Rich Man, Poor Man (1976) Chapter 10

Once teenage dreamers, the three leads of “Rich Man, Poor Man” are about as adult as possible when Chapter 10 starts.  Peter Strauss is running for public office, supported in words, but not spirit, by his wife Susan Blakely, who has just miscarried, and Nick Nolte wants to leave the merchant marines to start a yacht charter business on the French Riviera.  For once, it’s Nick who seems the happiest of the lead characters, though that can always change quickly as the plot starts to come to its climax.

It’s 1962, Marseilles.  Nick and his buddy Herbert Jefferson are still technically tied to the merchant marines and thus the merciless and very childish hazing of muscular moron William Smith.  After enjoying two days away, they come back to two day’s worth of dirty dishes, cleaned up just in time for William Smith to dirty the whole kitchen again.  He’s s different kind of villain than any other in the movie.  The first was Ed Asner, an immigrant with crushed dreams that proved too heavy to bear, but not a bad man at heart.  Then there was Robert Reed, who deflowered the leading lady and has been playing puppeteer with the lives of the leads for decades, though not without their knowledge of agreement, a manipulative man who likes to enjoy power, but also does good with it.  William Smith is just a cartoon bully.  He looks like a cartoon villain and is written like one, so ridiculously evil that he’s not even worth enjoying as a character because you know he’ll get his miniseries comeuppance in a big way (though, not to ruin anything, it only partially happens here–we have to wait for “Rich Man, Poor Man Book II” to get the true end of his inane plotting).  He’s the prototype for a lot of miniseries villains to come, the main one being Adolph Hitler.  Even in the miniseries that are told from Hitler’s point of view, or try to imbibe the story with some semblance of German sympathy, Hitler is always the raving lunatic who will meet the bad end, so let him overact the hell out of his scenes because our leads will always end up just fine (well, except in “The Bunker,” where he is the lead).

In a truly grotesque piece of business that is handled with “Rich Man, Poor Man’s” usual flair for knowing exactly what to show and what not to show, William Smith follows his favorite target, Herbert Jefferson, into his cabin where he more than suggests they are going to have sex.  Herbert Jefferson tries to fight him off, but William Smith puts him in a choke hold and the camera pans down to his foot closing the door.  William Smith emerges smiling and sated when Nick Nolte sees him.  Nick goes to his friend, but we only HEAR him say, “it’s alright, I’m okay” and then Nick is in the dining room where we know he’s going to exact some sort of revenge.

He throws his drink in William Smith’s face and they agree to a rumble.  Nick was warned not to fight, lest someone recognize him from his past life as a boxer and remember the crime from which he’s running.  The two tussle with the rest of the crew watching and Nick actually knocks him out.  “I’ve seen that guy fight as Sunnyside Gardens,” one of the crew members says, right before William pulls a knife and jams it into Nick’s leg in a surprise attack.  Nick beats him to a bloody pulp.  No use being upset as they take William Smith off in a stretcher, looking like he’s lost an eye.  The character deserved it he was merely a plot device to bring Nick back to reality.  The captain doesn’t turn him into the French authorities, but he does tell him to leave ship in NYC, where the man who recognized him knows he can cash in on what he knows.

Back in New York, Peter has become a popular politician fighting against the corruption of the old guard, running for a state senate seat, but losing steam.  Wife Susan Blakely is a shellacked politician’s wife with a hairdo and wardrobe that bore even her.  His campaign manager, Van Johnson, has brought his wife along, played by the 1950s most questionable Oscar winner, Dorothy Malone.  She’s an old hand at surviving politics.  She has a dose of realism and a big drink for Susan (which has already started to become a problem for the latter).  Dorothy and Susan watch as Peter, Van and the others start to play politics every bit as hard as what he’s supposedly fighting.

While Dorothy and Susan are enjoying their drinks, a call comes in that Peter’s mother, Dorothy McGuire, is very ill.  “Damn it,” he curses, having to leave politics for his mother, who used to be the darling of his life but has turned into a petty annoyance (in truth, the character has been turned from a wonderfully-developed and understanding woman into a rather idiotic shrew, so it’s hard to work up a whole lot of sympathy).

As Nick’s boat steams into the New York harbor, one cannot help but notice a IMMENSE error.  The camera pans around the buildings and comes to rest on the Twin Towers at the World Trade Center.  Watching such a noticeable camera move is obviously a shock to anyone watching “Rich Man, Poor Man” after 2001 will obviously be startled by the gleaming towers, but that’s not the problem.  The problem is that it’s 1962, more than a decade before they were completed and years before they were even started!  That’s simply bad editing.  No one noticed that?

William Jefferson and Nick Nolte have to part, at least for now, their dreams of chartering yachts in France put on hold.  Nick returns to the fleabag where he had hidden out before shipping off to find out that Peter had stopped by looking for him.  “Want me to get him?” his friend asks.  “What I want, in this order, is a bottle, a blonde, something to eat and a newspaper,” Nick decides.  Nick realizes he’s been recognized on the boat and he’s told the mob guys are still after him, so Nick needs a gun.

Just as Nick is given the gun, Peter comes into the room, starting at the barrel of it.  It’s a hokey go-to-commercial moment that we will see over and over again in the ensuing years, and one that even daytime soap operas had down pat by 1976.  It would take nighttime soap operas to make a moment like that carry interest for an entire summer, rather than through a few minutes of advertising for cat chow and bleach alternatives.

