Several unique talents operating at the top of their respective games converged for Smile, a wicked satire of American values viewed through the prism of a second-rate beauty contest. Skewering ambition, competition, consumerism, hypocrisy, vanity, and other unbecoming qualities, the movie achieves a fine balance of humor and pathos while juxtaposing absurd situations with believable characterizations. The project’s key players include screenwriter Jerry Belson (a TV veteran doing some of his best-ever work), director Michael Ritichie (in the middle of a hot streak that included 1972’s The Candidate and 1976’s The Bad News Bears), and actor Bruce Dern. Though normally cast as psychos, Dern plays a normal character here, channeling his natural intensity into the fierce characterization of a small man grasping for social position. His terrific performance sets the pace for an eclectic cast including such veteran character actors as Geoffrey Lewis and Nicholas Pryor, plus newcomers Colleen Camp, Melanie Griffith, and Annette O’Toole. (TV beauty Barbara Feldon, of Get Smart fame, contributes a rich supporting performance as a contestant-turned-coordinator.)
Ritchie films the story somewhat in the style of a Robert Altman movie, with lots of intermingled storylines revolving around the central event of the American Miss Pageant, so the movie winds through backstage politics, onstage disasters (some of the “talents” the contestants display are anything but), and the funny/sad melodramas of characters’ private lives. At the center of the story is Big Bob (Dern), a used-car salesman with way too much of his identity invested in the role of head judge. He spends the entire movie trying to hold the pieces of his life together even as the various illusions upon which his existence is predicated fall apart; his dissipation is an arch but effective metaphor representing the way some people blindly pursue the American Dream. O’Toole, appearing in her first major film role, personifies the other end of the spectrum—a cynical operator who’s learned the ways of the world at a young age, thanks to years of having men ogle her curves. (O’Toole’s character offers less experienced contestants such advice as using Vaseline to lubricate the mouth during hours of endless smiling.)
Although Smile isn’t purely a comedy, since many passages of the picture are so pathetic that they’re more sad than funny, the picture works equally well as a romp and as a rumination. The spectacle of coaxing teenagers onto a stage so they can pretend viewers are interested in their ideals and skills—when, really, the name of the game is peddling flesh—is a fine proxy for the filmmakers’ observations about the avarice hidden behind American can-do attitudes. No surprise, then, that Belson’s script was nominated for a WGA Award, or that Smile was revisited for a new medium in 1986, when a musical based upon the film debuted on Broadway.