’s a good reason for that: It sucks. You don’t get better sound, you get worse sound, and endless retakes because, while there are many things you can screw up visually when making a film, there are twice as many you can screw up in the audio. That means endless retakes until you have it right. The budget soared to 6 million, real money in 1975. In addition, he shot it with long, long takes, sometimes an entire song without any cuts. Again, one flub and you go back to square one, and that takes a long, long time.
Then there was the problem of non-singers and non-dancers in the singing and dancing roles. Only Madeline Kahn was a good singer. Okay, there’s a long tradition of non-singers in Hollywood movies, but that means you dub in the voice of someone who can sing, like the great Marni Nixon, who sang for everyone from Audrey Hepburn to Deborah Kerr. With people like Burt Reynolds and Cybill Shepherd, and live recording, what you see is what you hear. And no one has yet figured out how to make non-dancers dance well other than to train extensively, as Steve Martin did in Pennies From Heaven and Natalie Portman did in Black Swan. Neither of them ever reached the standards of Fred Astaire or Margot Fonteyn, but they could fake it well enough. Here, the dancing is rudimentary, and the best thing about it is that the hoofing is kept to a minimum.
So, finally, how does it look today? The good news is that it’s not as bad as its reputation, but that reputation was so bad it would almost have to actually be painful to watch. It’s not, but it’s not good. It simply doesn’t work very well. The plot is silly, intentionally, just like those silly Cole Porter musicals about upper class twits swilling champagne all day and night in art deco palaces. That’s okay. The biggest problem is miscasting. Neither Reynolds nor Shepherd give off any magic, nor does Kahn, for that matter. Oddly, the most appealing characters are Eileen Brennan and John Hillerman, as the maid and chauffeur. I wonder how it might have worked with, say, Julie Andrews and Gene Kelly? Of course, Gene was too old by then. Best thing about it? The black and white and silver sets, and the musical arrangements of the great songs. Too bad there was really no one around to sing them.