Giorgio Fini is the world’s greatest opera tenor, but the thought of returning to perform at the Metropolitan Opera House—the site of his most humiliating disaster—is enough to turn him mute before a public performance in Boston. His loyal manager, Henry, finds the city’s best ear, nose, and throat doctor, who just happens to be a gorgeous blond named Pamela Taylor. At first Fini refuses to be treated by a “nurse”, but submits when Henry makes up a story about a tenor he managed who lost his voice when he refused to be examined by a non-Italian doctor. Dr. Taylor quickly diagnoses that Fini’s laryngitis is psychosomatic and “cures” him by painfully stabbing him in the butt with a B-12 shot. Fini is so grateful he begins to court the beautiful doctor, even though he is a married man with two children. He eventually convinces her to join him in San Francisco, where they embark on a bittersweet love affair doomed from the moment of its conception. Having been convinced by Dr. Taylor to return to the Met, Fini deals with his heartbreak by giving the greatest performance of his life.
Okay, I know what you’re thinking—“What the fuck is Allan on? Does he have a fever? In what universe is a light mainstream romantic comedy about fucking opera anything even approaching a B-Movie?”
And here are my answers to all of those questions—“Mostly Nyquil. Yes, but it’s not as bad as it was yesterday, where it forced me to miss my family’s X-Mas celebration. This one.”
Y’see, despite being made by a major studio with a $19 million budget (which those of you who read my Megaforce entry know was a very significant amount of money at the time) and its classical music setting, Yes, Giorgio is as perfect an example I can name of one of my very favourite sub-genres of exploitation movies—the starsploitation flick.
It’s a very simple concept that dates back all the way to the silent era. Take a non-acting celebrity whose fame and name recognition is off the charts and throw them into the movie with the hope that their legion of adoring fans flock to the theater to see them. I’ve already mentioned the amazing Viva Knievel! on the blog, but other classic examples include such disasters as 1955’s Sincerely Yours (in which Liberace played a totally heterosexual concert performer whose sudden deafness compels him to stay at home and change the lives of the strangers he sees suffering outside his apartment window), 1980’s Can’t Stop the Music (in which The Village People play totally heterosexual dudes who come together to form a gay disco group called The Village People), 1980’s The Jazz Singer (in which Neil Diamond plays a wannabe rock star whose father, Laurence Olivier, is so over-the-top Jewish it actually borders on being anti-Semitic), and 2002’s Crossroads (in which Britney Spears did something with some people in a movie I’ve never seen).
That’s not to say that every starsploitation effort is a failure. A Hard Day’s Night is one of the greatest musical comedies of all time, despite starting out as a way to make a quick buck off of the Beatles’ “fad”; Jailhouse Rock led to Elvis Presley becoming one of the biggest stars in Hollywood; and 8 Mile gave us the wonderful sight of Barbra Streisand forced to announce Eminem’s name at the Oscars.
In fact, the world of starsploitation is so rich there are examples of the genre that actually starred genuine movie stars. For example, 1978’s Sextette was made to capitalize on the popularity of Mae West, despite the fact that anyone with eyes or ears could have told the producers that the film’s octogenarian star had no business returning to her role of alluring sexpot. And then there’s 2010’s The Expendables (and its upcoming 2012 sequel), whose whole raison d'etre is to excite action fans by giving them glimpses of their favourite movie tough guys on screen in one cinematic experience.
So, given this rich history of Hollywood trying to make a buck by exploiting a celebrity’s non-acting fame, it was probably inevitable that someone would try and turn Luciano Pavarotti into a movie star. He was, after all, the most famous opera tenor in the world—capable of selling out arena’s everywhere he went. Imagine how much money could be made if those same fans flocked to movie theaters to see him sing!
When Peter Fetterman, the producer of Yes, Giorgio, decided to approach Pavarotti his dream project was a bio-film about Enrico Caruso, but the great tenor had no interest in taking on a potentially difficult role for which he’d probably receive mostly negative comparisons. He insisted that he wanted to play a romantic lead, so Fetterman bought the rights to Anne Piper’s novel, which told the story of the love affair that developed between the world’s greatest tenor and the beautiful doctor who cures his vocal problems.
