Last of the Monster Kids

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Monday, June 6, 2016

Director Report Card: Richard Donner (1970)

3. Twinky

Richard Donner’s early career remains utterly unpredictable. After making “Salt and Pepper” – and directing the Danger Island segments on "The Banana Splits Hour" – Donner would make another feature length comedy. “Twinky” would reunite Donner with his “X-15” star, Charles Bronson. According to the internet, Bronson brought the script to Donner who agreed to direct it. Apparently, star and director disagreed on the direction of the film, which is why Bronson never appeared in another of Donner’s films. “Twinky” remains an obscure entry in both men’s career.

The plot of the film certainly wouldn’t help it seem more commercial. Charles Bronson stars as Scott Wardman, a 38 year old American writer of smut currently living in London. Susan Young plays the titular Twinky, a sixteen year old school girl. The alienating factor emerges from the plot: Scott and Twinky are sleeping together. Taking advantage of the U.K.’s age of consent, the unlikely couple eventually decide to get married. After marrying, they travel to New York City and try to find a life for themselves. Though Twinky is in love with Scott, he soon realizes there’s a reason adult men don’t marry teenage girls more often.

The on-paper pitch version of “Twinky” probably read something like “the mod version of “Lolita.”” The film attracts unavoidable comparisons to Kubrick’s film version of Nabokov’s groundbreaking and controversial novel. Both are about men having relationships with much younger women but the similarities end there. The relationship is entirely consensual in “Twinky,” with the girl being hopelessly in love with the man. It’s technically legal but that doesn’t stop the film from constantly drawing attention to how weird and gross a 38 year old man sleeping with a sixteen year old girl is. The mod part of the pitch is fairly accurate though, as the film is entrenched in the British youth culture of the time.

“Twinky” is also far less sleazy then its premise suggests. The film has no nudity, unless you count Charles Bronson’s bare chest. The relationship between Scott and Twinky comes off as somewhat chaste. The physical aspect of their affair is implied but kept completely off-screen. As far as exploitative sexuality goes, it’s limited to a few leering shots of Young in her mini-skirts and go-go boots. Instead, “Twinky” is far more charming then you’d expect a movie about a grown man fucking a teenager to be. Which isn’t to say it’s good, as it’s still a wildly uneven film. At the same time, “Twinky” seems to play its premise more for observation then exploitation.

Even by 1970, Charles Bronson’s tough guy screen persona was well established. After all, we were only four years away from his career defining turn in “Death Wish.” Indeed, Bronson seems far more comfortable gunning down creeps then he does romancing a British teenager. There are times in “Twinky” when Bronson’s discomfort is all too apparent. Any time he has to kiss, hug, or hold Young, his body language goes stiff and inexpressive. Sometimes, his line reading comes off as incredibly flat. Yet he does better during other moments. Occasionally, some humanity shines through Bronson’s stiffness, such as when he’s playing with a kitten or arguing with a friend about the relationship. Charlie ultimately gives a decent performance in “Twinky,” even if it’s far from the usual thing you’d expect him to star in.

Susan Young is much more natural in the titular role. Young was nineteen at the time of filming but could easily pass for sixteen. She fully embodies the bubbly energy of the character. Twinky is constantly jumping around, playing, dancing, and singing songs to herself. Even though Bronson’s face looks like it’s made from granite, Young makes the audience believe that a vivacious young girl could have a crush on him. I suppose playing a bubbly teenager probably wasn’t hard for the actress, as she was basically still a teenager at the time. Whatever the reason, Young is easily one of the best things about the film. (She also looks absolutely gorgeous in the schoolgirl uniforms and tiny skirts she wears.)

