Saturday, April 5, 2014

The Ritz (1976)

          Whether he was overseeing the exploits of the Beatles, Superman, or the Three Musketeers, director Richard Lester always demonstrated a special gift for complicated farce. That’s why he was an excellent choice to make a film of Terrence McNally’s madcap play The Ritz, about a heterosexual guy who avoids a hit man by hiding out in a New York City bathhouse. The question, of course, is whether the material merited a director of Lester’s talents. For some viewers, the answer might be yes. As a film, The Ritz is executed beautifully, with exuberant performances and vivacious staging. Many of the running gags are amusing, and certain sequences have a Marx Brothers-esque quality of fast-paced silliness.
          Plus, even though myriad stereotypes are presented, The Ritz offers one of the warmest portrayals of gay life in any mainstream ’70s movie—amid the horny predators and screaming queens are everyday people just looking for a good time. Obviously, one could question the choice of putting so many straight characters at the center of this story, since gays are largely relegated to supporting roles, but seeing as how homosexuals were still being portrayed as murderous deviants in Hollywood films at the time The Ritz was released, that’s nitpicking. Therefore, the truly relevant question is whether The Ritz works as pure entertainment. It does, but only periodically.
          After a quick prologue at a funeral, the story proper begins when portly businessman Gaetano Procio (Jack Weston) rents a room at the Ritz to avoid gunsels hired by his brother-in-law, Carmine Vespucci (Jerry Stiller). Clumsy and provincial, Gaetano manages to catch the eye of Chris (F. Murray Abraham), a would-be swinger; Claude (Paul B. Price), a fat fetishist; and Googie (Rita Moreno), a showgirl who is performing at the bathhouse. Each of these eccentric characters wants Gaetano for different reason. (Naturally, some of the reasons are based on misunderstandings.) Also thrown into the mix are a private detective, Michael (Treat Williams), and, eventually, crazy Carmine himself. To get a sense of the movie’s vibe, picture lots of running in and out of rooms, plenty of pretending, and voluminous amounts of screaming. Driving the humor is old-fashioned gay panic, because Gaetano spends most of the movie terrified he’ll be sodomized.
          Usually cast as a comic foil, Weston doesn’t bring much heat as a leading player, and he’s prone to silly mugging. Happily, the supporting cast is strong. Abraham, Price, and Williams attack their parts with gusto, while Moreno and Stiller frequently approach comic brilliance. When it’s really cooking, The Ritz employs not only the whole cast but also the whole eye-popping location of the bathhouse interior—for instance, the crazy finale involves cross-dressing, a floor show, gunplay, and a swimming pool.

The Ritz: FUNKY

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