The California finals of the Young American Miss contest are held in Santa Rosa. Big Bob Freelander, chairman of the judges, has a trying week, and almost comes to question the values of the pageant.
One of the best ‘unknown’ movies of the 1970s. For a while, director Michael Ritchie was competing with Robert Altman in delivering multi-character satires of American institutions, though his later career (The Golden Child, Fletch) tended to obscure his earlier, quality work.
Smile touches some obvious bases later covered by Drop Dead Gorgeous (conniving and scheming contestants, lechery dressed up as patriotism, ghastly amateur ‘talent’ displays) but is more truthful, strange and unexpected, managing to be cynical and heartwarming at the same time. Bruce Dern, cast against his psycho image as an all-round booster for the pageant, is hilarious in many uncomfortable scenes; his finest acting hour might well be a sequence in which he takes his young son, caught snapping polaroids of the girls in the changing rooms, to a psychiatrist, then starts squirming as he realises the shrink sees there’s more wrong with him than the kid.
There are hilarious monsters among the contestants, especially Maria O’Brien as a Mexican-American who tries to seduce judges with guacamole dip and a fake accent, but Ritchie gives the girls points for at least being honestly ambitious, and a sweet relationship grows between uncertain Joan Prather and her more confident roommate (Annette O’Toole).
Watch also for: Barbara Feldon’s embalmed den mother, Michael Kidd as the ‘Hollywood choreographer’ appalled at what he’s doing, Geoffrey Lewis’s double-crossing local businessman, Nicholas Pryor as the only man in town who thinks there’s something wrong about dressing up in clan robes and kissing a dead chicken’s ass, and a very fresh Melanie Griffith as the girl in the polaroid.
Managing to be cynical and heartwarming at the same time, this is an almost perfect satire on the American Institution of beauty pageants.