…a.k.a.: First, You Drip.
By Paul Mavis
Last month we lost Cloris Leachman, and while her final notices rightfully highlighted such triumphs as her Oscar-winning role in The Last Picture Show, cool made-for-TV outings like Dying Room Only, and her stints on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and her own spin-off, Phyllis…that’s not how we do things here at Drunk TV. When someone kicks off, anyone can sing an actor’s praises by looking only at their successes. We, on the other hand, crave the career disappointments, the failures, the flops, and the downright embarrassments. Therein lies the true riches of a performer’s oeuvre.
…such as Cloris Leachman getting the clap. Directed by actor Lou Antonio and scripted by James S. Henerson, Someone I Touched (of course they cracked up when they first saw that on the script cover), an original ABC Wednesday Movie of the Week, first aired on February 26th, 1975, with Leachman and costars James Olson, Glynnis O’Connor, Andrew “Scorpio” Robinson, Allyn Ann McLerie, Lenka Peterson, Peggy Feury, Fred Sadoff, Les Lannom, and Kenneth Mars. So let’s drop trou and see if we can’t get a closer look at what’s going on down there….
Life is good in 1975 Southern California. If you’re well-endowed grocery clerk Carrie (Glynnis O’Connor), you can play volleyball on the beach with your friends, and sleep with a lot of guys because mommy doesn’t love you enough, and daddy didn’t hug you enough. If you’re an overworked, sexually-blocked neurotic children’s book editor like Laura Hyatt (Cloris Leachman), you get a nice big house and a pool and your own sweet 2-door luxury Ford sedan and a fit, trim husband (James Olson), who left you 2 years before when you miscarried and who now wants sex when you don’t. Oh…and everyone has “the gift that keeps on giving.”
You see, county health department officer Frank Berlin (Andy Robinson) lets poor little Carrie (well…not so little in that bikini top) know that her job screening came back with a Stage 1 syphilis diagnosis. He needs the names of all her sexual partners from the last six months (to which she demurely replies, “Oh wow!”). Sounds like this could take awhile.
One of her partners was, you guessed it, Sam Hyatt, and guess what else: Laura’s pregnant. Now, Frank is quick to assure everyone that Stage 1 syphilis isn’t a problem…unless you’re pregnant. So Sam tries to weasel his way out of confronting his wife by going to her OBGYN (Peggy Feury), who’s having none of his middle-life crisis face-saving bullsh*t. After figuratively flaying open his manhood, she tells him he’ll have to tell his wife…or she will.
And when he does…hoo boy! Laura is done with him, but she still won’t be going back for another tryst with her boss, passively manipulative publisher Paul Wrightwood (Kenneth Mars). And Carrie…well, she’s in a real spot, after telling her angry, frustrated mother (Lenka Peterson) that she has Cupid’s itch (for being honest, she’s slapped around pretty good by ‘ol Mom). Only when the real truth is revealed can everyone’s healing (ouch) begin….
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When Someone I Touched premiered back in the winter of 1975, Cloris Leachman was probably at the absolute peak of her celebrity and audience exposure. After having toiled, to little advancement, in movies and television in the 1950s and 1960s, she somehow managed to land a 1-2 punch in quick succession, appearing first as a recurring character on the highly-rated CBS sitcom, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and then scoring an Best Supporting Actress Oscar for 1971’s The Last Picture Show. What was always strange about her career after that Oscar win was her decision to stay on the sitcom—a situation that no doubt cost her higher-profile movie gigs…while making what had to be an awkward- at-best situation at her “day job.” During that period, television was still considered decidedly “low rent” compared to motion pictures, at least in terms of celebrity status. Newly-anointed Oscar-winners went for big paydays on the silver screen, not weekly TV chump change in a strictly supporting role.
So…a whole slew of made-for-TV movies (I counted 11 inbetween 1971 and 1975) and one-off bits on episodic TV, along with some scattered big screen roles (the excellent Dillinger and the hysterical Young Frankenstein…and the not-so-excellent Daisy Miller and the not-so-hysterical Disney outing, Charley and the Angel), filled her years up to 1975. By that point, Leachman had wangled her way into headlining her own sitcom, Phyllis, and booked four TV movies and one drive-in exploiter (the notorious Crazy Mama) for the year. Leachman had it made that year, with Phyllis the sixth most popular show on TV and her bank balance ballooning with all those MTV checks.
Unfortunately, the death of three actors on the show and a disastrous format change killed off Phyllis‘s audience by its second and last season, and in Hollywood, if you’re headlining a loser, the stink sticks to you. The “heat” was officially off Leachman, and almost immediately her movie and TV output was drastically cut back (accelerated by the decline in the number of TV movies produced, particularly over at ABC, where three nights of MTVs had oversaturated the market). Leachman’s days as a headliner, coming relatively late in her long, long career, were over.
Still…it beats getting the morning drip. It’s easy to assume that Someone I Touched is going to be a complete sh*tshow when the theme song—yes…there’s a theme song—cranks up over the opening credits. With lyrics that, taken in the movie’s context, produce giggles, not contemplative emotions (when I hear, “Yes everything dies but this feeling…gentle, warm everytime,” I’m quick to note that pissing red-hot razor blades is not “gentle and warm,”), the theme song to Someone I Touched would be bad enough, if the producers hadn’t allowed Leachman to perform the number (what a “vanity project” move). Singing in a low, torchy warble that in no way covers the fact that she can’t sing the blues (she sounds like she’s just about to nod out with that needle in her arm…), Leachman’s inadvertently humorous stylistics only sets us up to ridicule this movie—all around not the best way to begin a serious discussion of VD.
