Getting Straight (1970) dir. Richard Rush
Starring: Elliot Gould, Candice Bergen, Robert F. Lyons, Martin Corey, Harrison Ford, Brenda Sykes,
Guest Review By Greg Klymkiw
With the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War, the protests, the draft and the various political assassinations of beloved leaders such as JFK and Martin Luther King during the general mayhem of the 60s and 70s, it still feels like one event stands apart from the rest of the general mayhem of America in the 60s and 70s. Still sending shudders through many people was the Kent State University massacre in Ohio of 1970 where American National Guardsmen shot live rounds of ammunition into the throngs of a student protest. As horrific as anything imaginable, this was a case where a government turned its guns against its own people, its hope for the future, its youth. Dissent would NOT be tolerated and Big Daddy Establishment was steadfastly unable to spare the rod against its seemingly spoiled progeny.
During this period, the unrest was mirrored and examined in the popular culture – especially the movies, where filmmakers like Robert Altman, Arthur Penn, Sam Peckinpah and many others sought to expose the violence and hypocrisy of American life. Many of these films were not only boxoffice hits in their day, but continue to be revered and recognized to this day. And then, there’s all the rest.
While there are several worthy forgotten pictures from this era, one in particular stands out – Richard Rush’s fascinating and entertaining “Getting Straight”, a counter culture drama based on Ken Kolb’s novel about post-secondary academic hypocrisy. Rush is a great, but hardly prolific filmmaker. His biggest claim to fame is “The Stunt Man”, a wonky, obsessive and utterly anarchic look at the blurry lines between fantasy and reality in the movie business starring a completely and deliciously over-the-top Peter O’Toole whose thespian excess in the picture is rivaled only by Rush’s manic directorial style.
Looking at “Getting Straight” almost 40 years since its release (during the very year of the aforementioned Kent State Massacre) and in the context of “The Stunt Man”, one is immediately taken with Rush’s fascination with the blurring of borders. In “Getting Straight”, the divides are between old and new.
Harry Bailey (Elliot Gould) is the mustachioed, side-burned and amiably rumpled protagonist of “Getting Straight” – a Vietnam veteran returned from the war and in the last year of his English Literature Masters degree. Harry is a man without (so to speak) a country. He wants to teach – desperately, but is, alas, faced with the dilemma of being too world wise to be a true part of the youth movement he so desperately craves to reach and too hip to embrace the staid complacency of the established order of academia. He wanders through the picture, not so much torn between both worlds, but observing them and wondering how he can be a part of both. This noble effort, on the part of the character makes for fascinating viewing as we take on his perspective, but it’s also probably the main reason why “Getting Straight” has disappeared into the ether. While his conflict is real, Rush chooses to use a perspective of confusion to lead us through the narrative – a worthwhile goal and not even especially flawed, but it does make it ultimately difficult for an audience to grab onto the coattails of a character to root for him. And so, like Gould’s Harry Bailey, we wander through a world where students protest the outmoded academic ideals of the institution and Gould himself tries to utilize new methods to reach his students, but also craves to play the game of an establishment he wants to change.
Harry Bailey’s namesake is, of course, a character from Frank Capra’s stunning post-WWII classic “It’s A Wonderful Life”. The difference between the two characters is especially intriguing since Capra’s Harry is anything but indecisive. As Harry’s big brother George (in the form of James Stewart) declares, “Harry Bailey went to war, he won the Congressional Medal of Honor, he saved the lives of every man” under his command. And when Capra’s Harry returns from the war, he knows EXACTLY what he wants. Rush’s Harry is probably closer to Capra’s big brother figure, George. He wants to join the establishment in order to change it. In Capra’s post-war fantasy, George Bailey gets to do exactly that, but in Rush’s world, with roles clearly reversed, Harry learns that straddling the fencepost can never yield true change – it instead equals stasis.
“Getting Straight” is by no means a great picture, but in many ways, it comes closest to capturing the complexity of the period in which it’s set. In this sense, it has NOT dated. It is genuinely a project of its time – perfectly reflective of the complexities of the blurred lines on both sides of the old and new world orders. The two main things that work against the picture’s bid for the kind of immortality it probably craved are as follows: the aforementioned passivity of Gould’s character – it’s right for the movie and right for the world of the movie, but at the same time, fights against what the best movie drama is made of – a clear goal, clear stakes and a satisfyingly wrought conclusion. Rush does not achieve this, though in all fairness, it’s clearly not his intent to do so. The second flaw, and it is, frankly insurmountable, is the utterly dreadful performance of its leading lady Candice Bergen as the Ice Goddess grad student who is in love with Harry. Bergen is just awful. Her lines are delivered with the kind of soullessness, which goes well beyond that of the character’s shiksa-like station. Bergen’s deliveries are flat and so is her face. Though this movie was made well before the Botox revolution, Bergen wanders through the picture like a poster-child for the toxic protein of choice to render the flesh immovable and wrinkle-free.
That said, there’s much to admire. Gould, in spite of the character’s passivity, is always a fun screen presence and when he is called upon to be active, especially during a brilliant thesis-defense sequence, one can see why Gould was such a big star during this period and why he hit such a responsive chord with audiences. The supporting cast is marvelous, especially a very young Harrison Ford as a wide-eyed preppie-druggie. And Rush’s direction is suitably obsessive and detailed. There is a protest scene that is as breathtaking and chilling as anything you’re likely to see and the numerous party scenes are all infused with the kind of immediacy that allows you to observe AND participate.
At the end of the day, “Getting Straight” accomplishes much of what it set out to achieve and is, finally, an evocative window into a time and place that seems so distant, and at the same time, so current. Things never really change that much, do they?
“Getting Straight” is currently available on the Sony Pictures’ inexplicably titled and oddly programmed DVD label entitled “Martini Movies”.