Saturday, January 20, 2007

Films of Michael Caine #49: Sweet Liberty

Cast: Alan Alda (Michael Burgess), Michael Caine (Elliott James), Michelle Pfeiffer (Faith Healy), Bob Hoskins (Stanley Gould), Lise Hilboldt (Gretchen Carlsen), Lillian Gish (Cecelia Burgess), Saul Rubinek (Bo Hodges), Lois Chiles (Leslie), Linda Thorson (Grace).

Crew: Alan Alda (director), Martin Bregman (producer), Alan Alda (writer), Bruce Broughton (music), Frank Tidy (cinematography), Michael Economu (editor), Ben Edwards (production design).

Synopsis: Michael Burgess is a history professor at a college in the small town of Sayeville. His prize-winning book about the American War of Independence is being turned into a Hollywood film. Michael is dating another professor, Gretchen Carlsen, but she doesn’t want to live with him and he doesn’t want to get married. The cast and crew arrives in town to begin shooting. Michael is horrified when he reads the script adapted from his book. Screenwriter Stanley Gould has turned historical fact into low-brow comedy. Stanley begs Michael to help him rewrite the script. The historian is smitten by lead actress Faith Healy, mistaking her method acting as her true personality.

Michael and Gretchen split up. Stanley and Michael feed their rewrites directly to Faith and the leading man, self-destructive womaniser Elliott James. They persuade the director to use the rewrites. Michael sleeps with Faith. He is shocked when she seduces Elliott to improve their on-screen chemistry. Frustrated with the director’s disregard for history, Michael leads the local people employed as extras in a mutiny, destroying a $300,000 day of filming. When the production leaves town, Michael and Gretchen get back together. Having learned to compromise, they decide to get married. At the film’s premiere, Gretchen is pregnant…


Alan Alda became an international star thanks to his role as Hawkeye Pierce in the long-running TV series M*A*S*H. When that concluded in 1983, he created a short-lived television show called The Four Seasons. Alda’s next project was the film Sweet Liberty (1986), which he wrote, directed and played the starring part . The role of conceited, arrogant film star Elliott James was written especially for Caine, as he told Films and Filming in 1986. ‘Alan Alda phones me up and said, “I’ve got just the part for you – a big-headed movie star.’ – how could I refuse?’

Caine had just finished filming Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) in New York. In 1987 he told the Scotsman newspaper both roles were chosen to prove his comedy skills. ‘I wanted to change my image … I could get plenty of leads as gangsters and spies and lunatics and nutcases or in dramatic pictures, but I couldn’t get a leading role in a comedy.’

Sweet Liberty was filmed in the summer of 1985, with extensive location work at Sag Habour and Suffolk County in the state of New York. The leading actors were given the use of palatial mansions in the expensive Hamptons resort during filming. The picture reunited Caine with Bob Hoskins. The pair met and became firm friends while making The Honorary Consul (1983) in Mexico.

Interviewed by Us magazine in 1990, Hoskins said Caine tormented him during the filming of Sweet Liberty. ‘I was setting up Mona Lisa (1986) at that point. And I really wanted him to play the villain in that, but … we couldn't afford him, really, so it would have been a big favour. And he kept saying, "I've got a script here, something called Mona Lisa - have you heard if it's any good?" And I'd just tell him to read it. I mean, I didn't want to say, "Yeah, it's great, you've got to do it!" He finally read it and said it wasn't bad. We … chatted about it and I thought, "Well, that's the end of that." Then on the first day of filming Mona Lisa, there he was: "You didn't think I'd be here, did you?”’

Sweet Liberty was released across America in May 1986, rated PG. Critics gave it mediocre notices and the picture grossed just over $14 million. In Britain the BBFC required two seconds to be cut before classifying as PG. Reviewers were unimpressed but praised the comic talents of Caine and Hoskins. The film was released on video in 1987 but has since been deleted. It is not yet available on DVD.

Reviews: ‘The movie wants to juggle a lot of characters all at once, but it keeps dropping the most interesting ones.’ – Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times
‘Alan Alda … is completely outshone by Michael Caine as a delightfully flippant English film star with a lecherous disposition and Bob Hoskins as a dim extrovert scriptwriter.’ – Daily Express

Verdict: Sweet Liberty could have been a good comedy, but a profusion of unfocused subplots restrict it to just occasionally amusing. Alda’s film keeps introducing new characters but never gives them room to develop. A subplot involving the elderly mother of Alda’s character seems to have wandered in from another movie altogether. There’s plenty of fun to be had from Hollywood invading a small town – David Mamet made more from the concept in State and Main (2000) – yet Alda never gets beyond the obvious. Caine has great fun in his part, romping around as a latter day Errol Flynn. But he gets too little screen time in a film that never succeeds in pulling all its threads together. Sweet Liberty is amiable and inoffensive, but nothing more.

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