Written by Barry Levinson and Valerie Curtin and based on their own relationship, Best Friends is a strange and haunting mixture of screwball comedy and soulful romantic drama. Set initially in Los Angeles, it’s about a Hollywood screenwriting couple – Richard Babson (Burt Reynolds) and Paula McCullen (Goldie Hawn) – who have dated for many years and finally decide to get married after buying a house in the Hollywood Hills, although both of them – and especially Paula – have reservations about marriage as an institution. From the very beginning, Richard and Babson are presented as a classic screwball couple: they write screenplays together, they rehearse screenplays together and are wonderfully alive to the performativity and play-acting of being a prominent Hollywood duo. Like so many screwy couples, they have the kind of working relationship that allows them to work on their romantic relationship in an open and generous manner, so it’s no surprise that when they do get hitched they script a wedding invitation like it’s a wacky screenplay, taking their cues from random advertisements in the phone book, only to decide upon a private, screwy ceremony in Spanish at the Los Hermanos Wedding Chapel. At the same time, this never feels quite like a screwball comedy either, as Jewison suffuses his mise-en-scenes with a soulful sensuality and erotic melancholy that adds an edge of sadness to the empty corners of Richard and Paula’s new home. One of the most utopian characteristics of screwball comedy is the sense that romance can be rewritten anew in the image of American optimism, and in many ways this brooding, vacant house comes to hang over the film as a symbol of world beyond marriage, just as it hangs over the Hollywood backdrop that fills out Jewison’s sight lines and breathtaking compositions.
As a result, there’s something slightly desperate and hysterical about the screwiness of Richard and Paula’s wedding ceremony, as well as their demand for secrecy: far from ensconcing them in the privileged, cosy, nation-of-two that defines your typical screwball couple, it instead suggests that they are living a lie by getting married, and that marriage has in some sense closeted them, forcing them to perform a version of their relationship that isn’t really representative of their true passions or inclinations. Whether or not the film was designed to directly appeal to a queer audience is hard to say, but the plethora of queer “cues” in the opening act – from Burt Reynolds initially appearing as a woman to the photograph of Judy Garland that anchors Richard and Paula’s first video to the studio lot – suggests that at the very least the film is alive to the ways in which heterosexual expectations and institutions might be performed by those who aren’t necessarily comfortable or congruent with them, even if – as in this particular case – their sexual orientation happens to be heterosexual. From the very outset, then, there is a quite soulful sense that Richard and Paula’s story has a bearing on a whole host of other types and categories and relationships – and, what’s more, that both of them, in their different ways, yearn to reach out and align themselves with this broader, more adventurous version of what love and romance can mean on the West Coast of America.
Just as the film has poised us at this cusp between screwiness and soulfulness, however, the action abruptly shifts gear, as it becomes clear that the majority of the action is going to focus on Richard and Paula’s announcement of the marriage to their parents. Given that hers live in Buffalo and his live in Virginia, the rest of the film plays out as a travelogue, separated by montage sequences, the first of which is the most memorable and extensive: a cross-county train trip to Buffalo that sees Richard and Paula forced to accommodate themselves to married life in a classic screwball space – cramped and contorted, all their body language and conversational manner is distorted and turned awry, in a passage that almost feels as if it could have been the film proper. It’s only a matter of time before we arrive in Buffalo, however, where Paula’s parents manage to alienate Richard from the institution of marriage much as his parents alienate her when they move on to Virginia. While these parents may be played by a fairly creditable collection of actors (Jessica Tandy, Barnard Hughes, Audra Lindley and Keenan Wynn), they’re never really fleshed out as characters and function more as a series of running gags. Similarly, while each trip nominally builds towards a party – Paula’s parents’ wedding anniversary and Richard’s parents’ wedding celebration for their son – there’s not a great deal of story to speak of, with much of momentum hinging upon how well Jewison fills out the texture of all three places. Indeed, it is a tribute to his direction that each stay feels so distinctive, since there is not really a great deal of narrative pace or activity to distinguish them. As we move from the withered, sterile gothic Northerners to the clannish, sprawling, promiscuous Southerners – and the whole distinction between North and South so alien to a West Coast resident – the atmosphere becomes more immersive, dramatic and reflective, absorbing Richard and Paula’s relationship into a series of traditions, institutions and expectations that are suddenly more alien and omniscient than they could ever have imagined.
