This column has gravitated toward movies that have been forgotten for good reasons. Some are innately forgettable, like Alan Alda’s sleepy The Four Seasons or The Golden Child. Others are regrettably racist, like Bringing Down The House, The Toy, and Rising Sun. Still others reflect so poorly upon the taste of a mass audience that we have decided to engage in a culture-wide charade that we didn’t once flock to see Shark Tale, Wild Hogs, or What Women Want. Finally, there are those that so powerfully embody their eras’ obsessions and fashions that they were doomed to not survive, like the 1970s cinematic freakfests/be-ins Billy Jack/The Trial Of Billy Jack, the dispatch from the frontline of 1980s tackiness that was 1987’s The Secret Of My Success, the hopelessly ’90s cybersex thriller Disclosure, and the sadly 21st-century likes of XXX.
These films all embody their times in ways that today register as kitsch. But time can also be cruel to good movies that capture their era so completely that it can be difficult to explain their significance to younger generations. That appears to be the case with 1979’s 10, which was the seventh top-grossing film of 1979 in terms of domestic grosses, right behind Alien and Star Trek: The Motion Picture, but ahead of The Jerk, Moonraker, and The Muppet Movie.
I was a little reluctant to write about 10 because I feared it was too fondly remembered and enduring to qualify for this column. But when I talked to people about it, I found a distinct generational split where 10 is concerned. People my own age (I’m 38) asked, “Is 10 too much of a cultural landmark to qualify?” People under age 35 asked, “What is 10?”
If I answered, “Well, it’s the movie that launched Bo Derek,” I suspect that would open the door to, “Who’s Bo Derek?” If I hedged my bets by saying it also made Dudley Moore a huge movie star in the United States, the retort might be, “Oh, you mean that sad drunk who made all those terrible movies before his awful, lingering death?” And if I continued, “Well, 10 briefly made it fashionable for white women to wear cornrows,” that would also be deemed a mark against it.
10 might have a better reputation, if not for the fact that writer-director Blake Edwards made a number of deeply personal films which didn’t get love or respect from critics, at least in his lifetime. (How personal are Edwards’ personal films? He financed much of 1986’s That’s Life himself, shot it at his own home, and co-wrote it with his psychiatrist, with whom he also collaborated with on a 1983 remake of The Man Who Loved Women.) It’s easy to see why Edwards has a mixed reputation, despite having made The Pink Panther, A Shot In The Dark, Breakfast At Tiffany’s, The Party, Victor/Victoria, and Days Of Wine & Roses. He also made the lesser Pink Panther films with Peter Sellers, a “new” Pink Panther movie (Trail Of The Pink Panther) out of outtakes from previous films, and Panther revivals for Ted Wass and Roberto Benigni after Sellers’ death. Then he closed the door on his film career with 10 consecutive flops: Curse Of The Pink Panther, The Man Who Loved Women, Micki+Maude, A Fine Mess, That’s Life, Blind Date, Sunset, Skin Deep, Switch, and Son Of the Pink Panther.
That litany of losers lends 10 the feeling of a last hurrah for many of the people involved, though Edwards and his wife and frequent collaborator, Julie Andrews, went on to collaborate on the stellar Victor/Victoria a few years later (their true last hurrah), and Moore won the world’s heart as lovable alcoholic Arthur in the 1981 film of the same name. After 1982, however, it was all downhill for 10’s principals. Edwards resided permanently in flop city, bringing Andrews along with him on many of his failed ventures. Moore endured a sad gauntlet of no-hopers, and Derek went on to headline such Golden Raspberry-festooned duds as Tarzan, The Ape Man, Bolero, and Ghosts Can’t Do It.
But more than anything, 10 feels like a last hurrah for 1970s American cinema, or at least Edwards’ incongruously commercial version of non-commercial 1970s American cinema. 10’s protagonist isn’t the only one attempting to take advantage of the new freedoms of the 1970s: The spirit of the times apparently liberated Edwards to tell a deeply personal story that combines a surprisingly sad meditation on male menopause with the crowd-pleasing slapstick that distinguished the Pink Panther series. (Peter Sellers, incidentally, claimed he turned down the lead role in 10 many times, purportedly due to his seething hatred of Edwards.)
