FILM : This Unpolished 'Melvin' Is Anything but a Loser

Mark Chalon Smith is a free-lance writer who regularly covers film for The Times Orange

For those who don't remember, Melvin Dummar was the nice-guy nobody who claimed that Howard Hughes left him $156 million in the mysterious "Mormon will" that surfaced after the billionaire's death in 1976.

Hughes' largess, Dummar said, was inspired by the good vibes they shared during one serendipitous meeting. Dummar found the battered mogul in the desert, sang a few songs with him, male-bonded like crazy, then dropped him off in Las Vegas. Dummar didn't believe the "old wino" when he said he was Hughes, but Hughes believed in Dummar.

This chance encounter is what gets Jonathan Demme's "Melvin and Howard" going. The 1980 movie (showing Friday night at UC Irvine as part of the "Early Films by Acclaimed Directors" series) takes Dummar's wild and unsubstantiated story (the courts, by the way, ruled against the will's authenticity in 1978) as gospel and proceeds on its loopy way.

Demme and screenwriter Bo Goldman, who won an Academy Award for his script, don't really care if it's the truth or not. This is an opportunity to take a smiling look at that quintessence of Americana, the little guy getting by on the momentum generated by stubborn, maybe even foolhardy, optimism.

That's the thrust of Paul LeMat's Melvin. He's a loser who can't keep a job or get a break, but that doesn't stop him from thinking big. At heart, he's a songwriter. No matter that all he composes are stupid jingles with no chance of air time, the guy has high hopes.

So does his wife, Lynda. Played by the imaginative and endearing Mary Steenburgen, whose portrayal won a best supporting actress Oscar, Lynda is a go-getter in her own way.

She dreams of dancing, but the only gigs Lynda finds are in topless joints. Lynda and Melvin pass roughly through their ups and downs, but they seem so well-suited at the most basic level, cockeyed reflections of each other.

Jason Robards received an Academy Award nomination in the supporting actor category for his evocation of Hughes. It just goes to show you that a performance doesn't have to be long to be impressive. As Hughes, Robards is only on the screen for a handful of minutes at the film's start and end (this isn't really about Howard Hughes; he's just the catalyst), but it's a lyrically precise performance.

Demme's direction is just a tad messy, giving the picture a sense of events actually happening somewhere outside his control. "Melvin and Howard" isn't nearly as polished as Demme's later efforts, but the raggedness is suited to the curious subject matter.

County Edition.

What: Jonathan Demme's "Melvin and Howard."

When: Friday, May 29, at 7 and 9 p.m.

Where: UC Irvine's Student Center Crystal Cove Auditorium, Irvine.

Whereabouts: Take the San Diego (405) Freeway to Jamboree Road and head south. Go east on Campus Drive and take Bridge Road into the campus.

Wherewithal: $4.

Where to Call: (714) 856-6379.

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