Of course, this is still a comedy, and while Jewison’s atmospherics do some of the heavy lifting, Hawn and Reynolds’ reaction shots are what really keep the film going. Here as always, Hawn is pitch perfect in her awryness – always a little abstracted, she’s brilliant at taking things to the very verge of ditziness without ever quite stepping over the line, even or especially when other characters treat her as ditzy (at times, it reminded me of her exchanges with Steve Martin at the beginning Housesitter). At the same time, I had to wonder whether the film really played to her strengths in a consistent way: at the end of the Virginia sequence, she takes an overdose of morphine that dopes her into full ditziness, and yet while this may be presented as something of a climactic comic set piece, I didn’t find it nearly as allured as her milder brand of off-beatness. Nevertheless, it’s clear even here that we’re dealing with one of the great neo-screwball actresses, full of cross-nuances and micro-tics, so it’s perhaps inevitable that Reynolds’ reaction shots should come off as a little ham-fisted and bland by comparison: try as he might, he just can’t keep up with Hawn as an actor, which is perhaps why the action sags a bit and depends more on broad physical comedy when they arrive at his parents’ place in Virginia and he takes centre stage.
For all the comedy though, the broader arc of the film is quite sombre, not only because Richard and Paula find themselves fighting more and more, but because in their movement from Los Angeles to Buffalo to Virginia it often feels as if they are accelerating through the successive stages of their own marriage: the honeymoon phase, the winter years and finally the strange summer of retirement and resignation. If anything, they recognise that they’ve been living in a honeymoon state all along by remaining unmarried, a realisation that brings a real sadness and poignance to the film – a tugging undertow of melancholy – that transforms it from comedy to drama as the action proceeds, which again works brilliantly with Hawn, who can go from joy to sadness in a single facial movement. It’s a bit of a shock, then, when it abruptly and artificially returns to comedy for the final act, as the couple’s producer – now their marriage counsellor – locks them in a studio office until they finish their latest script and fix their marriage. Accordingly, at this point Jewison’s atmospherics are replaced by a much more artificial, theatrical and metafictional style, with the action only straying from the room once Richard and Paula have “made up” and walked outside into a fake sunset. In many ways, this final segment would work better as a play, and that creates a sense that something is not quite right or not quite resolved, even as the music builds to a crescendo and the final shots seem to trick us into feeling we’ve been in a romantic comedy all along.
While screwball comedies often feature this kind of remarriage as a common trope – and often feature couples resuming their romance by way of their working life – the turnaround is so rapid and compressed here that you barely have time to register it, which is perhaps why it’s the overarching melancholy of the main part of the film that feels like the final note. While classic screwball comedies often focused on relationships that were mediated by the entertainment industry in some way, that is taken to quite a literal and desperate level here, with the argument only resolved by way of the screenplay that, in a metafictional twist, turns out to be that of Best Friends itself. In the last couple of minutes, then, it suddenly emerges that we have been witnessing the coda to an ongoing argument between Levinson and Curtin, while the film itself suddenly feels like a form of counselling, a strategy for overcoming some kind of insurmountable divide foisted upon these two Hollywood icons by the institution of marriage. Given that Levinson and Curtin divorced in the same year the film came out, then, Best Friends feels a bit like the last breath of the classic screwball comedy – unless the postmodern screwball confections of Peter Bogdanovich, Woody Allen or Dennis Potter, this is probably the last utterly sincere and earnest attempt to continue the spirit of the 1930s into the 1980s, which gives it a strange and haunting melancholy even after all this time.