Shirley MacLaine is a one-woman show in this goofy, dark comedy about a lady whose four husbands can’t help but make loads of money and then abruptly die. Edith Head had full reign and a limitless budget, it seems, creating exotic, costume ensembles–some of the best of her career. Though she was nominated for an Oscar for Best Costume, I’m surprised one of her eight golden statues wasn’t for this film. Rarely will you find a film where the costumes speak for the character and take on a life of their own. The more outrageous the lifestyle, the more outrageous the outfits and wigs. Whether she went to the bank, lounged at the pool, or wore her furs, Shirley looked fabulous. Love gushing colors and opulent production sets? Love wacky comedy and a cast of Hollywood A-listers that rival the costumes? Then you’d like J. Lee Thompson’s, What a Way to Go.
Zany films take time to get into them. If you approach it as a Greek Comedy, it is easier to swallow the farce that borders on the absurd. What a Way to Go features stereotypes, the woes of relationships, and should not to be taken seriously. There’s a prologue, five acts, a deus ex machina at the climax for a happy ending. It is in line with the 1960s trend for big budget, sexy, wacky plots that wear thin.
Shirley MacLaine plays Louisa May. She is her own narrator who confesses about her curse to a shrink played by character actor, Robert Cummings. She has $218,000,000 dollars she is trying to give back to the IRS because she thinks she bewitched and caused the death of four husbands. Always wanting the simple life, she thinks she has found her perfect mate. Unfortunately, they are corrupted by greed and attacked to death by the instruments of their obsession.
There’s a pattern to Louisa’s storytelling. After she gets her husband, there’s a sub-play giving homage to a genre of the film industry. The mega-star matches perfectly with the character he represents. This repetition is clever even if it chops up the story line into bite-sized morsels, and it begins to feel more like a variety show. I think it’s subjective whether you like the format or not. It’s different, and few films can boast of the star power of the cast. What fun Shirley MacLaine must have had with these gents!
Dick Van Dyke has always been a slap-stick, vaudevillian actor, so he plays the goofy first husband to perfection. Louisa asserts their marriage felt like being in a silent film, and this cues the black and white tribute. Ironically, Love Conquers All is their motto, and it proves fatally wrong.
Paul Newman, as husband # 2, represented the spirited American bohemian in France espousing the definition of the artist with avant-garde approaches to creating real art. Larry Flint and Louisa pay tribute to French cinema. With their vignette, I smiled throughout as camera angles mimicked all that is stereotypical of sexy French cinema. The parody continued with the corruption of Larry Flint when he rubs elbows with the elite of the art world. Andy Warhol said, “Art is anything you can get away with” and it’s relayed here in the ludicrous costumes Louisa wears. They are works of art created by her husband. His demise is fitting, and by this point, I’m buying into the film and enjoying it.
Robert Mitchum played Rod Anderson, Jr., the maple syrup tycoon, who had already earned his fortune, so Louisa thought she couldn’t ruin his life. This segment of the film pokes fun at Old Hollywood’s grand pictures that featured the super-wealthy and their exotic lifestyles. The parody was fantastic, from the couple sleeping in a champagne glass to the arrival of Louisa in another over-the-top ensemble. I loved it. However, nothing compared to the next marriage with her fourth husband, Pinky Benson.
Who knew Shirley MacClaine could dance? She stepped in line with Gene Kelly and looked as graceful as any previous partner. Since the film was a farce in the first place, you can’t really call Shirley MacClaine’s melodramatic performance (whenever she cried) as well acted, but when you consider all she had to do as the central character, I thought she was magnificent. Her dancing really blew me away. No wonder she was offered a few year’s later with her dancing musical, Sweet Charity (1969). Gene Kelly–sigh–this was the one act where I thought the male actor acted instead of acting ridiculous. I cared for him as the salt-shuffling clown whose demise was predictable.
Dean Martin plays his iconic self. He’s a playboy with a drunken smirk on his face. Louisa hates Lennie Crawley. It’s a powerful emotion. That’s all I’ll give away in case you haven’t seen this crazy, beautiful film.