"S.O.B." is a satirical movie about the movies. It was also something Blake Edwards needed to get out of his system. Best known as the writer and/or director of "Breakfast at Tiffany's," "The Days of Wine and Roses," "The Great Race" and the "Pink Panter" comedies, Edwards suffered a temporary eclipse in the early '70s. He has acknowledged that "S.O.B.," a graying black comedy on the vanity of success and failure in Hollywood, dates from the period when his own career hit the skids, due to critical and box-office failures on "Darling Lili" and "The Wild Rovers," setbacks that then soured his relationships with executives at Paramount and MGM.
Not a bad idea of intramural satire either. The problem with "S.O.B.," now at area theaters, is that it reveals another sort of failure on Edwards' part: his fondness for dwelling on this low point in his career. He neglects to update the scenario or liberate it from the self-pity he overindulged in at the time. In fact, it's residual self-pity that undermines "S.O.B." as a promising satire of Hollywood mores and hypocrisies. Edwards' tendency to feel sorry for himself keeps intruding on the potential wackiness.
After taking his knocks, Edwards staged a comeback, sparked by the successful revival of the Inspector Clouseau character with Peter Sellers (also in a slump at the time) on "Return of the Pink Panther." Nevertheless, it has pleased Edwards to conceive of his traumatized alter-ego in "S.O.B.," a movie producer (though not writer and director as well) named Felix Farmer, impersonated without vocal or pantomimic restraint by a hysterically overstimulated Richard Mulligan, as a victim of the movie business. Indeed, showing no restraint himself, Edwards envisions Farmer as a tragicomic fatality of the business."
As a result, the movie never transcends its therapeutic role in Edwards' professional life. The experience may be out of his system now, but it hasn't been transformed into a timely, self-contained movie comedy, satisfying enough to stand on its own without requiring that allowances be made or the obvious time lag between conception and production and for the filmmaker's lack of detachment.
The title is an acronym for Standard Operational Bull----, the profane G.I. improvement on the Army's official all-purpose euphemism, "standard operational procedure." Edwards, a third-generation Hollywood filmmaker whose prolific script credits include a bundle of service comedies, borrows the term to ridicule the institutional double-dealing, buck-passing, scrambling and rationalizing that supposedly typify the movie business in moments of financial crisis.
In "S.O.B." the crisis has been provoked by the stunning failure of Farmer's latest production, "Night Wind." Some kind of extravagant musical fantasy costing $30 million, "Night Wind" has proved an instant bomb with critics and customers. Farmer is introduced in catatonic seclusion at his Malibu beach house, oblivious to such momentous events as the departure of his suddenly disaffected actress wife, Sally Miles, and their two children.
The unfortunate star of "Night Wind," Sally is identified as a beloved wholesome favorite and played by Julie Andrews, humoring her husband's obtuse, heavy-handed comic exaggerations of what disrupted and revived their careers. Since Andrews is being such a good sport, it's a shame Edwards fails to justify his exploitation of her. Instead, he's steered her into a skimpy, knuckleheaded role, ultimately exposed as a pretext for fleeting, feckless voyeurism -- the unbaring Julie Andrew's breasts.
While well-meaning friends and grimly determined studio representatives, commanded by Robert Vaughn in an expert performance as a steely, self-confident production chief (evidently a poison-pen caricature of Robert Evans), endeavor to console or contact him, Farmer wanders around in a daze, flubbing several ludicrously faulty suicide attempts. Stumbling upon an orgy thrown at his own home by happy-hedonist cronies -- William Holden as Tim Culley, the lecherous old pro who directed "Night Wind," and Robert Preston as Dr. Irving Finegarten, a jovial quack accustomed to relieving his Hollywood clientele of creative tension and anxiety with timely drug injections -- Farmer snaps out of his stupor wih a brainstorm. He imagines that "Night Wind" might be saved by injecting a kinky surprise into an otherwise innocuous show. He proposed to reshoot a climactic production number, seen during the prologue of "S.O.B.," in which Sally, coming on like an overaged Shirley Temple, trills "polly-wolly-doodle" on a vast set sparsely furnished with oversized toys.
The focus shifts from failed suicide to Farmer's attempts to persuade his estranged wife to cooperate with this preposterous salvage effort. She does, and we're meant to believe that the new number, a sadomasochistic dream sequence ending with Sally's gratuitous unveiling, ultimately turns the trick at the box-office.
Edwards seems to have a very hazy recollection of the filmmaking context he presumes to kid and deplore. "Night Wind" itself is a baffler. The title suggests a flop romantic melodrama rather than a flop musical spectacle. The idea that a picture with the problems of, say, "Dr. Dolittle," could be salvaged by distorting it into a picture like "Myra Breckinridge" is too far-fetched to seem amusing. The satiric logic that could turn a "Springtime for Hitler" into a surprise hit doesn't apply in Edwards' scheme of things.
The breast-baring may have been an idea Edwards and Andrews joked about when things looked bleak. Perhaps they should have kept the joke in the family. There is a funny preparatory scene, in which the producer tries to con his wife by invoking the names of actresses who have already played nude and clinches his argument by prompously intoning "Liv Ullmann!" Ironically, Andrews' nudity is immediately upstaged by a truly outrageous, unexpected gag -- the revelation that Vaughn's character likes to, uh, dress up.
"S.O.B." has incidentally funny lines and scenes, but it remains a clumsy, mawkish ramble through the Hollywood underbrush. Edwards doesn't get his own history in sufficient comic focus anymore than he gets the period in focus. Although the movie actually profits from a certain timely interest because of the failure of "Heaven's Gate," the most recent title referred to by the characters is "Last Tango in Paris," which Farmer keeps citing inexplicably as "what people want." While the plot obviously belongs to the early '70s, Edwards nevertheless neglects to set it firmly in the past. He's always been a perplexing mixture of sophistication and exruciating misjudgment. Unfortunately, "S.O.B." ends up as a monument to his misjudgment.