Saturday, October 11, 2008

The Day of the Dolphin

"The Day of the Dolphin" (Mike Nichols, 1972) After a series of films in which each one is a bit of an accomplishment in things artistic, cultural and societal ("Who's Afraid of Virgina Woolf?," "The Graduate," "Catch-22," "Carnal Knowledge") Mike Nichols lightened up on the weltschmerz--slightly--to present a relatively frothy entertainment, but in a downbeat kind of way. Robert Merle's best-seller was a thick book that delved more into the philosophical and moral issues of teaching dolphins to express themselves in English. But that probably wouldn't do for the movies, so Buck Henry devised a cloak-and-dagger story about operatives training the mammals to blow up the President...something subtle like that.

The implications of ESL for dolphins takes a back-seat for conspiracy and makes one wonder why one would waste such a top-heavy cast of
George C. Scott, Trish VanDevere, Paul Sorvino, Edward Herrmann, and Fritz Weaver and talking dolphins on just another spy movie. But waste it, they do.

Despite Scott's presence (and he's operating on relatively low gear here), the stars are the dolphins, named "Alpha" and "Beta" (or, as they squeak, "Fa" and Bee") In fact, every audience I saw this film with cooed audibly when the first dolphin popped out of the water and breathed "Pah!" in a baby voice at Scott. Like the rudimentary language signed by chimps, the dolphins' grasp of concepts is basic--they know "love," "Ma," "Pa," "Ball," and "Not"--that last one covering a lot of ground from negativity to death.

It all feels a bit gooey and icky, and when Nichols and Henry crank up the melodrama in the final act, one has a tough time taking it with any of the gravity of, say, a "Lassie" movie, probably not what the director intended, making it all for "not."

I do remember one interesting story from the time of the film, from an interview with Nichols at the time the film was made. It has nothing to do with the movie, but is more of a backstage story about the making of it. Nichols found that no matter how ell-trained the dolphins were, they were not the most disciplined of performers. Oh, they understood what they had to do, they just didn't really feel like doing it. They were constantly blowing takes, goofing around, playing--probably stealing donuts from the craft-services table--until tempers got short, and then, they'd do everything on cue--not unlike
Peter Bogdanovich's story about directing Tatum O'Neal.

Anyway, on the last day of filming, on the last take the plan was to release the dolphins back into the wild. The crew gets ready. The dolphins swim out and perform their bit perfectly--it's a "Take." Then, as if knowing they weren't needed anymore, they simply left and swam out to sea. "We're outta here." They just swam away. It left Nichols wondering at the creatures he'd been working with, and wondering if he'd done right by them.**

Maybe they decided to quit "The Biz" before the movie was released.

There's a lot of talent behind it, though--production design by
Richard Sylbert, cinematography from William A. Fraker and a too-good score by Georges Delerue. But it was all for "Not."

When one considers the possibilities, "The Day of the Dolphin" was a day wasted.

* The New Yorker's Pauline Kael suggested that if all Nichols and Henry could come up with for a movie was talking dolphins, they should probably retire from movies. Kael was on the right idea, but off the mark (as she could be)--if all Nichols and Henry could come up with for talking dolphins was a plot to blow up the President--even if it was Nixon--then they should have probably made another movie.

**I will always remember a PBS special on dolphins, hosted by Robin Williams. His first encounter with dolphins in open water, he was enthusiastic to bond, and reached out to one of them, only to get thumped by the other, protective dolphin. He went to a research institute where dolphin behavior was studied, and as he was walking around the tank with a rep, a dolphin poked his head out of the water and watched Williams, who went into "perform" mode and became quite manic, which delighted the dolphin. The scene went on for some time, with Williams and the dolphin playing at each other on a basic level, Williams running from one part of the tank to the other, the dolphin following--the two spinning in place, both fascinated with their play-mate. Finally, Williams was told "we're going to another location," and regretfully left, leaving the dolphin leaning its head out of the tank watching him leave, practically love-sick at his new "friend."

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