3 June 2010 | oceanchick
Hollywood was stumbling through of one of its worst times in film history: lush budget financial disasters drained studios dry, the end of the studio era left few to no actors or directors on contract, studios were selling land and movie props to stay alive, floundering studios were bought out, budgets for films were practically zilch, films were produced overseas to cut costs, influx of foreign films imported to the US compared to lack of exported films was debilitating, and birth of the made for television movies sets the stage for this mid-60's Hiller miracle, Promise Her Anything.
Having seen several of Arthur Hiller's films that I've enjoyed, most notably The Out-of-Towners and The Americanization of Emily, I was eager to see Promise Her Anything because of its rarity. I was pleasantly surprised. Is Promise Her Anything a side-splitting flawless comedy worthy of Oscar nods? No. Is it a unique piece of comic cinema making the most out of what little it had? Yes.
Promise Her Anything is unique because of the wide variety of subject matter presented to the audience in a single film, touching on anti-social anarchist topics like beatniks and independent mail-order "hoochie coochie" films, but it doesn't stop there. The movie tackles topics such as divorce, open sex, sex outside of marriage, a female's desire for sex, deception in relationships and goes into even more serious topics touching on single mothers, fatherless children, validity of child psychology, and exploitation of children. It addresses all these topics yet somehow manages to be cohesive and entertaining enough to watch through to the end. That credit goes directly to director Arthur Hiller.
Never a Beatty fan, Beatty's work is either good or bad but in Promise Her Anything, he shows he has the ability for comedy, screwball comedy, slapstick comedy all the while commanding a sincerity that makes his actions believable. I compare Beatty's performance as Harley Rummell to Cary Grant's as Mortimer Brewster in Arsenic and Old Lace. Both films have a similar physical comedy style and situational content, but Beatty shows the same desperation to cover up the truth with balance, not exaggerating his performance as much as Grant. In a role which could have easily been taken over the top, Beatty keeps grounded and with Hiller's direction gives a performance that, for the role, is spot on. His repeated encounter with the sofa as well as numerous times hiding his equipment and actors somehow doesn't get old, and I found myself surprised at that. Beatty's charisma shows through every time, with a different feeling of frustration, desperation, or excitation that lends itself to making the scene feel fresh.
Leslie Caron made her natural vulnerability and determination shine equally in Promise Her Anything. Caron's role as Michelle O'Brien, a beautiful sexy single mother who captures the loins of every man that sees her, is the impetus for much of the insanity that ensues in the film and she carries that with grace and passion. Her determination to do what is right all the while going about it in a way that is wrong juxtaposes itself but she breathes the breath of life into that dichotomy. In a role that doesn't take advantage of her talents as a dancer or singer to entrance the viewer, Caron must make it through on acting ability, and with Hiller's direction, she does. Caron's real life gives her much to draw upon, grounding the part of Michelle and making her motives unquestionable while adding gentle nuanced truth to her performance.
Robert Cummings reprises his role, so to speak, as a bumbling psychologist who has far more problems than his patients, as in What a Way to Go, in which he worked with Beatty's sister, Shirley MacClaine. Cummings plays this type of role well and is capable of deadpan comedy without effort. His interactions with Cathleen Nesbitt who plays his mother in the film are memorable because the dialog is wonderful, though the acting and chemistry between them seems unnatural. The rest of the cast was believable considering they were actors playing actors in no budget "misdemeanor" mail order films.
Though the film looks like it was shot without a budget on super-16, it works. It looks rough and spontaneous which gives gritty texture to the film, offering the viewer an additional subtle layer of believability. The horrible over-extended rear-screen projection sequence could have been edited down, but otherwise, editing was quite tight, shot selection was good; use of fast motion was minimal and appropriate and not used as a comedic "fast-motion-is-funny" Munsters crutch.
The dialog was true to life, intelligent and clever. Every line is pertinent and on the mark. Michelle, thick with a french accent and European ideals, may have a humorous flubbed word or lost in translation moment but it is not over-used. Not only was the script fitting to the characters, the situation and the mood of the film, but it allowed the viewer to recognize the depths of the characters without much effort. For example: I caught myself trying to name the movie or novel that Harley would use lines from in everyday conversation. A man so immersed in the classics that he contextually and naturally speaks lines from the greats gives more subtext for Beatty and raised my respect for Harley the character. It made his ambition to become a real film maker "real". He wasn't an uneducated dolt happy with the work he was doing; Harley was educated and had aspirations of making great films. It takes a great script to convey so much with so little dialog in such a short amount of time.
Considering everything, I believe that Promise Her Anything is a good 60's era comedy that far outshines several others with bigger names and budgets, such as Cactus Flower and Dear Brigitte, though it still falls a little short to it's older sibling, What a Way to Go.