The brothers have not seen each other in many years, and it may seem strange that a VIP like Peter Strauss, risking being caught in a seedy motel with his on-the-lam brother, a gun and a hooker (the blonde is still there), has to deliver the news about their mother in person, but that’s drama for you.  Peter simply drops the news about their mother’s condition amid all the squalor and the two drive upstate.  Nick is the chattier one, seemingly proud of his brother.  Peter is most happy to announce he’s “finally” married Susan.  They seem as different as, well, a rich man and a poor man, but even Peter takes a swig out of the bottle as they dash to face mom in the hospital.

Dorothy McGuire has made it through all of “Rich Man, Poor Man,” including the weird character transformation, and she certainly deserves the hospital deathbed scene you knew was coming the moment we heard she was sick.  It even starts with a priest, a monsignor, no less, having just administered last rights.  “She’s been holding on until you could get here,” he tells Peter.  The doctor isn’t even sure she can hear, but no actress is going to give up this chance!  She seems catatonic, clutching rosary beads, but then her hand twitches.  She speaks, incomprehensibly, asking for Peter, not realizing it’s her other son there with her.  “Is that you?” she asks him, slowly.  He pulls out a present he long ago promised her, a scarf with a Mediterranean map, lying a little and saying he already has his operation going and his son back with him.  She has a slow apology for short-changing him.  “I gave so much to [Peter], there wasn’t enough left over for you,” she says, no doubt sparking water works in millions of viewers.  “Try not to hate me,” she asks and then asks Nick to hold her as she finally dies.  It’s interesting to note that Peter has not been in the room the whole time.  It’s her wayward son, the one she discarded, who is with her as she breathes her last.  Nick acts the moment beautifully, quietly realizing the impact of the moment.

Susan is out in the hallway, not having seen Susan since her night with Robert Reed, but he can only handle so much emotion.  “Am I the only one who needs a drink around here?” he asks.  Robert Reed, sporting gray hair and a weird accent, weirder than before, is at the funeral.  He also hasn’t seen Susan or Nick since the night as his house.  “I hope we can get together, discuss old times,” he says like the cunning fox he is, but Susan is mature now.  “I’m really not one for discussing old times,” she retorts, pulling her hand away from his.  Peter is the only person there who doesn’t know the secrets that could still split them all.

However, Susan, in yet another turban, can’t help but remember the past and as Nick drinks heavily, he’s a little fuzzy on things.  Peter brings up the fact that Nick set the fire that fateful night at Robert’s place, asking him why he set the fire.  Luckily, the conversation steers clear of the exchanged glance Nick and Susan shared that night, but when a guest calls Peter away, Susan plays martyr and snaps at Nick, “now would be as good a time as any to tell him.”  “There’s nothing to tell.  Really.  Truth is, my eyes were so burned from that fire, everything is a blur,” he gallantly replies.  Susan has a panic attack and Nick comforts her, but one of Peter’s political cronies storms in with good news, though Peter seems oblivious to the fact that it’s a bad time; Nick and Susan clearly see the absurdity.

It’s a moment like the above that begs the question, once again, of just who is the rich man and who is the poor man?  On the surface, life has sucked for Nick, yet he’s always content, always able to deal with what life throws him, while Peter has boxed himself into a shrink-wrapped life that is rather unpleasant and entirely too clinical.  Unfortunately, the acting isn’t always consistent enough to completely power this question, but at least the writing realizes it.  A lot of bigger and grander miniseries will be coming that ask bigger and grander questions in far more stilted or laughable ways.  “Rich Man, Poor Man” yet again glosses over the truth with a light touch, just enough to make one aware that it has not spiraled into epic boredom, grasping to get to the end because it has to (take that “Scarlett”).

The brothers meet in the kitchen in the middle of the night and it’s the first time they use the title words to describe each other.  It turns out Nick is richer by almost $50K, a complete surprise to him.  You see, the last time they met, when Nick gave Peter the $3K he felt he owed Peter for Ed bailing him out of jail, Peter took the money and invested it.  It’s grown into piles of money, money Nick can use to finance the dream he had with Herbert Jefferson in France.

As Nick and Herbert depart, and after Nick says “I’m running out of people to hate,” finally aware that his brother has never been his enemy,” Peter promises to find Nick’s son for him.

On election night, the race is close, but it seems Peter is winning when of course more drama gets in the way.  Susan is at home, drunk as hell smashing her beloved photographic history with a hammer.  “I want to take you to bed,” Peter says, meaning put her to bed, but Susan has a different take on it.  “You won’t be the first, and if I play my cards right, you won’t be the last either!” she spits.  Miniseries mantra: when things seem good, they are about to go downhill quickly.  Susan is a crying mess when the press arrives at Peter’s house to announce he’s won the election.  It’s his most exalted moment and her biggest nightmare.  There is no happiness for someone without unhappiness for someone else.

If Chapter 10 taught any lesson, it’s that those who seem to be at the bottom have nothing to lose and all to gain.  Nick is a man running for his life who walks into a huge amount of money and can finally set his life on course.  Meanwhile, Peter is a man at the top, which is a tough place to be because one cannot go any higher, one can only fall, and with the mess Susan has turned into, she’s threatening to drag him down with her.

Categories: Romance Miniseries

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