On a recent unseasonably (at least, unseasonably anywhere but Melbourne) grey and windy spring Sunday, I did the best possible thing one can do on a grey and windy Sunday: namely, I watched the 1971 Herbert Ross movie T.R. Baskin. Now, this is a motion picture that most people don’t exactly have at the forefront of their minds, and the public and reviewers didn’t even embrace it back in the day, with Pauline Kael calling it a ludicrously bad film, in which Candice Bergen gave the worst performance in a starring role that this veteran critic had yet seen; and Roger Ebert also going bloodily to town on it (although do please keep in mind that this is a man who awarded Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo three stars). However, I first saw T.R. Baskin as a midday movie decades ago and it stuck in my head in the way that a novelty arrow would do if it were not a novelty arrow. So, imagine how excited I was to discover, when consulting the ‘world wide web’, that there are at least ten or so of us who feel this way.
T.R. Baskin is damned light on plot (not that I care, as I like there to be as little as possible in this world that I need try to understand) and heavy on quirky observations from the lips of T.R. herself. She is a sarcastic young lady, like a much taller version of Patty Duke in 1969’s Me, Natalie, who has moved from Ohio to carve out a life for herself in what was arguably Frank Sinatra’s second-favourite city, Chicago. T.R. takes a job that involves a lot of typing in a long, anonymous row of females in an ostentatiously soulless office block, and lives in an apartment that is supposed to be a hideously awful slum but, frankly, looks pretty good from the viewpoint of 2013. She looks set to become firm friends with a co-worker, until the co-worker nags her into going out on a blind date with a sexist twerp and becomes annoyed with T.R. for the lack of vivacity she displays in the presence of the twerp. While walking in the city one night, T.R. sees a man, Larry (James Caan), reading a book in the window of a diner and sits herself at his table; unsurprisingly, Larry is delighted to have a raving beauty drop out of the sky and start talking to him. Having hit it off, they go back to his apartment, jump into the feathers, and continue to exchange confidences, not to mention such sparkling 1971 banter as speculation on the manner in which the Nixons have sexual intercourse. The next morning, however, prince that he is, Larry tells T.R. that he hopes she won’t be offended if he doesn’t see her home, and gives her ‘carfare’. Upset at, I think, this hairy backed soulmate treating her like an inexpensive prostitute, T.R. takes off and is at such a loss that she even goes into the office at the weekend.
The above story is told in flashback, while T.R. has a one-afternoon stand with a married, middle-aged, small-town salesman, Jack (Peter Boyle, in a quite lovely performance), to whom Larry had given T.R.’s number, presumably because he thought she would terrify Jack and the idea of this entertained him. However, T.R. and Larry, after a bad start that includes mockery and impotence, end up getting along famously, and the film concludes with her departing his hotel room with the two of them on excellent terms. All this is punctuated by the customary atmospherics of movies of the early seventies: that is to say, ‘sound collages’ of noise from television and hustle-bustle crowd scenes that represent All that Is Wrong with Contemporary Society, Especially Commercialism and, in particular, the Grasping Middle Classes. By the way, Wikipedia is under the impression that the movie ends with T.R. believing that better days are ahead but I can’t say I ever had that notion myself. I’ve always thought all bets were off as to whether she a) does find ‘fame and fortune’ as per the telegram she sent to her parents on arrival in the big city; b) leaves Chicago and goes back to Ohio, to end her days as the town crazy; or c) kills herself.
I would classify as T.R. Baskin as Feminist-ploitation, whereby those responsible for it were hoping to tap into something that was then fashionable – though less in the sense of being popular than in the sense of being a talking point – in order to get people to buy cinema tickets, as per (speaking of Electric Boogaloo) the many nineteen eighties movies that sought to capitalise on the craze for humans attempting to dance on their heads. I hasten to add, though, that, first, I have no idea whether T.R. Baskin was that calculated; and, second, I have no problem with that idea, anyway. Aside from anything, when the sexist twerp, Arthur (Howard Platt), tells T.R. she shouldn’t entertain thoughts of running a company because women should find fulfilment domestically, she responds that she’s working on developing an electric breast that anyone can use, and that is what I call a terrific line, especially when rat-tatted out by Candice Bergen.
