In Cinderella Liberty, James Caan works his sensitive side by playing John Baggs Jr., a sailor who gets stuck in the Pacific Northwest when the Navy misplaces his records. Stranded on dry land on eager for a good time, John hits a raunchy bar and wins the favors of a hooker named Maggie Paul (Marsha Mason) in a pool game. Returning to her place for a tryst, John is startled to meet her preteen son, a streetwise mulatto named Doug (Kirk Calloway). As John’s unwanted shore leave extends from days to weeks, he finds himself drawn back to Maggie and her child, realizing he’s more interested in setting down roots than he thought.
Adapted by Darryl Ponicsan from his own novel, Cinderella Liberty tells the bittersweet story of an unlikely love affair, and though there’s no getting around the hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold cliché at the center of the story, Ponicsan and director Mark Rydell ensure that sentimentality is almost completely excluded from the story. The lead character is depicted as an interesting contradiction, because on the one hand he’s a moralist who detests foul language, but on the other hand he’s comfortable brawling and carousing. Meanwhile, Maggie is a woman so accustomed to disappointment that she’s accepted her demeaning lot. They inspire each other to want more from life, so when tragedy strikes their fragile surrogate family, we discover how much each is willing to fight for what they’ve built together.
At 117 minutes, Cinderella Liberty is a bit windy for a straightforward romantic drama, and the colorful subplot about Baggs’ love/hate relationship with a former supervisor (Eli Wallach) feels unnecessary until a surprising payoff at the end of the picture. However, Rydell’s sensitive direction, lush photography by ’70s-cinema god Vilmos Zsigmond, and richly textured performances make the picture compelling and substantial. As for the leading players, Caan finds an interesting groove, portraying an introspective man occasionally drawn out of his shell by heated emotions, and Mason is bawdy and sad and vulnerable, delivering such expressive work that Cinderella Liberty earned her the first of her four Oscar nominations as Best Actress.
The picture also provides a worthwhile complement to The Last Detail, another 1973 movie about sailors getting into trouble on the mainland—because The Last Detail was, not coincidentally, adapted from an earlier novel by Cinderella Liberty scribe Ponicsan.
Cinderella Liberty: GROOVY