Seen by Martin before? No
What did I expect? A stagey stage play originally written for the stage.
What did I get? Strictly in terms of success of adaptation from stage to screen (not including musicals), Butterflies Are Free might be the most felicitous we’ve yet encountered (the others being The Boys in the Band, The Owl and the Pussycat, and Play It Again, Sam). That doesn’t mean it doesn’t have its problems. Butterflies Are Free is a movie about what happens when a young blind man and a young sighted airhead forge a serious relationship in the space of a couple of days. Nothing about the story has the remotest plausibility, but the story is diverting enough on its own terms.
As often happens with narratives about disabled people, Butterflies Are Free constantly perches on the precipice of giddy, headstrong naivete. Like its main character, Don Baker, it’s occasionally bold, it’s occasionally bracing, it’s occasionally tender, and always manifestly full of the richness of human life — as it (he) keeps telling us. Don or Donny, depending on who’s speaking, is a month into a two-month trial arrangement he’s made with his suburban, controlling mother to live on his own in San Francisco; college-aged hippie/actress divorcee (yes) Jill commences the action by moving into the apartment next door. It doesn’t take two days for them to fall in love, break up, and … conclude the plot.
In what in hindsight seems a positively brilliant career move, Goldie Hawn embodies hippie-ish Jill, who has a history of intense but fleeting relationships with men. Up to this point, Hawn’s main identity was the comely bikini girl on Laugh-In, and surely Butterflies served as an announcement of her ambition. Jill’s sort of a butterfly, you see: she generally doesn’t stay anywhere very long. The introduction of Jill into Don’s life affords Leonard Gershe, playwright and screenwriter both, the opportunity to educate her (and the audience) on the nuts and bolts of sightless life; in order to make this device work, it’s necessary for Jill to be unencumbered by any familiarity with, for instance, Braille. It’s not clear if the audiences of the moment found this as unlikely as I did.
Don and Jill rapidly become reciprocally infatuated, after which point the third main character, Don’s mother, shows up. I can’t tell whether her harridan nature was a nod to the countercultural mores of the day; her deal is that she’s worried about the pitfalls of Don’s independence, and she’s none too subtle about her skepticism about Jill and the life “Donny” is leading generally. Her stated wish is to yank him back to “Hillsborough” ASAP. For reasons I don’t fully understand, Eileen Heckart won an Oscar for a solid performance you’d never otherwise suspect was destined to be so honored. Gershe gives her all the good lines, by which I mean the cutting Neil Simon punchlines, against which I’ve already inveighed.
Blythe Danner originated the role of Jill on Broadway, and while Hawn does a creditable job with what is not a one-dimensional character, Butterflies would have been a better movie with Danner in the role. Hawn’s chuckleheaded, game affability in the role works very well on screen, but it accentuates the unyielding, selfish aspects of the “free” hippie type and leaves us to intuit the tenderness; Danner would have had it the other way around, which works better.
Partly out of necessity, Butterflies traffics in overreaction a good part of the time — the sensitive blind boy careers between an unearned self-confidence and maudlin self-pity, which turns what is an fundamentally balanced character into a creature verging on unhinged. Don has unacknowledged depths of hostility — fond of passing for sighted on first meet, he inevitably wrings apologies from his given counterpart, leading him to overcompensate, “Don’t apologize, you didn’t do anything” — it’s a kind of aggression. His banter over what he can’t and cannot do — read, become a pilot and so forth — come off as frustration-based, this despite his protestations that he’s not frustrated by his plight. I guess I’m saying that while Don has my instinctive sympathy, I’m not sure I like him very much.
Butterflies has the stage’s perennial problem of packing too much incident into a handful of turbo-powerful scenes. Jill and Don go through three months’ worth of relationship in a weekend, which has the effect of making everything absurd; it would have been better if the story had unfolded over a few weeks, you know, like a movie can do.
What here smacks of 1972? A lot of the assumptions surrounding premarital sex feel really dated — sex must mean marriage, sex is utterly meaningless, there’s no in-between.
IMDB score: 6.9
My score: 4
Director: Milton Katselas
Writer: Leonard Gershe
Starring: Goldie Hawn, Edward Albert, Eileen Heckart, Paul Michael Glaser, Michael Warren
IMDB synopsis: All Don Baker wants is a place of his own away from his over-protective mother. Don’s been blind since birth, but that doesn’t stop him from setting up in a San Francisco apartment and making the acquaintance of his off-the-wall, liberated, actress neighbor Jill. Don learns the kind of things from Jill that his mother would never have taught him! And Jill learns from Don what growing up and being free is really all about.