WATCHIN' STUFF: A Double Dose of '70s "Deafsploitation"!

There are times when a “dueling” duo of films (Dante’s Peak vs. Volcano, Mirror, Mirror vs. Snow White and The Huntsman, Mission To Mars vs. Red Planet, etc.) are the result of different studios trying to beat each other to the punch at the box office — and then there are those impossible-to-explain, zeitgeist-in-hindsight moments when multiple films on the same subject tumble off the assembly line for no good discernible reason. After peeping both Dummy and Voices, I can definitively say that this double dose of 1979-based “deafsploitation” is my absolute favorite example in “dueling cinema” history. (Well — there is that early ’70s triple movie title threat of GGas-s-s-s, Sssssss and Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, but that’s another story.)

These two weird, weird gems are now surprisingly both on the Warner Archive DVD label, and I couldn’t be more thrilled to have them unleashed onto an unsuspecting public.

I discovered Dummy during a late-night IMDB jaunt — one of those wormholes when I lose a few hours checking out the filmography of an actor or filmmaker, seeing what weird entries there are that I’ve never heard of, clicking on the cast listing of one of the unheard-of films, looking at the misshapen filmography of one of the cast members, and so on and so forth down the rabbit hole. I’ve discovered many a mind-melting title that’s next to impossible for even a skillful movie locator like myself to track down in the real world (Allen & Rossi Meet Dracula And Frankenstein, anyone?) — and Dummy came up while I perused the work of Frank Perry, the amazing director of Play It As It Lays, Last Summer, Mommie Dearest and Diary of a Mad Housewife.

Just from the title alone, Dummy sounds like a great time. Turns out it’s a “true story” TV movie-of-the-week about Paul Sorvino as a deaf lawyer defending LeVar Burton as a deaf-mute defendant on trial for murdering a prostitute. How on earth could this possibly NOT be a smackum-yackum good time?!?! Thankfully, it delivers exactly the kind of bizarro whipcrack-paced TV movie thrills I was expecting: a minimum of fuss, a maximum of forward narrative momentum, and a bevy of familiar character actors hangin’ out.

Paul Sorvino is a treat here, as his realistic portrayal of a deaf person with a fast-paced job requires him to deliver dialogue as a cross between Prof. Stephen Hawking’s talking computer and Bill Cosby’s old “novocaine” routine (“My boddom libb-ip iz on the ph-flor-or!”). It’s very unsettling at first, but then, as the film wears on, you start to wonder if you haven’t ever hear real-life hearing-impaired people speak in the same way, and it becomes part of the window-dressing of the film. Check out this scene between Sorvino and Burton, and you’ll see what I mean:

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At first, I was setting myself up for a dandy courtroom drama, but as the story takes its stranger-than-fiction turns, it becomes more about how screwed up the Illinois correctional system is for not allowing for special circumstances for deaf-mutes. Oh, and there’s a wildly disturbing prison rape scene (something broadcast TV would rather commit hara-kiri over than depict today, but seemed to be the norm in more than a handful of ’70s TV-movies), in which Burton is pinned down by three large, sweaty dudes. Oh, and it sorta conveniently glosses over how Burton’s real-life counterpart turned out to be a convicted serial killer…? And, almost forgot — it’s got an amazing head-spinning ’70s fuck-you ending. You need to see this PEABODY AWARD-WINNING piece of obscuro TV history. I think. I’m pretty sure. Here’s a vintage TV spot for Dummy:

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And then there’s Voices, a film so schizo in its construction that it left me genuinely shocked. At first, it’s a kitchen-sink-with-a-heaping-helping-of-schmaltz Jewish family comedy, then it turns into A Star Is Born, then it’s a eye-rolling romance between an obnoxious dude and a deaf girl — with a dash of All That Jazz to go with it.

Michael Ontkean (Sheriff Truman from “Twin Peaks”) plays the singer/songwriter hungry for stardom, and Amy Irving is pretty good as the deaf girl. As well, the always-great Viveca Lindfors is fun as Irving’s uptight Euro-weirdo mom, and Alex Rocco (one of my character actor faves) is Ontkean’s loser gambling-addicted father. The gross kid who plays “Bobby C.” in Saturday Night Fever shows up as Ontkean’s younger brother — and it’s one of the more crazy pieces of casting I’d seen in a while, as the actor was something like 24 when the film was shot, and he’s playing a 14-year-old! It works, kinda, as long as you don’t think about it at all.

Ontkean’s character’s songs are all written by Jimmy Webb, the songwriter of a gazillion chart hits like “Wichita Lineman”, “MacArthur Park” and “By The Time I Get To Phoenix” — but he’s a weird choice to helm the musical end of Voices, as the dude in the film comes off like a strangulated Diamond/Manilow sandwich. Depending on your disposition, the musical numbers are either the most insane, or the most tolerable parts of the film. In any case, they alone are a reason to check it out, much less the “funhouse carousel” of movie moods Voices strikes.

This double feature ripped my face off. Check out the original trailer for Voices!:

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