No Fake Smiles Here: Michael Ritchie’s ‘Smile’ Reviewed

Having Nat King Cole’s “Smile” play at the beginning of a film called Smile might seem a little on the nose, yet director Michael Ritchie isn’t trying to be subtle. Honesty, not diplomacy, is what’s prioritized as Smile takes a look at the beauty pageant scene as it plays out in Santa Rosa, California at the Young American Miss Pageant.

Smile, which actually filmed in Santa Rosa, came out in 1975 and feels like a lost Robert Altman movie. Starting with the scope of the picture, Smile could’ve easily just focused on the girls vying for the title of Young American Miss. Instead, Jerry Belson’s script accounts for everyone involved in putting the pageant together, making it feel like the community event that it is.

With a sizable cast of both professional and nonprofessional actors, some characters only appear in a few scenes. In those moments, though, they steal your heart forever — like the janitorial staff (Titos Vandis and Dennis Dugan) who go largely uncredited, yet see everything and even get to watch the pageant’s president (Geoffrey Lewis) choke mid-sentence when he realizes he has to talk about sanitary napkins because of them. Quality, not quantity, is what matters and, in the right hands, one scene is all it takes.

Other phenomenal performances include Smallville’s Annette O’Toole as Doria, one of girls in the competition who’s constantly horrified by her own competitiveness; and Tony Award winning choreographer Michael Kidd as the pageant’s choreographer who gets pegged for being a Hollywood cynic, but ends up showing genuine concern for the girls.

Bruce Dern as Big Bob is another standout. He is an RV salesman who couldn’t be more honored to act as judge, yet slowly becomes defeated by the negativity of everyone else around him. Smile would make a great double feature with They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, which also co-starred Dern. At one point, one of the characters in Smile even pulls out a gun and what’s unnerving about it is how quickly the film moves on. Thinking about Smile afterwards, the shock came when I realized I had almost forgotten about that scene.

Fun City Editions have done the world a service by putting this movie on Blu-ray, and the disc comes with bonus features, too. In a new interview, Dern talks about suggesting Conrad Hall as the director of photography when they needed someone who could get the job done in thirty days. His memory is amazing and the interview could’ve gone on for days. There’s also a commentary by actor-filmmaker Pat Healy and film curator Jim Healy, and a booklet essay by the late, great Mike McPadden where he talks about Dern’s performance and the use of music in the film.

Smile is available on Blu-Ray now from Fun City Editions.

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