Wednesday, January 5, 2011

An 80s classic re-examined

THE SECRET OF MY SUCCESS was a film that came out in 1987. I do not remember the first time I saw it, but I love the film and have watched it numerous times. It's a quintissential 80s film that could not be made relevent today. It is a snapshot of life in the office world in one of the bigest cities in the world. New York. It is also a look at how greed and the pursuit of money was a big deal in the 80s and that in the world of big business anything can happen.

However, though I love the film, when you watch it as often as I have you begin to notice things that you may not notice on a first or even 2nd viewing. I will be discussing that today. For those who have not seen it, ALOT OF SPOILERS! Be warned.

Today I make the pronouncement that there are only two characters in the film who are good. And they aren't the main characters.

BRANTLEY FOSTER: is played by the always great Michael J. Fox, who I love. During the 80s he was on fire. This film was right up his alley, it is not quite, but a close approximation to Alex P. Keaton, the role he played on the tv show Family Ties for years. Except Brantley (yes that is his name)is a farm boy who studied hard to make lots of money in the big city. He graduates college, gets a job and an apartment in New York and heads out. His apartment is, pardon my French, a shithole. But he doesn't care, he sees it as a starting point. The next day he goes into work and is summarily fired, hostile take-over 90% of the employees are let go, including Brantley, he sees this as another challenge. After job hunting with no success he gives in and visits his distant Uncle Howard Prescott (who I will cover soon). He convinces Howard to give him a job, and he gets one in the mailroom. This is where the movie takes off and you begin to realize that Brantley, though a country boy who persevers is actually doing bad things. Now in the film, Brantley is our hero, and during his first week on the job he is commandeered to drive an executives wife home from shopping. He overhears her conversation about her husband cheating on her. He begins to flirt with her in hopes of making her feel good. Instead he ends up in bed with her. Now here is the beginning of the bad, he just committed adultery, now it doesn't matter that the wife's husband is a cheater, but he willingly goes along with it. Now some could make the case that this is just the wife getting back at her philandering husband, and that may be so, but it is still cheating and cheating is wrong. Right after it is over, Brantley discovers the woman's husband is home, and he spies him from afar, It's Uncle Howard, making the woman he had the affair with Aunt Vera Prescott (will talk about her soon as well). He wants to end the affair, but she keeps pursuing him, and he keeps falling for it. Until he meets Christy Wills who is an executive at the same company he works at. We learn she is having an affair with someone! And that someone is dadada Howard Prescott.

HOWARD PRESCOTT: is played by Richard Jenkins, and as we learn above he is a philandering husband who married into the company he is the CEO of. Vera is the daughter of the founder and Howard made his way in by wooing her. And it worked. Now he is a cheater and a philanderer but he really makes no excuses for it, unlike Brantley our hero who appears to be wracked with guilt though continues to cheat. There is something else that Brantley does that makes him unlikable, but I will cover that soon. Instead let's get back to the big business end. So Howard discovers that there may be an attempted hostile takeover of his company so he has his staff to devise a way to stop this, though since he is the bad guy, he seems genuinely disturbed that someone is possibly going to take over, but he also has in the back of his head, a thought that he may be able to hold onto his job and salary so he may not try that hard to discourage a hostile takeover. Jenkins is oily perfection and is also able to give Howard a very likable personality as well, even though he is a cheater and a liar. He even talks Brantley into helping him with his plot to woo Christy, even though Brantley does not know yet that Christy is the one he is having the affair with. Brantley is trying to woo Christy on his own. How does he do this being a mere mailboy. He lies...

BRANTLEY FOSTER IS A LIAR: While doing his mailroom deliveries he discovers that someone has been released. The office has been cleared out and is empty. Brantley goes in to see what he really wants, an office like this. He sits at the desk and just imagines what could be, when the phone rings. He picks it up and it is a customer. Brantley uses his schooling to solve a problem and decides to create a new identity as a new employee hired to be in this office. So he creates Carlton Whitfield. Now prior to all of this, during his free time Brantley was looking into how the business works in hopes he could get promoted out of the mailroom and into an office. Plus while working in the mailroom, his trainer Melrose (again I will discuss soon) tells him that the company is so disorganized, and Brantley discovers this as well while doing his research, so he decides to create this character while still doing his mailroom duties. So now he has to be mailrom Brantley and executive Carlton, and he pulls it off... mostly. But my main point is, no matter how good Brantley is, he was not hired to do that job, he is lying to everyone in the company about what he is doing and where he is. As usual we are supposed to be cheering him on because under the guise of Carlton he is trying to save the company from a hostile takeover, but he is a liar! Our hero is a cheater and a liar. And on top of that he is lying to Christy who he genuinely seems to love.

