What a mess this is. Everything you’ve ever heard about what a disaster the film version of the Broadway smash Mame is, well, it’s all true, every word of it. There’s no amount of exaggeration that can quite explain just how inept and fascinatingly awful this is. There’s a few bright spots, but it’s mostly an indifferently directed affair with an awkward leading performance that harms to the point of making Mame almost unpalatable to the audience.
Mame was Angela Lansbury’s career-changing show, transitioning the talented actress from film into grand dame of the theater. She would have been a natural choice to reprise the role, and composer Jerry Herman begged the studio to consider her. Alas, the powers that be thought she didn’t have enough box office pull, and Lucille Ball is a towering icon, and on paper not an entirely incorrect choice for the part. But we’re twenty years away from the height of I Love Lucy and Ball’s powers as an actress has dimmed here, and one wonders where her lovable quirkiness has gone off to for the duration of this film.
Ball performs everything at half speed, including her line delivers and comic pratfalls. Even worse is how cigarettes, booze, and time have taken their toll on her speaking and singing voice. Her vocals are stitched together piece-by-piece, preventing the belting that’s necessary in certain parts to happen, and making Mame sound eternally winded. By this point, Ball’s about fifteen years too old for the role and the gauzy close-ups hammer this point home throughout. She only gets the role right when interacting with Bea Arthur’s Vera Charles, a meeting of drunken raspy syllables and backhanded bitchery in sublime gay euphoria.
Arthur easily steals the movie, proving the most essential player and an all-around great performance. “Bosom Buddies” is a gas, with Arthur and Ball trading caustic barbs and lovingly shady quips back-and-forth while arm-in-arm or clinging martini glasses together. Arthur, as any fan of The Golden Girls or Maude could tell you, was magical in giving a caustic glance or a withering stare, and she deploys every comedic strength in her arsenal at the material, enlivening the proceedings whenever she’s onscreen.
Arthur’s then-husband, director Gene Saks, is another hindrance towards Mame. He was a director of Broadway, primarily, and his lazy directing here sinks many of the musical numbers and comedic bits. A musical needs energy in order to work, and Mame is distinctly sleepy in this respect. Saks merely points the camera and plants it there too often. There’s not enough cinematic spectacle, and it feels entirely old-fashioned in an era when movies like Cabaret and All That Jazz were redefining the movie musical.
A notorious bomb in its era, so large that it caused Ball to declare that she would never make another film again, it easily slips in with other curios from 70s musicals, like Man of La Mancha and Star! There’s still a certain camp angle to enjoy this film from, but only if you’re a fellow gay boy. I mean, there’s Dorothy Zbornak and Lucy McGillicuddy acting opposite each other, with Arthur going full-on drag queen in a performance that’s the definition of someone's work being a film's life support.