The Users (1978)

Here’s a miniseries so bad even the laughter it evokes from being stupid end after a while and leave us with a whole bunch of hammy actors running around Hollywood with seemingly no purpose.  With a title like “The Users,” and a story set in Hollywood, all one can do is sit back and watch the cliches arrive, one after another.

We start on a movie set where start Tony Curtis is having a hissy fit because his scene is not working.  In a tank top, jeans and a cowboy hat, Tony already looks past his prime, but he’s the leading man.  Producer George Hamilton is more patient than the director, calling a wrap for the day.  George heads off to his trailer to call agent Red Buttons, relaxing in the hot tub with two women, because he wants the galleys of an upcoming book.  Before hanging up, George tells Red to get out of the hot tub.  “You can’t afford to shrink.”  “Jealous?” Red answers?

Listening to this whole conversation is Jaclyn Smith, a hooker who charges $100 per night.  Hey, it’s Arizona.  George wants to hire her for a night with Tony Curtis, but doesn’t want Tony to know she’s a working girl.  Apparently, Tony needs a confidence boost because he hasn’t had a movie in seven years, since his wife died, and this comeback is his last chance. 

Pause.

Okay, including the title sequence, we’re about 10 minutes into the movie.  Already, we have Tony Curtis as an over-the-hill leading man (true enough), George Hamilton as a slimy producer (drop producer, true enough), Red Buttons as a lusty agent and Jaclyn Smith as a hooker.  In a movie about Hollywood produced by Dominick Dunne.  Is the smell of delicious cheese as pungent for you as it is for me?  “The Users” is going to be mind-melting fun…I can’t wait!

Jacklyn, looking so young and dewy, plays her part with Tony at George’s party that night.  Hooker or not, she’s well-read when it comes to Tony and his career.  “Do you want me to name every picture you’ve ever made in chronological order?” she asks.  “Don’t, please don’t.”  He’s hooked.  Tony kicks everyone out so he can be alone with Jaclyn.  Tony’s pillow talk is all about his worries in doing the next day’s love scene, but of course Jaclyn is fixing that. 

The next morning, Jaclyn returns the money to George Hamilton.  She says Tony was able to “perform,” and he doesn’t understand why he’s getting a refund.  “You’ll see,” she says with a knowing glint.  Tony repeats the scene from the day before (in a different costume) and with Jaclyn watching, he pulls it off spectacularly.  Even he’s excited by how well he did, and he attributes it to her, but now he’s worried about what he’ll do when he shoots the rest in Hollywood without her.  He wants her to go with him, but as what?  “Agent?  Cook?  Housekeeper?  Companion?  Lover?”  “How about all of them?”  She says she’ll get back to him.

Care to know why Jaclyn leads the lifestyle she does in Arizona?  She has a sick mother.  Well, of course she does!  Mom knows all about Jaclyn’s evening activities, and she also takes the blame for ruining her life, having to resort to prostitution to pay the bills.  She wants Jaclyn to go to Hollywood with Tony, making her promise one thing: “When you get there, let ’em KNOW you’re there.” 

Jaclyn and her one bag (to Tony’s huge haul of luggage) arrive at Tony’s Hollywood mansion.  On the piano are glossy shots of Garland, Sinatra and others, as well as Tony’s daughter, Michelle Phillips, also an actress, who has a checkered past with dad.  Tony offers a tour, but Jaclyn wants to see “the most important room” and he carries her up to the bedroom. 

Michelle, in fact, shows up in the very next scene and as soon as she walks through the door, she tells Jaclyn she knows she’s “special.”  How?  Is there some particular way she opened the door with a dish rag over her shoulder that speaks of genius?  The two chat over wine and Jaclyn says she loves Tony.  Michelle looks like she’s ready to pounce at that, but instead says, “I think you mean that” and then begs Jaclyn to get Tony “back on the scene.”  The two are instant chums, though there’s something strangely manipulative in Michelle. 

