A Touch of Class (1973)

Infidelity is rarely funny, and in the rare instance that it is the source of a comedic romp, it often carries with it a sense of needing to rationalize what would drive characters to engage in sordid extramarital affairs – whether it be portraying their married life as one of dull and listless convention (as contrasted with the passion of finding a new lover), or as the last remnants of a failing relationship, there always needs to be some reason for characters to undergo an affair. This is where Melvin Frank’s lovely A Touch of Class comes into the conversation – this is a film about two people falling in love, despite knowing that their relationship is one defined merely by its secrecy – a brief but fiery romance that is finite by the very nature of its existence. The film has seemingly been mostly forgotten, mainly only lingering as a result of the two lead performances (one of them in particular being memorable for a number of reasons), which is something of a shame, since A Touch of Class is a lovely little parable about the importance of taking a few steps away from the heat of the moment, and looking at one’s actions as an outside observer, seeing how even the most simple situations can carry with them a wealth of challenges, which are only complicated by the increasingly prescient insecurities that begin to envelop even the most loving of relationships after a while. A charming comedy that deserves to be reappraised, perhaps not as a forgotten classic, but rather as a vibrant, actively engaging story of an unconventional romance, and one that is filled to the brim with compelling conversations around the nature of love, and whether we can truly depend on our instincts to lead us in the right direction.

This film is a very unconventional romantic comedy, since it is a hilarious film that the viewer knows from the outset will have a very melancholy ending – in many ways, this massively helps the film be more than just a blasé attempt to add nuance to a relationship that should never have existed in the first place. The film starts as a comedy of errors, a series of brief encounters between a married man and a divorced woman, both of whom find themselves becoming hopelessly attracted to one another, and decide to take an elaborate holiday as a means to determine whether they are compatible or not, which turns out to be exactly the case, leading to them starting a relationship that not only takes place exclusively behind closed doors, but in different neighbourhoods entirely. The concept of leading a double life is one that often comes up in films about infidelity, and A Touch of Class is certainly not an exception – the difference here being that absolutely everything feels intentional and meaningful. These characters care about one another, but they are always going to prioritize those with whom they have shared a considerable portion of their lives, as opposed to the exciting new partnership that has only recently entered their lives, but taken them by storm. It’s a strange duality that many films on the subject tend to struggle with – so it seems only logical that it would be framed as an exuberant comedy that has enormous overtures of deep melancholy, as this allows for constructive conversations that are never overwrought, allowing the film to keep a consistently cheerful and engaging tone, rather than becoming weighed down by the philosophical quandary integral to its creation.

Much of what has made A Touch of Class memorable has to do with the two central performances – George Segal and Glenda Jackson may not appear to be the kinds of actors who would be paired together in a film like this, with his status as a journeyman actor with a persona drawn from the American working-class, and her existence as one of the most enigmatic young British actresses of her generation known for extremely dour kitchen sink dramas and experimental fare seemingly making them strange bedfellows that we’d never expect to be the subjects of a lovable romantic comedy – but rather than casting actors drawn from the same milieu, Frank chooses two that are radically different in a number of ways, and places them in stark contrast, only to prove that they have much more chemistry than the viewer would expect. The pair leads to a more tempered, measured film – Segal is forced to do more dramatic work (which he had not avoided, but he did tend to gravitate towards more comedic fare), while Jackson was tasked with putting the more serious work aside, playing a role that hinged on her deadpan comedic talents that many may not have realized she possessed, but which is put to exceptional use here, as she turns in one of the most beloved performances to date, and one that helped establish her as one of our finest screen performers. The film is a remarkable achievement in both regards, and thus so much of what makes it successful has to do with these actors and how they handle the more challenging material, while undercutting it with a genuinely fond humour that strikes the perfect balance and allows the film to be such a resoundingly charming work.

Some may even doubt that A Touch of Class can be considered a romantic story at all – there is certainly an abundance of love in it (or rather lust), but we never truly feel as if these characters love each other, which is not a criticism to Frank or any of the actors (all of whom do splendid work), but rather that this film was never constructed to have a happy ending. Something we tend to discover from time to time is that not every film receives the satisfying resolution we would hope for. This is logical for more serious fare, but this film is far more traditional in honouring the time-worn traditions of the genre, so the sudden and melancholy ending almost comes as a shock to the viewer, who was expecting some joyful and defiant conclusion that went against logical conventions, but actually turns out to leave the film on quite a sad note. It’s hardly a surprise that a pivotal moment in this film comes when the main characters are watching the seminal romantic drama Brief Encounter, many of the same ideas being shared between the films – a momentary but passionate romance spurred out of a chance meeting, and which inevitably has to end in the characters defying their own desires and doing what they know may be difficult, but which is also ultimately right. A Touch of Class often works in parallel to some of these ideas, almost acting as an intentional homage to one of the great screen romances of all time. Perhaps some of the emotion may be misplaced, and it doesn’t always give the viewer the benefit of the doubt, since it would require someone to be completely myopic to genuinely consider the conclusion of this film to be tragic – neither of these characters are in a worse position than they were a couple of weeks before. If anything, they gained more experience and insight into their own identity and interpersonal relationships – and this is what really makes A Touch of Class so moving, with its very specific but pointed sense of humour leading to a proudly evocative story of a romance that was doomed from the start, but far from a waste of time.

