Melvin and Howard

Melvin and Howard is one of the finest movies of the ’80s, or of any decade. It’s the true story of Melvin Dummar (Paul LeMat), a dreamer and aspiring songwriter who picked up a scraggly bum (Jason Robards) while tooling along a desert highway one night. The bum turned out to be Howard Hughes — Robards, making the most of his limited screen time, has a quiet triumph when he intones, with utter conviction, “I’m Howard Hughes” — and Melvin became an overnight celebrity when he came forward with a will that apparently left him $176 million of Hughes’ estate.

The will was rejected by a jury, and Melvin went back to pumping gas. But Melvin and Howard is only peripherally about that will. Mostly, it’s interested in the various stages of Melvin’s life, from his first marriage to the aftermath of all the controversy. Above all, it’s a sympathetic treatment of everything naïve and hopeful in the loser-dreamers of America: evidence suggests that Melvin falsified the will, but we come away from the movie not caring much, because he’s presented as such a gentle and good man. (The film isn’t finally about what really happened to Melvin; it’s about the idea of such a thing happening to somebody like him.)

Melvin and Howard has some great, reverberant moments. There’s Melvin cajoling Hughes into singing — first his own song, then “Bye Bye Blackbird.” There’s Melvin watching his first wife (Mary Steenburgen in a justifiably Oscar-winning performance) perform on a TV game show, his expression one of pure love and admiration even as the crowd boos her — the scene rivals in emotional impact the moment in Citizen Kane when Charles Foster Kane manically, defiantly applauds his talentless wife when no one else does.

Paul LeMat, however, is neither defiant nor manic — he’s a kind-hearted good ol’ boy who accepts anything that rolls his way. (It’s a crime that his career went more or less nowhere after this film.) And director Jonathan Demme, one of our most easygoing and affectionate filmmakers, respects Melvin’s hands-in-pockets outlook. Demme settles down in the living room and enjoys the company of the characters. It’s easy to forget that the man who made The Silence of the Lambs used to be a laid-back master of relaxed character observation. Melvin and Howard links to the later thriller in an odd way: The central character’s life is changed by a brief encounter with a notorious man, played by a great actor in a bare minimum of screen time yet haunting the entire film with his presence. Demme’s frequent cinematographer Tak Fujimoto knocks us out right off the bat with a magnificent shot of Hughes riding his motorcycle across a lonely stretch of desert. The whole movie spins off of that joie-de-vivre shot.

The key to Melvin and Howard comes at the end, when Melvin admits he knew he wouldn’t get the inheritance but doesn’t mind, because, in his words, “Howard Hughes sang Melvin Dummar’s song — ‘Santa’s Souped-Up Sleigh.'” He did indeed — or, if he didn’t, the movie makes you believe he did.

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