Thursday, May 19, 2011

What a long, strange title it's been.

Many people believe that Hollywood produced more great movies in the 1970s than in any other decade. It certainly allowed some oddball titles to get through the system. Here's a sample:

Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me? (1971): Dustin Hoffman plays a famous songwriter in director Ulu Grosbard's comedy-drama. Its title was referenced for the 2010 documentary Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin' About Him)?, which is appropriate since Nilsson himself was a songwriter for hire—the Monkees recorded "Cuddly Toy" in 1967—before he found fame as a singer. His first Top 40 hit as a performer was "Everybody's Talkin'," the theme song to Midnight Cowboy (1969), which starred Hoffman. The song was written and originally recorded by Fred Neil, however, and Nilsson's biggest solo hit, 1972's "Without You," was a cover of a Badfinger song.

The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds (1972): Paul Newman directed his wife, Joanne Woodward, in this family drama based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Paul Zindel, who went on to write young-adult novels with similarly odd titles, such as My Darling, My Hamburger (considered a classic of YA literature), Harry and Hortense at Hormone High, Confessions of a Teenage Baboon, and Pardon Me, You're Stepping on My Eyeball! Alvin Sargent penned the screenplay for Gamma Rays as well as Robert Redford's directorial debut, Ordinary People (1980), which is a movie with an ordinary title, but he also wrote or cowrote films as diverse as Paper Moon (1973), Unfaithful (2002), What About Bob? (1991), and Spider-Man 2 (2004), an accomplishment that isn't ordinary at all.

Love and Pain and the Whole Damn Thing (1973): One of Sargent's lesser-known films (along with 1978's Straight Time, another collaboration between Ulu Grosbard and Dustin Hoffman) is this romantic drama starring Maggie Smith and Timothy Bottoms (The Last Picture Show) and directed by Alan J. Pakula, his follow-up to 1971's Klute. In Peter Bart and Peter Guber's book Shoot Out: Surviving Fame and (Mis)Fortune in Hollywood, Pakula is quoted as saying that the movie's title accurately described how he felt about opening weekend: "I wish I could make movies but never have to release them."

A Hero Ain't Nothin' But a Sandwich (1978): My favorite of the four titles spotlighted here, director Ralph Nelson's drama centers on a 13-year-old heroin addict and is based on a young-adult novel by playwright and author Alice Childress. Her name is the title of a song on Ben Folds Five's 1995 self-titled debut album, but it isn't about her—Anna Goodman, the song's cowriter (along with Folds), named "Alice Childress" after a patient of the same name at the mental institution where she once worked. The film version of A Hero Ain't Nothin' But a Sandwich stars Cicely Tyson, Paul Winfield, and Larry B. Scott, who's still probably best known for his role as Lamar in Revenge of the Nerds.

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