Well regarded for its sympathetic portrayal of a young blind man whose travails echo those of all persons living with disabilities, Butterflies Are Free has some fine ideas and sentiments, but it’s also long-winded, stilted, and trite. Adapted by Leonard Gershe from his successful play of the same name, the picture explores challenges faced by Don Baker (Edward Albert), a college-aged suburban youth trying to live on his own for the first time. For the first half of the story, he’s excited by the affections of a sexy neighbor, cheerfully irresponsible hippie Jill Tanner (Goldie Hawn), and for the second half the story, Don is tormented by the smothering attentions of his overprotective mother, referred to only as Mrs. Baker (Eileen Heckart).
According to the introduction accompanying a recent broadcast of Butterflies Are Free on Turner Classic Movies, the significance of the picture is that it captured the tone of the early-’70s “independent living” movement, during which persons with disabilities attempted to break from the traditional cycle of home care and institutionalization. And, indeed, Gershe’s narrative crisply depicts myriad hardships people like Don must have faced on a daily basis in less-informed times, from condescending attitudes to the genuine fear of overwhelming situations. Alas, Gershe’s weapon of choice is overly literate dialogue, so the characters in the story feel more like polemic representations than actual people: Mrs. Baker represents oppression, Jill represents freedom, and Don wants to exist somewhere between those extremes.
If the filmmaking had more vitality and the acting was transcendent, the mannered nuances of Gershe’s writing would be more tolerable. Unfortunately, director Milton Katselas does little more than film a theatrical production; Butterflies Are Free is so flat one can almost feel the curtain descending whenever the story lurches from one act to the next. Yet leading man Albert is the movie’s biggest weakness. Bland and unmemorable, he delivers a performance more suited to an afterschool special than a theatrical feature. Hawn fares better, simply because of her beauty and charm; if nothing else, the fact that she spends a third of the movie in her underwear commands a certain kind of attention. Heckart, who won a Supporting Actress Oscar for the movie, benefits from Gershe’s best-written role. Anguished and sarcastic, Heckhart’s character charts a believable arc from assumption to understanding. Heckart’s isn’t a performance for the ages, per se, but her solid work elevates an otherwise mediocre endeavor.
Butterflies Are Free: FUNKY