by Pauline Kael
There are no forebears or influences that would help to explain Shelley Duvall’s acting; she doesn’t seem to owe anything to anyone. She’s an original who has her own limpid way of doing things—a simplicity that isn’t marred by conventional acting technique, but that by now she has adapted to a wide range of characters. In the new Robert Altman film, Popeye, from Jules Feififer’s screenplay, in which she plays Olive Oyl, she sings in a small, wavering voice, and she hits tones that are so flat yet so true that they are transcendently comic. Her dancing has the grave gentleness of the Laurel & Hardy soft-shoe numbers, though she doesn’t move anything like either of them. She’s Olive Oyl of the long neck and stringbean body and the clodhoppers, and at the same time she has a high-fashion beauty. The screwed-tight hair twisted into a cruller at the neck seems just what Olive needs to set off her smooth, rounded forehead. She curls her long legs around each other—entwining them in the rubber-legged positions of the cartoon figure—and it seems the most natural thing for her to do.
Olive lives in Sweethaven, a tumbledown seacoast Dogpatch, and she’s the local belle. When she’s teased about getting engaged to the domineering, wide-as-a-barn Captain Bluto, the most hated and feared man in town, she gets the desperate, trapped expression of a girl who knows that she has made a terrible mistake, and, trying to find a virtue in Bluto (who snorts like a bull and looks as if he’d be more comfortable on all fours), she answers, “He’s large.” And the plaintive defensiveness—the sense of hopelessness—she brings to those words is so pure that you may feel a catch in your throat while you’re smiling. When Popeye, the squinting sailor, searching the seven seas for the pappy who ditched him when he was an infant, arrives at Sweethaven, he moves into the boarding house run by the Oyl family. Olive is very uppity to Popeye and to everyone else; she holds her head high on her tube of a neck and sniffs like a duchess. “Persnickety” is the word for Olive, but there are delicate shades of stubbornness and confusion in her face, and sometimes a frightened look in her eyes. Shelley Duvall takes the funny-page drawing of Olive Oyl and breathes her own spirit in to it. Possibly she can do this so simply because she accepts herself as a cartoon to start with, and, working from that, goes way past it. So far past it that we begin to find chic in her soft, floppy white collars and her droopy, elongated skirts.
Robin Williams, who plays Popeye, has been given Popeye’s bulging forearms, and he has mastered the cartoon figure: the one-eyed squint that comes from talking with a corncob pipe in the mouth; the gruff, raspy voice; the personal patois, with “t” and “k” transposed; the shoulder-first swagger walk; the dancing acrobatics; the speedy round-the-world punch that requires winding up the wrist. He’s wonderful at all this mimicry. His cropped carrot-colored hair makes him look like a little kid, and his one blue eye is startlingly bright. He does prodigious work. But he never gets beyond the cartoon, never gives it anything of himself. And so he recedes, is swallowed up in the crowded background. Popeye is always muttering to himself, and these asides—second thoughts and cranky qualifications—become a buzzing in our ears. When he finally gets to sing “I Yam What I Yam,” it’s in a betting casino, and he has to dart among the customers, dodging traffic. He’s always doing something, but it doesn’t come to much. He seems locked in those arms.
Part of the reason Shelley Duvall takes over is that she’s an oasis of stillness (until the end, when she adds to the commotion). At times, when she stands at a tilt, or just listens, she has the preternatural quiet of Buster Keaton. And it may be an homage or it may be just an accident that she has been given a scene of trying on hats that recalls Keaton’s great headgear scene in Steamboat Bill, Jr. Duvall may be the closest thing we’ve ever come to a female Buster Keaton; her eccentric grace is like his—it seems to come from the inside out. And the exaggerated sensitivity in her face might be called an equivalent of his mask of isolation. But Popeye is far from a silent movie.
Sometimes the components of a picture seem miraculously right and you go to it expecting a magical interaction. That’s the case with Popeye. But it comes off a little like some of the Jacques Tati comedies, where you can see the intelligence and skill that went into the gags yet you don’t hear yourself laughing. Altman may have been trying too hard, taking the task of creating a live-action musical version of a comic strip (the screenplay is based on Elzie Segar’s Thimble Theatre) too literally. He was probably reaching for something beyond the written scenes—trying to create a whole comic environment. Altman has to introduce an element of risk on top of the risks that all directors take. Whether this is interpreted as a form of hubris or as part of what makes him an artist or as what keeps him from falling asleep on the set (and it’s probably all three), it’s Altman’s way of directing. Most of the commercially successful movies with actors in roles based on comic-strip characters (such as Skippy in 1931, Blondie in 1938, and Superman in 1978) have been content to deliver the simple catch phrases and repetitive situations that the strips were famous for. Altman tries for much more: the two-dimensional look and the jumbled, congested Krazy Kat feeling of some of the early strips.
