There are two types of family traditions in this world. The first is the long-standing cultural tradition, the kind that millions of families perform across the world – carving the turkey on Thanksgiving, for example, or holding the Easter egg hunt after breakfast. The second is a bit stranger: these are the purely idiosyncratic traditions, which exist solely within a certain family. The origins of these traditions vary – sometimes they’re built on a joke, sometimes they’re founded in necessity – and as often as not, no one within that family can even remember how they started. Yet they can easily become just as ingrained and beloved as the universal traditions, if not moreso.
Such is the case with my family’s New Years Day tradition, in which the entire family would gather, usually around one in the afternoon, to fall asleep on the sofas watching the live-action POPEYE movie. Or did your family do that too?
POPEYE is a film simultaneously ahead of its time, and which would never be made today. On the one hand, it presages today’s cinematic climate, in which seemingly every other major motion picture is a live-action adaptation of a fondly-remembered childhood property, no matter how obtuse. Yet it’s also an artifact of a time in which the makers of such films actually gave a shit. The murderer’s row of grossly overqualified talent behind the film begins with director Robert Altman, whose famously shaggy, improvisational style is a perfect fit for both the original Popeye comic strips (which would fill every frame with peripheral action) and cartoons (which would give voice actor Billy Costello free reign to constantly ad-lib over the action). Script duties are handled by famed underground cartoonist Jules Feiffer; while it’s anyone’s guess how much of any given screenplay reaches the final cut of an Altman film, hiring someone so undoubtedly familiar with the source material is a masterfully canny choice. The catchy, lilting songs are penned by Harry Nilsson at his most whimsical, with cotton-candy arrangements by Van Dyke Parks. And the whole project was masterminded by ‘70s power producer Robert Evans, who gave the world such iconic classics as THE GODFATHER and CHINATOWN (and did he write the most entertainingly unhinged Hollywood memoir in recent memory? You bet your ass he did).
But the most famous aspect of Altman’s POPEYE (and, bittersweetly, the reason it’s screening at the Brattle tonight) are its two leads. Shelley Duvall was seemingly grown in a dish to play Olive Oyl, her wild eyes and flailing limbs seemingly taken straight off the page (even her second most beloved performance, Wendy Torrence in THE SHINING, is functionally the same character). Then, of course, there’s the titular sailor-man, played by the late Robin Williams. POPEYE was Williams’ first leading film role (following his star-making turn as TV’s Mork), and in many ways it’s the perfect vehicle for his particular set of skills: where his constant improvisation could occasionally serve as a distraction in some of his lesser films, it’s pretty much essential to Popeye as a character. Indeed POPEYE is possibly the only role Williams completely disappeared into. In all of Williams’ other great films – from JUMANJI and ALADDIN to GOOD WILL HUNTING and DEAD POETS SOCIETY – the comedian played up different aspects of his own persona. In POPEYE, Williams became Popeye, right down to the squinky eye.
All of this is to say: when I first heard Robin Williams died, I took a customary scroll through his IMDb to reflect on his many roles. It’s a formidable list, to be sure, but it wasn’t until I got to POPEYE that I actually gasped. I feel like a lot of people had a similar moment upon hearing the news; that so many of them had it over different movies is a testament to the man’s career.
So long, Robin. See you on New Years.
POPEYE (1980) dir. Robert Altman
Part of the ongoing series A TRIBUTE TO ROBIN WILLIAMS
Brattle Theatre (40 Brattle St, Cambridge, MA 02138)