The “Rafferty” of today’s film title is an ex-Marine gunnery sergeant (Alan Arkin) who’s eking out a tol’able living as a driving school instructor. He’s miserable both at work and at play; the movie begins with Rafferty attending a raucous Veteran of Foreign Wars affair where he eventually passes out from too much to drink…and the next day, lunching at Griffin Park, he indulges in a similar hobby, swigging heavily from a bottle of bourbon.
It’s in the park that our hero makes the acquaintance of two young women: one of them is Mackinley Beachwood (Sally Kellerman)—a Tucson, Arizona native who answers to “Mac”—and the other identifies herself only as “Frisbee” (Mackenzie Phillips—though we will later learn the age of her character is fifteen and her real name is “Rita Sykes”). Mac and Frisbee ask “Gunny” (they soon adopt his Marine nickname) if he’ll give them a lift into downtown Hollywood, and the affable Rafferty complies.
Rafferty is about to let the ladies out at a corner when Frisbee produces a pistol and points it at his temple. She demands that he take both of them to N’awlins; she explains her father owns a nightclub there and she’s going to get Mac a job. Thus begins a saga of life on the road with our Unholy Trio, in which various misadventures and shenanigans occur as Rafferty and the Gold Dust Twins (1975) meanders toward a somewhat bittersweet ending.
There’s a curious story to tell about my viewing of this film: it began in 1977, when NBC-TV premiered it as Rafferty and the Highway Hustlers. (The title was changed because it was felt the original moniker depicted narcotic implications…but all “Gold Dust Twins” reminds me of are those racist ads for Fairbank’s Gold Dust Washing Powder—featuring the African-American twin stereotypes “Goldie” and “Dusty”—that were published in various mass media for nearly sixty years beginning in 1892.) I remember the network publicized the movie heavily because of Phillips’ exposure on One Day at a Time at the time—I started watching it, but for unknown reasons couldn’t remember anything that happened after the first twenty minutes. I don’t know if it was because I was bored, or because I didn’t understand it…or I could have even fallen asleep during the presentation, who’s to say?
I saw Rafferty on the Summer Under the Stars schedule of The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ on August 22, the day they were feting Alan Arkin with some of his feature films. Now…I need to phrase this very carefully…Alan Arkin appeared in a number of not-so-very-good films. (If you don’t believe me, sit down with Chu Chu and the Philly Flash sometime.) But I’ve never seen Arkin give a bad performance in a movie, no matter how terrible the overall product is—so I made a mental note to program the DVR to capture Rafferty and a few other goodies (I know Full Moon High is an iffy comedy, but Alan is funny in it…and it’s been ages since I’ve seen Simon, which ran on HBO during my senior year of high school like tap water).
I suspected Rafferty wasn’t going to be all that good, and I suppose I should be thankful that my expectations were suitably low. There are some who disagree with me; the legendary Pauline Kael raved in The New Yorker: “It sneaks up on you—you discover it, like a ‘sleeper.’ I found it a funny, velvety film, with the kind of tenderness that you can almost feel on your fingertips. The picture isn’t directed for straightforward excitement; it’s a sidewise vision.” (Note that Ms. Kael uses “velvety” in her tribute…which is only a short distance away from “Velveeta.”)
No, Rafferty is not worth the lavish praise Pauline bestows upon it…but Arkin does give the best performance in the film. He plays Rafferty—a man with a dead-end existence in desperate need of a life preserver (the film’s memorable tag: “Rafferty wasn’t going anywhere, anyway”)—with absolute deadpan perfection. There’s a sequence in Rafferty where the three travelers wind up in a redneck bar in Mac’s hometown of Tucson, and Rafferty watches Mac—with whom he’s developed a romantic interest—as she sidles up to the lead singer of the bar band with a “What-in-the-hell-am-I-doing-here?” expression. I know that look…I used to sport it all the time, usually around 3 a.m. during my wilder days of pub crawling. Arkin was not the first choice for the part, by the way; Jack Nicholson was scheduled to star (perhaps wanting to duplicate his success in The Last Detail) but had to bow out due to other commitments.
I think Nicholson would have acquitted himself well, but losing Arkin would have been a blow; only he could have pulled off this hilarious dialogue exchange when Rafferty first meets Mac and “Fris” in the park:
MAC: Whatcha got there?
MAC: A little early to be drinkin’, ain’t it?
RAFFERTY: Not if you’re thirsty…
Kellerman’s free-spirited character reminded me a lot of a role she had in a similar “on-the-road” comedy, Slither (1973)—though I thought she was a lot funnier in that one (particularly her ruminations on “flying saucers”). Both Slither and Rafferty and the Gold Dust Twins came about at a time when it seemed as if they couldn’t make enough movies about folks having wacky adventures on the road; the year before Rafferty’s release saw three such films in Macon County Line (which I finally got around to seeing the other night), Harry and Tonto, and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (the best of that bunch).
Rafferty actually began production in late December of 1973 and wrapped in February the following year…but it sat on the shelf at Warner Bros for a year before being released to critical acclaim and modest box office success. That probably explains why Mackenzie Phillips looks about the same as she did in American Graffiti (she was cast in Rafferty to capitalize on the big success of that film), and why her highlight in Rafferty is the sequence where she tries to hustle an Army private played by Graffiti actor Charles Martin Smith. I always liked Mackenzie on One Day at a Time (I enjoyed her more than Valerie Bertinelli, who was too much of a goody-two-shoes) but her Rafferty character is a bit much to take at times. She’s sullen and disagreeable the entire trip (well, she does buy “Gunny” a Stetson hat with the money she stole from Martin Smith) and I’m guessing screenwriter John Kaye (who later penned one of my favorite not-available-on-DVD movies, American Hot Wax) was expecting us to sympathize with her because of her runaway orphan status. (“Frisbee” might have been more likable if we were presented with more of her backstory before she starts pointing a pistola at Rafferty.)
In addition to a great Arkin performance, the supporting cast in Rafferty and the Gold Dust Twins rises to the occasion: the late Alex Rocco is aces as a Vegas denizen who’s the dictionary definition of “loser” (he takes the traveling trio to dinner and is then forced to start a fire in the restaurant to avoid paying the check), and Harry Dean Stanton turns up in the latter part of the movie as a former friend of Kellerman’s who makes the mistake of hitting on Phillips at the bar. There are also contributions from John McLiam, Arch Johnson, Ed Peck, and Lillian Randolph (as the elderly black woman who takes her driving test for a third time under Arkin’s supervision), plus the movie features a nostalgic wallow in Las Vegas (where Louis Prima, Sam Butera and The Witnesses are headlining in a seedy casino) before the modern-day Gomorrah was transformed into a theme park.