Before becoming wildly known for directing the 1985 box office hit Fletch (as well as the sequel Fletch Lives in 1989), American filmmaker Michael Ritchie made commercially successful sports films (Downhill Racer, The Bad News Bears) as well as critically acclaimed satires, like the 1972 political comedy The Candidate starring Robert Redford (a film that won screenwriter Jeremy Larner an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay) and the 1975 comedy-drama Smile. The latter, a seriously overlooked masterpiece that cleverly examines the hypocrisies of beauty pageants, played in few theaters when it was released, making barely any revenue. In spite of this, Ritchie’s film received favorable reviews from critics, who praised it for its wit, casting and poignant social commentary. Smile takes us on a well-crafted, multi-layered ride by placing its focus not just on the teenage participants of a beauty contest in Southern California, but also on the people who either help shape it or are in some way affected by it.
Out of the twenty-plus contestants, we get to know two of them more intimately. The first one is Robin (Joan Prather), a genuinely sweet girl who is new to this type of spectacle and acts naturally, oblivious to the sad truth that outward appearances are everything. She smiles only when intrinsically motivated (as opposed to all the time) and gives candid answers to the judges’ interview questions, unaware of the fact that the declarative drive to help others is seen as a quintessential character trait without which one’s persona as a young American miss is impossible to assert and maintain. Robin also does not consider utilizing the death of her father as a way of garnering points, something Doria (Annette O'Toole) her roommate and competitor, oftentimes advises her to do. On the other hand, the extroverted Doria knows the ins and outs of such competitions and does not hesitate to use all of the tricks she has up her sleeve, knowing very well what the judges are actually looking for.
Because even though the judges, the girls and the spectators of such events subscribe to the pretense that grades, talents and likeability are equally important when it comes to winning, they know (and we know) that sex is what sells. All the girls need to go through a week of extensive preparations, dance classes, rehearsals for a variety show to showcase their talents, as well as get sympathy points on account of their charming personalities and performative selflessness, despite the fact that none of it really matters. As we watch these girls fumble, falter and fail in ways that are designed to be funny, we are capable of both laughing and feeling for them at the same time. Because Smile does not make fun of them—it mocks a system set up by older men that forces young girls to conform and sacrifice any shred of authenticity they may have had, all for the sake of feeling seen and being significant.
One of the cogs within that machine is Big Bob (Bruce Dern), a used car dealer who views the pageant as an opportunity to shine and be heard, for he just so happens to be the head judge. He uses toxic positivity as a coping mechanism that prevents him from admitting to himself just how miserable and unfulfilled his life is. And he does the same thing to other people by minimizing their feelings, so that he can avoid confronting his own darkness that lurks underneath. One of the people Big Bob gaslights is his friend Andy (Nicholas Pryor), an alcoholic who is unhappy with both the aging process (he is turning thirty-five) and his marriage to Brenda (Barbara Feldon), the pageant’s executive director and a former winner herself. We are also presented with small vignettes from the point of view of the janitors (Titos Vandis and Dennis Dugan) responsible for the venue where the competition is held and their unglamorous day-to-day that includes drinking from hidden alcohol bottles and unclogging toilets after the girls have been specifically instructed not to flush sanitary napkins.
Another subplot involves cynical Hollywood choreographer Tommy French (Broadway choreographer Michael Kidd) who does not see eye to eye with the pageant’s producer and rarely fails to make snarky remarks about the vapidness and inherent idiocy of such pageants but, as a paid professional, contributes to the charade nonetheless. Still, the storyline that drives the point home the most is the one revolving around Big Bob’s pre-pubescent son Little Bob (Eric Shea). When Little Bob is caught taking photos of the girls while they undress, his actions are not only frowned upon, but are also considered deeply humiliating for his father, and thus the entire pageant. And yet, he is the only one who openly acts in accordance with the sexist dynamics that such competitions are built on, but that no one would dream of fessing up to.
Ritchie and screenwriter Jerry Belson found one more fantastic way to take a dig at the arbitrariness of winning by not telling the cast and crew who the winner and the runners-up are going to be. This not only created an atmosphere full of anticipation, but also made cinematographer Conrad L. Hall’s job much more challenging because he had to use his camera to find the random winners among the twenty-plus girls, as their names were being read out. Smile is a brilliantly written and directed satire of artifice under the guise of authenticity, so be sure to get your hands on it on Blu-Ray as part of Fun City Editions, Vinegar Syndrome’s new partner label, dedicated to designing deluxe home video editions of timeless films whose value is not bound to the time period of their initial release.