Jaclyn and Michelle have lunch at one of the “really in places,” where Michelle has to get past lecherous Red Buttons before finding her table.  Jaclyn is curious to know why all of the glamour doesn’t matter to Michelle.  She’s been “hustled” too many times.  However, she is in love, but with a married man whose wife has the money.  They then go on a jaunt to Rodeo Drive, where they bump into George Hamilton and his wife, Carrie Nye.  It’s an uncomfortable moment for all, though Michelle pulls them through, buys Jaclyn a gold necklace and treats her to a spa day.  It’s here that Jaclyn tells Michelle the truth about how she and Tony met (and of course that she gave the money back).  And here’s the kicker: Tony didn’t need to get it up, he just needed someone to talk to.  So, we officially cannot have any bad feelings towards Jaclyn because they just talked and she gave back the money, so the love is real.  Isn’t that a neat little package?

Into the restful spa sweeps Joan Fontaine, a Hollywood stalwart who gets paid to make sure people are seen in the right places.  We need a slumming legend (more slumming than Red Buttons), and she fits the bill, a little older, a little heavier, but having a grand time as the mile-a-minute gabber (her sister would take more dignified miniseries roles: the Queen Mother, Grand Duchess Marie of Russia and Wallis Simpson’s Aunt Bessie and keep the camp to a minimum–Joan isn’t holding back).  Jaclyn decides she will use Joan’s help to get herself known.  After the girls day out, Michelle reminds Jaclyn that if the picture is a bomb, she’s in for something “pretty stormy.”  “I’ve been rained on before,” Jaclyn retorts. 

Tony is getting a massage from Michael Baseleon, who offers to do Jaclyn next.  Jaclyn wants some gossip from him, and she sure as hell gets it.  He has a looser tongue than an toothless Alabama grandmother.  He tells her that the frost between Michelle and Carrie is due to the fact that Michelle’s boyfriend is…you guessed it…George Hamilton!  “We all use each other,” he tells her and Jaclyn grabs at it.  She wants him to spread the word that she and Tony are “terribly happy.”  It’s true, but she wants to make sure everyone knows it. 

Having learned amazingly fast, Jaclyn has already arranged a lunch for Tony with Joan, so he can be seen.  She intends to make sure this picture is a hit.  Jaclyn has all sorts of plans for her life with Tony, but he asks just to sit quietly for five minutes…and they do!  They literally sit for five wasted minutes of screen time.  And then he opines that they should get married that night.  And they do!  On their wedding night, he says he doesn’t care that she was a hooker because everyone is a hooker, “some more, some less, including me.”  “You know what that makes us?  The perfect couple!”  With dialogue like this, how can you not keep watching?

Jaclyn goes to a pool party at Joan Fontaine’s.  Before they even start, Joan quotes her fee of $500 a week, which Jaclyn can’t afford, but Joan is willing to wait because “putting a hooker in the A group, it’s my dream come true!”  Joan has a whole plan, from redoing her house to redoing her wardrobe.  One scheme is to take dresses from stores on approval  and get a studio dressmaker to do exact copies, returning the original.  This is an insider’s guide to Hollywood?  They do that in Little Rock! 

They can’t keep us in suspense any longer.  Are you dying to know how fabulously successful Tony’s comeback movie is?  I know I am (well, not really, but I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt).  It’s screened for the executives and it’s a big wonderful spectacular…bomb.  The head of the studio wants 30 minutes chopped off.  To make it worse, said exec tells the director and producer he wants to work with them again, “just bring me a hot star.”  Oh, man, let’s home that doesn’t leak out to Tony (the character…oh, wait, and the actor himself, he did have a jolly big ego), because it will take every trick Jaclyn is learning to pull him out of that hole. 

There’s a crushingly boring scene where Jaclyn visits Michelle at her pool, where Michelle holds court in a shirt and heels.  They discuss the reason why George wants Michelle when he has Carrie.  “My talents,” she says and we know what she’s talking about.  Jaclyn then says she wants the book George wanted as a vehicle for Tony. 

