20th Century-Fox, 1983
starring: Tom Conti, Kelly McGillis, Roberts Blossom
director: Robert Ellis Miller
THE PLOT: Alcoholic poet Gowan McGland (Conti), his glory days long gone, is ekeing out a miserable living on a lecture (some call it lecher) tour of New England, giving poetry readings and seducing other men’s middle-aged wives (he also steals tips). His ex-wife is writing a tell-all biography of him, hoping he’ll die young enough to guarantee good sales. While lingering in the autumnal and unbearably quaint village of Woodsmoke, he meets college student Geneva Spofford — smart, fresh, gorgeous, but ultimately too innocent. She responds to the wretch in a man, and Gowan is wretched. They fall in love, but their relationship is as doomed as Gowan’s inability to write new verse.
WHY IT’S GOOD: This was one of the last from Beatles films producer Walter Shenson, and he went out on a high, admirable note. Julius J. Epstein, renowned for his scripts for Casablanca and Arsenic and Old Lace, penned this gem as an amalgam of a dense novel and a Broadway play, and got an Oscar nomination at age 75. Director Robert Ellis Miller (an underused talent who helmed Roger Moore’s Bed & Breakfast, filmed on York Beach) shows the lightest of touches and the greatest of care in handling his superb cast and sustaining a bittersweet tone that never gets cloying. Aside from Conti, the whole cast is comprised of wonderful character actors, such as warhorse Roberts Blossom (of Ed Gein Deranged cult fame). This was also Kelly McGillis’ screen debut. But Tom Conti rightly steals the show. As the witty, sad, eccentric, unkempt, lustful, and drunken Scottish poet (lightly modeled on Dylan Thomas), Conti’s every frame is a triumph of inhabiting a character. He was nominated for Best Actor and should have won, but didn’t.
THE LEGACY: The title derives both from a 19th-century popular song and the name of the huge Old English Sheepdog who sadly ends the film. The source novel of the same name is one of the most ambitious by the magnificent Peter De Vries, one of America’s funniest novelists (Epstein also drew on the Melvyn Douglas Broadway play adaptation, Spofford, to craft his screenplay). De Vries enjoyed great critical success and popularity with readers, and was an annual mainstay for publisher Little, Brown and Co. in Boston. His razor-sharp yet conversely gentle satires on sex and religion in post-war America are unequaled. He was beloved by such heavyweights as Paul Theroux. But tastes change, and at the time of his death in 1993, not one of his 27 books was in print.