Two untimely deaths last April - Bruce Langhorne and Jonathan Demme - reminded us of our own mortality, especially those of us born in the '50s. Bruce Langhorne (1938-2017), who was immortalized (in a temporal sense) by the surprised Nobel Prize-winning balladeer Bob Dylan in his song "Mr. Tambourine Man," was an itinerant musician in the 1960s. He was enlisted to write a movie soundtrack - a musical accompaniment - by Peter Fonda for his "Western" The Hired Hand in 1970. He also composed the score for Fighting Mad (1975), only the second film directed by Jonathan Demme (1944-2017) in which Fonda acted. I didn't see or hear of Langhorne again until I watched Jonathan Demme's beautiful film Melvin and Howard (1980), and saw his name scrawled in the opening credits.(1) He's responsible for underpinning some of the sweeter moments in the film, especially the last few minutes in which the titular hero Melvin Dummar tries to get on with his life after losing a court case involving himself and billionaire Howard Hughes, who ostensibly named him the recipient of $156 million purely on the strength of Dummar's helping him out of a ditch where he found him almost a decade earlier and driving him - out of his way - to Las Vegas.
Jonathan Demme was an American film director who made his mark early in his career with two affectionate, and quite endearing portraits of the American scene.(2) One of them was a masterpiece. Their critical success was good enough to make Demme believe that he was made of stronger stuff. After 1980, his career choices took several turns, some good for him, some bad. Is it possible that an artist can not know what's good for him, that he can ignore where his strengths lie and have the good sense to stay there?
Demme had a busy career as a director of music videos and music concert films, a politically committed documentarist, and executive producer. And in a 44-year career he directed 21 feature films. Among his credits are the Women in Prison sexploitation flick Caged Heat (1974), the Hitchcockian cliffhanger Last Embrace (1979), a vehicle for the irresistible Melanie Griffith called Something Wild (1986), Spalding Gray's Swimming to Cambodia (1987), the two films for which he is best known, the severely overrated Silence of the Lambs (1991) and the scrupulously patronizing Philadelphia (1993), Beloved (1998), which took on immeasurably more than a commercial film could handle, and the film that was a tentative comeback for him, Rachel Getting Married (2008). The word "versatility" was used alot in the many tributes to him at his death. In The Atlantic, David Sims wrote: "he was as consequential an American director as any who emerged in the late ’70s and early ’80s — like Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, James Cameron, David Lynch, and Oliver Stone." These would've been uplifting words if they had been at all fitting. But Demme's was basically a bungled career.
As with every art, filmmaking provides two distinct, but sometimes complimentary, rewards. First is critical attention, the winning of awards, the establishment of a reputation for work of high quality. But it doesn't pay the rent. Second is commercial success, box-office receipts, the dependable ability of putting butts in movie theater seats. Who wants foie gras when you can have all the hotdogs you can eat?
Demme had both rewards, but he didn't get them at the right time or - more crucially - at the same time. The critical attention he earned with Citizen's Band and Melvin and Howard was certainly encouraging for a director wanting to be taken seriously after a string of low-budget exploitation films. But Citizen's Band, trying to cash in on the CB radio craze, was disappointing enough commercially to make the producer believe that a different title (Handle With Care - in CB lingo, a "handle" was your call signature) - and a different (happier) ending would make more money.(3) They didn't. And Melvin and Howard, which won Oscars for Bo Goldman's original screenplay and Mary Steenburgen's supporting performance, made only $4.3M at the box office - a respectable return for an Indie Flick, but not enough to buoy a burgeoning career.
High critical acclaim and scanty commercial receipts are not what a professional Hollywood film director needs to make a good living. Alas, after the made-for-television charmer, Who Am I This Time? (1982), Demme quit mining the rich vein he discovered in Citizen's Band and Melvin and Howard. Rachel Getting Married, which some critics hailed as a return to his old form, was too little and far too late.
Melvin and Howard is not what taglines suggested it is. It's neither a buddy movie nor a road movie. One of the first posters on its release got the title right - Melvin (and Howard). Audiences eager to watch a movie about the eccentric and secretive American billionaire were disappointed. A man claiming to be Howard Hughes (we have only Melvin's word for it) disappears after the first twenty minutes of the film and only reappears for the final scene. The film could be misconstrued as a cautionary tale about how not to pursue the American dream.
And that is where the film takes flight on a speculative level. What exactly is the American dream? Melvin has - eventually - two marriages and two kids, but leaves a great deal to be desired as a breadwinner. What undoes his efforts to succeed time after time is his inability to accept the obvious fact that he is one of life's losers.(4) In America, nobody gets an "A" for effort. Results are all that matters. And the only things Melvin Dummar has to show for all of his efforts to get ahead of a game that he hasn't come close to figuring out are a divorce settlement against him, co-ownership (with Bonnie) of a filling station on a bad stretch of highway, a bagful of fizzled dreams and the dubious accomplishment of coercing an old man claiming to be Howard Hughes into singing a song he wrote called "Santa's Souped-up Sleigh."
