Originally released 21 Mar 1971
Written by Peter Bart
Directed by John Erman
Starring Kristoffer Tabori, Bob Balaban, Joyce Van Patten, Dick Van Patten, and Lawrence Pressman
My rating: ★★★ stars
Character study of intelligent, callous high school Lothario.
Making It stars Kristoffer Tabori as Phil Fuller, a callous, amoral, hedonistic, teenage egotist, who blithely exploits others, not because he particularly enjoys it, but because he can. He displays a jaded world-weariness characteristic of a middle-aged cynic but, yet, is not particularly negative in his outlook. The world just is what it is.
Based on James Leigh’s novel What Can You Do?, the film is a character study presaging what would later be known as the “Me” generation. Leigh, apparently, didn’t like the film adaptation, but the tenor of the film seems to match the shrugging flippancy of the novel’s title.
Cinema is populated by dumb, sex-obsessed teenagers. Phil is an intelligent, sex-obsessed teenager. In fact, he’s too smart for his own good. His intelligence serves to isolate him from other people. Furthermore, his knowledge that he’s smarter than most people prevents him from forming attachments with those he considers inferior.
He does have three important relationships. He maintains a close friendship with the class nerd, Wilkie (Bob Balaban). Wilkie is a match for Phil’s intellect but not his confidence. Thus, their relationship is one of unequal power, Phil feeling compelled to demonstrate and use Wilkie’s weaknesses. Luckily for Phil, Wilkie doesn’t seem to mind—he just seems glad to have a friend.
Phil is also close to his mother, Betty (Joyce Van Patten). The two share a connection of two people who have lived in symbiosis for a long time. Betty is no match for Phil’s intelligence and confidence, but he clearly cares about and respects her. When she brings home a beau, Warren (Dick Van Patten, Joyce’s real-life brother—and, yes, it’s creepy when they make out in the movie), Phil shows genuine concern for both her welfare and happiness.
But Phil’s most interesting relationship is with his English teacher, Mr. Mallory (Lawrence Pressman). Mallory feels deep ambivalence toward Phil. He enjoys the boy’s challenging intellect and resents his uncaring insensitivity. At one point, Mallory tells Phil that he hates him, and the audience knows it’s not an exaggeration. Yet, Mallory truly cares about Phil. At the film’s climax, he offers Phil necessary assistance, at what seems to be great cost to himself.
As the title suggests, Phil has a number of encounters with women who mean little to him. His callousness crosses the line into cruelty, and his actions may make female viewers uncomfortable, particularly in our more enlightened era.
The film is not unpleasant to watch despite the unlikable nature of the protagonist. Phil is simply interesting. In many ways, he recalls the title character of Hud—a superior film, but not dissimilar as a character study of a unsympathetic egotist. But, while Hud’s tragedy is that he cannot change, Phil manages to recognize his own shortcomings by the end of the film, even if he cannot remedy them, which is his tragedy.
The acting of the film from the principals is strong. Pressman shines as the conflicted English teacher. But the success of the film rests on the performance of Tabori. He proves equal to the task. He projects the intelligence and confidence necessary for the role. He has a quality to his voice that compels attention, like James Mason did. I don’t know why Tabori didn’t have a bigger career as an actor. He was talented and reasonably good looking. And as the son of actress Viveca Lindfors and director Don Siegel, he had the right family connections. But, although he guest starred on a number of television shows (I remember him from a couple of appearances on Murder, She Wrote), he never really got the level of roles that his talent deserved. Now, he directs movies for the Hallmark Channel under the name K.T. Donaldson.
The glaring fault in the movie is the direction of John Erman, which has all the verve and visual accumen of a 1970s low-budget television domestic melodrama. Indeed, Making It was one of only two theatrical release films Erman directed to date (the other was Stella, a tepid remake of Stella Dallas starring Bette Midler). The rest of his oeuvre comprises television movies and series. What separates Making It from TV movies of the time is the casual nudity that characterizes films of the 1970s, which seem to have been eager to make use of the relaxed restrictions on film content. Today, the film could be made without the nudity, but the frank discussion of sex would probably necessitate an R-rating regardless.
The soundtrack would have been more effective had it been composed of popular songs of the era. As it is, the film features weak tunes of the kind that might have played on late-1960s or early-1970s AM radio—a real disappointment from Norman Gimbel and Charles Fox, the team that penned “Killing Me Softly with His Song,” “I Got a Name,” and the Happy Days theme song, among others.
Making It is virtually unknown today. It features no big stars and seems to have made little impression at the box office. Although it was released by 20th Century-Fox, it has the feel of an indie film. It lacks the polish and spectacle of today’s cinematic offerings. Yet, it provides a satisfying exploration of character sorely lacking in recent films.