Ahhhh, the ‘70s: bell bottoms, disco balls, mood rings, arena rock, the true arrival of Feminism, the end of Vietnam and increasing cocaine use sounded the end of the tumultuous ‘60s and brought to the decade a ferociously despondent hangover in the form of the Golden Age of the American Cinema. Maverick filmmakers, artists, writers and actors all contributed to what would be the second maturation of the American film audience (film noir being the first), the meteoric rise of the independent producer and the final death rattle of the old Hollywood Studio System.
Socially more aware, war weary and politically jaded, the American people looked at its movies now in a much more artistic vein. The large epics had fallen away, musicals were dead, the traditional western was fading and hokey melodrama could no longer stand up against the bare reality of the times. Late ‘60s films such as The Wild Bunch, Bonnie & Clyde, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Easy Rider had changed the landscape. Young directors eager for their shot to make a movie poured out of the country’s growing enrollment in film study programs. Film criticism, often sneered at by those in the theater, galleries and literary circles, was finding artistic relevance in the renewed fervor for the cinema.
It was in this time that names like, Spielberg, Coppola, Scorsese, Lucas, Bogdanovich, Friedkin, Ashby and Rafelson began emerging, altering not only the way films were made, but marketed as well.
Another such man was Producer/director Mark Rydell. He had cut his chops in the ‘50s and ‘60s as an actor (a product of the “Actor’s Studio” in New York) and began directing television shows such as I Spy and Gunsmoke. It was with the success of the latter that he was given the opportunity to break into feature filmmaking with The Reivers (1969) and The Cowboys in 1972 (infamous for being one of the few films wherein a character of John Wayne’s dies).
In 1972, the young Rydell was tapped by 20th Century Fox to helm an adaptation of Darryl Ponicsan’s novel, Cinderella Liberty, an inside look at the bureaucracy of the United States Navy. A topic the author would explore again with The Last Detail (made into an exceptional Hal Ashby film). Rydell agreed, on the condition that he could make the film from a single chapter of the novel dealing with sailor John Baggs’ obsession with a hooker and her illegitimate son. Ponicsan adapted the chapter for the screen.
Also on board was legendary cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond. Hungarian born, he fled the country during the Soviet invasion of 1956 bringing with him fellow cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs (legendary in his own right) and footage of the takeover which they sold to CBS News. To show the strange ways that Hollywood careers can arise, Zsigmond was director of photography on madman Ray Dennis Steckler’s camp classic The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies!!? (1964). His other credits of the period included Psycho A-Go-Go and Satan’s Sadists. This is the same man who won an Oscar for Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and filmed the visual masterpieces McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), The Deer Hunter (1978) and (the notorious yet neglected) Heaven’s Gate (1980).
The lead character, Baggs, would be played by James Caan, fresh off his Oscar nominated performance as Sonny Corleone in The Godfather. Caan’s career is a troubled and interesting one. Athletic and handsome, he often played macho figures with a reluctant sensitivity while suppressing a menace that always seemed to be brewing under his skin. He had a reserved intensity like many actors of the time (Bruce Dern comes to mind), but Caan’s style was more physically intimidating and only half as crazy.
Surprisingly, his big break would be as the reserved, thoughtful and courageous Brian Piccolo in 1971’s Brian’s Song. This led to the role of Sonny Corleone and huge stardom for the remainder of the decade (The Killer Elite, Rollerball, A Bridge Too Far). But his later films never did well and there is a sense that he stopped taking the chances on roles that he eagerly gambled on early in his career. This hesitancy (along with some negative offscreen notoriety) created a stagnancy in the ‘80s with Michael Mann’s Thief (1981) and a role in Coppola’s Gardens of Stone (1987) being the few exceptions. He returned to form in 1990 as the tortured author in Misery and was frighteningly good in Steve Kloves’ vastly underrated Flesh and Bone (1993).
Rydell discovered Marsha Mason (who would play the prostitute Maggie Paul) in a local theater production in San Francisco while scouting locations for this film. Originally set to star Barbara Streisand (what a different, worse film it would have been!) Rydell backed his decision to use Mason by giving up a large portion of his budget. That is how much he believed in the young actress. His instincts were acute.
Mason was primarily a stage actress and had little film experience going into Cinderella Liberty. Imagine the risk of casting someone for a major Hollywood role (over Streisand no less) whose lone film credit was 1966’s Hot Rod Hullabaloo. History has proven the decision to be a wise one as Mason received a Best Actress Oscar nomination for her performance and would go on to notch three more in the next eight years (The Goodbye Girl (1977), Chapter Two (1979) and 1981’s Only When I Laugh). She had a chipper yet down to earth quality that translated well into likeability and realness. In this film, as a booze-soaked prostitute and neglectful mother, Mason’s endearing attributes would be needed to keep the story and character from drifting into the realms of degradation and misery.
As Baggs, Caan balances the obtuse masculinity of the sailor with a tender but firm nuance that has trademarked many of his characters. He is not the misfit anti-hero seen in so many films of the era (think of Jack Nicholson’s Navy “Badass” in The Last Detail later that same year). Baggs is humble, ethical and rather uneducated, but dignified in his simplicity. He dislikes cursing and lying (strange qualities in a sailor) and always seems a bit puzzled by the ease with which others fall back on them. Ultimately, the lifer path of a Navy man begins to wear thin and he searches for real companionship.
He is held in port for medical reasons (a humbling cyst on his rectum) and is issued a “Cinderella Liberty” pass until further orders come through. It is a temporary pass (freedom in check) for Navy personnel but requires him to be back at the base every evening at midnight. He becomes stuck in limbo (much like his emotional state) and aimlessly walks the streets of Seattle. He passes adult book shops, porno theaters and sleazy bars (all alienating) while he contemplates his future. To add to his sense of solitude, the Navy has lost his papers (he now figuratively does not exist to them) and it will be awhile before he can even get paid or shipped off.
He enters one of the dives and spots Maggie (Mason) playing pool. She is drinking heavily and hustling sailors for a few bucks. He hustles her in a few games and wins her services for the evening. She takes him home to her seamy apartment where her illegitimate, eleven year old, bi-racial son is sleeping on the couch. He suggests they make love on the floor (the bedsprings are squeaky) so as not to wake the kid. His sensitivity is apparent. She responds to it. They begin to form an unusual bond.
Baggs begins to look out for the boy, teaching him basketball and boxing (and to quit his swearing). The street smart kid begins to look at him as a surrogate father. Maggie begins to fall in love with him as well. He becomes equally enamored with them and starts to enjoy his peculiar position as “man of the house”, however fleeting it might be.
Circumstances continually put roadblocks in their path to happiness and union. The Navy continues bumbling Baggs’ paperwork predicament giving the characters more time to screw things up. It would normally have been a whirlwind romance, demanding a happy ending in the old Hollywood, but this is a rougher edged cinema. Maggie’s own defeatist desires begin to resurface. She returns to drinking heavily, turning tricks and ignoring her child. There is an unwanted pregnancy. The culmination of all their various issues is at times surprising, always honest and very touching.
In the end, Cinderella Liberty is a realistic look at the longings of everyday people; the efforts we go to in realizing those desires and the unplanned outcomes driven by forces beyond our control. With a veritable who’s who of character actors (Burt Young, Bruno Kirby, Sally Kirkland, Eli Wallach and Dabney Coleman), the visuals of Zsigmond and the actor friendly direction of Rydell, it remains to this day a unique character study and a memorable film in the pantheon of ‘70s America’s Golden Age.