Like most red-white-and-blue-blooded Americans, I was appalled at the recent brouhaha impeding Miss Delaware and Miss Florida on their way to the Miss America pageant. The deserving young ladies, it seems, were stripped of their titles, not for doing anything inappropriate or unbecoming, but for some judges’ stupid mistakes. My faith in one of our nation’s most endearing and enduring traditions badly shaken, I turn for consolation, as always in moments of crisis, to the movies.
Many good films about beauty pageants have been made over the years, including two featuring Oscar winners (Holly Hunter in 1989’s Miss Firecracker and Sandra Bullock in 2000’s Miss Congeniality). Little Miss Sunshine (2006) starred a pint-sized Abigail Breslin in a send-up of Toddlers & Tiaras; Alan Arkin won an Oscar for playing her foul-mouthed grandpa.
For my shaken spirits, though, I dug up two films that didn’t have “Miss” in the title — the appellation stokes my cynicism. The first was Drop Dead Gorgeous (1999), a pseudo-documentary in the vein of Waiting for Guffman and Best in Show, about a group of high school girls vying for the title of Miss Mt. Rose, a competition sponsored by Sarah Rose Cosmetics as a prelim for the run at Miss Minnesota.
Home of the Nation’s Oldest Living Lutheran, Mt. Rose is a paradigm of small-town America. Denise Richards plays rich bad girl Rebecca, Kirsten Dunst is good poor girl Amber. Written by Lona Williams, former assistant producer of The Simpsons, the movie is a broad lampoon with caricatures rather than characters. Mostly hitting and not missing with rapid-fire jokes, the movie’s biggest laughs belong to the adults — Kirstie Alley as Becky’s vicious, murderous mom Gladys, and Ellen Barkin and (particularly) Allison Janney as trailer-trash friends on angelic Amber’s side. Subtlety is not the governing characteristic for Drop Dead Gorgeous.
Michael Ritchie’s Smile (1975), on the other hand, is both barbed and poignant, the real winner of all beauty pageant movies. Utilizing a terrific script by Jerry Belson (a Writers Guild nominee that year for Best Comedy), director Ritchie (Downhill Racer) sculpts his possibly best film, a critical rave the summer of its release that never got the big-screen audience it deserved.
The focus is on California’s Young American Miss Pageant, to which flocks a bevy of eager contestants, including a young Melanie Griffith and Annette O’Toole. Barbara Feldon (five years post-Get Smart) and Bruce Dern are idealistic adults caught up in the American tradition; choreographer Michael Kidd (in a rare onscreen role) gives a dynamite performance as a cynical but honest Hollywood professional, lured by money to teach the Young Misses how to dance.
Without devolving into farce (like Drop Dead Gorgeous), Ritchie’s film is more wry than hilarious, its finger on the pulse of the dreams and disappointments that propel most such beauty pageants. Charlie Chaplin’s bittersweet song “Smile,” sung by Nat King Cole, is the perfect accompaniment to the film’s opening and closing credits: “Smile, though your heart is aching / Smile, even though it’s breaking.”
The former Misses Delaware and Florida should get the picture.