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  Melvin and Howard Chance In A Billion
Year: 1980
Director: Jonathan Demme
Stars: Paul Le Mat, Jason Robards Jr, Mary Steenburgen, Michael J. Pollard, Pamela Reed, Elizabeth Cheshire, Jack Kehoe, Gloria Grahame, Charles Napier, John Glover, Dabney Coleman, Charlene Holt, Rick Lenz, Robert Ridgely, Martine Beswick, Joe Spinell
Genre: Comedy, BiopicBuy from Amazon
Rating:  9 (from 2 votes)
Review: Early one morning the unassuming Melvin Dummar (Paul Le Mat) was driving home from work through the Nevada desert when he decided to stop to take a leak, but when he had finished he noticed a body lying inert by the side of the road, and turned his lights on full to see what was going on. He thought it was some drifter, but as the man was conscious he wasn't about to leave him out here in these inhospitable conditions, so dragged him to his feet and manoeuvered him to the passenger seat of his truck. They got to talking, and though the man (Jason Robards Jr) was frosty at first, he thawed...

Well, you'd expect Howard Hughes to be a bit ornery, wouldn't you? At least that's who the drifter claimed to be, and Melvin thought nothing more about it for years, occasionally bringing it up amongst family and friends as a funny anecdote. This was based on a true story that made headline news around the world, though if it had not been for the film of it the whole affair would likely have been utterly forgotten - it may have won a couple of Oscars yet director Jonathan Demme's movie never raised its profile anything above cult status. This is somehow fitting, as its hero never really amounted to much either thanks to his circumstances which contrived to keep him down.

And the fact he was a dreamer in a world where only the select few get anywhere with that kind of behaviour. Bo Goldman's masterful script was hugely sympathetic to Melvin, and not only him but all of the people in his orbit, which was what made the whole tale so sad and moving: basically even with the biggest break in the world, he wasn't going to succeed, no matter how much you would have wanted him to. He took a succession of low paid jobs to support his family, but wife Lynda (Mary Steenburgen, like Goldman securing one of the Oscars) kept taking their daughter Darcy (Elizabeth Cheshire) and walking out on him, and the fact was he could never hang onto his money.

Typically of Melvin's outlook was that they best way he could think of to make cash was to either a career as a songwriter or win on a gameshow. The latter is one of the most memorable sequences as Lynda does a tapdance routine on a sort of Gong Show type affair, and actually wins the star prize - now they can afford what they want and plan for the future and... oh no, Melvin's only bought a boat they can't use. In its way this was a comedy and we were invited to laugh at the characters, but more likely they meant you to laugh with some degree of pain at the bittersweet situations fickle fate brought them to. Melvin bumbles through life (that's the real Melvin serving behind the counter at the bus depot), always with that achievement he dreams of not just out of reach, but miles away.

But in no way is he ever depicted as a bad person, and the fact that he played Good Samaritan redeems him in the eyes of his tale. What made him famous was that when Hughes died, someone left a will on his desk at the gas station purporting to be from the eccentric billionaire, apparently as a gesture of goodwill for lending him a quarter all those years ago when he couldn't really afford it. The case was taken to court, but even all these years later was never truly resolved, leaving Melvin with nothing but the notoriety. Demme and Goldman were on his side all the way, and their film believes him, with the sequences that begin and end the film with Melvin and Howard singing Bye Bye Blackbird among the most beautifully observed and exceptionally played of their era; these parts have such warmth and stability that the upheaval of the rest is thrown into sharper relief, so it's such a shame for Melvin and those like him that we understand his plight, but can do nothing but say, "C'est la vie". Music by Bruce Langhorne.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark


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Jonathan Demme  (1944 - 2017)

American director with a exploitation beginnings who carved out a successful Hollywood career as a caring exponent of a variety of characters. Worked in the early 70s as a writer on films like Black Mama, White Mama before directing his first picture for producer Roger Corman, the women-in-prison gem Caged Heat. Demme's mainstream debut was the 1977 CB drama Handle With Care (aka Citizens Band), which were followed by such great films as the thriller Last Embrace, tenderhearted biopic Melvin and Howard, wartime drama Swing Shift, classic Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense, and black comedies Something Wild and Married to the Mob.

Demme's Thomas Harris adaptation The Silence of the Lambs was one of 1991's most successful films, making Hannibal Lecter a household name, while the worthy AIDS drama Philadelphia was equally popular. Since then, Demme has floundered somewhat - Beloved and The Truth About Charlie were critical and commercial failures, although 2004's remake of The Manchurian Candidate was a box office hit. Rachel Getting Married also has its fans, though Meryl Streep vehicle Ricki and the Flash was not a great one to go out on. He was also an advocate of the documentary form, especially music: his final release was a Justin Timberlake concert.

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