Only When I Laugh (1981)

GLENN JORDAN

Bil’s rating (out of 5):  BBBB.  USA, 1981.  Rastar Films.  Screenplay by , based on his play The Gingerbread Lady.  Cinematography by .  Produced by , Neil Simon.  Music by .  Production Design by .  Costume Design by .  Film Editing by .  Academy Awards 1981.  Golden Globe Awards 1981Toronto International Film Festival 1981.  

Marsha Mason and Kristy McNichol in Only When I Laugh. Mason was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for her performance.

Stunning characterizations highlight this excellent drama, one of the richest examples of Neil Simon’s writing ever adapted to the screen. Marsha Mason is fantastic as a Broadway actress who has just been released from twelve weeks of drying out in rehab, determined to face the world without alcohol, hoping to put her career back in order and maybe even restore her relationship with her teenage daughter ().  She rejoins the world with her sarcasm well intact, accompanied by her best friends, a struggling gay actor (James Coco) and a youth-obsessed socialite (Joan Hackett) who give her as much  of their own brand of sass as they do support.  Two major events conspire to put Mason’s newfound equilibrium to the test: the man who left her and sent her on her last downward spiral has written a play that he wants her to star in as a fictionalized version of her worst self, while McNichol announces that she wants to move back in with her mother and get back some lost time before she enters the world of adulthood.  Mason is thrilled by the opportunity but frightened that she is still too tender to handle happiness and stability, the ease of tumbling into old habits portrayed beautifully and with such smooth subtlety that the effect is terrifying (a simple pouring of a champagne glass is enough to make you gasp in a way that Ray Milland’s now dated clutching of the throat in The Lost Weekend fails to do).  Where it goes from there is for you to enjoy discovering as a touching and hilarious film indulges in moments both painfully natural and theatrically self-conscious without feeling false or uneven, lorded over by Mason’s deft ability to be so self-effacing and vulnerable without being desperate or cloying; the moment where rehearsing a particularly painful scene causes an unexpected outburst is simply divine.  Coco’s rapid-fire delivery of one-line cutups keeps up with her beautifully, his own level of self-deprecating humour combined with resilience making the comfort and sparkle of their friendship shine through instantly.  Hackett’s classy but equally sarcastic dame provides ample support that has undercurrents of palpable love, so that their scenes never feel too clever for their own good; the tragedy for her is offscreen, as Hackett announces in the role that she will “never get old” and, given that she passed away two years after the film’s release, it is sad to report that she never did.

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