In 10, sex is everywhere. It’s a central part of the Southern California ecosystem, as essential to human life as oxygen. Everywhere fabulously successful songwriter George Webber (Moore) goes, sex seems to be taunting him. He’s flummoxed and hypnotized by the pert breasts of the female runners he ogles while driving down the street. He’s simultaneously confused and aroused by the nonstop orgy he witnesses though the telescope he points in the direction of his swinger neighbor, who has a harem and sexual appetite to rival Hugh Hefner’s, despite bearing an unfortunate resemblance to Marty Feldman.
George has an amazing, accomplished partner in Samantha Taylor (Andrews), a singer and actress who is more than his equal. But the stability of occasional sex with a woman his own age can’t compare to the tantalizing allure of total sexual freedom, of being able to indulge his hedonistic desires with sweaty, unapologetic abandon, like his gargoyle-faced neighbor, who seems untroubled by the neuroses and insecurities that afflict George.
Sex saturates George to such an extent that his peeping habit is an open secret everyone knows about, including Samantha and that neighbor, who’s not upset that he’s being watched, he just resents that George—whom he and his parade of lovelies are also watching through a telescope, as part of the film’s giant circle of voyeurism and exhibitionism—doesn’t put on an equally erotic show in return. George’s crime isn’t being a voyeur; it’s being boring.
George isn’t just successful like Blake Edwards; if anything, he’s even more successful than Edwards. Edwards had to wait until 2004 to get an honorary Academy Award; George has four Oscars at age 42. George has everything: money, fame, a gorgeous home, and an accomplished, supportive partner. And yet he’s desperately unhappy in a way that was probably familiar to Edwards, who wrestled with depression and wrote screenplays with his psychiatrist, despite being one of the most commercially successful filmmakers of all time, and being married to Julie Andrews, who seems like a pretty neat lady, and has done okay for herself, all things considered. 10 consequently feels deeply personal in ways that are fascinating and revelatory rather than self-absorbed—even though the movie is very much about self-absorption, and the damage it wreaks on both the self-absorbed and everyone else in their circle.
The film opens with a surprise birthday party for George, which only crystallizes his feelings of being old and irrelevant, a creaky old man in a show-business world obsessed with youth, sex, and vitality. He’s only 42, but in the circles he travels in, he might as well be twice that age. George’s unhappiness is all the more vexing for its lack of a clear cause, beyond his general fears about aging and impotence.
In one of the film’s most fascinating, revealing scenes, George tells his psychiatrist that he would be gay if it meant being 20 again. 10 is astonishingly progressive in its sexual dynamics for a Hollywood studio comedy made in 1979; George’s partner Hugh (Robert Webber) is openly gay, and though variations on the word “fag” get tossed around, it’s never with any malice. Hugh is both a wholly positive and sexual character, a mensch who dotes on George as well as a much younger lover he knows he will not be able to hold onto permanently. So when George says he’d trade his heterosexuality for a chance to inhabit a 20-year-old’s body again, it’s a startling confession not because the film sees homosexuality as inherently negative, but because George’s heterosexuality is so central to his identity. As the songwriting partner of a gay man, George also obviously understands how tough it is to be gay in 1979, even in the most accommodating environments.
While driving around in his Rolls Royce one day, George spies a vision that changes his life: an angelic woman (Derek) with perfect bone structure and a beatific radiance, on the way to her wedding. George is instantly transfixed. Suddenly, his life has direction. It’s toward sex, of course, but it’s something beyond that; George is convinced this glorious creature must occupy a world above sex, a world of pixies, angels, and goddesses. George does this mystery woman a terrible disservice by placing her on a pedestal above the rest of humanity while simultaneously reducing her to a sexual object. (Over the course of the film, he refers to her as the most beautiful “thing” he’s ever seen, language that reinforces his inability to see her as human.) George objectifies and romanticizes her, creating an image of her as the perfect virginal sex bomb, an identity that’s violently contradictory and impossible to live up to.