Carrie and George throw a party for Tony.  Michelle has her boy toy with her.  When Tony asks, “what do you do?” the boy toy says, “I tan.”  He, at least he’s honest.  Dumb, but honest.  Jaclyn oozes around the room.  She starts with George, making sure he keeps her secret and she will keep his about Michelle.  Then she moves on to Red Buttons, angling for the book everyone wants (“Rogue’s Gallery”).  He propositions her with the damn hot tub.  “I could help you turn the pages,” he says to Jaclyn when she says she might like it as much as reading the book.

John Forsythe is there, sizing up Jaclyn as a mover in an instant, and she tries to get the dirt on him from Joan.  Oh, and for comic value, Judy Landers is there, as a character named Merry.  Her presence makes this scene an instant rip-off of the party scene in “All About Eve” and she’s Miss Caswell.  It all ends badly the studio head tells Tony the picture is terrible.  We’ve been told about 14 times that he’ll react extremely poorly if the movie is not a hit.  Well, bring it on!

He goes to a nightclub where men seem to be the only denizens and Douglas Warner slithers over to him immediately, telling him he’s a writer and has the perfect screenplay for Tony.  Naturally, the script is back at Douglas’ apartment.  Sooooooo, when Tony is upset he goes gay?  That’s the big secret?  It’s not like he tries to kill himself or someone else or blow up The Brown Derby or steal Chasen’s chili from Elizabeth Taylor’s plate! 

At least this “twist” temporarily woke up a movie in danger of putting itself to sleep.

Jaclyn goes to Red’s hot tub, which I hope has been cleaned for all he talks about it.  She wants to know how much the book will cost.  After toying with her for a while, he says he’s already sold the movie rights to John Forsythe.  Cue Joan Fontaine, who shows up to distract Red while Jaclyn sneaks a copy of the book out of Red’s office.  Damn, she’s good!  Smartest Arizona hooker this side of…well, all the other Arizona hookers.  As if the movie couldn’t be ANY more obvious, Jaclyn comes home to find a party invitation at John’s. 

Racing up the stairs to tell Tony all about what she’s pulled off, she finds him with Douglas.  “If you put this scene in a movie, no one would believe it,” Douglas wryly notes.  Even worse, Jaclyn tells him he could have told her and she would have understood.  If that were the case, dear friends, wouldn’t she have stayed instead of flying out the door at top speed?

When she returns home, she finds out that Tony has tried to kill himself (and if you want the laugh of a lifetime, wait until you see him trying to pour from a teapot with bandaged wrists).  He would have succeeded if the masseur hadn’t come for his usual appointment. 

Off to John’s party they go.  The theme is the gardens at Versailles.  Huh?  John pegs Jaclyn’s earrings as on approval.  Party scene, take two.  Jaclyn looks radiant in a fur huge gown.  Red asks her how she likes the galleys of the book.  “The only galleys are on boats,” she retorts.  Everyone is there, Joan for fun and even Tony’s little boyfriend, there with a producer now.  Jaclyn hides out in a room where she knows John will find her, and he does.  She gets down to business quickly, mentioning Tony would be perfect for the lead in “Rogue’s Gallery.”  He knows her past and is astounded she’s not ashamed.  “After a few months in this town, I’m rather proud of it,” she quips.  John plays crystal ball and tells her that even if Tony makes a comeback in “Rogue’s Gallery” she’ll still need to prop him up again and again because she lacks money.  Hmmm, she’s gotten this far without it.  John basically wants her for himself, but not as a lover.  “Power and romance rarely mix,” she tells her.  “We all exist to be used,” he tells her, as the cliche parade that is called a scene here churns on.  Both of these pros play it with eyebrows raised and bland sincerity.  Jaclyn wants the “Rogue’s Gallery” author to come to dinner and that means owing John a favor and she doesn’t mind that and the dip at the party is made with too much milk and everyone gets sick and the house falls off the hill and disaster ensues and California slides into the ocean.  Okay, okay, noting beyond “she doesn’t mind” happens, but I wish it did because damn, it’s getting so dull!

