March 23, 2010
Only When I Laugh (1981)
Grade: 53/100

Director: Glenn Jordan
Stars: Marsha Mason

What it's about. Georgia (Marsha Mason) is a forty-ish New York theater actress. Her stage career was highly successful until alcoholism forced her into a rehab clinic. She comes out healthy and attractive, and is promptly greeted by her two best friends, struggling actor Jimmy (James Coco), a balding homosexual; and Toby (Joan Hackett), a well-to-do socialite whose marriage is failing.

Georgia also has a cute teenage daughter, Polly (Kristy McNichol), from a marriage that ended long ago. Polly, who has since lived with her father, moves into Georgia's apartment to get to know her mother better. Georgia's live further improves when she takes the lead role in a new play written by former lover David (David Dukes). The play is based on their stormy and ultimately failed relationship.

The role is stressful for Georgia, and her two best friends have setbacks that further depress her. She falls off the bandwagon, which leads to a bittersweet ending.

How others will see it. Only When I Laugh was written by the prolific and immensely successful Neil Simon, and it stars his wife at the time, Marsha Mason. These were two key ingredients in two former successes, The Goodbye Girl (1977) and Chapter Two (1979). As was the case for those two movies, Marsha Mason was nominated for Best Actress in Only When I Laugh, which also received two more surprising actor nominations, for Coco and Hackett in their supporting roles.

Only When I Laugh did well at the box office, but has since faded from public interest, unlike The Goodbye Girl (1977), which had more spark. The user ratings demonstrate that male interest is lukewarm, none too surprising since the male lead is the decidedly effeminate James Coco. Women like the film better, but not to a significantly greater degree. Likely, they were disappointed by Georgia's return to the bottle, and appalled at her behavior at a sports bar, where she flirts at length with, then cuts off, an aroused barfly.

How I felt about it. I can come up with a list of small things about this movie that don't work. In particular, who would want to see a play that consists of a couple bitterly arguing until they finally break up? How are we, the audience, supposed to feel when one person (whether the man or the woman) launches into a hateful tirade inflicted on the other?

Admittedly, when you lash out at an intimate, there may be a kernel of truth in what you are saying. But does that justify a meta-message of anger and contempt? Especially if the true intent of the meta-message is to defend one's own shortcomings, or to coerce your special other into doing what you want.

So, it is seldom justifiable to yell at someone else. A play based solely on this would be unwatchable. Yet this also occurs between characters outside of the play within the play. Toby berates Georgia for some petty inconsideration, and Georgia responds by... laughing? Georgia asks for Jimmy to berate her, and he just rolls his eyes. At least he knows better. Good for him.

For an experienced drinker, Georgia is a really bad drunk. She says she's a funny drunk, but not so. One glass of wine, and she's a manic fool who spills drinks on people and can't remember rehearsed song lyrics.

I understand that people hurt, and people reveal their hurt to attract sympathy or to attack intimates who don't satisfactorily commiserate. But understanding why others behave as they do fails to make those actions less pathetic or deplorable.

Not that it's all bad. Look for an amusing cameo by a young Kevin Bacon as a college student on the make.

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