A Touch of Class is a film designed to be appreciated as more than just a run-of-the-mill romantic comedy. It centres itself on some vitally important issues, which it frames through the lens of upbeat comedy. It can often be difficult to decipher exactly what the overall intention of this film is, since it never seems to be fully invested in either its roots as a story of two lovers, or as a hard-hitting deconstruction of marital ennui. As a result, it is a film caught between two worlds, constructed out of a gradually provocative sense of experimenting with the content (since it may place the characters in situations where they question their morality, but it never portrays them as villainous for their misguided decision to commit adultery), but also adding humour to the kind of story that can often be a truly dour affair. A Touch of Class is a wonderfully quaint little film that has very few expectations of the viewer, a favour which the audience should ideally return by just allowing this film to move along at its own pace, exploring the themes that it finds most pertinent, and finding the humour in a situation that desperately required a more discerning lens, one in which Frank certainly does attempt to capture. Perhaps it’s not a perfect film, not one that has any preconceived notions of what romance should look like, but the blend of comedy and pathos makes for a thrilling and engaging comedy that has its heart in the right place, even if these characters consistently struggle with finding it for themselves, which is part of the charm of this delightfully irreverent but deeply thoughtful look into the process of falling in and out of love.


One Comment Add yours

  1. James says:

    The 1973 Best Actress race was a real head scratcher. Three prior winners (Glenda Jackson in Women in Love, Joanne Woodward in The Three Faces of Eve and Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl) were nominated alongside Marsha Mason and Ellen Burstyn. All five were considered to have substantial support and might win.

    Joanne Woodward got early traction by being named by the New York Film Critics Circle in December. Woodward had some sympathy among AMPAS voters. Six years earlier she was the Oscar front runner for her acclaimed performance in Rachel, Rachel. When her director (and husband) Paul Newman was shockingly snubbed, Woodward erupted in an interview. She denounced the Academy and declared her intent to boycott the ceremony. Though cooler heads prevailed, she had fallen from favor. Now this new drama Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams was seen as an avenue for her to be rewarded. However, the film was a financial failure and became controversial because of its homophobic subplot.

    Heads turned to the Golden Globes to identify a new frontrunner. Marsha Mason was the victor in a tight race. Mason played a hooker without a heart of gold. In addition, Mason was the darling of the media having just married new widower Neil Simon following a whirlwind six week romance. However, audiences failed to turn out for Cinderella Liberty, and Mason lost her edge.

    Of course, The Exorcist with its $450 million dollar domestic box office made nominee Ellen Burstyn a strong contender. The actress has lost the supporting Oscar the previous Spring to her The Last Picture Show co-star Cloris Leachman. An Oscar for this horror flick would be a good consolation prize. Unfortunately director William Friedkin got caught in a very public lie. He vociferously claimed in interviews that adolescent actress Linda Blair was solely responsible for her performance. Actually Oscar winner Mercedes McCambridge dubbed Miss Blair’s dialogue once her character was possessed. When McCambridge learned she had been purposefully omitted from the credits and Friedkin denied her participation, she sued and won. The credits were redone. And the front runner for Best Picture lost its appeal as an award contender. Burstyn was out.

    Suddenly Streisand became a front runner. The Way We Were grossed $50 million. The theme saturated airwaves. And the final scene between Streisand and Redford in front of the Plaza Hotel was universally proclaimed an instant classic. Foolishly Streisand made two missteps just before the vote that hurt her chances. She announced that she would not sing on the Oscar telecast. She then gave an interview blaming her director Sydney Pollack if she lost. At the San Francisco preview, numbers were not tracking with the audience. Pollack, Streisand, and producer Ray Stark were crammed in the theater manager’s office debating the disappointing reaction. Pollack declared that a long scene at the end of the film where Streisand’s character reminisces and must choose between her love and her principles hurt the film. Taking some office scissors, he lopped out the scene and mended the film with Scotch tape. Streisand was livid, but the second preview had substantially higher ratings. Between the refusal to sing and the public criticism of her director, Streisand’s label as an arrogant diva stuck.

    The final nominee was Jackson. Though her film A Touch of Class was a Best Picture nominee and broadly popular, it was a comedy about adultery. No actress had won an Oscar for a comedy in the past 23 years since Judy Holliday won for Born Yesterday in 1950. Even though Jackson had won three years earlier, she triumphed.

    The audience in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion was shocked. The cameras caught Ellen Burstyn saying, “What a surprise” after Jackson’s name was read. The applause was insufficient to cover her colleague’s quick stride to the stage to accept the honor. Burstyn would win her Best Actress prize the next year. Mason never did. Neither Streisand nor Woodward ever won a second Best Actress title.

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