Sunday, 13 March 2022

Do sweat it... Steambath (1973)

I’d had a bad experience with the food at a Chinese restaurant, thought that was it for me. That got me thinking about death and mortality. Also, I was working out at a gym, using the steam bath. There is a certain kind of talk that goes on between men in this situation, and I must have been listening…

Bruce Jay Friedman 

Well, this is an oddity and a rewarding one. Steambath was adapted for PBS from Bruce Jay Friedman’s play of the same name which ran off-Broadway at the Truck and Warehouse Theater for the second half of 1970. Featuring plenty of cursing and sexual references – gay and straight – it also, astonishingly enough, featured perhaps the first female nudity on US broadcast TV which may explain why only 24 PBS affiliates carried the programme. In the end though it’s the baring of the various souls in the steam bath that makes the film notable although I am happy to confirm that Valerie Perrine has the most spectacular posture and surely one of the most elegant backs in Hollywood.

Valerie, however, is more than anything else, one of the finest actors of her generation and her background (ahem…) as a Las Vegas showgirl helped get her started as the pin-up dream-girl Montana Wildhack in Slaughterhouse-Five (1972) and then as Honey Bruce in Bob Fosse's Lenny (1974) for which she won major nominations and awards, establishing herself at the highest level. All the assurance she brought to that role you can see here, she’s relaxed in herself, and brings an unguarded innocence in her skimpy towel, playing superbly against the wonderful Bill Bixby.

Valerie Perrine

The ensemble work is key as this is a play than a film and is as dialogue heavy as you’d expect but the reward for that is a piece that tackles universal issues even if it is, obviously wrapped in the concerns, attitudes and language of the day. As usual there are guys on IMDB bemoaning the “dated” nature of these aspects but that’s what happens the further away from 1973 you go… the original work stands as testimony to its time and modern audiences need to understand the context. Films are time capsules.

Apart from anything else though, no one has yet been able to prove that the afterlife is not a steam bath… and that God is not a Puerto Rican attendant.

Events begin as Tandy (Bixby) arrives for his first time at the steam baths, he has just quit his job as a teacher of art appreciation for the NYPD and is working on a book about Charlemagne which he hopes will establish his writing career. This he tells to a man described as Old-timer (Stephen Elliott) who briefly suspends his ongoing verbal battles with Bierberman (Herb Edelman) who’s manners and personal hygiene appal him.

Bill Bixby has a talk with God as played by José Pérez

Two gay men (Neil J. Schwartz and Patrick Spohn) skip by, always speaking in unison and breaking into song and alarming dance at the slightest opportunity whilst there is also a depressed Broker (Kenneth Mars) who needs to urgently revise his investment strategies.

Just as Tandy is getting his bearings in strolls a shapely young woman called Meredith (Perrine) who proceeds to shower and to reveal her rear and, briefly, her breasts in what must have shocked audiences on the Public Broadcasting Services. Tandy’s jaw drops in sympathy but I can understand the reason for the nudity in the context of what is to come. For his part Tandy wears his jockeys for most of the play, and a shirt, whilst Meredith has a small towel over her shoulders and round her waist. The two gay men do perform a provocative dance to balance the gender exposure but the camera lingers on Perrine far longer.

Look, I know you're waiting for a pic of Valerie but here's some balance from Neil and Patrick.

The flesh is weak and the male gaze is fixed… soon the temptations of the flesh will become the least of the character’s concerns as the Attendant (José Pérez) arrives to do his work. There is something odd about this man, who keeps on issuing instructions to a flashing machine about human events large and small. Gradually it becomes clear to Tandy that this man claims to be God.

Naturally Tandy starts to argue back, hardly convinced for a start that the Lord Almighty could be from Puerto Rican or that he could speak in slang, be petty and just have so much attitude. The Attendant attempts to show his majesty through a card trick, biting a lock off a box and then seemingly downing a very large cocktail. It’s only when he truly summons a host of angels, lightning, clouds and flashing fury that Tandy starts to believe.

Perrine has perfect posture.

By contrast Meredith, whilst fretting still over unpaid bills at Bloomingdales, takes it all in her stride, with good humour and honesty. Tandy is still fogged by his own ego, describing his life in ways it is not and arguing his right to immediate reincarnation based on ultimately flawed and selfish logic.

The steam bath is a form of limbo between this life and the next and the Attendant is there to hear the stories of those passing through before sending them off to their final destination. Each character gets their chance to explain how their life went and how they left it before being sent through a darkened door to their ultimate fate. Only Tandy carries on arguing his case… will he be able to convince the Almighty Attendant of his need for a second chance; will he be able to convince himself?

Bill Bixby said the role transformed the view of his acting.

Dusty Verdict: Steambath is full of rich characters and a humorous unpredictability as men and a woman, wrestle existential issues through the limited terms of reference provided by their everyday lives and ambitions. It’s a call to take a good look at yourself and to make yourself ready… for the rest of your life, for its ending.

For Bixby it proved to be a gamechanger as he told the New Orleans Times-Picayune in 1975: "…only 19 cities carried it…They said it was the hottest single black-market tape. It became the underground tape of the year…(‘Steambath’) probably did more for me as a serious actor than anything I’ve ever done…”  And he is superb, handling the majority of the lines, and especially what is effectively a fifteen-minute monologue at the end, with sincerity, his eyes widening with ever great resignation as one after another the pennies drop.

It was certainly another step in Valerie Perrine’s journey, her naturalistic style, obscuring the completeness of her absorption in character. She’s there as a foil and a contrast for Bixby and the two work exceptionally well together and with the Almighty José Pérez.

You can watch Steambath on Amazon Prime in the US and elsewhere and there is an old DVD. It would be good to see it re-emerge, not just for Bixby and Perrine fans but also Friedman who lived a long life and wrote many books and scripts (Oscar nominated for Splash etc).

PS Valerie Perrine is now 78 and has been living with Parkinson’s for a number of years. There is a remarkable documentary, the multi-award winning A Portrait of Valerie Perrine, about her life and recent struggles that you can rent on Vimeo. Well worth your time, she is an inspiration!


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