Nobody has ever brought this off in a talking picture—not with the degree of stylization that Altman attempts—and when you look at Popeye some of the reasons suggest themselves. There used to be animated cartoons in which birds and animals would spoof movie stars—a chicken might be Mae West. Cartoon figures playing movie stars have it all over movie stars playing cartoon figures. In cartoons, the creatures can do anything; their bodies don’t get in the way and can’t be hurt. But when you watch the actors in Popeye doing cartoon stunts, you’re aware of gravity and how difficult what they’re doing is. When you see an actor lifted up and put on a hot stove, the literalness is dumb and oddly unpleasant. Maybe certain kinds of jokes—especially the ones involving transformations and mayhem, and the ones that derive from the absence of gravity—need the shift in imagination that we make at a cartoon. Some of the most complicated feats of reproducing comic-strip effects in Popeye—such as Olive’s brother, Castor Oyl, being slammed so hard in the boxing ring that he flies out above the crowd, like a missile, and Popeye, when hit by Bluto, spinning like a corkscrew down through the boardwalk—are eerily unfunny.
Sweethaven (which was constructed on the island of Malta) is a funky cuckoo-land whose people, all crabby obsessives, are as warped as its architecture and its economy. The light that bounces off the grayish buildings has an odd, enameled quality, and the houses all seem to have been built crookbacked or to have buckled. It’s a ramshackle, depressed town, with catwalks and chimneys and ladders and a red-light district—everything weather-beaten and tottering. Sweethaven is so flimsy it seems booby-trapped; you expect it to fly apart or come tumbling down. (Yet when Bluto, in a rage, smashes the Oyls’ house, it isn’t nearly as funny as the Big Bad Wolf blowing a house down.) Popeye, the outsider, arrives, and even before he finds lodging he’s stung a couple of times by the roving tax collector, who demands money in the name of Bluto’s boss, the Commodore, the town’s unseen tyrant. No one makes Popeye feel welcome—the local citizens scurry away from him. The people of Sweethaven are living quirks; they might have bought their peculiarities at a novelty shop. A long, skinny man keeps hiding behind a pole; there’s a man chasing his hat who keeps kicking it ahead of him, and another whose head, when pressed down, sinks into his shoulders like a turtle’s. The film has virtuoso bits of business, such as four men moving a piano over a rotting rope bridge. (This gag, which does work, isn’t from cartoons; it’s out of Laurel & Hardy.) But there are also glimpses of sometimes indecipherable activity at the side of the frame, and there are a lot of dissociated voiceovers—a constant squawking. Some of the remarks we catch are classic griping (Olive’s “Not since I was a child have we had a sharp knife in this house”); others seem to be commenting on the action—they’re like wisecracks overheard from the row behind you, and with expletives that would never have been allowed in the funny pages. At first, we anticipate that we’ll get to know the grouchy people of Sweethaven, especially the Oyls and Wimpy the moocher (Paul Dooley), but they have no real roles—they just keep the background busy—and the looseness of all this activity is so distracting that the foreground gags don’t come off. Sometimes the foreground gags don’t come off even when there isn’t anything going on around them. There is a painful scene when Olive first shows Popeye his room and the bed collapses, the picture falls from the wall, and the doorknob falls off. You don’t laugh, you just stare. It may be that Altman, despite the complex, random-looking incidents he is famous for, doesn’t know how to shape and pace basic slapstick. He never does anything stale, and it may be that he can’t stomach the thought of clicking out a scene like this one, which has been done a million times. And possibly he thinks he’ll get something more exciting by just tossing it off. But slapstick done imperfectly may come across as laborious, and that’s what happens in a lot of Popeye.
Altman’s attempt to reproduce a full comic-strip lowlife environment seems to work against him in all sorts of ways. When Popeye first climbs through the streets of Sweethaven, singing a song, the editing seems peculiarly bad; his song is broken up by shifts in the camera position. Altman must be trying for the jostling, patchwork mood of comics—perhaps even for the slap impact of comic-strip frames—but the patchwork jumble doesn’t develop its own rhythm, and we can’t find our way into the film. The editing throws us in and pulls us out; we feel as if we’re being dunked in cold water. Sweethaven is just a small fishing village, yet when the man-mountain Bluto (Paul L. Smith, who was the head guard in Midnight Express) goes to see the Commodore we have no idea where the Commodore’s boat is. The boxing ring features a big plaster statue of the champ, Oxblood Oxheart, and when Popeye defeats him the statue falls; it’s an abrasive, overpowering shot. I could never get the hang of the editors’ thought processes. There’s a dinner scene at the Oyls’ when they and their boarders are sitting around the table and all their tics seem to intermesh and they’ve finished the food before Popeye can get a bite. Or is it that there was so little food that nobody got to eat more than a morsel? The double-time movements suggest something funny, but we can’t quite tell what’s going on.
