Tuesday, September 27, 2022

Howard Hughes, Melvin Dummar, and the American (Dollar) Dream

Jonathan Demme’s Melvin and Howard is a small movie about small people, unless you count reclusive zillionaire Howard Hughes, whose massive shadow hangs over the whole enterprise. Dennis Bingham's Whose Lives Are They Anyway? The Biopic as Contemporary Film Genre cites Melvin and Howard as the first film in the subgenre "biopic of someone undeserving.” The undeserving someone in this case is Melvin Dummar, the Utah man who, after Hughes’ death in 1976, popped up as a major beneficiary of Hughes’ vast estate by way of a mysterious handwritten will unearthed at the headquarters of the Mormon Church in Salt Lake City. The so-called Mormon Will was eventually judged a blatant forgery. But through a number of court hearings Dummar continued to insist that he’d rescued Hughes in the Nevada desert in 1967, giving a needy old man a friendly lift to Las Vegas.

 Melvin and Howard is a fanciful riff on that slice of history, taking Dummar’s story at face value. (Hollywood veteran Bo Goldman won an original screenplay Oscar for his lively telling of the tale.) It begins with a scruffy and  maniacal Howard Hughes (played with his usual panache by Jason Robards) gleefully racing his chopper through the desert, before the fun ends with a spectacular crash. Hours later, garage mechanic Dummar happens along in his truck, stops to take a leak, and discovers the fallen tycoon. Throughout their ride, Hughes remains taciturn and cranky, until the chatty Dummar gets him to singing a favorite old song, “Bye Bye, Blackbird.” At journey’s end, after Hughes reveals his identity (and borrows some cash), they go their separate ways.

 The bulk of the film is a portrait of Dummar (well played by Paul Le Mat) as a perennial dreamer, someone who can’t hold down a job but is convinced that happy days are just around the corner. He loves wife Lynda (the adorably ditsy Mary Steenburgen in her Oscar-winning role), but can’t quite seem to provide a stable life. The centerpiece of the film is the on-again off-again marriage of these two: at one point she leaves him and their daughter to work in a topless bar. Their fortunes seem to turn when he gets Lynda onto a talent-and-game show in which (despite her tap-dancing ineptitude) she wins a large sum of money, all of which Melvin quickly squanders. The romantic allure of money, as seen in this segment,  is at this film’s very heart.  The show is called Easy Street, and its smarmy host alternates between sexual innuendo and a worshipful attitude toward big bucks. It seems all too apt that Lynda’s tap routine is performed to the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction.”

 If you’re Melvin Dummar—a laid-back guy convinced that life on Easy Street awaits if only you believe hard enough—it’s perfectly likely that Howard Hughes would leave you a fortune. The question of the mysterious will continued to dog the real Dummar’s life, which ended in 2018. Melvin and Howard, though, concludes long before that, returning to the footage of two unlikely buddies, an old man and a young one, joyfully belting out an old musical-hall tune. 

 I worked briefly with Jonathan Demme in 1974, when he’d just returned from directing his first film, Caged Heat, for Roger Corman’s New World Pictures. He moved on to some studio gigs, but Melvin and Howard was his true breakthrough, showing off his skill at capturing American life and moving him toward the big pictures, like 1991’s The Silence of the Lambs. (I’ll mention in passing his sharp ear for musical scoring.) Unfortunately he left us much too soon.  


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