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.