THE CHRISTMAS MOVIE season of 1980 begins with business hurting and showmen in a despondent mood.
Eleven of the 16 new films scheduled for relaese over the holidays open this week, nine of them on Friday alone. Customarily, all it takes to dispel the gloom that surrounds a period of lackluster attractions and slumping box-office is a few durable hits. It would surprise me if at least half the new pictures didn't catch on to some extent, and a handful may catch on in a big way.
Judging from a few advance screenings, common-sense guesswork and wishful thinking, the likeliest hits of the season figure to be a new mystery melodrama drawn from the work of Agatha Christie, "The Mirror Crack'd," in which Angela Lansbury assumes the role of Miss Jane Marple; an inspirational sleeper, "Inside Moves," that rings effective changes off every sentimental prototype from "The Time of Your Life to "Rocky"; and a high percentage of new comedies, led by the rousing prison farce "stir Crazy," which opened two days ago, and a caper comedy, "Nine to Five," fabricated for three actresses -- Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin and Dolly Parton.
Parton's movie debut appears to be the Most Eagerly Awaited Event of the season, far surpassing Robin Williams' starring debut in "Popeye" or Neil Diamond's in "The Jazz Singer." As a mass attention-getter, the only comparable attraction is the return of Bo Derek, cast as a seductive coed in "A Change of Seasons," a sex farce about the joys of adultery among the notoriously randy academic set.
Until one or more of these titles discloses a commercial silver lining, the season is bound to be overshadowed by a pair of conspicuous no-shows. "Superman II" and "Heaven's Gate" might have been the pop and prestige pace-setters, respectively, for Christmas '80. Their unavailability has not made life jollier for theater owners, who saw a potentially auspicious summer lineup fail to live up to expectations and have been tolerating an undistingushed autumn, dominated by low-budget exploitation vehicles.
Summer and Christmas are regarded as the most desirable booking generated in the two-week Christmas season, "Kramer vs. Kramer," "The Jerk" and "Star Trek" being hot tickets. (In Washington, "The Black Stallion" was also a huge holiday success, but it hadn't opened nationally.)
While the new movies are forced to ingratiate themselves in an uncertain business atmosphere, some are bound to take advantage of the opportunity and chase the blues away. "Flash Gordon," "Stir Crazy" and "Popeye" are already here, and a revival of Disney's 1970 "Aristocats" is coming this week. For the rest, these brief notes may help in budgeting your holiday movie allowance.
"The Mirror Crack'd"; The intriguing title is derived from Tennyson: "Out flew the web and floated wide/The mirror crack'd from side to side/The curse is upon me,' cried/The Lady of Shalott." The verse is integral to Agatha Christie's bizarre murder case involving a famous movie actress called Martha Rudd (played by Elizabeth Taylor) who is making a comeback in the title role of "Mary, Queen of Scotts" directed by her husband (Rock Hudson, reunited with Taylor a generation after "Giant"). h
To complicate professional matters, the role of Elizabeth I is being played by a rival star (Kim Novak) who happens to be the wife of the producer (Tony Curtis). The story is set in 1953, and the film company is based in the peaceful village whose famous resident is amatuer detective Jane Marple, a role that promises to give Angela Lansbury a great and possible award-winning opportunity. Produced by John Brabourne and Richard Goodwin, the same team responsible for "Murder on the Orient Express" and "Death on the Nile," "The Mirror Crack'd" was directed by Guy Hamilton. It opens Friday at several area theaters.
"Inside Moves": Richard Donner, the director of "Superman," may have turned to "Inside Moves," a story of camaraderie, self-help and rehabilitation among a group of physically handicapped men -- regulars at a cozy saloon called Max's -- as thera putic aritistic treatment after parting company with the producers of "Superman." While his lawsuit against them makes it arduous way through the courts. Donner could have the pleasure of seeing his underrated little tearjearker, financed independently through a Canadian tax-shelter syndicate, become a major success.
There's certainly nothing else like "Inside Moves" this season. It affirms values -- the triumph of love over predjudice, courage over hardship and group loyalty over self-interest -- that rarely fail to touch audiences. Even if you resist the film's sentimental manipulation intellectually, you may still find yourself impressed and touched, because the performances and production are exceptionally sincere and the theme is emotionally stirring. John Savage contributes a remarkable performance as one of the leads, a severly crippled and withdrawn young man who finds a purpose in life at Max's, where he meets and befriends another young man, newcomer David Morse, whose athletic aspirations have been thwarted by a knee injury.
The most prominent members of a fine supporting cast are Diana Scarwid, Harold Sylvester, Amy Wright, Tony Burton and -- as the trio of physically disabled but indomitably funny friends -- Harold Russell (in his first movie role since "The Best Years of Our Lives"), Bert Remsen and Bill Henderson. Thursday exclusively at Tenley Circle.
"Nine to Five": Opening Friday at area theaters, the film shows how three put-upon secretaries contrive to neutralize a presumtous boss. Jane Fonda plays a newly divorced newcomer to the offices of Consolidated Companies, where Lily Tomlin is a secetion supervisor whose ideas are stolen by an insufferable vice-president, Dabney Coleman, with unbusinesslike designs on his executive secretary, Dolly Parton. Colin Higgins directed from a script by himself and Patricia Resnick, who was inspired by asking members of the National Association of Office Workers in Cleveland to fantasize about getting even with thoughtless bosses.
