Smut for General Audiences: “Nothing Personal” w/Suzanne Somers (1980)

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“To be quick about it, she’s terrible. Her smile…communicates no amusement, warmth, intelligence or interest. We watch the smile as we would watch the opening of a garage door…it’s a minor mechanical feat.” -Vincent Canby, chief New York Times critic, on Suzanne Somers’ performance in the 1980 flop “Nothing Personal.”

Before the mid-to-late 1960s, foul language, nudity and overtly sexual references were barred from mainstream films, relegated to pornography and the sinister underground. While Hollywood gradually opened the floodgates, I am assuming that even the most liberal American filmmakers and filmgoers back then were less than thrilled at the idea of small children (say, under 12) being subjected to any salaciousness. So it remains one of the more fascinating mysteries of film history: why it took roughly 20 years to establish a middle-ground PG-13 rating, given to movies that couldn’t resist a few f-bombs but mostly stayed within the “shit/goddamn/asshole territory,” and kept their nude scenes fleeting and non-provocative. (This rating system still exists today, as does the idiotic R- rating designation for totally harmless, non-violent, non-exploitative films–think “The Breakfast Club” or “Lost in America”–that (Heaven forbid!) have more than two “fucks” in them). If you watch every PG-rated comedy made between, say, 1970 and 1984 (the year of PG-13’s dawning), you will encounter a vast number that, today, would undoubtedly be given a stricter rating.

One of my favorite childhood movies that falls into this category is “Sixteen Candles,” released in 1984 just before the issuance of PG-13. My nostalgia for it has overpowered my growing disdain for its naked misogyny (a drunk girl gets tricked into thinking a horndog geek is her jock boyfriend, and sleeps with him under the influence; today, that is called date rape) and racism (an elfin Chinese exchange student mangles the English language, fondles larger women and generally acts like a lunatic, his every entrance and reference accompanied by a gong on the soundtrack). Somehow, these craven offenses are still dwarfed by the romantic appeal of the central plot (sweet girl has terrible birthday, gets her prince).

But I digress. Each time I watched the uncensored theatrical version, at an older and older age, I became increasingly astounded that the movie was rated PG. Yes, there’s only one “fuck” in the whole film, but of all the ’80s teen comedies, it falls second only to “Porky’s” (rated a hard R) in terms of blatantly sex-addled humor. The entire movie is a cartoon wolf-dog with its eyes bulging out. The underwear of a virginal teen is removed and examined (twice); there is talk of gangbangs and gang rapes; there is fondling and stalking and unwanted advances by predatory boys on petite girls (mostly, on their necks and thighs). And even more glaringly, there is, as in “Porky’s,” nudity. Flagrant, lingering nudity. Full frontal nudity, and not of the “innocent kids shipwrecked in nature” variety, nor the quick mooning gag variety.. No, a buxom girl is seen showering in all her glory in the girls’ locker room, gawked at by two jealous classmates. How in the hell did that scene ALONE not warrant an R-rating, while the following year’s fully-clothed “The Breakfast Club” (made by the same director) received an “R” purely for profanity? Were the stodgy ratings board members that deadly afraid of the f-word at the time–even more than they were of nudity and (as we learned in the amazing 2006 doc “This Film Is Not Yet Rated”) female pleasure?

I had a similar feeling of incredulity watching the 1980 Suzanne Somers-Donald Sutherland flop “Nothing Personal.” Though not on Netflix, it is available on Amazon Instant, and my new rule for this blog excludes entries on movies you can easily stream. But I make an exception for movies that stir up this sort of cultural crisis in my head. One scene in particular should be viewed by whichever person or committee invented the term “mansplaining,” for permanent exhibition in the Hall of Shame. But first, a brief synopsis.

That jokey tagline above, about the two main characters “breaking the law” all over the country, refers to the client/lawyer rule about not sleeping with your client. Donald Sutherland plays a supposedly passionate college professor who’s disgusted to learn about the clubbing of endangered baby seals, on Native American land pegged for development. (I say “supposedly” because Sutherland drones through this movie with a delirious, shit-eating grin, presumably having swallowed a lot of downers. His lethargy is all the more puzzling given that, in one of Somers’ autobiographies, she wrote that Sutherland more or less took on directing duties, having realized the ineptitude of the assigned director, the late TV hack George Bloomfield. This account was not confirmed anywhere else, but if that is the case, Sutherland was an equally inept director–of himself as much as anyone else.)

Anyway, he needs a tough Washington, D.C. lawyer to take on the corporate behemoths allowing the animal cruelty, but the only one that will take his case is–gasp!–a woman. A blonde woman. A blonde buxom woman played by Suzanne Somers, then known for playing a blonde buxom bimbo on “Three’s Company,” in her mainstream movie debut. (She’d made a never-released British one the previous year, called “Yesterday’s Hero.”) Despite this lawyer’s comely charms and high vocabulary, Sutherland is an old-fashioned prig, and he doesn’t think a woman is up to the job. But eventually she disarms his apprehensions by, uh, sleeping with him.

