Originally attached to Mike Nichols, Melvin and Howard handed over the reins from one American renaissance filmmaker to a new generation.
Paul Le Mat’s naturalistic performances in Jonathan Demme’s key early films nicely sum up the director’s worldview. Big-eyed and enthusiastic, perhaps a little naïve and with a big, generous heart, Le Mat plays horndogs with human flaws who are generally good and ordinary everymen. In Handle with Care, he was the gentle, grounding force of a subculture of lonely CB radio enthusiasts. In Melvin and Howard, Le Mat plays a man down on his luck who does something unusually open-hearted; he gives a disheveled old man a ride in his truck and closes their brief encounter with the corniest and most sincere gesture: a tentative, but earnest thumbs up.
Jason Robards plays that disheveled old man: eccentric businessman Howard Hughes, who was at the time one of the wealthiest men in the world. The screenplay by Bo Goldman (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) dramatizes the story of Melvin Dummar, a Utah gas station owner who gained notoriety when he was listed as one of the beneficiaries on a handwritten will allegedly left behind by Hughes after his death. The will was thrown out of court as a forgery, but the document’s legality is beside the point of the movie; this is about two figures at seemingly opposite ends of the American Dream who come together for a moment as unlikely friends.
The film was originally set up with a different cast. Universal Pictures wanted Gary Busey to play Dummar and objected to Demme’s choice of Roberts Blossom, who played Le Mat’s father in Handle with Care, to play Hughes. The studio got half their way and it may have been the right choice all around.
Melvin and Howard opens with a long shot of desert where Hughes is on a motorcycle gleefully thrilling in the vast American landscape until he takes a spill; it’s a madcap intro that sets up a metaphor of economic struggle. Driving in the middle of the night, Dummar comes upon the injured old man and offers him a ride. What follows is the film’s celebrated opening sequence, which observes Hughes and Dummar riding along in a truck for 18 pages of dialogue. Hypnotic shots of asphalt echo Two-Lane Blacktop, Easy Rider and other American road movies while forging its own human path—not of counterculture, but of connection.
When the old man tells Dummar that he’s Howard Hughes, Dummar shrugs it off. Regardless of who the old man is, Dummar treats him with compassion—and the opportunity to share. To his passenger’s initial objection (Hughes protests that he doesn’t like music anymore), Dummar sings Hughes his original song, “Santa’s Souped-Up Sleigh,” for which he paid $75 for a company to put his words to music.
The whole movie is in this sequence: Dummar’s modest and naïve ambitions, his eagerness not just to help out an injured stranger but to share his dreams. When the duo nears Vegas at dawn, each opens their window and breathes in the desert air. These men from opposite ends of the tracks come together and share a vision of a beautiful, natural country that’s like no other. Even rolling into the glitz of Vegas, which at the time may have represented the epitome of artifice, it seems like the fanfare for a uniquely American commerce that has long since disappeared.
The extended car trip, and the role of identity and possible deceit, connects Melvin and Howard to our previous survey subject: Abbas Kiarostami set so many scenes on the road and in cars that one wonders if he was a fan of ‘70s American road movies.
Originally attached to Mike Nichols, Melvin and Howard handed over the reins from one American renaissance filmmaker to a new generation. The film has perhaps not aged as well as Handle with Care, which never loses its gentle tone. Melvin’s obsession with game shows and his turbulent relationship with Lynda (Mary Steenburgen, who won an Oscar for her performance) occasionally leads to moments of farce (recalling the Vegas sequences of Crazy Mama) that distract from the tender drama at the film’s center. Such is America. Dummar himself becomes lost in the media frenzy that follows in the wake of what would be called the “Mormon will,” in which Hughes reportedly left $156 million to Dummar and an equal sum to the Church of Latter-Day Saints.
Melvin and Howard won Oscars for best screenplay and Best Supporting Actress, but in the fray of winning and financial turmoil, the movie isn’t a horse race. As it ends, Melvin is resigned to the fact that he will never see those millions, and he is okay with that; at least he got to sing his song to Howard Hughes.