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The Ritz (1976)

Today’s cinema adventure: The Ritz, the 1976 screen version of Terence McNally’s daring-for-its-day stage farce about a straight Midwestern businessman who hides out from his homicidal brother-in-law by checking into a gay Manhattan bathhouse. Directed by the legendary Richard Lester (known for a fast-paced, edgy style that made The Beatles A Hard Day’s Night into an instant classic) with a screenplay by the playwright himself, the film has aged into something of a curiosity of its time- a glimpse at bathhouse culture during the heady pre-AIDS era of the sexual revolution. McNally (who has become something of a gay poet laureate) made the brilliant move of taking the formula of a classic farce and placing it into what was at the time (and, sadly, to an extent, still is) a socially taboo setting; the result was a risqué piece of popular entertainment which brought underground gay culture into the spotlight and ostensibly took a small step towards making homosexual subject matter more acceptable for mainstream audiences. Unfortunately, by virtue of the requirements of the farcical genre, the characters (both gay and straight) are one-dimensional stereotypes which seem tired and offensive today, and the comedy has been rendered considerably less amusing by years of over-exposure to TV sit-coms in constant rotation. The highlight of the film is undoubtedly Rita Moreno, reprising her Tony-winning Broadway performance as Googie Gomez, a fiery Bathhouse Betty who gets caught up in the intrigue and (fortunately for the audience) performs a deliciously over-the-top lounge act for the boys; also of note are her Broadway co-stars, Jack Weston (as the hapless refugee), Jerry Stiller and future Oscar-winner F. Murray Abraham (as a flaming, self-appointed tour guide who manages to be likeable despite the heaping load of gay clichés he is required to carry), and an amusing turn by a young Treat Williams as a naïve (and squeaky-voiced) private detective. The rest of the cast fill their roles sufficiently well, Lester’s direction is sure-handed, and the look and feel of the seedy setting are captured quite authentically- but in 2012, the edge which once made it all so delightful has become painfully dull. The bottom line: as a piece of social and theatrical history, The Ritz is definitely important enough to warrant a viewing; but if you are just looking for some laughs and entertainment, you might want to skip it- or, better yet, fast forward to Rita’s scenes and just watch those.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0075144/

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