After that ding dong, I’d like to think Someone I Touched is all a rather elaborate parody from Antonio and Henerson, particularly when you spot all the funny little inside jokes in the script and mise-en-scene. When Leachman is lounging poolside, Antonio strategically places a blow-up black swan pool toy so it looks like it’s repeatedly bobbing at her pox-riddled box (if intentional: the single most brilliant bit of cinematic foreshadowing I’ve ever seen). The supermarket P.A. announces sales on melons and navel oranges as Olson gets his “Chicken in a Biscuit” crackers and sideways ogles O’Connor. Glynnis O’Connor drives, what else, a VW Beetle (the original “love bug”), and best of all, the character in the children’s book Leachman is editing is called “Pecksniff” (one assumes ABC made them ditch the dividing “er”). Goofs like that abound in the movie.
And certainly the sometimes ham-handed dramatics and characterizations scream “70s MTV,” not that that’s in any way a bad thing…but laughter is certainly expected. Andy Robinson’s character is the most ludicrous, an L.A. county health department agent with loads and loads of time to spend on just these two people, popping in repeatedly during their busy days to reel off some ABC After School Special stats, before veering schizophrenically off course, first gently reassuring someone their anonymity is sacrosanct…before threatening them with exposure if they don’t tell him everything (it’s an inadvertently hilarious performance, thanks to the script and Robinson’s past screen image as one of the 70s’ superlative psychos).
Despite all that (and against all logic)…there are surprisingly good moments and scenes in Someone I Touched. This may be Cloris Leachman’s project, but Glynnis O’Connor and her real-life mother, Lenka Peterson, walk away with it. Back in the 70s, O’Connor had a knack for projecting a confused, anxious teen sensibility (the marvelous The Boy in the Plastic Bubble), and she does precisely that (and does it well) here, in a believable, even touching way. When she tries to do what Olson doesn’t have the guts to do—inform her sexual partners of the diagnosis—she’s humiliated by a previous pick-up (a slimy Granville Van Dusen, who leers, “Give me a ring when you’re back in action,”). Her tentative revelation scene with her mother is rather stark in its plaintive emotions; we may have thought O’Connor was some kind of carefree beach babe in that opening scene, but here we realize how difficult her life has been with her angry, frustrated mother—a distant, sarcastic, even violent figure whom the child must ask (because O’Connor still doesn’t know, after all those years), “Mom…what do you think of me? Are you proud of me? Or ashamed?” Maybe Someone I Touched would have fared better had it looked only at O’Connor’s story.
There are hints of a more complex rendering of infidelity and its consequences in Leachman’s and Olson’s storyline, but those brief insights are left largely unexplored as Someone I Touched moves towards a decidedly one-sided wrap-up. Olson’s character is spared no quarter in being frequently shown as a self-absorbed, insensitive bore. We learn he left his wife after a miscarriage (but they leave it hazy as to the exact reason for splitting). Once informed of his disease, he doesn’t have the guts to face either O’Connor at the supermarket, nor (initially) his wife, trying to get Leachman’s doctor to do a blood test on the sly.
Peggy Feury, in a small but marvelous part as the doctor, completely sees through him, telling it straight when she says his “concern” for his wife is really just avoidance of an unpleasant (to say the least) scene at home. She further skewers his sense of injury by saying she sees this situation all the time, with middle-aged men like himself “pumping up their sagging masculinity” with young girls. There’s also a fine, angry scene where Olson tries to confess what he has to Leachman, who is fed up with his controlling nature (she notes how he made her wait for children, and how he’s always the one to decide when they should argue).
Leachman’s character isn’t a saint, either. She admits to her husband that she’s “unreliable” in bed, a notion he dismisses out of kindness, before she re-labels herself, “unpredictable.” When she does allow her husband to have sex with her, the dialogue implied it’s only when she’s fertile (he angrily responds, “And just for once, make love for the hell of it!”). Organized to the point of distraction, she can’t even respond to her husband’s passion when she makes him a gourmet meal, when she plans on telling him she’s pregnant; instead of going with the moment, she insists they wait until after the meal (what fun). And when Olson tries to explain when he was unfaithful (fear of impending old age, death), she laughs at him—not the most compassionate response to someone you love who’s in pain.
However, when Someone I Touched‘s surprise twist comes MAJOR SPOILERS!, and we learn that not only did Leachman have an affair with her boss, but that she’s the one who gave her husband the French malady with her own leaky faucet, well…she doesn’t really have to pay for that at all. During the entire run time, Olson has been the “bad guy” for his cheating behavior and for believing he gave his wife syphilis. And he’s made to suffer for that. But when we find out (in the last minutes of the movie) that it was Leachman’s infidelity (Olson isn’t allowed to laugh at her reasons for cheating) that led to Olson’s—and then O’Connor’s—infection, she gets off relatively scot-free.
After Mars tells Leachman he gave her the infection, Leachman hilariously ponders, “I want to understand why I feel so guilty,” Here’s a hint, you phoney: you cheated on your husband and gave him the dose, and the whole time you’ve been blaming him for it. That’s why this suddenly incomprehensible guilt is upon you. Leachman’s distasteful pronouncement that their affair feels so “tacky,” now that its been sullied by syphilis, should tell you she wasn’t otherwise going to be ashamed of that affair.
And magnanimously admitting that her husband is “better” and more honest than either her or Mars doesn’t really help…if Leachman doesn’t tell Olson that to his face, which she doesn’t. She just drives to their house, and Olson sheepishly asks to come back home, which she…allows. No recriminations on her part, no apology, no shame (the movie’s selective 70s “hey, no one’s to blame for anything,” amorality only applies to Leachman’s character, apparently). At least in the fade-out, Olson finally finds the humanity to tell O’Connor that he infected her, not the other way around. At least he said the words Leachman couldn’t. Too bad Olson didn’t trade up to O’Connor.