The picture seems overcomplicated, cluttered, and the familiar Popeye phrases and situations barely emerge. Adults lose the fun of recognition of the ritual lines—they’re just throwaways here. And kids aren’t likely to come out chanting Wimpy’s semi-immortal “I’d gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today”; they may barely register it. With all the muttering and the wordplay and the tricky mispronunciations, to kids the film may seem to be in a foreign language. It’s hard to know what Feiffer and Altman intended it to mean to modern children (or adults), because the story doesn’t build, or even follow through. Popeye doesn’t look for his pappy; he just seems to kill time. And he doesn’t punch out the oppressors and become accepted by the people of Sweethaven. (That would give his “I Yam What I Yam” a kick it doesn’t have.) Somehow, the oppressed-people theme gets mislaid, and we wind up with boats chasing each other and the principal characters wading around in a cove fighting an octopus and doing a lot of yelling and screaming. This Popeye doesn’t even like spinach, which seems sheer perversity on the moviemakers’ part—it was the huge cans of spinach that swelled those bulging forearms. (Sometimes they were even shaped like cans.) Now we don’t know what the source of Popeye’s superhuman strength is. The audience isn’t allowed the gratification of the climactic moments in the Fleischers’ Popeye animated cartoon series; Altman seems almost embarrassed by the conventions. He’s trying to do this literal version of the Popeye comic strip and at the same time he doesn’t want it to add up to Popeye. He’d rather it didn’t add up.
The picture has lovely moments in the middle section, though. Running away from her engagement party, Olive Oyl meets Popeye on the dock, staring out to sea. They both have their guard down, and they begin to talk. Then they discover the foundling, Swee’Pea, and, enchanted at having a child, they instantly become a loving couple. The movie seems to calm down. The cartoon limits are relaxed, and the audience gets a chance to laugh and show its approval, because the infant (Altman’s grandson, ‘Wesley Ivan Hurt) is a blissfully quiet charmer with a faintly lopsided smile that seems in readiness for a corncob pipe. And Olive, proudly infatuated with Popeye, twirling herself around a lamppost as she sings “He Needs Me,” seems to be wafted to Heaven. Her goofy duckling-swan lyricism has its own form of weightlessness. If the remainder of the film had concentrated on these three and the shades of feeling that develop when she sings “Stay with Me” and he sings “Sail with Me,” it might have been a moonshine classic, even with the deadly slapstick and the ragged editing and the spatial jumble. But when Ray Walston shows up, as Popeye’s pappy, and Swee’Pea is kidnapped, the freshness goes out.
There have been oddly tentative songs (by Harry Nilsson) all along, and they’ve been tolerable, because at least they’re not slick. And then, suddenly, there’s Walston. Physically, he matches up with Robin Williams; with his muscles and squint and pipe, he’s almost a mirror image—that has aged. But Walston’s dry rasping is much louder than Robin Williams’, and when he sings he bawls out the songs with a rambunctious Broadway pizzazz that cheapens everything. There’s no innocence in his performance; it’s the Broadway curse—unfelt rhythms, and everything for effect. It’s bad enough when he sings “It’s Not Easy Being Me”; when he goes on and on with a gravelly, tantrummy number called “Children,” the picture begins to hurt your head. Olive Oyl, abducted by Bluto and trapped in a ship’s funnel, keeps shrieking for Popeye—and if ever there was a scene that called for perfect timing and cutting, this is it. But her shrieks aren’t modulated in terms of the shots that precede them; they’re just noise¬–it could be any director’s movie. And Altman commits a grandfatherly crime. In the middle of the movie, the audience can’t get enough of Swee’Pea–his every expression is greeted with a happy “Aah”s.
Popeye is a thing, though. You don’t get much pleasure from it, but you can’t quite dismiss it. It rattles in your memory. Would the film have come together better if it had been simpler—without so much “environment”? Maybe—if Robin Williams had broken through, if he had felt free enough to make the role his own. But how could he feel free, starring in his first film with his face all screwed up and using only one eye? Even if the picture had been more quiet and simple, there might still be a sizable part of the public that wouldn’t be too crazy about the stylized format. It’s my impression that girls weren’t waiting at the newsstand to but the latest issues of the comic books, the way boys were. Whether it’s something about the comic-strip form itself or whether it was just the subject matter, girls didn’t seem to get as hooked as boys did. And you don’t hear women talking about what comic books meant to them, either—not to anything like the degree that men do. Women might be happier if Robin Williams had used both eyes and just squinted a little now and then. And this isn’t a putdown of women as romantic fools: An actor’s face can give us more than an impersonation of a cartoon. Two-dimensionality it tiresome.
The New Yorker, January 5, 1981