“Smile… is such a pungent surprise, a rollicking satire that misses few of the obvious targets…” (Canby, par. 2)
The 1970’s was a great time for the social satire film genre. Historically, the era came when a whole new generation was beginning to question the status quo established in America since World War II had ended. Social movements were gaining ground, not the least of which was the second wave feminist movement that began in the late 1960’s.
To me, the film Smile (1975) is a social parody that takes on an important issue of the women’s movement (beauty contests), exposing its warts and absurdities. The film is about the fake and oppressive ideals behind beauty pageants, especially for young women. Vincent Carby, in his New York Times review claims the film is “an especially American kind of social comedy in the way that great good humor sometimes is used to reveal unpleasant facts instead of burying them” (par. 2). Smile does exactly this.
Photo Credit: Women’s Liberation March from Farrugut Square to Lafayette Park in Washington, D.C., August 26, 1970, Warren K. Leffler, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division: Flickr upload bot/ Wikimedia Commons/PD U.S. News & World Report
Understanding the controversy surrounding beauty contests brought about by radical feminist groups within the feminist movement can make us appreciate this film even beyond its entertainment value. Ellen Keim, in her article “Second Wave Feminists and Sex Appeal” reminds us that “on Sept. 7, 1968, 150 women protested the Miss America pageant in Atlantic City” (par. 1). This was the infamous “bra-burning” protest where feminist marched in protest of beauty pageants in general and the way they “[reduced] women to objects and [reflected] patriarchal society’s emphasis on physical beauty and consumerism” (Napikoski, par. 4). Linda Napkioski’s article gels with many of the points Smile hits. But the film isn’t entirely a political statement, as it balances both entertainment and politics in a way that doesn’t become too hyperbole or too stereotypical.
Tantamount to feminists’ objections to these contests was simply that “beauty pageants exploit women” (Keim, par. 1). Pageants put women on display with every competition as sexual objects while hypocritically trying to project a wholesome and clean image of “The All-American Girl” (whoever and whatever she is…). The girls competing in the film’s Young American Miss competition are constantly told, with nauseating vivaciousness, to “keep smiling!” Those who are the most aggressively competitive stick with that dictum even off-stage. For example, a Mexican-American competitor, Maria (played by Maria O’Brian) doesn’t let up on her perfect smile even when she’s with the other girls and it’s only when two competitors sabotage her act in the talent competition do we really see her lose it (and only then it’s backstage, away from the judges’ eyes). The girls in the film, like those in beauty pageants, are “judged on [their] beauty as physical [specimens], like [animals] paraded down the runway at the county fair” (Napikoski, par. 6). To hammer in their point, the women at the 1968 protest put a crown on a sheep and displayed it in their protest.
Beauty pageants, according to the feminists, also emphasize that the value of a woman lies in her appearance, in the way she is judged as beautiful or lacking of beauty by an outside (mainly patriarchal) world. Nobody in the film embodies this more than the pageant coordinator, Brenda DiCarlo (played by Barbara Feldon), “a pretty, silly, edgy woman…” (Canby, par. 8). Like Elain in 1989’s Miss Firecracker (a film I discuss here), she is a former beauty contest winner and her entire life has revolved around maintaining the mystique of the wonderful life this crown brings. But like Elain, her life is anything but wonderful and this film reveals the cracks in the façade in a much more brutal way. For example, Brenda’s marriage to Andy (Nicholas Pryor) is falling apart at the seams as Andy is slowly losing his sanity trying to maintain the façade she has dictated. His wife is so engrossed in making the pageant a success (and making herself look good) that she ignores his cries for help. As Leslie Coffin, in the article “Overlooked Gem: Smile (1975)” points out, “Brenda… could care less about [her husband’s] state of mind, concerned only with the appearance of their marriage” (par. 3). Even when Andy completely falls apart and takes a few shots at his wife, she shows up to the final night of the pageant with her arm in a sling, making excuses but still saccharine cheerful, and, of course, always smiling.
The film also makes fun of the people really behind these pageants – men, particularly privileged white men, something feminists were very much aware of:
“Women’s liberation recognized that the historical power structures of society gave a privileged place to white males, at the expense of all other groups. The women who protested at the Miss America pageant viewed the parading and judging of women according to traditional standards of ‘femininity’ or ‘beauty’ as another example of male supremacy.” (Napikoski, par. 11)
In Smile, the biggest supporter of the pageant is “Big” Bob (played to perfection by Bruce Dern). He is the epitome of American positivism, a pillar of the community to whom everyone looks towards as a role model for themselves and their sons (the fact that his own son doesn’t quite measure up to the ideal is another matter). As Ken Anderson describes him in this article, “[r]elentlessly cheerful, optimistic, and a firm believer that a little hard work will make everything OK, [he] is essentially America as it liked to imagine itself to be before Watergate” (par. 9). But Big Bob’s “get over it” attitude towards the more painful sides of life begins to crumble just as the novelty of perfection wears off for the girls in the pageant. So, “in the course of this particular pageant, [he] begins to lose the smile that, until now, he had been convinced was making America great” (Canby, par. 7). Feminist of the second wave movement knew more than anyone the facade of perfection for women ultimately oppressed not only women but men too.
The film Smile didn’t make a big hit at the box office (some suggest that this might be because it was overshadowed by another satire, Nashville, that came out that same year) but it’s definitely worth a look, especially when we contextualize it within the 1970’s women’s liberation movement. I’m inclined to see it as Canby describes Middle America: “[sitting] there like someone on a giant billboard, wearing an ear-to-ear grin, the eyes sparkling in anticipation of achieving some new plateau of pleasure, waiting to be defaced by anyone who has the price of a can of spray paint.” (par. 1).
Anderson, Ken. “Smile 1975”. Web blog post. Dreams Are What Le Cinema Is For…. Blogspot. 30 March 2012. Web. 30 August 2017
Canby, Vincent. “Smile”. The New York Times. The New York Times Company, 2017. 9 October 1975. Web. 30 August 2017
Coffin, Leslie. “Overlooked Gems: Smile 1975)”. Pretty Clever Films. Pretty Clever Films, 2017. 14 November 2013. Web. 30 August 2017.
Keim, Ellen. “Second Wave Feminists and Sexual Appeal”. Web blog post. Femagination. WordPress. 13 October 2008. Web. 30 August 2017
Napikoski, Linda. “What’s Wrong With Beauty Pageants?” ThoughtsCo. Dotdash. 13 August 2016. Web. 30 August 2017.