31 January 2005 | charlie_bucket
George Roy Hill is a perhaps neglected name in any 'top ten' list of great directors we are likely to see, but his filmography speaks for itself, with a number of quiet classics among a few heavyweight top 100 films--all within a somewhat small oeuvre. Each of these classics shows to good effect Hill's marvelous aesthetic moods and attention to detail, combined with absolutely expert casting, obtaining winning performances from all of the principles, with superior character acting from the secondaries.
Peter Sellers is actually something of a secondary in this one as the title role, but his portrayal of Henry Orient is so ludicrous and wonderful that he steals the show every time he's on screen. He was really something. Sellers plays it very large here, as a pretentious, NYC-based, avant-garde pianist of meagre talent--a charlatan, egoist, and ersatz Lothario who cultivates a faux-Euro accent but slides back into his 'native' Brooklyn (Sellers is probably the greatest accent-mimic ever) jargon every time he gets rattled, who has Paderewski hair that he continuously primps, and who entices women who've actually fallen for his schtick by hurling continuous salvos of romance-novel drivel at them until they (hopefully) relent.
Oddly, although it is made plain and obvious in the dialogue that Henry Orient is more or less a hack, and although Sellers plays his usual skillful physical shenanigans, I found that the pianist on the soundtrack played the piano quite well, despite the ridiculous material. There's a hilarious, gushing theme that is edited into almost every scene that Henry is in. His mannerisms during the piano concerto and the ostentatious buffoonery from scene to scene show Sellers in his element, and he never misses the chance to exploit the full range of available comedic ingredients in any moment to the utmost. Every time I watch him cross his arms to play two notes four octaves apart at the end of the concerto, and he does the little wiggle of the finger as if he's depressing the string on a violin to get vibrato out of it, I let out a belly laugh. I never get tired of that.
The two protagonists (or rather, Sellers's perceived antagonists) are played with mesmerising enthusiasm by the two adolescent leads. Tippy Walker is particularly radiant in this movie as the talented, attention-starved, sensitive, hyperkinetic Val, who develops a crush on Henry. Her pixie features, infectious retainer-filled smile, and wide-eyed, bubblegummy girlishness shine on, and share honors with Sellers for scene-steal appeal. She plays off the hurt, pouty ingenue angle beautifully too. Her counterpart, Merrie Spaeth, is no slouch either, although she had the disadvantage here of having the 'straight man' role. No matter! They don't compete for space at all (the scene-stealing qualities of Ms Walker notwithstanding),and they get equal attention and equally precocious dialogue, with the simpatico theme being so stressed as to tell us purposely that they are equal partners through and through.
Ultimately the film leaves me feeling bittersweet, partially through nostalgia--Hill's 1963 NYC is beautiful--but also because the movie has that theme of fleeting innocence in the face of oncoming adolescent desire. George Roy Hill's great movies have a sparkle to them, and this qualifies as one of the quieter greats. In any case, as time buries this one, those halcyon days of youth go with it, but the legacies of Sellers and Hill should mark it for at least cult-status immortality, which by proxy should give the girls their deserved legacy too.