BootLeg Betty

BetteBack November 29, 1991: Ya gotta love ‘For the Boys,’ flaws and all

Wisconsin State Journal
Ya gotta love ‘For the Boys,’ flaws and all
November 29, 1991

The old, double-edged adage “Showbiz, ya gotta love it,” gets a double-edged workout in “For the Boys.” Both paean to and expose of the American entertainment machine, the film indulges the most bogus- aspects of Hollywood moviemaking, yet repeatedly achieves honestly cathartic moments. Style, here, is well married to intent.

Intent which, unexpectedly for a Bette Midler vehicle, is audacious in scope. From start to finish, this musical dramedy sustains an awareness that its main story — the relationship of two USO hoofers from World War II to the present — bears as many political implications as it does opportunities for dance routines.

It’s the real history of late 20th-century America, in which show business and social development often become indistinguishable. You know Midler’s gotta love this movie; her company has been developing it for many years, through oodles of script drafts.

The final rewrite — which enhances Neal Jimenez (“River’s Edge”) and Lindy Laub’s sharp cultural ironies with “Tonight Show” alumnus Marshall Brickman‘s knowing, behind-the-scenes wit — gives the Divine One opportunities to sing everything from Hoagy Carmichael swing to Beatles ballads.

She gets to play up her sassy trouper side, deliver impassioned anti-war sermons and even wear octogenarian makeup.

Everything, in fact, an actress could ever dream of doing, except maybe her own death scene. (Which is unnecessary anyway, since the ridiculously melodramatic Vietnam sequence enables her character’s only child, played by director Mark Rydell‘s son, Christopher, to die in his mother’s arms).

There’s even a love story, of sorts. Midler’s Dixie Leonard has a deeper relationship with her performance partner, sleazeball extraordinaire Eddie Sparks (James Caan), than either does with their respective spouses. It’s not romantic, at least on Dixie’s part (as f ar as Eddie’s concerned, every female is a potential date). It is, however, deliriously transcendent whenever lights, camera and/or action are ready.

Dixie and Eddie joke, sing and manipulate their way from England to North Africa, into the thicket of early, live TV and through the simultaneous horrors of Korea and the Hollywood blacklist. Eddie’s betrayal of his head writer, and Dixie’s uncle (George Segal, invisible until he puts on a Santa suit), triggers an estrangement that lasts from the McCarthy to the hippie eras.

Reuniting for a Vietnam tour proves an even worse idea on media patriot Eddie’s part. Dixie refuses to speak to him for the next two decades, until some ghastly, presidential awards show calls the geezers back to active duty.

No iconoclast (he was responsible for that celebration of face-sucking “On Golden Pond,” as well as Midler’s overwrought Janis Joplin burlesque “The Rose”), Rydell at least has a healthy contempt for television. He mercilessly skewers that medium’s soul-squelching reductions and rampant bad taste. Rydell clearly despises militarism, too — the movie’s wartime scenes chart an inexorable descent from moral certitude to the innermost circle of Dantean hell.

The film’s fruitier passages, though, make you wish that Rydell were as wised up about movie hokum as he is about TV and patriotic propaganda. The film has too many impossible coincidences and passionate confrontations for its own good.

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