Criterion Prediction #40: Melvin and Howard, by Alexander Miller
Title: Melvin and Howard
Director: Jonathan Demme
Cast: Paul Le Mat, Mary Steenburgen, Pamela Reed, Jason Robards, Elizabeth Darcy
Synopsis: Melvin (Le Mat) is an average guy, he means well, but he can’t seem to catch a break. One night, he picks up a strange older man (Robards) who’s injured after dumping his motorcycle in the Nevada desert. The stranger introduces himself as Howard Hughes. Melvin’s reluctant to believe him, but drives the alleged Hughes to his hotel destination after some chatter and singing of a Christmas song Melvin wrote called “Santa’s Souped-Up Sleigh.” After his revolving-door marriage with Lynda (Steenburgen) and his second wife Bonnie (Reed), life continues to be a series of ups and downs for the optimistic but downtrodden dreamer. Life is turned around once again when he is named the beneficiary of $156,000,000 by Howard Hughes after his death. Controversy immediately follows when Melvin is accused of forgery and fraud, resulting in a legal battle and a swarm of media attention.
Critique: Jonathan Demme might be the celebrated director of thrillers like The Silence of the Lambs and Something Wild, but his gentle and sympathetic comedic drama Melvin and Howard is easily some of his best work. It’s a contemporary American fable and a true story that is (in the best tradition) stranger than fiction, with a subject – Hughes – whose own story is beyond belief. There are plenty of directors out there who could have told this story competently, but Jonathan Demme handles it expertly, showcasing his ability to evenly delineate both the mundanities and eccentricities of everyday existence with warmth and humor. Instead of extracting the menial activities of family life (watching TV, working, etc.) in favor of more exciting moments with limp interludes of connecting tissue, Demme and screenwriter Goldman opt for inclusive narrative fluidity. The banalities become fascinating, and the highlights or dramatic crescendos ring out with supplementary resonance.
It would be easy to treat the ne’er-do-well life of Melvin Dummar with condescension, but Melvin and Howard isn’t the type of film to patronize its subjects. The dimensional sense of realism involves us in cheering on Melvin, and his steadfast belief in the pursuit of happiness and the American dream. Even his capricious first wife Lynda and her pinnacle performance on a TV game show is utterly absorbing; we want the Dummar family to enjoy a taste of success so badly that despite her unremarkable tap dancing and silly garb, we cannot bring ourselves to patronize these people. Although Le Matt enjoyed a busy career, it’s a shame headline success alluded him, because his range is substantial and subtle.
Despite being in the movie for a short period, Robards’s portrayal of recluse Hughes looms over the entirety of the film, and his gravelly timbre makes his singing of “Bye Bye Blackbird” and of course Melvin’s own concoction “Santa’s Souped-Up Sleigh” leave a sustained impression. The moment has a profound effect on Melvin as well, after all, he sang his song, which is more comforting to our protagonist than inheriting his fortune. The cruel irony of the story might seem pessimistic, but the conclusion is somewhat hopeful, dodging the frequently dour tone that permeated American film at the time.
Why it Belongs in the Collection: First of all this movie is dreadfully misadvertised. The Universal DVD cover makes it look like a screwball road comedy, with Robards racing his motorcycle in the foreground and Le Mat and Steenburgen embracing in the back. They might as well have a speech bubble with a title like “Our Wacky Grandpa”. I can’t fault Universal entirely for this bad cover. Melvin and Howard is a hard film to sell, and relating Hughes’s legacy to a contemporary audience is understandably difficult. However, Howard Hughes and the ensuing scandal following his death is an area of interest for people who are serious about movies, and that likely includes people who are prone to movies in The Criterion Collection. Should Melvin and Howard receive the Criterion treatment, it would undoubtedly undergo a renaissance just as Demme’s 1986 Something Wild had following its 2011 Criterion Blu-ray upgrade. Ironically, Demme’s most well-known film in the Collection, The Silence of the Lambs, is an OOP spine number, unlikely to receive a Blu-ray upgrade (this and many early spine numbers were transplants from their Laserdisc days) due to the saturated Hannibal Lecter market. Re-introducing audiences to Melvin and Howard would likely be a successful release on Criterion’s part, expanding the scope of Demme’s skill set and range as a director. The Universal DVD features an audio commentary with Demme and production designer Toby Rafelson, but aside from the commentary and a trailer that’s all this DVD has to offer. Insight from the real Melvin Dummar would also make for some interesting supplementary content. With many of the Criterion titles based on true stories (Badlands, Breaker Morant, Che, Walker, etc.) bonus documentaries or interviews with people who inspired the movie in question turn out to be engaging.