PENNIES FROM HEAVEN (1981)
Steve Martin, Herbert Ross and Dennis Potter use the musical to make art that hits where it hurts
What if there was a musical that was more like one of the tough-minded independent directorial visions of late 1970’s cinema, a musical that was more like a film noir, a musical that plunged the viewer straight into a troubling dreamscape of metaphors for all the lies a nation can tell itself in order to survive? That musical has happened, though it came and went over twenty-five years ago, and it was called Pennies From Heaven. With perhaps only Cabaret as a predecessor, but distinct from that film in its strange hybrid vision (the musical numbers are all fantasy sequences and not part of the story in the traditional sense), Pennies hit screens in 1981 and baffled audiences who were fresh off Steve Martin’s ‘wild and crazy guy’ and starring role in The Jerk, as well as director Herbert Ross’s more widely known work on charming Neil Simon romantic comedies like The Goodbye Girl and California Suite. MGM, the studio known for its musicals, chose to make this their first one in almost thirty years. With all this in mind, nothing could have prepared filmgoers for the work of art at which cast and crew were clearly at the top of their game making—an excursion into a Depression-Era America fraught with broken dreams and man’s inhumanity to man. Even today, one needs to settle into this astonishing filmmaking achievement by buckling in for a bumpy emotional ride.
The script is a pared-down version of Brit TV phenom Dennis Potter’s multi-part series of the same name that had Bob Hoskins in Steve Martin’s role. Potter wrote the screenplay and was nominated for an Oscar for it, though apparently unhappy with the condensation. But Ross’s film is so well done that it comes across as its own streamlined, cogent and just-as powerful entity. Martin seems an unlikely replacement for Hoskins, but he does a terrific job as Arthur Parker, a deluded traveling sheet music salesman based in Chicago, who develops a wandering eye as a way of lashing out at his wife’s stultifying sexual repression and refusal to satisfy him. Jessica Harper is nothing short of gut-wrenching as Joan Parker, and the representation of the expectations regarding male and female sexuality that grew out of the late 1970’s are smartly explored through her painful marriage to Arthur in this decades-earlier setting.
On an out of town jaunt to sell the latest song sheets to retailers, Arthur is instantly smitten with prim schoolmarm Eileen (Bernadette Peters, in an assured and understated performance of great depth), and pursues her, claiming to be unmarried. Not surprisingly, he then deserts her after making her pregnant. When she is fired from her one-room schoolhouse as a result, and enters a life of prostitution (courtesy of Christopher Walken’s Tom, chilling in just one key scene), Arthur begins to see her as the sexually open creature he has always wanted and she, for her part, cannot deny her ongoing attraction to him. It is messy and complicated in a way hardly any films, let alone musicals, ever dare to be. Further complications come via a homeless man whom a smug Arthur treats to a meal (the haunting Vernel Bagneris, who treats us to the title song in a wondrous set piece) but who ends up implicating Arthur in the crime that proves his undoing. In the end, Arthur becomes a hunted man not only because of the murder he is suspected of committing, but because of his reportedly deviant sexuality.
But, of course, it’s his own fault. Martin’s Arthur gives us a vision of our country at its worst: the embodiment of a bumbling, heedless fool, carelessly hurting others, driven by childish desires and subject to change at the slightest whim. Adding insult to injury, Arthur routinely professes his belief that popular songs tell the truth, and that he has been waiting his entire life for them to come true. In a neat little bit of symbolism, the film’s opening shot depicts Arthur in bed, literally not wanting to wake up. He never does, of course, and, the script seems to be saying, we never have either.
The integration of the song and dance sequences in Pennies From Heaven involves a startling break from the film’s action, as opposed to the kind of further embellishment provided by most musical numbers. At key moments during scenes, the characters not only burst out into song (as is the convention), but do so by lip-synching the actual records of the 1920’s and 30’s, sometimes with the genders reversed. It is a wildly imaginative spin on tradition, but also provides a sad undercurrent, as we begin to see that these tunes represent not what the characters are really feeling, but what they cannot feel, and must funnel into popular music in the hopes of coping with the longing they never express. As with every other aspect of this still rather groundbreaking work, it requires a full investment of our psyches.
And it is evident in every frame that everyone behind the scenes made that same investment during production that they would require of us at screening time. From Gordon Willis’ rough-hewn photography (including a couple of dead-on duplications of Edward Hopper paintings) to Richard Marks’ seamless editing to Philip Harrison’s spot-on (and unpretentious) production design, along with of course Danny Daniels’ choreography and the perfectly modulated performances, here is a film that grabs and does not let go. And, even now, it resonates in many ways, not the least of which has to do with a nation in the grip of economic hard times. Sometimes the most powerful films are powerful because they ask us to take a hard look at ourselves and call it entertainment. Pennies From Heaven does that, but it does not do so lightly. It gives you lasting art as a reward. As its title suggests, it pays off big time.
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