Melvin and Howard (1980)

“Howard Hughes sang Melvin Dummar’s song. He sang it!”

A well-meaning but luckless dreamer (Paul LeMat) gives billionaire Howard Hughes (Jason Robards) a lift in the desert one night, and years later finds himself named a contested heir in Hughes’ will.


Response to Peary’s Review:
Based on a true story, this “genial, sad-eyed comedy” (directed by Jonathan Demme, and winner of a Best Screenwriting Oscar for Bo Goldman) seems to be a favorite with many reviewers, including Peary — and there’s much to recommend it, including “first-rate” performances, plenty of quirky humor, and numerous heartfelt moments. It’s ultimately a character study about Melvin Dummar, a “nice, well-meaning guy” who’s “not very smart or realistic”, “hasn’t any money”, and who “lives for his dreams” of “striking it rich” and “becoming a songwriter” — and as such, it hits its stride. However, I couldn’t help feeling cheated by how little time Robards (as Hughes) is on-screen: other than the opening scene and occasional flashbacks, he never shows up again. Perhaps I’m unduly fascinated with Hughes after seeing Scorsese’s recent biopic The Aviator (2004), but it doesn’t seem right that this notoriously eccentric billionaire shares top billing with LeMat’s Melvin Dummar in the title, yet disappears 15 minutes into the film.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Mary Steenburgen as Lynda Dummar
  • Robards in a criminally small role as Howard Hughes
  • Robards and LeMat singing “Bye, Bye Blackbird” together as they drive across the desert

Must See?
No. While beloved by many, it’s not must-see viewing.


One Response to “Melvin and Howard (1980)”

  1. A once-must, for its unique/quirky quality, natural performances, Goldman’s script/Demme’s direction.

    It’s understandable that some will feel short-changed re: Robards’ short time on-screen. But, after all, it’s not his story.

    It is, however, an earlier film of Demme’s that shows the director at his assured best. Demme manages to find the somewhat-sad comedy in this
    also-somewhat-uncomfortable tale of a couple that just can’t seem to get it together in terms of how life works and how to better work around its hurdles.

    I hadn’t seen the film since its initial release, I don’t think – and I think it has held up rather well.

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