This decision led to some obvious problems. Pavarotti was known for his voice, but not his physical attractiveness. Would audiences balk at watching the large man romance a much more conventionally attractive actress? Plus, the native Italian speaker didn’t have the best grasp of the English language, and would end up having to recite many of his lines phonetically throughout filming.
To face these dilemmas Fetterman hired Norman Steinberg (then best known for his contribution to Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles) to write the screenplay, and Franklin J. Schaffner, the Oscar-winning director of Patton, to oversee the production.
Schaffner was definitely an odd choice for the director’s seat. His reputation had been made as a serious director who tackled historical subjects (Papillion, Nicholas and Alexandra), politics (The Best Man) and intelligent science fiction (Planet of the Apes, The Boys From Brazil). Steinberg’s screenplay turned Piper’s novel into a lightly comic musical romance with a bittersweet ending, which made it unlike any movie project the talented director had tackled before. The best explanation for why he agreed to do it can be found in the previous year’s Sphinx, his expensive Egyptian-themed thriller that flopped mightily at the B.O. In all likelihood Schaffner bought into Fetterman’s assertion that Pavarotti’s millions of fans would flock to theaters in record numbers and help restore his Hollywood reputation.
For the role of the doctor who falls in love with the singer, the filmmaker’s hired Kathryn Harrold, a knockout blond best known for her role as Albert Brooks' on-again, off-again girlfriend in the classic comedy Modern Romance. In the end she would prove to be the film’s one saving grace.
Unfortunately for Schaffner and Fetterman, Yes, Giorgio didn’t cause Pavoratti’s admirers to run to movie theaters. The film only earned 1/10th of its budget back in domestic gross and was savaged by critics. Much of the blame rested on the fact that the audience most likely to appreciate its light hearted comedy were put off by the thought of lengthy opera sequences, while serious opera fans were put off by seeing their idol in such a flimsy vehicle.
Viewed today (or more accurately, yesterday—Christmas Day, 2011) Yes, Giorgio, lacks the misbegotten excess of such classic late 70s/early 80s musical disasters like The Apple, Xanadu, and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (itself another classic example of starsploitation), which is ultimately to its detriment. Without the benefit of extreme bad taste to turn it into a guilty pleasure, the film forces us to take its characters seriously, which is a huge mistake, since—as written by Steinberg and portrayed by Pavarotti—its title character is an unlikable, sexist man-child whose cavalier attitude towards adultery makes him one of the screen’s least likely romantic comedy protagonists. With his boyish speaking voice and round body, Pavarotti’s Fini is less a romantic lead than a big enormous baby.
Which is a huge problem for Kathryn Harrold, who is faced with the insurmountable challenge of making us believe her smart, funny, likable character would so much as touch Fini with a 50 foot pole, much less declare her love for him in one of the more painful scenes the genre has ever produced. The film ends with her running out of the Met, supposedly unable to face the heartbreak of seeing him give his career-defining performance, but for the viewer it feels instead like a sudden spark of sanity—as if she’s suddenly realized what’s going on and decides to get the fuck out of Dodge.
But, ironically, the thing that hurts the film the most is its reliance on Pavarotti’s famous voice. He sings a lot in Yes, Giorgio, but there’s a cheesy “greatest hits” aspect to the opera scenes (“Hey,” you say to yourself, “that’s the one from that Bugs Bunny cartoon!”), and his brief attempt at a pop standard like “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” only serves to highlight his inability to perform outside of his wheelhouse. I try my best to never fast forward through a movie I plan on giving a B-Movie Bullsh*t analysis, but during the final 1/3 of the film I gave in and sped through all but the very last of the musical sequences. Truth is, I probably would have done so sooner if I wasn’t already doped up on cough medicine.
I admit it probably takes a fever and the calming narcotics of green Nyquil (it tastes like Sambuca!) to truly consider a $19 million dollar movie about opera an exploitation B-Movie, but the truth is that it isn’t all about sex, violence, monsters, and car crashes. Sometimes it truly is about fat, bearded opera singers speaking a language they don’t understand in a movie whose limitations were set in stone by their own ego.
Okay, okay, next week I promise
I’ll review something really trashy.