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S.O.B. (1981)

Hollywood is at its best when it’s writing about itself. Or, at least in the moment, more often they’re excoriated for how “inside” they play to mass audiences. In 1979 director Blake Edwards scored a hit with his Dudley Moore comedy 10. His follow-up was anticipated, but when S.O.B. came out in 1981, it was meant with puzzlement from audiences, securing both a Golden Globe nomination as well as Razzies (back when they still had some modicum of knowledge) for worst director. S.O.B. (short for Standard Operational Bullshit and not the popular acronym you’re all thinking) is comedy of the blackest variety, both honoring a Hollywood long gone and castigating a Hollywood that’s always existed.

Felix Farmer (Robert Mulligan) is a successful Hollywood director coming off a flop called Night Wind. Driven insane by his failure yet unable to kill himself, Felix decides to reshoot the picture his way. Unfortunately the Hollywood machine keeps getting in the way of Felix’s vision, blowing up a powder keg of frustration peppered with plenty of sex and lies.

Part of what makes S.O.B. such fun, and equally polarizing to mainstream audiences, is how directly it points the finger of blame at people film buffs know. Edwards was inspired to write the film after dealing with studio politics on two feature films, 1971’s Darling Lili and Wild Rovers. Edwards is a figure whose work often goes unrecognized, with his more mainstream features touted as the ones to watch. (If you haven’t seen 10 you’ve probably seen the gender-bending musical Edwards made with wife Julie Andrews, 1982’s Victor/Victoria.) There’s a relentless, no-holds-barred nature to S.O.B, from the open affection for the studio Dr. Feelgood, Irving Finegarten (played with peak likeability by Robert Preston) to the wild sexual love triangle between studio head David Blackman (Robert Vaughn) and his actress girlfriend Mavis (Marisa Berenson). If you’re “in the know” it’s easy to see that Blackman is a stand-in for Robert Evans and Preston a take on Max Jacobsen.

The poking is even more forceful where it concerns actress Sally Miles (Andrews), whose Mary Martin looks make sense when you hear Miles has played Peter Pan. The Miles plotline, obviously inspired by Andrews’ own attempts to shake her Disney/musical image, is where the hilarity really hits because it’s not often you see Andrews get to play so free. One is often quick to call S.O.B. “the one where Andrews drops her top,” and outside of that being demeaning to her as an actress, it’s proof of what makes her character so subversive. Miles wants to be a serious actress, but doesn’t want to alienate her fans who see her as the representation of sweetness and light. All of this leads up to her reconfigured rendition of “Polly-Wally-Doodle” – the film’s opening number involves ballerinas and toy soldiers, replaced in the second half by dominatrixes and gigolos – where she has “to show her boobies.” There’s not a lot written about Andrews’ impeccable comedic timing, and I actually think she’s funnier here than in Victor/Victoria. The look of pure glee and shock on her face after she bares her chest is hilarious, instantly drawing the audiences’ attention away from the nudity.

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The rest of the cast is equally expressive, particularly Robert Mulligan as the suicidal Felix. Nearly wordless for the film’s first half, the audience watches his slapstick take on suicide, including falling on someone while attempting a hanging. His hangdog look and tear-streaked face conjure up all the pain the character is feeling, yet the audience can’t help but laugh at his pathetic ineptitude. There’s an edge of bleak humor that runs alongside the character, conjuring up something more cynical than was found in 1976’s Network. Paralleling Felix’s life is the death of an unnamed former actor, who dies while running on the beach and ends up laying in view of the audience for roughly a third of the feature. People scamper on the beach around his body, with a couple even commenting on how cute his dog is. The man is only as memorable as the size of his last role. The credits are all that matter, a fact sent up by Felix’s funeral, where the swami’s “eulogy” is simply listing off Farmer’s films and reading reviews. (The dog himself seems to represent Felix, going from depression to acceptance throughout the film.) By the time Preston and William Holden’s Cully kidnap Felix’s corpse – a take on the infamous story involving Errol Flynn, Raoul Walsh, and John Barrymore’s corpse – the humor is as absurd as it can be. The thing is: all of this is expected. It is Hollywood after all!

This marks William Holden’s final role, and he’s solid as the womanizing Cully. It’s hard not to see this as similar to his role as Max Schumacher in the aforementioned Network. He blends in well with the excellent ensemble. I’ve been watching Preston’s films for over a month and this remains one of my favorite performances from him. He truly came alive under Edwards’ direction. His doctor may be a “quack,” but he’s a quack with a conscience. His attempts to give himself a “vitamin shot” with former junkie Lila (Jennifer Edwards) is particularly funny. Vaughn, Robert Loggia, Larry Hagman, Shelley Winters, and Loretta Swit are all perfect. What’s interesting is how many of these actors had found a second life in Irwin Allen’s series of disaster films, and here they receive the opportunity to send up the nature of “cameos.” They aren’t playing hags or washed up people, but the people who probably spent decades placating them, urging them into subpar roles. Winters, as a take of legendary agent Sue Mengers, stands out the best here.

S.O.B. is a comedy you need to see if you’re a fan of Hollywood. If you enjoy Sunset Blvd (1950) for its expose of how Hollywood cast aside its silent stars, Edwards reaches out to look at the state of filmmaking in the early-’80s, a time where the studio system had been dead for years and the old guard had no idea how to deal with a growing culture of excess. The recent Warner Archive Blu-ray is the best way to watch it!

Ronnie Rating:

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Kristen Lopez View All

A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.

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