Michelle and George steal a few minutes together to plan stealing a few minutes together.  If they fling one more double entendre at each other, someone is going to end up with a broken nose.  They agree to meet in the sauna, which has a lock on the door from the outside, always trouble.    Carrie follows her cheating husband and confronts them half dressed.  She lowers the boom that the only way George can produce the film is if Michelle agrees to star in it.  More users, we get it. 

From that party, we go right to the party Jaclyn throws for the author of “Rogue’s Gallery,” who has casting approval.  Did they simply change the sets around the actors?  That might have been cheaper than moving the actors to a new set.  But, the plans are foiled when the author shows up, or seemingly so.  John, suddenly gone stupid, tells Jaclyn where the author is without realizing it (everything but the number of the bungalow in Santa Barbara) and she hightails it over there, leaving her own party. 

The author who has been at the center of this whole story is Darren McGavin, entering nearly two hours into the movie.  “You wouldn’t come to my party, so I decided to come to yours.”  “There’s no party here,” he says.”  “Not yet,” says the ex-hooker as she pours herself a bourbon to impress him.  I hope in quoting these lines, the four-year-old who wrote them get some pleasure out of hearing them again.  Jaclyn thinks her best weapon his honesty and admits her past, which also impresses Darren.  Darren swears that he never gets drunk, no matter how many he has.  Jaclyn bets him that he can get drunk, going drink for drink with him, and then can’t actually “perform.”  The stakes in the bet?  She wants the role for her husband and if he wins…”neither one of us loses.”  That hardly seems fair.  Tony gets a movie role and Darren gets a few minutes in the sack with a pro?

As you would expect, because he’s a human being Darren actually does pass out, losing the bet.  She sweeps out once he wakes up, snatching her fur and telling him her husband will be wonderful in the movie.  When she arrives at home, Tony is cheery because the party went so well.  He doesn’t seem to mind that she was out all night.  When she tells him that she’s secured him the lead in “Rogue’s Gallery,” Tony shows the most emotion he has so far.  He’s excited and then curious as to how she worked it out, but she doesn’t tell him.  In fact, she tells him it’s “goodbye.”  Her speech about parting is awfully confusing.  Something about both of them having what they want, no regrets, best time of their lives coming.  I can’t say I quite understood it.  He has his part and she’s going “where I belong.”  That would be John Forsythe’s bigger mansion, of course. 

It’s Oscar time!  “Rogue’s Gallery” is a gigantic hit and both Tony and Michelle are nominated.  They arrive together and the crowd of extras jump up and down so hard they must have been fed sugar pills.  Tony and Jaclyn meet on the red carpet and neither is upset.  “Did I ever say thanks?” Tony asks and confesses his love for her.  John and Jaclyn are interviewed by Army Archerd, perplexing because John is only the movie’s executive producer and when was the last time you saw one of those interviewed?  Army asks Jaclyn if she’s proud and she says, “you know, I’m not actually in the business.”  Freeze, cut and print.

Help me out here: is the movie titled “The Users” because of the characters and their actions or because it uses plots from so many other movies (“All About Eve, “Sunset Boulevard,” “A Star is Born,” you name a Hollywood-based movie and “The Users” finds a way to rip it off)?  Watching Jaclyn Smith play a bad girl is kind of neat, but she’s so damn wholesome that she’s not fully successful.  All of the other wax figures just say their lines and collect checks, except for Joan Fontaine, who, by that point in her career, had nothing to lose.

Categories: Romance Miniseries

One Comment to “The Users (1978)”

  1. Trevor Tells it All 23 March 2012 at 4:53 am #

    The movie is sorta rotten but its great for glimpses of the original GIORGIO’S that spawned a million boutique rip-offs(and was the inspiration for SCRUPLES!) and vintage Beverly Hills. The book was by Joyce Haber, a powerful LA gossip columnist, and the tome is FABULOUS!! All about the Hollywood Power Structure and thinly veiled characters based on Stars! The Elena character played by Jaclyn is supposed to be Denise Minnelli Hale. Check it out-it’s a great read!!!!


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