“Bullshit! I mean S.O.B.—Standard Operational Bullshit!” —Ben (Robert Webber)
It’s the summer of 1981, a sunny Thursday afternoon. I’m at the AMC Shamrock 6. Me—four going on five—and my mom are in a theater watching The Great Muppet Caper. Halfway through the movie, I ask my mother if I can go to the bathroom. She says yes, but I better come back. (This is the early ’80s, so instead of actually keeping close tabs on their kids, parents would just put bass in their voices and tell their children to return quickly—or else.)
After I did my business in the bathroom, I walked back to the theater playing Caper. But, down the hall, there was another movie playing, a movie I actually wanted to see—an R-rated film! For a brief moment, I stood in the hall wondering if I could slip in and maybe check out a few minutes. I could stand right at the door and watch the screen, while paying attention to the hall and making sure my mother didn’t peek her head out. I wanted to dip my head in there so damn bad. But, alas, I did no such thing. My mother’s wrath kept me from pulling such a rebellious act.
It wasn’t until a year or so later that I turned on cable one Friday night and finally got to watch the movie I so desperately wanted to see that day: Blake Edwards’ S.O.B.
I didn’t know much about the film except for two things: it’s a satire, and Julie Andrews would show her bodacious ta-tas. While I didn’t know what a satire was, the trailer and TV commercials made me very curious to see Mary Poppins in a whole new way.
A satire aimed at Hollywood, S.O.B. revolves around producer Felix Farmer (Soap’s Richard Mulligan, very manic), who slides down a suicidal spiral after his latest film—an expensive, musical treacle called Night Wind, starring his beloved movie-star wife, Sally Miles (played by Andrews)—bombs at the box office. His friends, which consist of William Holden’s cynical director (his final film role before his tragic death), Robert Preston’s smartass doctor and Robert Webber’s neurotic press agent keep tabs on him, but dude keeps attempting to off himself. He even goes the hanging route, only to end up falling through the floor and injuring a nosy gossip reporter (M*A*S*H’s Loretta Swit) on the floor below.
It isn’t until his pals throw a party in his home—which descends into an orgy—that Farmer snaps out of it and decides what needs to be done: remake Wind, but as a softcore, erotic epic starring his wife and her valuable assets.
If you haven’t guessed already, S.O.B. is Edwards purging himself of some Hollywood hatred. The late, great director behind Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Days of Wine and Roses and about a kajillion Pink Panther movies came up with S.O.B. after a hellish period of making studio movies in the ’70s, particularly the disastrous musical Darling Lili (starring Andrews) and the dismal Western Wild Rovers (starring Holden). These movies were eventually edited by their respective studios without his consent.
Those experiences forced Edwards to flee Hollywood and start making movies independently, like his hit comedy 10, where Dudley Moore played a man ready to leave his wife (Andrews again) for a cornrowed stunner (Bo Derek). You could say 10 and S.O.B. kicked off Edwards’ run of semi-autobiographical comedies, including That’s Life and Skin Deep, that focused on middle-aged male protagonists who often let their little head do most of the thinking for them.
But back to S.O.B., a gleefully vengeful takedown of the movie biz, filled with in-jokes and nods to urban legends. (The wackadoo last act is inspired by the iconic story of John Barrymore’s corpse getting stolen by Errol Flynn and W.C. Fields for one last party.) It was also a film that many veteran actors—Larry Hagman, Shelley Winters, Robert Loggia, supermodel Marisa Berenson and Robert Vaughn (playing a cross-dressing studio head who’s clearly modeled on infamous movie mogul Robert Evans)—were happy to be a part of. Fresh faces were down to appear in it as well, like a very young, very braless Rosanna Arquette, who shows up as one-half of a hitchhiking pair of girls. (The other half is played by Jennifer Edwards, the director’s daughter.)
The stars were also happy to promote the film’s release. When Paramount, which distributed the film (and also distributed Lili), canceled the press junket, Andrews, Holden and other castmates actually went on the road to promote the film, doing interviews and press conferences in several major U.S. cities.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t enough to bring in crowds. The $12 million movie only grossed $14.8 million. Reviews were mixed—Siskel and Ebert both gave it glowing recommendations, while New York Magazine’s David Denby called it “angry, shallow and heartless.” And in a summer season that gave us Raiders of the Lost Ark, Superman II, the James Bond installment For Your Eyes Only and, yes, The Great Muppet Caper, the adult, anarchic antics of S.O.B. were mostly forgotten. (Apparently, it’s a movie Hollywood still wants hidden. It was available to rent or buy on YouTube and Google Play a week or so ago—and, now, it’s gone.)
You could say the movie showed up a decade too early. It would’ve been more at home in the early ’90s, when movies like The Player, TV shows like The Larry Sanders Show and magazines like Entertainment Weekly were exposing and lampooning Hollywood’s shortcomings on the regular.
But S.O.B. is a movie that Edwards definitely had to get off his chest. For him, Hollywood is not a magical dream factory. It’s a hellish hamlet that’s just as deranged, depraved, deceptive and deadly as Twin Peaks. S.O.B. is basically Edwards’ twisted version of Our Town, where the neckerchief-wearing characters are all on a first-name basis—but that doesn’t mean they’re all friends. It’s a place filled with liars and lunatics—unhinged, uninhibited, unrepentant sons-of-bitches who, unless you’re making them heaps of money, really don’t give a damn about you. (Edwards addresses this in a very morbid fashion right at the top, when an old actor has a heart attack and dies near Farmer’s beachfront property, and it takes days for people to discover the body.)
And, yet, for all the insane stuff that goes down in this flick, S.O.B. is the movie that made me obsessed with movies. After the movie, I took crayon to construction paper and began illustrating posters of fake movies with titles like — I shit you not — Who Had Sex with Calamity Jane? (I had no idea what sex was, but I saw Calamity Jane with Doris Day one Sunday afternoon and thought it was cool.)
While Edwards may have failed to inform audiences on how much of a soul-sucking shitshow Hollywood is with S.O.B., it did make one young boy the film critic he is today.
Craig D. Lindsey is a Houston-based writer. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @unclecrizzle.