I’ve almost never seen a performance in which an actor is, at times, so stiff and yet so completely believable in a part. Bergen quite frequently recites her lines rather than acts them but, on the other hand, she also seems capable of having originated in her own mind the words she is saying; and I never felt that way about, for example, most of the cast of The Young Doctors. She is that extremely rare thing, a person who looks like (and, of course, was) a model but appears to have the type of sense of humour of someone who doesn’t look like a model. For example, I recall reading an interview with her in which she described a depressed period in her life as being a time when all she did was sit around in her bathrobe, watching The Bionic Woman religiously, which is not the kind of thing you normally hear a really great-looking person say about how they spend their time (it is not uncommon for them to make a big deal about how they Read Many Books or Think About the Environment). I once asked a friend of mine once why there is no such thing as a comedian with model good looks, and his explanation was that nothing funny ever happens to good-looking people, so that they don’t need to develop a sense of humour. Bergen, in contrast, was of course in the highly unusual situation of having a father who was a famous ventriloquist, with all the quirks that way of life entails, and she wrote amusingly in her autobiography, Knock Wood, of what a drag it was to have to explain to snobbish fellow students at a Swiss finishing school that her father talked to dolls for a living.
Love letters to Candice Bergen aside, though, there are several other things that make T.R. Baskin continuously interesting to me. To start with, this 1971 movie about alienation functions as a convincing rebuke to the present-day proliferation of yawn-inspiring newspaper columns about how social media means that no one has any real friends anymore; it is pleasing to note that people were just as alienated and lonely in the early nineteen seventies as they are now. Also, there is something about the film’s atmosphere that has, for me, come to be shorthand for desolation, which is probably unsurprising, given that T.R., like everyone in 1973’s The Paper Chase, seem to live in a perpetual freezing winter, and that much of it is set on a Sunday, no less (‘You can never mistake a Sunday for anything else,’ opines T.R., correctly).There has rarely been a time that I’ve been in an office building by myself at the weekend, or walked around almost unfeasibly depressing landmarks, such as the war memorial at Wynyard Station in Sydney, without thinking that I’m having a total ‘T.R. Baskin moment’, which is the polar opposite, of course, of having a total ‘Mary Tyler Moore in The Mary Tyler Moore Show (as opposed to in Ordinary People) moment’, or a total ‘Marlo Thomas in That Girl moment’.
T.R. herself says to Jack, ‘I want to die young and neat. I don’t want to die old and sloppy.’ Well, I find this statement to be (probably intentionally) ironic, given that, more than anything else, the film that bears this lady’s name captures almost too well the glumness and aimlessness that people tend to feel in their twenties if they’re not the kinds of individuals who reside permanently on ‘most successful people under thirty’ lists, the way that Siimon Reynolds and Poppy King used to. In short, T.R. doesn’t know what to do with her life, as demonstrated by the way in which she has a boring job and goes out with idiots. The viewer might find herself forcefully addressing the television set, telling T.R. that she is smart and beautiful and needs to turn her life around, but how can T.R. turn her life around, really? At least if she were fifty pounds overweight, she could lose the fifty pounds. A person has so little control over most things, and this is especially the case when you are young, as you have so much ahead of you, and a lot of it will be awful, and a lot of the things that aren’t awful will be at least partly due to that slippery cat known as good luck. It is very much better to be older and to have got a decent chunk of the awful things that are going to happen to you over with, and to have any achievements safely achieved, so that no one can take them from you.
Furthermore, being middle aged is even better when you didn’t especially enjoy your twenties. A person like Martin Amis gets all autumnal about middle age because he published his first (award-wining, naturally!) novel at the age of twenty-four and was editor of The New Statesman at twenty-seven, so what the hell could he have had to look forward to? No wonder he spent all that money getting his teeth fixed. I freely admit that I nearly vomited the night before I turned forty, due simply to the prospect upsetting me so much; and the reason it upset me so much because I had always thought that once you turned forty, you were essentially just waiting for the grave. What I couldn’t have known is that the truly terrific thing about being middle aged is precisely the fact that it’s not nearly so long as it used to be until you die. Knowing that what you do doesn’t matter all that much because you’re probably going to be dead within thirty years is way more liberating even than leaving a small town for a big town would be. I can only hope that T.R. Baskin, against her express wishes, lived long enough to realise this magnificent truth.
I cannot believe I missed this gem of a film and your hilarious analysis of it has made me determined to find it in a vault somewhere. You’ve made a fantastic point about comedians. I also suspect that good-looking people don’t become comedians (even if they do develop a sense of humour) because it is actually much easier to be a leading man or woman. Comedy is terribly underrated, I think. Why would any performer do something hard when he or she could earn a nice fist full of cash for standing there and looking pretty? Standing there and looking pretty has the added advantage of being less risky. A person may be boring in such a role, but he or she is not likely to end up looking like a total jackass if things don’t go well.
Thanks so much, Genevieve – geez, standing there and looking pretty sounds appealing!
You know, at first I thought that my ‘takeaway’ from this article (as the homogeneous blobs within the LinkedIn matrix like to say) was going to be the novelty arrow line.
