You ever tie one on real tight and wake up the next morning wondering “how many bridges did I burn last night?”, “do I still have a job?” or “did I or did I not punch out the wifey in some strange parking lot?” Well, if you have, you might want to see a lawyer (or a priest) or find a copy of this long since forgotten ABC movie of the week from 1974, starring Dick Van Dyke.
Sure, this sort of material has been covered in just about every conceivable fashion known to man, but have you ever witnessed Dick Van Dyke sucker punch his wife just moments after drunkenly serenading a prostitute with a stirring rendition of The Beatles' “Yesterday”? I think not. Or when was the last time you’ve seen a man in full break-down mode, sobbing uncontrollably three separate times in under 80 minutes?
Beginning with a night of celebration following a successful speech by his boss (ghost written by Van Dyke), Dick phones the wife (Lynn Carlin), telling her he’ll be home by ten and won’t be drinking. Moments later, he hastily rebukes a co-worker’s attempts to accost him with drink, then succumbs, proclaiming “well, just a little…”. It isn’t long, though, before Dick’s making a spectacle of himself- playing drums with the hired band, then later sprawled out on a couch with the regular office carousers, half empty fifth in tow.
THE MORNING AFTER is essentially a series of escalating domestic episodes, unraveling with indisputable sincerity, but all the subtlety of an ABC Afternoon Special. It is a “message” movie, purely, though it has one indelible factor that casts it far beyond all the requisite pandering. That is the haunting, mercurial performance of Dick Van Dyke as the husband, father and successful PR man whose on the verge of throwing it all away as his alcoholism has begun to take precedence over all else. And legendary fantasist Richard Matheson’s script, though marred by the inherent trappings of that tight TV movie construction, is uncompromisingly tough, ringing painful and true throughout.
When Dick stumbles in the back door the morning following the office party, his long suffering wife lays into him immediately-- and again when she discovers him laid out on the patio drinking screwdrivers a few hours later (while a deceptively similar cover of the Beatles' “Yesterday” appears for the first of several increasingly arduous instances on the soundtrack).
Things do return to marginal normalcy as Dick attempts amends the following morning, including making pancakes for his young son and teenage daughter, orchestrating a family basketball game as well as a rousing bonding session during a board game (all swiftly handled in montage). Awww… that’s our Dick. Schmoozing and charming his way back into their hearts. Don’t guilt beat all?
The complacency is short lived, though, as soon Dick’s jeopardizing his career, sabotaging a dinner party with friends and generally proving to the world what an incorrigible drunk he is. When his wife first threatens to leave him after a particularly nasty incident (the first hint at violence), he begs and pleads, promising to get professional help. In a session with his new therapist, we learn he’s got plenty of unresolved pain regarding the death of his parents and feelings of inadequacy, etc, though after he breaks down during his second session, he tells his wife the doc gave him a clean bill of health, he’s cured and can even return to drinking casually in due time (blood vomiting notwithstanding).
Things get really nasty when Dick begins to struggle with a speech he’s writing for the boss and his daughter asks for a ride to a friend‘s house… he snaps at her (“Is your mother unconscious?!”), then reluctantly agrees, burning rubber the second she exits the vehicle. This isn’t the same huggable, lovable Dick Van Dyke your parents grew up with. This is anything but… When his wife catches him straddled up to a bar, soliciting the affections of a much younger prostitute, she drags him out into the parking lot where they engage in a wrestling match for his car keys, an impromptu left hook dropping her flat on the concrete (with a black eye) while Dick speeds off into the night.
Things only grow bleaker from here, the downward trajectory becoming startlingly, inextricably dark as the family leaves and we find Dick drunkenly thrashing down the hallways of his home (now in dishevel) calling out for his wife. Things get worse yet when he winds up in the city hospital’s psych ward after waking up on the beach clawing at the invisible beasties invading his flesh.
When it becomes clear he’s lost his family, his career, everything, his resolve fades to hopelessness and he escapes. Coming to terms with the finality of his situation, he gives his wife one last emotional goodbye call from a payphone. “Tell the kids I love them… I’m ashamed that I never really did. And I love you with all my heart. Forgive me- all the pain that I’ve caused you. It’s no good, honey. It’s just no good, I’m no good. There’s no point. Just… no point. Goodbye my heart!”