I’m exaggerating a bit here, but not much. Let me break this down. When Sutherland and Somers first meet, she flashes him the most shameless goo-goo eyes imaginable, and spouts off smutty double-entendres along with her legal credentials. (In interviews, Somers referred to her character as “a liberated woman,” closer to her own nature than the ditz she played on “Three’s Company.” But I’m sorry to say: this is a slobbering man’s fantasy of an intelligent business woman, hook, line and sinker). Since this walking Barbie doll with a seventh-grade boy’s sense of humor comes complete with research skills, Sutherland is impressed and takes her on as his attorney. The two then venture to Philadelphia, where they plead their case against seal-bashing at a corporate board meeting. On the cab ride to the train station, he asks if she’ll be stopping home to pack her “underthings.” Somers reveals that she doesn’t wear any. On the train ride up, she confesses that she’s “horny,” but Sutherland says this stems not from physical attraction but from the vibrations of the train. “Oh,” she says. End of scene.

This leads to the hall of shame sequence referenced above, in which Sutherland and Somers do research in a hotel room, with her indeed in the buff, barely cloaked by a skimpy bedsheet, and him in a dapper suit and bowtie. He then lectures–or mansplains–to Somers that she shouldn’t use her “pussy” in the practice of law. He repeats the word “pussy” perhaps six or seven more times, contemptuously. (Again: this was rated PG). Does Somers slap him or kick him out of the room or otherwise reprimand him? Of course not. She’s delighted at his blatant misogyny, as so many female love interests in dopey ’70s and ’80s comedies curiously were. She then proves him right, by calling up a random contact–connected in some way to the seal-bludgeoning–and promising him a sexual favor. To end the scene, she mock-laments to Sutherland that she used her body instead of her brain, despite his misgivings, ensuring his intellectual prowess over her. Man, does that turn him on!

This is, needless to say, stupefying, as is the next love scene in which the mustachioed Sutherland seems to be chewing Somers’ upper lip off while whispering more smut at her. He wins another sexual and intellectual battle concerning their keeping score on orgasms (she had more than him). Later on, Somers makes jokes about being “unshaven” and compares an exhausting journey in the trunk of a car to a football team gangbang.

Beyond this suggestiveness, there is also nudity in the film. Damning photographs surface of Sutherland and Somers (more likely their body doubles) doing the deed, pored over by the filmmakers. But hey, never mind her long, perilous journey through the male-dominated law field: Somers is cheekily defiant to the blackmailers, and it’s Sutherland who cries foul.

And so it was: the era of prudish, long-faced men effortlessly enticing “liberated” (read: impossibly horny) career women. At least on screen, this was the era. You never saw a movie of this type in which the free-spirited woman decided to ditch the stick-in-the-mud male figure. So the guy gets all the excitement, and the girl gets…a guy. (It’s a reverse situation of what former Washington Post critic Paul Attanasio–now a screenwriter–trashed Rob Reiner’s 1985 romantic teen comedy “The Sure Thing” for.)

This era also gave screenwriters carte blanche on racist jokes. Two of them here are about the TV slavery drama “Roots.” (A hilarious target, no question). One of these is delivered by the usually hilarious Dabney Coleman, playing his umpteenth corporate slimeball character. He and a colleague are trailing Sutherland and his African-American accomplice, played by the late Roscoe Lee Brown. “He looks like that black actor,” Coleman says to his crony. “You know, the one not on ‘Roots.'” Decades later, in the very politically-correct year of 2012, Coleman weirdly boasted about ad-libbing this joke during an interview with The A.V. Club.  He also called Somers a “fantastic actress,” so maybe his mind wasn’t all there.

This movie and its ilk could retroactively be grouped in an alliterative genre all their own: Prurient PG Piffle. Eight-year-olds went to this movie–I am guessing–with their unassuming parents, because the censors figured the word “pussy” would fly over their heads more than “fuck.” Not to mention the filmmakers’ crass haste in undressing, outsmarting and bimbo-fying their sole substantive female character. (Catherine O’Hara gets a tiny scene with zero funny or memorable lines; to be fair, though, so does Eugene Levy).

One last curiosity: as seen above, Vincent Canby of the New York Times viciously panned “Nothing Personal.” This being 1980, however, male critics did not yet blanch at–let alone condemn–blatant sexism in the movies. So he took most of his brutal aim at Somers, calling her dumb and untalented. This is probably how her performance will come across to viewers today, but Katharine Hepburn herself couldn’t bring charm or conviction to such an insipidly conceived role. Anyway, Canby says the movie’s sole funny moment involves a character played by the late Hugh Webster. Unless he was mixing up supporting actors, this is a vexing distinction. I re-watched the scene in question–the board meeting scene–and all Webster says is: “I own 99.9% of the shares in this company, and my vote is no.” Or something to that effect. Is that funny? Was it funny in 1980? Did I have to watch the whole scene to get the context? Oh wait, I did watch the whole scene! And there are actual jokes in it, and this isn’t even a joke. Hmm. Maybe Canby was tickled by Webster’s peculiarly hangdog face?

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