Yet your observation about nothing ever happening to unfunny attractive people was so penetrative (in a non-novelty arrow way) that I immediately had to google it to check whether this was in fact a very famous quote of which I was embarrassingly ignorant. I’m not sure that it is a complete explanation but to me it rings true, particularly combined with the privileges of the good-looking that obviate the need to use self-deprecation as self-defence and which provide a more limited exposure to life’s inconveniences that provide nutrient-rich comedic fodder.
Anyway, the other point of this comment is really to supplement your concluding observation that what we do doesn’t matter all that much. Yes, we are all inexorably ploughing on towards the great comedy hall in the sky, where our more attractive contemporaries will presumably take their seats in the dress circle. Yet, just as Herbert Ross has shuffled off and left us with the ongoing enjoyment of TR Baskin (and, moreover, Footloose) so, too, have you left your mark with your engaging observations which I hope will stay in the interweb’s search engines forever.
Hi Lionel. Thank you so much for your beautifully written comment! It has made my day.
Great to see that the “world wide web” thing is still going strong. I was worried it might go the same way as the “Information Superhighway”.
It’s strangely wonderful to watch something about people having an extremely bad day, yet not suffering anything so serious that would entitle them to proper sympathy.
Not having seen the film I can only imagine what Jack’s initial conversation with T.R. Baskin is like. Perhaps after explaining how he got her number from Larry he lets her know just how far the “carfare” obligations extend. Kudos to T.R Baskin for going through with the arrangement if this was the case.
Your article makes me wonder why I’ve heard thousands of references to Miley Cyrus this year but have never heard about Bergen’s ventriloquist father or that she wrote an autobiography called Knock Wood. Let me know if it’s up there in the Cybill Shepherd autobiography class.
As ever, thank you for you delightful insights, Martin! In her autobiography, Bergen comes off as eminently sane, with a nice, dry sense of humour, while Shepherd seems mildly nuts in hers – both these ‘styles’ have their appeal, of course!
I’ve been searching for a film which I believe is “T.R. Baskin”, for about 40 years now. In about 1972 or 73, I saw a piece of an unidentified film on a Saturday afternoon movie in Chicago, and in the short burst I saw a scene which was filmed in front of and across the street from the company I was working for at that time, in the 1800 block of west Belle Plaine avenue, on the north side of Chicago. After reading your writeup on the film, I firmly believe that “TR” is the film I’ve been seeking. Thanks very much for your review!
Elk Grove Village, IL
Hi Mike! Yes, that certainly sounds like ‘T.R. Baskin’. And thank you for your comment! It’s thrilling to see that an actual American has read my piece.
I finally located this splendid film! After not seeing it since 1973 (and having only seen little snippets of it even back then), I found it to be, as you describe it to your readers, a superb piece of work, the likes of which are rarely seen today.
During the 1970s, having spent my twenties, on many occasions, practicing some of the same unethical activities as the cretins in the film, I can relate
a bit, and I thank heaven that I didn’t stay that way.
Bergen was wonderful in the film; her femininity and sharp sense of humor are well-highlighted. One can definitely see the “Murphy Brown” in her, even back then.
Unfortunately, is was NOT the movie that had the scene on Chicago’s north side that I’d written to you about 3 weeks ago, but I’m glad that I finally got to see this classic in its entirety.
For anyone who has had trouble finding it, I downloaded it from Google Movies. That’s about the only way it can be gotten, as it was never released to the public on VHS or DVD.
Thanks for your excellent review and synopsis!
Elk Grove Village, IL
It’s so great to hear from you again, and thanks so much for your excellent comment! Geez (as Murphy Brown would say), I wonder what the movie was with the scene on Chicago’s north side? Re. T.R. Baskin, though, yes, I only managed to see it via Apple TV – it would be so great if someone were to do a DVD/blu-ray, with all the bells and whistles, though that is probably never to be, unless Olive Films http://www.olivefilms.com, which has some very interesting releases (such as Elaine May’s A New Leaf), gets on board!
Again, I was happy to find “T.R.” on line, but in spite of it not being my “secret movie”, it’s a classic and was wonderful to watch. The quality of the downloaded film is very good, and well worth the small price of the .mp4 file.
I just received a DVD via Amazon that I’ll watch when I have some time, called “Goldstein”, about an old man who “emerges from Lake Michigan and begins to wander around Chicago”. It was given very high marks. Even if this isn’t “the one”, it sounds like a fun film, and I’m looking forward to seeing it.
I believe that my only hope is to contact the TV station (and this is the long shot of long shots) to see if they have records of what movies they showed during the time period when I saw my “mystery movie”, back in 1973. Of course, I’m not holding my breath.
Again, thanks for the nice write-up. I’ll be watching your blog for future critiques!
Elk Grove Village, IL (Chicago area)
Many thanks, Mike! It’s been so lovely to hear from you so far.