George’s obsession gets him into trouble immediately. In the first of an endless series of expertly staged pratfalls and disasters, many shot in long takes, he’s so busy mooning over the obscure object of his desire that he crashes headfirst into a parked cop car. Yet he still manages to creepily stalk his dream woman to the church where she’s marrying beefcake palooka David Hanley (human mannequin Sam J. Jones, a year before he was anointed Flash Gordon).
10 explores one of my favorite themes: how pursuing your dreams can make you an asshole. George’s pursuit of the woman—her name is Jenny, which he learns by peeping in on her marriage ceremony—brings out the avaricious, delusional stalker in him. Throughout the film, George behaves in ways that are selfish and inconsiderate, creepy and unhinged, but he remains sympathetic no matter how deplorably he acts. That is largely a testament to Moore’s performance. George is motivated by lust and a retrograde conception of idealized femininity, but there’s a deep vein of melancholy that renders him palatable in a way he wouldn’t be in the hands of a less sympathetic actor (like, say, George Segal, who was originally cast as George but left, reportedly because he was threatened by the way Edwards kept bulking up Andrews’ role in the film).
Seeking information about Jenny, George uses false pretenses to visit the reverend who married them. The reverend recognizes George as a successful songwriter, and, being a bit of a tunesmith himself, favors George with a hilariously awful song. (“Glee clubs of moonbeams sing your name in the blue” is a representative lyric.) It takes every bit of willpower George possesses not to laugh out loud at the song. Edwards was a master of slapstick, and Moore could take a pratfall with deftness few could match, but in scenes like these, Edwards fuses his enduring love of physical comedy with a comedic awkwardness that recalls the films of Elaine May, particularly The Heartbreak Kid, which 10 resembles in so many ways that it sometimes plays like a goyishe remake of May’s decidedly Jewish film.
More slapstick humiliations ensue for our hapless, obsessed protagonist. While spying on his neighbor, George accidentally tumbles down a hill. In a bid to get closer to Jenny, he visits her dentist father and ends up with six filled cavities and a mouth full of novocaine. George’s obsession begins to diminish him physically as well as psychologically. He starts to look on the outside how he feels on the inside: a slurring, bruised, pain-medication-addled, stumbling mess of a man. But his suffering is rewarded with the revelation that Jenny is honeymooning in Mexico.
In his mad bid to destroy all he has in the quixotic search for something better, George travels to Mexico, where he befriends a bartender played by a young, uncharacteristically vibrant Brian Dennehy. George fails to perform sexually with a heartbreakingly fragile young woman played by Dee Wallace, and then, in a far-fetched bit of kismet, saves Jenny’s husband when he falls asleep on a surfboard.
Romantic comedies generally invite audiences to root for their heroes to achieve their dreams. We are a nation of dreamers, after all, and few things in our culture are as romanticized as realizing dreams at any cost. But 10, like The Heartbreak Kid, understands the underlying selfishness behind putting your own desires above everyone else’s. For George, realizing his obsession would entail cheating on Mary Poppins with a women decades his junior while she’s on her honeymoon. The film understandably takes a view of George’s quest that is ambivalent at best and scathing at worst.
10 is perhaps best known for a fantasy sequence where George imagines Jenny running toward him on the beach in ecstatic slow-motion, seemingly lit from within by some unknown but divine radiance. It’s a sequence that has been parodied and spoofed repeatedly, but it’s worth noting that the moment has a parodic quality in 10 as well. It’s supposed to be ridiculous, but, like everything involving George’s pursuit of Jenny, more than a little sad, since it epitomizes George’s doomed fantasies.
With Jenny’s husband in the hospital recovering from what turns out to be a terrible sunburn (even George’s heroism is underwhelming), George takes a pleasantly stoned Jenny out to dinner and then on a moonlit stroll on the beach. Dancing ensues, followed by a trip back to Jenny’s bungalow. She offers George a joint, regales him with randy anecdotes from her sexual history, disrobes, and beckons George to join her in bed.
It’s the triumph George has been dreaming about, that sacred moment when fantasy becomes reality, and the women of his dreams becomes his real-life lover. But the realization of his fantasy fills George with trepidation and doubt rather than joy. All it takes to break the spell is for George’s Venus to open her mouth and begin talking, to stop being solely an object of erotic fixation, and start expressing thoughts and opinions of her own.