Though Bronson and Young are clearly the stars of the show, “Twinky” has an above average supporting cast. Orson Bean plays Twinky’s Uncle Hal. While Hal claims to be against Twinky’s relationship, he appears awfully close to a very young female friend of his own. Bean gets a few funny lines in his brief scenes. Michael Craig plays Twinky’s father who is, as you’d expect, totally aghast at the romance. Craig is mildly amusing in the part of the appalled father. He’s funnier because of the contrast with Honor Blackman, as Twinky’s mom. She’s totally in favor of the relationship and Blackman’s nonchalant quality is quite funny. (Jill Ireland, Bronson’s long time spouse, has an easily missed cameo.)

“X-15” was stiffly directed while “Salt and Pepper” was only a little bit better. “Twinky” shows Richard Donner making some great strides forward as a stylish. The film’s style actually borders on distracting. The film frequently employs slow motion and fast motion, sometimes in the same scene. At one point, Twinky pauses in mid-jump. Minutes later, a fried breakfast burns into black ash in seconds. Crash zooms and sudden cuts are also utilized. Often, split-second images flash on screen, illustrating the character’s interior thoughts. The direction is madcap, fitting its title character’s youthful energy. It’s not always elegant but it’s more interesting to look at then Donner’s previous films.

“Twinky” was intended as a comedy. The film is only sporadically funny though. The best humor comes from contrasting Twinky’s effervescent glee with Bronson’s gritty maturity. When she explains her family’s opinion of the relationship to him, Scott’s feelings visibly slingshot back and forth in a funny way. A moment that’s funny, if you can get pass the squickiness of the material, is when a grabby landlord hits on Twinky, unaware that she’s married. The source of the humor is how unaware Twinky is of his advances. However, the film leans on its central gag too much. There’s only so many times you can watch people be shocked by a teenage girl being married to grown man before it looses whatever humorous value it once had.

Yet “Twinky” is no better as a drama. Honestly, the film lurches awkwardly towards drama in its last act. Soon enough, Scott and Twinky’s relationship begins to falter. The constant giddiness that comes naturally to a teenage girl inevitably wares on the adult man. The age difference begins to matter, as Twinky doesn’t understand that Scott needs to work to support them. Despite Twinky often professed love for Scott, it’s clearly no more then a crush for her. This plays out clumsily. Twinky seems to disappear before Scott discovers her true location. These scenes are framed like a thriller and play badly against the rest of the movie.

Even though “Salt and Pepper” featured a musical number, “Twinky” is truly the first time music played a vital role in a Richard Donner film. Jim Dale, a British singer/songwriter/actor of some acclaim, provides three original songs. The title track pairs well with the opening credits, as Twinky and her friends ride their bikes around the city. Whenever the girl’s name is sang, the word appears on screen which is a nice touch. The song is catchy. Dale’s other songs veer towards sappy. Both “The Lonely Year” and “Go Where the Sky Goes” are rather maudlin. Still, when it works, Dale’s music provides some alright energy to the proceedings.

“Twinky” was finished in 1969 but wouldn’t be released until 1971. The film was released in the U.S. by American International Pictures. About ten minutes of footage was cut from the run time. Obviously hoping to further recall Nabokov’s novel, the movie and the main character were renamed “Lola.” For continuity's sake, all uses of the name Twinky were awkwardly dubbed over with Lola. This change is very obvious. The “Lola” cut is in the public domain. Amusingly, the public domain releases will often slap a picture of Bronson from one of his action movies on the DVD cover. Anybody going into “Lola” expecting a typical Charles Bronson flick will be very disappointed. He doesn’t kill anybody. Expectantly, the public domain release have terrible video and sound quality. Sadly, even the domestic release of the “Twinky” versions has rather poor picture quality.

Not consistently funny enough to be a full blown comedy but too insecure with its own premise to be a drama, “Twinky” does not totally succeed at its goals. This makes the film a failure. Yet it’s an interesting failure. As off-putting as the premise appears, the movie handles it surprisingly well. Bronson seems confused but the picture is worth seeing for Young’s performance. For Richard Donner fans, the film is especially interesting, as his skills are director make a big leap forward. It’s hard to recommend “Twinky” but, if any of the above sounds interesting, maybe you should give it a look. [Grade: B-]

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