Michael Ritchie’s Smile is a gentle, low-simmering satire of that most American of absurdities, the beauty pageant. It was released a few months after Robert Altman’s Nashville, and the films share some virtues: the overheard dialogue, the revealing banalities, the sly, soft pokes at homegrown pomp. Smile isn’t as populous or as richly ad-libbed, but it has a similar dismayed affection for the hollow people caught in a communal delusion.
The setting is Santa Rosa, California, home of the Young American Miss pageant. Eager girls come from all around the state, displaying more verve than talent. The coordinator (Barbara Feldon), a former Young American Miss herself, herds the girls into groups; a has-been choreographer (Michael Kidd) tries half-heartedly to drill some decent dance form into them. Most of the adult professionals pitching in for the ceremony are stymied by the hapless girls — during a rehearsal, we hear a member of the orchestra snark “I went to Juilliard for this?” “We all went to Juilliard,” someone responds.
Smile really finds its groove outside the pageant rituals. Bruce Dern, in a real change-of-pace role at the time, is great as a suave RV dealer who’ll be one of the judges. His best buddy (Nicholas Pryor in a desperately funny completely non-comic performance — which makes more sense once you’ve seen it) is a swiftly unraveling drunk, miserably married to (and ignored by) the pageant coordinator. There’s a shot of Pryor staring forlornly into a freezer filled with TV dinners; women’s lib hasn’t fully infiltrated this small town, and it hasn’t occurred to this “neglected” husband that maybe he should learn to cook for himself. At the same time, we can imagine that he was once dazzled by his beauty-pageant-winning wife, before he got to know the demands of the life she chose. Ritchie and screenwriter Jerry Belson sympathize with him without quite endorsing his madness. That goes for everyone else in the film.
Dern’s son is caught with a Polaroid camera outside the girls’ dressing room. The kid is sent to a shrink, but there’s no follow-up; we deduce that the shrink probably figures it’s normal behavior for a horny teenager and lets him slide. Besides, the kid is no more abnormal than all the adults rigging this blowsy, glittery, expensive tribute to teenage girls’ bodies. The girls are clumsy, physically hopeless outside of their specific “talent” sets (one girl packs a suitcase as her “talent”; another, a Mexican-American, stages an obnoxious ode to both cultures). How, exactly, are the girls being judged? By how well they can fake devotion to small-town ideals, I guess. Talent, even looks, seem to have little to do with it. Everyone in the film talks about “inner beauty.” Nobody seems to agree on what that is.
An oddity of Smile is that we follow a few of the girls — chiefly Robin (Joan Prather) and Doria (Annette O’Toole) — yet the movie isn’t structured for suspense; the big awards go to girls we’ve hardly met. The breakout star here should’ve been Annette O’Toole, that beautifully alive actress who has deserved a far better career; in recent years she has been confined mainly to television, most recently on Smallville. If Smile had been a bigger hit, O’Toole might’ve had a fairer shot. Yet the biggest star to emerge from the film wasn’t O’Toole or Joan Prather, but Melanie Griffith, who’s hardly in it. A good deal of Smile isn’t laugh-out-loud funny. “It sneaks up on you,” says Nicholas Pryor about alcoholism. So does the movie, which plays funnier in toto and in retrospect. It’s a group portrait of a specific time and place, and, like Nashville, it absolutely could only have been financed in the mid-’70s.