The real Melvin Dummar, who was born in the same year - 1944 - as Jonathan Demme, returned to obscurity after he made his dubious claim to fame. He even makes a brief appearance as a food counter clerk early on in Melvin and Howard. His up-and-down life (mostly down) is a practical demonstration that America is the Land of the Second Chance. And the Third and the Fourth. In the film's last scene, he picks up his kids for the weekend (his part of the divorce settlement) and shares a stolen moment with Lynda, who still loves him despite all his failings and failures. Driving back to Utah through the desert, Melvin flashes back to the morning when he drove the old man who claimed he was Howard Hughes into Vegas. The old man asks Melvin if he can take over at the wheel. Feeling sleepy, Melvin pulls over and lets the old man drive. Once Melvin falls asleep (but how can he be remembering this?), the old man softly sings "Bye Bye Blackbird." End titles appear telling us the fates of Hughes (died April, 1976), the "Mormon will" (thrown out of a Nevada Superior Court), Lynda (living in Garden Grove, California with Bob, her husband), Melvin and Bonnie (living in Willard, Utah where Melvin drives a delivery truck for Coors Beer).
The Superior Court ruling against the "Mormon will" in 1978 effectively blacklisted Dummar.(5) People he sought employment from thought he was either a millionaire joker or a liar. After a series of odd jobs, he finally settled into delivering meat to remote towns in Nevada. In 2002, a retired FBI agent, Gary Magnesen, visited Dummar to ask him questions about his encounter with Hughes. At the time Dummar was awaiting a bone-marrow transplant for lymphoma. Magnesen took the information he got from Melvin (claiming that he found Hughes face down by the side of U.S. Highway 95 on December 29, 1967 ), as well as further eyewitness accounts from former Hughes employees that appear to confirm Melvin's story, and published all of it in 2005 in the book, The Investigation: A Former FBI Agent Uncovers the Truth Behind Howard Hughes, Melvin Dummar, and the Most Contested Will in American History.
Magnesen discovered that there had been evidence tampering in the Superior Court case that ruled the "Mormon will" was a forgery. He also asked the pertinent question, if it was a forgery, who wrote it? Dummar was never charged.(7) On the strength of this new evidence, in June 2006 Melvin filed a lawsuit against two beneficiaries of the Hughes' fortune. He demanded the original $156 million, plus punitive damages and "interest." In January the following year, a U.S. District judge dismissed Dummar's lawsuit.
Dummar was right about one thing, and Jonathan Demme's film gives it a ring of truth. After all the bad publicity, the accusations of lies, the legal tug of war over Howard Hughes' fortune, and the years of living in the shadows, the only thing that mattered is the moment he shared with the old man, two of the unlikeliest passengers - one of the richest men in the world and one on a life-long losing streak, a latter-day convergence of the twain - on a lonely stretch of desert highway one cold night almost fifty years ago.
(1) All the names in the credits are written in the same unsteady handwriting that the discredited "Mormon will" was written in.
(2) Acute foresight should be attributed to Michael Sragow, who wrote in the January/February issue of American Film, "Although his best two movies to date, Citizens Band (AKA Handle With Care, 1977) and Melvin and Howard (1980), were hailed for bringing the heartiness and sensitivity of a homegrown Jean Renoir into latter-day American film comedy, they failed to score at the box office."
(3) In fact, Paramount Pictures' mishandling of the promotion for the film became notorious.
(4) Lynda tells him - just before she leaves him for the last time - "We're poor, Melvin!" To which Melvin replies, "We're not poor! Broke maybe, but we're not poor."
(5) Howard Hughes' death was finally ruled "intestate" in 1983, and his fortune, estimated at $2.5 billion, was divided among twenty-two of his cousins.
(6) Two details in the film differ from the truth: Hughes wasn't out riding a motorcycle on the night of December 29, 1967. He was visiting one of his favorite prostitutes in a legal brothel. And the pickup truck Dummar was driving in the film was really a 1966 Chevy Caprice. Though there is no way Demme could've known about Hughes' visit to the brothel, in the film Dummar's truck passes by one, bedecked with Christmas lights, on the way to Vegas.
(7) Prosecutors argued that Dummar's wife Bonnie, who once worked for a magazine called Millionaire, forged the will. If she had forged it, which required that she have special knowledge of Hughes' family and businesses, charges were never filed against her. She denied forging it.