How would Al Pacino look in a sitcom? That’s the question posed by Author! Author!, an early 80s comedy that sees the former Michael Corleone reimagined as Ivan Travalian, a struggling New York playwright who’s trying to get his professional and romantic life under control. We’re first introduced to Travalian during a casting call in which he decides that his director – played by Andre Gregory, from My Dinner With Andre – is too picky, and needs to be sacked. It’s a move that arguably sets the rest of the film in motion, since what we’re dealing with here is light years away from the theoretical debates and genuine theatrical queries of Louis Malle’s masterpiece. Instead, this more or less plays out as an extended or intensified sitcom, with Travalian struggling to secure his next show while taking care of an extended troupe of children – both biological and adopted – after his wife Gloria (Tuesday Weld) suddenly leaves him. As that might suggest, it’s a bit of a contrived setup, and sometimes resembles an extended pitch for a sitcom more than a fully-fledged film, although by about halfway through it’s content to settle into its sitcom tropes without having to establish or reiterate them too frequently.
In fact, the premise here is so perfect for a sitcom that it’s hard to believe that it never actually was a sitcom. At the very least, it’s surprising that there was no television spinoff, since all the ingredients are in place: a father living with his kids and his ex-wife’s kids, faced with continual hi-jinks, set to a feel-good score and structured around transitions that feel as if they’re designed to fade in and out of ad breaks. While there are “sweet touches” and sentimental moments, there’s also a touch of pathos – just enough – in the fact that Travalian was himself orphaned, abandoned and adopted as a kid, after he was found crying in an apple-crate on a New York doorstep. On top of that, the scenes are very short, while even the dramatic moments feel like “bits” – canned responses are never far away – with the action unfolding so episodically that it often feels like three episodes played back to back, or an extended, slightly more serious, sitcom “special.” Nevertheless, the overall tone is comic – even the arguments have a bit of a screwy feel – while the fixation on eccentrically extended families also creates a broader comic palette, as does the mild sense that we’re always on a sound stage, always in the realm of the theatrical in some intangible yet pervasive manner.
For the first part of the film, it really works, pulling Pacino back from the intensity of his post-Godfather filmography to recover something like the washed-up soulfulness of Serpico. Although it might sound a bit preposterous at first glance, Pacino is really great at playing a struggling writer, drawing on something of the verbose world-weariness that distinguished his performance in Dog Day Afternoon. Nevertheless, as the sitcom stuff starts to intensify, so does the sitcom ideology, and as in so many sitcoms, there’s a fairly sanctimonious message buried in here about the sanctity of fatherhood, as well as a profound anxiety about female promiscuity and sensual pleasure. At one point, Travalian observes that his particular kind of theatre – “serious plays in a comic mode” – requires actresses who can be serious but also play ditzes, and there seems to be a similar demand placed upon the women in the film as well, an expectation that even the most serious actresses will be prepared to turn themselves into ditzes at a moment notices. As a result, there’s something a bit off-putting about Dyan Cannon’s supremely ditzy performance as actress Alice Detroit – it feels complicit – while Tuesday Weld’s inability to stomach even an ounce of ditziness frequently makes it feel as if she is not even in the film at all.
For that reason, the way the film positions Weld’s character is one of its most unappealing qualities, with Travalian making the most of every opportunity to berate and belittle her to his children, and to effectively write her out of the narrative. After a while, this monstrous mother trope gets a bit much, especially given Travalian’s constant humble brags about how he chooses to be monogamous despite the cornucopia of sexual possibilities that – supposedly – come with being a mid-tier playwright. Unfortunately, that turns what could have been one of Pacino’s most soulful performances into one of his most sanctimonious, not least because Travalian himself is a fairly terrible parent, taking his “eccentricities” to such heights that at one point the police are called in to investigate an abduction claim. Watching it, I was reminded that sitcoms are so often the perfect mouthpiece for self-pitying single fathers, and Travalian wrings every last pity of his kids from as well, especially his two sons, who mug for the camera in the brattiest way possible, in what have to be two of the most repellent child performances I have ever seen committed to screen. Say what you like about ultra-sitcoms like Eight is Enough or Full House, at least they were front and centre about the cheesy factor, but here it’s all wrapped up in a pretension to New York conversation comedy, with Pacino bizarrely seeming to channel Woody Allen half the time, which kind of makes sense in terms of the film’s sexual politics as a whole.
In that sense, Author! Author! plays as something of an intensified sitcom, demonstrating – if inadvertently – how sitcom tropes that can initially present as benign and comforting quickly become horrendous when spun out into this feature-length format, just as Pacino’s soulful diction quickly moves into an increasingly histrionic register, splitting the difference between sitcom and theatre in an extraordinarily grating manner. More specifically this feels like a devolution of the 80s sitcom – the Reagan era sitcom – coated in a thick treacle of sentiment that quickly coagulates into the ugliest kind of sexual politics you can imagine, just as Travalian ends up devolving into the most selfish, precious, whingey apologist for family values conceivable, backed by a cheer squad of precocious child actors and half-baked romantic interests. By the end of the film this loveable eccentric has resorted to domestic assault, and yet even this is so sentimentalised that it lacks the affective pull of other right-wing vehicles that came out around the same time, such as Death Wish 2. On top of all that, the film seems to totally miss its mark in terms of this convergence of sitcom and theatre in the first place, since it often seems as if the kids need to appear in Travalian’s play – that’s where the film is really heading – but that the screenwriter and director can’t quite figure out how to make it happen.
The irony, then, is that for all his genre roles and masculine melodramas, Pacino’s performance in Author! Author! turns out to be one of his most misogynist, even or especially as its wrapped up in a particularly nauseating brand of “self-deprecating” New York neurosis. Key to that neurosis is the conviction that women need to be parented as much as children – probably more – which puts Gloria in an impossible position, as Travalian demands that she parent properly but also demands that she allows herself to be parented. In many ways, it feels as if his real parental partners are actually his sons, with whom he shares the most nauseating expositions about the nature of women and some highly inappropriate observations about their own adoptive mother. In that sense, the film finally moves away from parenthood as an age-related concept to present it more as a way for men to relate to women generally, although in a completely uncritical and frequently sentimental register. At the end of the film, Travalian forbids his daughters from wearing pants to his play opening, even though it’s the midst of winter – “You are girls, you wear dresses” – and that summarises the film. If the Reagan sitcom aimed for a kind of contained promiscuity, a strategy for holding everything beyond the nuclear family at bay for as long as possible, then this intensified format envisages an even more looming promiscuous threat that has to be contained as immediately and desperately as possible – a fairly ugly premise for any film, let alone a film that aspires to the kind of comic panache and screwball democratics invoked and then denuded here.