There’s nothing particularly wrong with Jenny’s personality, but George silently but perceptibly judges her for everything she says and does: her description of his work as “elevator music,” her casual, offhanded utterance of the word “fuck,” her obsession with timing their lovemaking to a cherished recording of Ravel’s Boléro, her constant smoking of joints to get in the mood, her habit of casually dropping revelations about her sexual awakening into conversation.
But what George really judges Jenny for is hopping into bed with him. This is the height of George’s poisonous hypocrisy and unexamined madonna/whore complex: He judges Jenny for fulfilling his wishes and having sex with him, albeit not in the precise manner he desired. George’s narcissism and ego insist that this sexual encounter be as important to Jenny as it is to him, that it be a coupling of profound spiritual and emotional significance. But Jenny makes it clear through her words and actions that to her, a fuck is just a fuck. She’s not having sex with George because of a deep soulful connection; she’s fucking him because he’s a nice-looking, reasonably charming older man who must be famous, because she and her new husband saw him on The Dinah Shore Show a few weeks earlier.
10 doesn’t judge Jenny the way George does, nor does it judge Wallace’s would-be one-night stand, or George’s gay songwriting partner, or even that partner’s much younger lover. It doesn’t even judge the ugly weirdo next door perpetually bedding three or four beautiful women. The only person whose sexuality 10 judges is George. But 10 doesn’t punish him for being horny. Everyone in 10 is horny, and the people who embrace their libidos tend to be the happiest and healthiest. No, 10 punishes George for being a hypocrite, for clinging to outdated conceptions of how women should behave while simultaneously trying to take advantage of the pleasures of the sexual revolution. George spends all of 10 desperately seeking sex; his punishment for his sexism, hypocrisy, and stalking is to never find it, even when it seems certain. When George returns home with a long string of humiliations trailing him, and proposes to Samantha, she wisely declines.
The first time I saw 10, around age 15, as part of my adolescent quest to see movies that depicted boobs, I thought George was the hero, and found the film disappointingly slow, unsexy, and not particularly funny. Years later, the film strikes me as a smart, funny, perceptive exploration of the complexities of middle-aged male sexuality. I now see Samantha as the film’s hero, for putting up with George’s bullshit to a certain point, and then holding him accountable for his actions. Samantha is far and away the most together person in the film, and though she ends the film by opening the door to take George back, it’s because she’s stronger and better than him, not weaker.
Similarly, when I first saw 10, I was underwhelmed by Derek, but this time around, I understood how an entire culture could take one look at her and become as transfixed and obsessed as George. Show business is full of beautiful women—it’s considered big news when a non-beautiful woman becomes a star—but Derek has an angelic, otherworldly quality that perfectly complements her simmering sexuality. She’s not just gorgeous; she’s inhumanly beautiful, and she somehow manages to make cornrows on a white woman seem like a sublime, inspired choice. But her luminosity and intense sexual charisma begin to fade when she talks; Derek has amazing presence, but she isn’t a very good actress. That ends up working in the film’s favor as well: George sees Jenny as impossibly perfect, but the reality is that she’s just an unremarkable woman with remarkable looks.
Derek’s beauty and magnetism helped make 10 a hit, but they weren’t enough to sustain a major career. Still, Derek had such heat post-10 that she and her husband/director/Svengali John Derek notched 1981’s 15th highest-grossing film of the year with the softcore vehicle Tarzan, The Ape Man, despite scathing reviews and the widespread sense that it was a humiliating flop. 1984’s Bolero and its 1989 follow-up Ghosts Can’t Do It were just as disastrously received, but without the healthy box-office; Ghosts Can’t Do It was barely released.
I suspect a big part of the reason 10 has been forgotten is because it is so linked to the cult of Bo Derek, which has faded considerably. (In the pantheon of sex symbols, she’s settled closer to Mamie Van Doren than Marilyn Monroe.) That’s a shame, because 10 has the rare and wonderful quality of being simultaneously a perfect sociological document of the era that created it, and strangely timeless in its obsessions.
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