Sunday, September 28, 2014

Norman . . . Is That You? (1976)

          Seeing as how it was released at a time when mainstream attitudes toward homosexuality were rooted in ignorance and prejudice, the amiable comedy Norman . . . Is That You? is fairly progressive. The film was based upon the play Norman, Is That You?, by Sam Bobrick and Ron Clark, which premiered in 1970—yet punctuation within the title wasn’t the only change made during the transition from stage to screen. Both versions of the story depict a conservative couple’s discovery that their adult son is gay. On stage, the characters are white and Jewish, but in the film, the characters are African-American. Realizing how easily the material applies to both populations underscores the play’s themes of inclusiveness and understanding. Yet Norman, by any name, isn’t a high-minded call for tolerance. Rather, it’s a light comedy that merely happens to concern characters broadening their horizons.
          The film begins, somewhat clumsily, with a scene of Ben Chambers (Redd Foxx) riding on a bus while Smokey Robinson’s voice appears on the soundtrack, crooning a dull song about Chambers being an “old-fashioned man living in a brand-new world.” To hammer the point home, Ben winces every time he sees a hippie. The movie settles into a better groove once Ben reaches the Los Angeles apartment of his son, Norman (Michael Warren). Surprised by his father’s visit, Norman shoos away his effeminate live-in boyfriend, Garson (Dennis Dugan). But while Norman tries to act “normally” around his father—who explains that Norman’s mother just ran off with Ben’s brother—Garson eavesdrops until he can insert himself into the situation. Then, shortly after Norman leaves for work, Garson reveals that he and Norman are lovers. The highlight of the picture is a long sequence during which Garson tries to charm Ben into acceptance by acting like the perfect host for a night on the town. In the movie’s most quintessentially ’70s moment, Garson takes Ben to see a gay-themed ventriloquism show featuring Garson’s pal Larry and Larry’s camp-queen puppet—played by fleeting TV stars Walyand Flowers and Madam. Eventually, costar Pearl Bailey joins the action as Ben’s wayward wife, Beatrice, triggering lots of bickering-spouse routines between Bailey and Foxx.
          Mild but tart jokes fly freely throughout Norman . . . Is That You?, but they mostly hit their targets. For instance, after Ben argues that Beatrice has unreal expectations by saying, “I didn’t marry you to entertain you,” she fires back, “I knew that after the first week.” Similarly, Garson promises Ben a fun visit: “You’re going to love Los Angeles, it’s full of surprises—just look in any closet.” Mostly, however, what keeps Norman . . . Is That You? watchable is the combination of Foxx’s expert comic timing and the script’s characterization of Ben as a square who needs to get hip about changing times. FYI, Norman is the only theatrical feature directed by prolific TV producer George Schlatter, best known for co-creating the seminal 1968-1973 variety show Laugh-In.

Norman . . . Is That You?: FUNKY

No comments: