Directed by Delbert Mann
Produced by Delbert Mann and Douglas Lawrence
Screenplay by Dale Wasserman
Based on the novel “Buddwing” by Evan Hunter
James Garner was one of the most liked, best respected and just plain real people working in Hollywood in his day. I feel like he’s a friend since I remember watching him in the TV western “Maverick” with my father when I was a kid. And through the years I’ve watched and enjoyed James Garner in both movies and TV shows. I could be wrong but I’d be willing to bet that James Garner was the first TV star to parlay that small screen stardom to movies successfully both financially and critically.
Most certainly he clicks with audiences. Even when I was a kid my father would say that anything James Garner was in, he’d watch. And even today my father will drop anything he’s doing to watch “The Great Escape”. And Mr. Garner has most certainly secured his spot in Television History as the star of what many consider to be the best Private Eye series ever: “The Rockford Files”. Me, I’d give that honor to Tom Selleck and “Magnum, P.I.” but we’ll save that argument for another time.
I’ve always liked James Garner more in movies. Such as “Skin Game” where he and Lou Gossett, Jr. played pre-Civil War era conmen. Or “The Great Escape” or “Grand Prix” or “Marlowe” or “They Only Kill Their Masters” or “Support Your Local Sheriff” with the delightful Joan Hackett who had Demi Moore’s voice long before Demi Moore was born. And knew how to use it better. And then there’s the great western “Duel at Diablo” he made with Sidney Poitier and Dennis Weaver. Here you have three of the nicest, most gentlemanly men in Hollywood playing total bastards and having a great time doing it. In later years James Garner delighted me in movies such as “Victor/Victoria” and a movie that I am making your homework assignment for the week: “Sunset” a pulp action adventure from 1988 with Mr. Garner playing an aged but still badass Wyatt Earp acting as consultant to movie cowboy Tom Mix (Bruce Willis). The two of them get involved in a whole lotta hijinks I wouldn’t dare spoil for those of you who haven’t seen “Sunset” But take it from me: it’s a helluva fun movie. And most of it is due to the performance of James Garner.
MISTER BUDDWING begins with a man (James Garner) waking up on a Central Park bench. He has no memory of who he is or how he got there. A search of his pockets turns up a train schedule, a folded up piece of paper with a phone number written on it and two white pills. He has no identification but he is wearing a silver opal ring. The opal is cracked and there is an inscription inside the ring. All of these are the only clues to his identity.
He calls the number and finds it belongs to a prostitute (Angela Lansbury) who says she doesn’t know him but gives him coffee, money and sends him off on a day long quest to find out who he is. That quest will introduce him to three very different women. All of these women he calls ‘Grace’. They tell him that they aren’t Grace. But he follows them into some very disturbing scenarios. Some that appears to play out his past life.
Who is Grace? Is she real? Are these real women or just psychotic fantasies of Mister Buddwing? Are they aspects of the real Grace his disturbed mind has fragmented into separate personalities? Who are they and who is he? MISTER BUDDWING isn’t the type of movie you plan for a Saturday night when you and your lady or you and your boys just want to kick back with a fun movie. It’s one of those movies that likes to play with your head. Halfway through the movie Mister Buddwing is presented with the possibility that he’s an escaped mental patient with homicidal tendencies. Certainly his behavior might seem to suggest that. But as the day goes on and he has his encounters with the three Graces (Katherine Ross, Suzanne Pleshette and Jean Simmons) He gradually comes to realize that there’s a more horrifying reason behind his amnesia.
MISTER BUDDWING is a movie I place in the same category with “Angel Heart” It’s a movie where the main character is trying to solve a mystery and the solution turns out to be worse than the mystery itself. Oh, MISTER BUDDWING is nowhere near as graphic as “Angel Heart” but the spirit is similar.
The performances are all out of the box. Angela Lansbury is terrific as the over-the-hill whore who puts Mister Buddwing on the path to find out who he is. And as the three aspects of Grace: Katherine Ross is just okay. Suzanne Pleshette has always been one of my favorite actresses and one who I felt never got the career she deserved. She also looks totally hot in a scene where she’s wearing a white trenchcoat and go-go boots. Some of the hotness is taken out of what happens later on in that scene.
Jean Simmons is totally amazing with her platinum blond hair and whorish attitude. It’s a performance unlike any you might have seen her in before and it’s amazing to watch. And if you needed any other inducement to watch this movie, there’s a scene with Nichelle Nichols and Jean Simmons down on their knees in dresses up to here shootin’ dice and exhorting; “Give it to me the hard way BABY!”
It’s also a movie worth watching for the beautiful black-and-white photography and the view of a New York that doesn’t exist anymore. Movies like MISTER BUDDWING I recommend not only as a good movie but as a history lesson. The New York in MISTER BUDDWING I barely remember but it’s one that is worth you visiting.
So should you see MISTER BUDDWING? Well, unless you have Turner Classic Movies, you won’t. It’s not available on DVD or Netflix. But if you are a fan of James Garner and you have TCM on your satellite/cable provider then by all means, please give it a viewing.