Film

The Teri Show: BAM Celebrates a Kicky, Kinetic Performer

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In one of her first onscreen appearances, Teri Garr’s name appears nowhere in the credits, but you can’t miss her. With a sweatshirt emblazoned with a bull’s-eye logo, she’s the most mod of the wildly frugging backup dancers in Steve Binder’s The T.A.M.I. Show (1964), considered the first rock ’n’ roll concert film. Her speed-of-light hip gyrations can also be spotted in several Elvis Presley movies from that decade, though, once again, her moniker can’t be. By the 1970s, when Garr began to get substantial parts, her brio wasn’t limited to doing the Pony and the Watusi — almost every word she spoke popped like a Champagne cork. BAMcinématek’s mini-tribute to the actress brings together three comedies and a neo-musical, films immeasurably enhanced by Garr’s vivacity. The quartet spans 1974 to ’85 — peak Garr years, but an era when this fizzy phenomenon should have been a bigger star.

In Mel Brooks’s manic high-gothic-horror spoof Young Frankenstein (1974), Garr, as Inga, the lusty Teutonic lab assistant to Gene Wilder’s mad scientist, revels in playing a stock comedy character, her first major screen role. (The part is basically another draft of Ulla, the busty blonde Swedish amanuensis from The Producers, Brooks’s 1967 satire.) But amid all the heavy Borscht Belt mugging of her co-stars, Garr remains light and nimble. She had to adapt quickly. As Garr recounts in her chatty, charming autobiography, Speedbumps: Flooring It Through Hollywood (2005), Brooks — who had been considering the actress for the role of Frederick Frankenstein’s starchy fiancée (a part that ultimately went to Madeline Kahn) — told Garr she could read for Inga if she returned the next day with a German accent. The resourceful performer’s crash course consisted of making small talk with Cher’s German wig stylist — Garr was a regular on The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour at the time — during one of the mononymous deity’s hours-long coiffure appointments. The Deutscheglish that Garr speaks in Young Frankenstein — “You were having a nacht-mare” — kills every time.

Garr’s supreme talent for revitalizing ancient categories like the dumb blonde can also be seen in a November 1977 appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. Surrounded by Sansabelt loucheness — Garr was seated to the left of Ed McMahon and Charles Nelson Reilly during her inaugural kibitz with Johnny — the actress calibrates flirtiness and self-deprecation so precisely that she simultaneously honors the creaky conventions of the chat show and exposes their idiocies. (Maybe that skill inspired this coverline on the March 1983 issue of Ms. magazine: “TERI GARR ON THE POWER OF ROLE REVERSAL.”)

Garr was on Carson’s program to promote Close Encounters of the Third Kind — which is being rereleased nationwide this Friday; see Alan Scherstuhl’s essay on page 29 — her highest-profile film of that decade and the one that gives her the most thankless role. She plays Ronnie, Richard Dreyfuss’s beleaguered wife in Steven Spielberg’s UFO epic, a termagant constantly cleaning up after the kids and screeching at her Devil’s Tower–obsessed spouse. But even in this impossible part, Garr adds grace notes, particularly when Ronnie sits at an enormous conference table as Air Force brass lecture her husband and others who’ve sighted interplanetary craft. Sporting a sleek updo and sunglasses, Garr reveals Ronnie’s ineradicable core of dignity: She’s the chicest of the Indianans gathered in this room and communicates her E.T. skepticism with steely silence.

Julie, the reluctant, Monkees-loving cocktail waitress Garr plays in After Hours (1985), Martin Scorsese’s Soho-set screwball comedy of slumming yuppie comeuppance, also has a distinct look: that of the Mary Quant acolyte circa 1965. With her beehive, yellow minidress, transparent raincoat, and dance moves — she does a little shimmy to “Last Train to Clarksville” — Julie could have been plucked from The T.A.M.I. Show’s corps of hipshakers. Garr plays the dotty character with sly knowingness, having a ball while riffing on one of her earlier showbiz incarnations. Garr has similar hall-of-mirrors fun in Sydney Pollack’s gender-tweaking Tootsie (1982): She co-stars as Sandy, who, much like the woman playing her, is a character actress who never quite gets the recognition she’s due. In a movie rich with zingers (the great Elaine May, uncredited, played a large role in shaping the screenplay), Garr has the best, this exit line from a party: “I had a lot of fun. Do you have any Seconal?”

And there’s a touch of meta-magic too in Francis Ford Coppola’s swoony reverie One From the Heart (1982), one of the few films to feature Garr in a lead role. “My name is Frannie. I like to dance,” the actress says to Raul Julia’s Ray, an aspiring pianist who suavely puts the make on the adventure-craving travel agent played by Garr. Evoking both the melancholy romanticism of Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and the lushly artificial sets of such MGM evergreens as Singin’ in the Rain, the film takes place during a Fourth of July weekend, in a warm-neon Las Vegas built entirely on the soundstages of Coppola’s soon-to-go-bust Zoetrope Studios. Though there’s little crooning onscreen, there’s still plenty of music: Tom Waits and Crystal Gayle’s bluesy score, duets that narrate the heartbreak and reconciliation of Frannie and Hank (Frederic Forrest), who split up after five years together and seek out distraction in Ray and Leila (Nastassja Kinski). “I wanna live. I wanna go out with a bunch of guys. I want erotic things to happen,” Frannie announces to the friend she’s bunking with after leaving Hank. No matter who Garr’s scene partner happens to be — even if it’s just Garr herself, as Frannie admires her physique in a full-length mirror — erotic things always happen.

‘4 by Teri Garr’
BAMcinématek
September 1–4

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