"A Change of Season": Bo Derek is having an affair with professor Anthony Hopkins, who can't help boasting to wife Shirley MacLaine, who retaliates with a young lover of her own, student Michael Brandon. The arrangement meets with the disapproval of Bo's dashing millionaire dad, Ed Winter, and the married couple's daughter, Mary Beth Hurt.The menagerie is sorted out at a snow-bound retreat. Friday at area theaters.
"Any Which Way You Can": This is the return engagement of Clint Eastwood as Philo Beddoe, the bareknuckle brawler of "Every Which Way But Loose," a bit hit two Christmases ago. Philo is persuaded to face Jack Wilson (William Smith), his Eastern counterpart, in a bareknuckle championship, but crooked promoters insist on interfering. Sondra Locke returns as the girl who betrayed Eastwood in the original movie. Also returning: Geoffrey Lewis, Ruth Gordon and the orangutan Clyde, whose lewd comic skill is creepily awesome. Wednesday at area theaters.
"First Family": In Buck Henry's facetious view of American politics, Bob Newhart plays a bland president, Manfred Link, whose advisers imagine that his decline in the polls can be reversed by dramatic initiatives, like a goodwill tour to an emerging Third World backwater called Upper Gorm. Madeline Kahn co-stars as a tipsy first lady, Gilda Radner as an antsy first daughter, Richard Benjamin as a press secretary, Bob Dishy as the veep, Fred Willard as a presidential assistant and Harvey Korman as an ambassador. Christmas Day at area theaters.
"Seems Like Old Times": The Neil Simon script directed by Jay Sandrich seems vaguely reminiscent of a swell but seldom-revived old George Stevens comedy, "The Talks of the Town," which co-starred Cary Grant, Jean Arthur and Ronald Colman. Things being as they are, we must make do with Chevy Chase, Goldie Hawn and Charles Grodin. Implicated in a bank robbery against his will, Chase takes it on the lam and hides out at the Brentwood, Calif., home of ex-wife Hawn, a soft-touch criminal attorney whose second husband, Grodin, is a prosecutor considered ideal attorney general material by governor George Grizzard. Friday at area theaters.
"The Private Eyes": Opening Christmas Day at area theaters, this is the latest Tim Conway-Don Knotts farce. A spoof of Sherlock Holmes mysteries, it features Knotts as a sleuth called Inspector Winship and Conways as his faithful companion, Dr. Tart. Lang Elliott directed on location in and around Asheville, N.C., with extensive use of the Biltmore Gardesn, the same palatial habitat that adorned "Being There."
"Raging Bull": Moviegoers looking for Raw Dramatic Meat will have only Martin Scorsese's "Raging Bull" and Ingmar Bergman's "From the Life of the Marionettes" to chew upon. The former, opening Friday at area theaters, stars Robert De Niro in a peculiarly ambivalent biographical portrait of the former middleweight boxer Jake LaMotta, one of the oddest choices of a protagonist in movie history. Arguably impressive and uncompromising but maybe fatally wrongheaded, the film boasts superb black-and-white photography by Michael Chapman and striking supporting performances from Joe Pesci, newcomer Cathy Moriarty and Nicholas Colasanto.
The new Bergman, opening Friday at the Outer Circle, is his first German-language production since moving to Munich three years ago. The film begins with the violent murder and subsequent sexual abuse of a prostitute. It then endeavors to accumulate documentation which may or may not account for the eruption of this particular homicidal impulse. The murderer, Pete, is a middle-class professional man played by Robert Atzorn. His estranged wife, Katarina, is played by Christine Buchegger.
"The Competition": Aspiring classical pianists Richard Dreyfuss and Amy Irving are pitted against each other and four additional finalists in a prestigious playoff that will guarantee the career of the winner. Dreyfuss, an aging, uptight prodigy, thinks he must spurn the friendly advances of Irving to concentrate on that decisive performance, but Love Finds a Way. Written and directed by Joel Oliansky, whose repartee may surpass the earsplitting standards set by Eleanor Bergstein in "It's My Turn." As Irving's teacher, Lee Remick skates over this talk so deftly that it ought to earn her an Oscar nomination. Friday at area theaters.
"The Jazz Singer": Also opening Friday at Area theaters, this remake still deals with a young assistant cantor, Yussel Rabinovitch, who can't reconcile his conservative father, the devout Cantor Rabinovitch, to his double life as an aspiring pop music composer and singer, Jess Robin. Of course, Robin's style of "jazz" singing is a far cry from that of Al Jolson. It's Neil Diamond working out on his own lushly orchestrated and sometimes tortured ballads. Laurence Olivier has the role of the elder Rabinovitch. Lucie Arnaz plays a record company executive destined to become the great love of Robin's life.
"The Formula": Here is a unique spectacle: George C. Scott and Marlon Brando confronting each other. The pretext is Steve Shagan's polemical international mystery thriller, in which the murder of an L.A. policeman puts one of his colleagues (Scott) on the trail of a wicked, ruthless oil cartel run by Brando. Directed by John Avildsen, who has since disowned the project following a dispute with Shagan, who produced from his own screenplay. Friday at area theaters.