CHRISTY WILLS: played by Helen Slater in all her lisping glory is the only female exec at the company, so of course Howard goes after her and ends up having an affair with her which again makes it another character who is not a good role model. She knows he's married and justifies her actions by saying that they appear to be breaking up so it's ok to step in. Of course Howard let's Brantley know later he has no intention of leaving his wife. So you can call her naive if you want but she knows what she is doing and she knows it is wrong. Of course by the time we see her in the film she seems to be getting sick of this relationship and as soon as Brantley shows up (as Carlton) she decides to stop seeing Howard so she can be a good girlfriend to a guy with no baggage that she knows of. Slater is good as Christy but there is just something about her that rubs me the wrong way and I think she is the weakest part of the film.

VERA PRESCOTT: played by Margaret Whitten (who you may remember as the bitchy owner of the Cleveland Indians in Major League, another film she is brillant in) Here Vera is a wronged woman, she knows her husband is having affairs left and right and has caught them a number of times, but she hails from old money and strong family bonds that force her to stay in the marriage though she knows she is being treated badly. In one of her early scenes she sets up her feelings toward her husband, she says he is better looking now then when they were married. Which means she still has feelings for her husband but cannot pique his interest, so again another reason why she stays with him. When she meets Brantley he is driving her home in a limo and she has no idea he is her nephew. He overhears her phone conversation and soon strikes up a regular conversation with her where, under the guise of a compliment, one I believe he truly means, he tells her he wishes when he gets to be her husband's age (still not knowing that she is married to Howard) that he can wake up every morning to a woman like her. This piques her interest and she starts an affair with him. So again another person is doing a bad thing that makes them not a role model, though in this case it is more of a way to release all the pain she is enduring by beating her husband at his own game. She soon learns who Brantley is, but still continues an affair with him. And once Brantley starts seeing Christy he tries to break it off, but just like Howard who continues to pursue Christy, she pursues Brantley. But she also wants to help him because she sees he is very bright, so she sets up meetings with high profile businessmen who are friends with her and Brantley starts to charm them, he becomes a protege. Because perhaps she sees that he could run her father's company better then Howard, or after Howard retires. Either way she tries to help him reach his potential.

SO WHERE ARE THE GOOD GUYS?: In movies like this it is the supporting cast that ends up being the voice of reason, or the true friends of the main characters. In this film two of the supporting players are the good guys. Melrose played by John Pankow is the first good guy. He trains Brantley in his mailroom duties and befriends him. Showing him around the offices, giving him the rules of the business world. Mailroom staff does not interact with the salespeople. Thats just the way it is. But when Brantley starts moonlighting as Carlton, Brantley leaves Melrose in the lurch. But Melrose does not abandon Brantley. And when Brantley almost gets caught in the act of moonlighting as Carlton, Melrose steps in and helps his friend. In the end after Brantley gets caught in his moonlighting act. Brantley gets Melrose to help him pull off one more con to save the business and he does. In the end he gets promoted to the board of directors. So Melrose just being himself and helping out when asked Succeeds.

DON'T UNDERESTIMATE THE SECRETARY:  Jean played by Carol Ann Susi is the other good guy. A secretary in the secretarial pool who gets selected to help out new exec Carlton Whitfield. And she does her job very well. When Brantley is busted for his dual identity she does not retreat to the secretarial pool she jumps in full force with one last con Brantley has to save the day in spite of the fact that if it fails she will more than likely be fired. In the end she too gets a seat on the board a reward for being a loyal employee. More employees should be like that.

SO WHAT HAPPENS IN THE END? Brantley is cleaning out his desk after his lie is revealed in a crazy bedroom farce scene at the Prescott's house, He gets fired and Howard is planning on allowing the takeover of  Vera's fathers business to occur. Christy has been fired as well and her and Brantley are bickering but soon fall back in love with each other. That gives Brantley enough push to try one last con with the help of Melrose, Jean, and Christy. And his ace in the hole. Vera, who with her relationships with various businessmen is able to pull off Brantley's con the hostile takeover of the company trying to take over Vera's father's business.  And the good guys win and Howard loses. All is right with the world. It is a fun film, and I can keep watching it all the time because the actors do a knock out job. But when you start looking at the story as I did you see some weird things. But don't worry. Check out how Gary Ross directs it. It is a fantastic picture to look at with all the cool angles and use of 80s pop music. Highly reccommended if you can get past the story. 

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