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  Ritz, The Bathhouse Bananas
Year: 1976
Director: Richard Lester
Stars: Jack Weston, Rita Moreno, Jerry Stiller, Kaye Ballard, F. Murray Abraham, Paul B. Price, Treat Williams, John Everson, Christopher J. Brown, Dave King, Bessie Love, Tony De Santis, Ben Aris, Peter Butterworth, Ronnie Brody, John Ratzenberger
Genre: ComedyBuy from Amazon
Rating:  6 (from 1 vote)
Review: The family have gathered around, because the patriarch (George Coulouris) is on his deathbed, but for his son-in-law Gaetano Proclo (Jack Weston) the outcome will not be too sunny, as he has a death sentence placed on his head by the old man with his dying breath, and Gaetano's brother-in-law Carmine Vespucci (Jerry Stiller), is only too pleased to carry out that order, being a man with certain... connections. Gaetano realises he better get away pretty sharpish if he wants to survive, but where can he go? He quickly settles on a men's bathhouse, working out he can lie low by renting a room there and Carmine will never suspect...

One wonders if many character actors dreamt of being the leading man or lady at one point in their careers, or whether they were content to stay in supporting roles. Did Franklin Pangborn look at Sydney Greenstreet, or Esma Cannon look at Margaret Rutherford, or Ian Holm look at Danny Trejo and all think, I wouldn't mind giving that kind of part a try? There is such a thing as a leading character actor, and Jack Weston was not really one of those on film, but on the stage he won the lead in Terrence McNally's comedy The Ritz, and when Richard Lester was recruited to bring it to the silver screen, much of the cast of the original was retained.

Which resulted in a lead role for Weston, finally a chance to prove he could carry a movie, though for the nineteen-seventies this was no ordinary comedy. Although the central characters were straight, it was essentially a gay-themed work, and McNally, who was gay himself, was keen to present positive representations of homosexual men throughout, so what better way to do so than have us laugh along with them? The reaction in 1976 was mixed at best, undoubtedly in that decade of social upheaval and advancement there were those pushing back against the progressives, but The Ritz was in essence a silly farce that featured no real sexual situations.

Therefore there was not much to be offended by, it was about as savage as La Cage aux Folles from about the same time, another groundbreaker that seems rather mild today. If The Ritz was tamer than say, what John Waters was getting up to in the seventies (though what wouldn't be?), it was nevertheless a small landmark in that gay folks in cinema were often landed with stereotypes, and even those which tried to be openminded too often wound up with those individuals of that persuasion they depicted miserable or, in worst case scenarios, dead. Here the emphasis was on having fun, as Gaetano twigs that his hideaway has an exclusively male clientele for a reason.

We could have a little insight into the men's club/bathhouse culture that was effectively ruined when AIDS devasted the community a few years later. If The Ritz is tinged with sadness, you don't notice it while it plays out, Lester offering proceeding a giddy, running around quality that helps paper over the cracks: because although some find it hilarious, hence its cult status, the fact remained it was more amusing than fall about funny. It did have its moments, and the cast were game, such as Treat Williams in a tiny towel as the hunky but toddler-voiced private detective, or F. Murray Abraham as a patron just there for a good time but frustrated by Carmine's plotting against his relative.

Abraham was of course, one of those character actors who eventually won an Oscar for his lead, in Amadeus, almost ten years later, which scuppered the bright comedy playing we saw here in favour of villains. Rita Moreno probably stole the show recreating her Tony Award-winning stylings as the cabaret act who entertains the attendees, an act she skilfully pitches as obviously talented, but only really talented enough for this kind of basic, kitschy performance. As this was shot in Britain, there was the curious sight of English actors like Ben Aris and Peter Butterworth (topless in cowboy chaps) appearing as well, but it was the Americans' affair, aside from a well-designed, art deco set. Nice enough, then, as a step in the right direction, though not brave enough to feature a gay lead role; call it a time capsule (though the play was revived since). Music by Ken Thorne.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark


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Richard Lester  (1932 - )

American director, from television, in Britain whose initially zany style could give way to genuine suspense and emotion. After making his film debut with short The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film, which featured Goons Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan, he went on to throwaway projects like It's Trad, Dad and Mouse on the Moon. His next, however, was a smash hit all over the world: A Hard Day's Night, not least because it had The Beatles as stars.

Lester was at his most successful in the sixties and early seventies, with notable movies like The Knack, Beatles follow up Help!, stage adaptation A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, satire How I Won the War, romance Petulia, weird comedy The Bed Sitting Room, The Three Musketeers and The Four Musketeers and very British disaster movie Juggernaut.

Efforts like Royal Flash, Robin and Marian, gay bathhouse comedy The Ritz and Cuba made less impact, but in the eighties Lester was called in to salvage the Superman series after Richard Donner walked off Superman II; Lester also directed Superman III. Finders Keepers was a flop comedy, and Return of the Musketeers had a tragic development when one of his regular cast, Roy Kinnear, died while filming. Lester then decided to give up directing, with Paul McCartney concert Get Back his last film.

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