Director Richard Rush began his career as a prolific director of quality exploitation, from his first film, the 1960 teen pregnancy drama "Too Soon to Love," to the 1968 hippie epic "Psych Out" (both of which featured the young Jack Nicholson), to the classic biker films "Hell's Angels on Wheels" and "The Savage Seven." In 1970, Rush got called up to the big leagues, when Columbia Pictures, hoping to duplicate the success of the previous year's "Easy Rider," hired Rush to make his first studio film. The suits wanted a motorcycle movie, but Rush wasn't interested. Instead, he was given a package deal: Ken Kolb's novel "Getting Straight," second generation Hollywood princess Candice Bergen, and, in the lead role, Elliot Gould.
At the time, Gould was in the midst of an incredible hot streak, seizing the moment when "unconventional" leading men were suddenly in vogue. In quick succession, Gould, theretofore best-known as Mr. Barbra Streisand, established himself with star-making turns as Ted in "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice" and Trapper John in "M*A*S*H." While those films were ensemble pieces, "Getting Straight" is all Elliott Gould all the time, as the actor appears in virtually every scene, giving a fully committed performance as Viet Nam vet turned master's candidate Harry Bailey.
As former Alamo Drafthouse and current Austin Film Society programmer Lars Nilsen so aptly put it when the film screened as part of the AFS "Rebel Rebel" series, "This is the Elliot Gould-iest movie ever made."
The source material, a youth culture cash-in paperback by veteran TV writer Kolb, was a bit thin, so Rush enlisted fellow AIP alum Robert Kaufman, fresh off the infamous 1968-69 sitcom "The Ugliest Girl in Town," to write the screenplay. With the "new permissiveness" in full swing, Kaufman managed to shoehorn a kitchen sink full of sexual and political buzzwords into the script. While much of the dialogue must have been shocking in 1970, it's more than a bit cartoonish now. Gould's character is given to much speechifying, and at times his rants reveal a stone-age take on gender politics that would make a women's studies major puke.
Unfortunately, there is a gaping hole at the center of the film, a yawning chasm of mediocrity, and its name is Candice Bergen. Although she would go on to give a creditable performance the following year in "Carnal Knowledge," at this point in her career, Bergen was still in her Barbie phase, a sun-bleached ingenue known for flat line readings and blank facial expressions. Rush campaigned to cast another actress in the part, but ultimately was stuck with Candy. There is sort of an anti-chemistry at work in the scenes between Bergen and Gould. He's in total Über-Gould mode, meanwhile she's grasping for straws in her limited bag of tricks (giddy laughter, artificial tears, the pout of a petulant adolescent, and the default blank expression). Given that the main character is such a chauvinist bully, a stronger female lead would have provided much-needed balance to the film.
The supporting cast is excellent, with the faculty represented by blacklist victim/acting guru Jeff Corey as the right-wing Professor Willhunt (a character name worthy of Terry Southern) and the great Cecil Kellaway as the benevolent Dr. Kasper. Among the students in rebellion are Robert F. Lyons ("The Todd Killings") as the perpetually stoned Nick, John Rubinstein ("Zachariah"), Jeannie Berlin ("The Heartbreak Kid"), and Max Julien ("The Mack"). Of special note is the character of Jake, played by an impossibly young Harrison Ford.
While there's no avoiding the fact that "Getting Straight" is strictly a period piece when viewed four and a half decades later, the film has aged far better than "The Strawberry Statement" and "R.P.M.," the other two campus revolt movies released by major studios that year. Rush's inventive direction, the brilliant camera work by Lazslo Kovacs, and Gould's gonzo tour-de-force puts the film on another level. At the AFS screening, Nilsen pointed out that "Getting Straight" was a hit, earning the modern-day equivalent of $100 million, making it the ninth-biggest grosser of 1970. That's pretty amazing, given the film's subversive take on the educational system, and overall anti-authoritarian message.
There's a moment in the film, after the riot squad has been called in to quell a student protest, when one of the police faces off against a hippie smart-ass. "Hey, piggy, piggy," the student taunts the cop. In most films, the next scene would feature the officer taking a billy club to the head of the hippie. Here, the kid gives the cop a flying dropkick and runs off unscathed.
Perhaps it was the movie's up-against-the-wall, anti-establishment attitude that scared off studios, and prevented Rush from making more films after "Getting Straight." While 1973's "Freebie and the Bean" and 1980's "The Stunt Man" were critical and popular successes, it would be another 14 years before Rush's final film to date, 1994's "The Color of Night" (starring Bruce Willis and his junk). Rush spent years in development hell on "Air America," a Viet Nam drama that was a victim of studio regime change, after which it became a Mel Gibson-Robert Downey Jr. buddy comedy. With another director attached.
Rush's work deserves more acclaim. While Quentin Tarantino, Richard Linklater, and other noted cineastes know what a daring and creative filmmaker he is, his work remains under-appreciated. On one hand, "Getting Straight" is a crazy quilt of counter-culture cliches, robbed of much of its impact by the passage of time. On the other, it is a film bursting with ideas, pushing the envelope of what was permissible at the time, and proof positive of Rush's skill as a filmmaker.