It’s the kind of gut wrenching emotional display that lingers long after the screen’s gone dark. Within the context of a TV melodrama, some would argue, it might come off as overwrought, blustery spectacle, but I’d digress. Sure, the plotting smacks of sentimentality and overt preachiness (as this type of story often can't avoid), but there is truth in Van Dyke’s histrionics that cast them almost beyond reproach (and earned him an Emmy nomination). Consider his then recently admitted battles with the bottle as well as the fact that he’d been almost exclusively a comedic performer since the onset of his career. When it’s all said and done, he really went to the well for this one, creating one of the darkest portrayals of full blown alcoholism ever conceived.
Following that goodbye phone call, we’ve one last shot of Van Dyke walking down a dark corridor towards the beach, a place where vagrants dwell-- a filthy, shambling specter of his former self. Reaching the end of the tunnel, he collapses, crumbling into a broken heap of pieces of the man he thought he could be… taking one last drink as the scene fades out.
One night several months ago I sat on my couch admiring a particularly cheap and silly made-for-tv horror film from 1979 called “Summer of Fear”, starring a young Linda Blair (and directed by Wes Craven). Regardless of the merits of that film, I sat mesmerized, rooting for Linda to vanquish the beautiful witch that had stolen her boyfriend. Throughout the film, Linda struts around in tight jeans and the like, as if to remind the general public of her burgeoning womanhood. It seemed as if the 18 year-old actress were trying to say, “You see, I’m a big girl now.” Indeed.
Before I get too wrapped up and distracted by the thought of this, I should mention that I had been expecting my girlfriend and the doorbell rang. For some damned reason I’ve yet to completely grasp, I scrambled for the DVD remote, knocking it into the small black hole in the side of my couch. As the doorbell rang a second time, I shot a panicked glance at the screen. Linda and her best friend (played by Fran Drescher) were about to go shopping at the mall. I laughed to myself, confused, wondering exactly what had transpired as I answered the door. After all, it’s only a TV movie… it’s only Linda Blair. I pondered this during a few fleeting moments as I made small talk with my girlfriend about her day. What exactly happened?
The next day I was at the video store, scouring the horror section for fresh blood when I came across “Hell Night”, also starring Linda. Without a second thought, I scooped it up, knowing that while I didn’t much like it when I was younger, I had plenty of reason to watch it now. That night, when I suggested to Karen that we watch it, she remarked, “What is it with you and Linda Blair lately?” I coyly responded, “She’s a good actress… I haven’t seen this movie in years.” “Uh huh…”, she replied, adding little more except a subtle raising of her eyebrows. For the record, I liked “Hell Night” much more this time around.
This started a “minor” obsession for me as I began googling Linda Blair images, visiting her website, tribute pages, looking for old gossip (she dated Rick James way back when- yikes!), etc. It’s safe to say I think she’s one hot cookie. But what is it about this cute, bubbly, slightly chubby actress that sets my heart afire? For most, she’ll always be remembered as the little girl possessed from “The Exorcist”. The more I considered this question, the more perplexing it became. Most girls would never consider Linda a threat. She isn’t traditionally beautiful, though she’s quite pretty. Aside from being what most would consider slightly overweight (though she‘s perfect in these eyes), she’s also kind of a tomboy. I’ve never seen a Linda Blair seduction scene that didn’t feel at least a little awkward. She’s not a girly girl, you know…
Which brings me back to that first night I mentioned. What was it that caused me to instinctively panic at the idea of Karen walking in on Linda and I? After all, we were both fully clothed. Deep down in my gut, a certain indefinable logic acted for me. Biology caused that panic. As the old song goes, “she blinded me with science”. Somehow, I guessed that Karen would fall to pieces with the sudden realization that she doesn’t quite stack up. How could she? Between that bubbly girl-next-door smile, that slightly husky voice and those curves (by god…those curves!), there lies something deeper. I think it has something to do with what I said before, the tomboy thing.
Linda is cutesy and adorable and all that, but she’s also a bit dangerous. There is a force there, a barely detectable brooding thing that screams to the uninitiated, “DON’T FUCK WITH ME!”. There is a twinkle in her eyes that lets ‘em know they’d better play nice if they know what’s good for them. Sure, she’ll get topless like the next gal (as she did so many times in the early 80s), but you’d better not mess with her little sister. Just check out “Savage Streets” (1984), if you don’t believe me.
Ultimately, after one too many Linda Blair flicks, Karen became suspicious. After some prodding, I wound up confessing (to a slightly lesser degree) my “fondness” to her and she snickered a bit at first, then grew silent and distant for awhile. Maybe that initial gut instinct was right… Either way, it’s hard to imagine my Linda Blair addiction ever suffering from withdrawals given the seemingly endless stream of sleazy B movies she’s starred in over the course of more than twenty years. Though, in the future, I might think twice before asking my girlfriend to watch them.