The 1980s was not an easy decade for Robert Altman. After enjoying a fantastic run of films in the 1970s that included the likes of McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), The Long Goodbye (1973), California Split (1974), and Nashville (1975), he effectively burned his bridges with the Hollywood studios with Popeye (1980) and found work in Europe and took to adapting stage plays for the big screen through independent financing. In the early ‘80s, National Lampoon magazine published wild stories about two troublemaking teenagers named Oliver Cromwell “O.C.” Ogilvie and Mark Stiggs, written by Tod Carroll and Ted Mann.
I don’t know if it was Altman’s agent’s idea or the director saw all these successful teen comedies being made and decided to try one himself, but O.C. and Stiggs (1987) was an ill fit to say the least – one that has its charms and its moments, but definitely a cinematic oddity in the man’s filmography. He didn’t care for the genre and turned this indifference into a movie that was a biting satire of the genre. Not surprisingly, nobody liked it and the movie quickly disappeared. Even among Altman fans it has few supporters and with good reason.
O.C. (Daniel Jenkins) and Stiggs (Neill Barry) are suburban teens and avid practical jokers that live in Phoenix, Arizona. The main target of their gags is the Schwab family, a decadent, materialistic clan headed by Randall Schwab (Paul Dooley), an arrogant blowhard who sells insurance. The mother (Jane Curtin) is a drunk, their son (Jon Cryer) is a gullible idiot while their daughter is about to get married. The source of the boys’ ire towards the Schwabs stems from Randall cancelling O.C.’s grandfather’s (Ray Walston) retirement insurance thus denying him the ability to have assisted care. The movie recounts O.C. and Stiggs’ summer spent terrorizing the Schwabs.
In some respects, O.C. and Stiggs are like teenage versions of Hawkeye and Trapper John from M*A*S*H (1970). Both feature clever hipsters but the latter were also brilliant surgeons whereas the former are only good at one thing – staging elaborate practical jokes. In M*A*S*H, the two surgeons were fighting against authority and the absurdity of war while O.C. and Stiggs are fighting against materialism and mediocrity as represented by the Schwabs with their bad fashion sense and gaudy décor – the epitome of the “ugly American.”
The problem with O.C. and Stiggs is the central characters. They aren’t particularly interesting. Their obsession with pulling endless practical jokes on the Schwabs seems mean-spirited at times with Stiggs embodying the spirit of them while O.C. is given scenes away from his friend that flesh out his character a little bit – at least we get some insight into his behavior. They aren’t as cool as they think they are – they have no friends and no girlfriends thanks to their obnoxious behavior. The teen pranksters are rebelling against the mind-numbing banality of suburbia and the “Greed is good” era of Reaganomics. There is an attempt to provide some kind of motivation for why these kids do what they do. Stiggs’ dad is cheating on his wife while O.C.’s grandfather is unemployed and possibly senile. No wonder they spend all their time together devising elaborate schemes. It is a form of escape from their mundane surroundings.
This movie sees Altman in an extremely playful mood with the same kind of fast and loose structure as California Split, which also features two freewheeling pals careening from one crazy encounter to another. A crazed, babbling Dennis Hopper even pops up as a burnt out Vietnam vet. It’s as if his photographer character from Apocalypse Now (1979) had somehow made it out of Kurtz’s compound and came back to the United States. The boys cross paths with a Schwab neighbor played with effortless cool by Martin Mull. At one point, Stiggs asks him what he does and he replies without missing a beat, “Well, basically I drink and make a lot of money.” Unfortunately, he disappears as quickly as he was introduced but thankfully, and inexplicably, shows up later at a sports-themed restaurant opposite Bob Uecker playing himself, rattling off athletes’ names indiscriminately.
There are some enjoyable moments, like a rare instance of seriousness when we see O.C. having breakfast with his grandfather and we see how the latter’s health affects the former. His jokey demeanor is a façade to cover his rather bleak home life. Another wonderful moment comes when O.C. dances with a beautiful girl (Cynthia Nixon) at the Schwab wedding – a nod to classic Hollywood cinema by way of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. It isn’t enough to keep this uneven movie together.
The characters of O.C. and Stiggs, created by Tod Carroll and Ted MannCarroll and Mann
Young, up-and-coming producer Peter Newman was assigned the project and was able to get Mike Nichols interested in directing but his numerous commitments on Broadway forced him to bow out. Newman had gotten friendly with Robert Altman and pitched the project to him. He was looking for work at the time. MGM, still licking their wounds from the Heaven’s Gate (1980) debacle, were desperate to make a successful teen comedy. Freddie Fields, Altman’s former agent, became the head of MGM at a time when the director was on the outs with Hollywood studios. He agreed to hire Altman to make O.C. and Stiggs but only for $8 million or less and that he promised to shoot the script (the director was notorious for throwing out the script and improvising dialogue). Two months later, Altman was in Phoenix, Arizona in the middle of summer of 1983 where temperatures soared to 120 degrees, making a movie he wasn’t jazzed about doing.
When Altman showed the movie to MGM, their executives didn’t like it and Newman said, “That’s one of the few instances where Bob didn’t want to hang around and fight the fight. He didn’t finish that movie. The studio finished that movie.” This certainly explains the final product and the odd push-pull of style vs. content. Neither Carroll and Mann
There is something oddly fascinating watching Altman apply his trademark aesthetic to the ‘80s teen comedy. While O.C. and Stiggs pull pranks on the hapless Schwabs, the director bombards the soundtrack with multiple layers of sound and overlapping dialogue, and his slow, roaming camera gradually zooms in on something that strikes his fancy. Altman flips the ‘80s teen comedy on its head. He even refuses to populate the film’s soundtrack with trendy New Wave music, instead opting for the catchy African music of King Sunny Ade. No wonder people hated this movie when it came out. Clearly Altman did not grasp the original source material (or didn’t even bother to read it) and just did his own thing.
O.C. and Stiggs is what happens when you pair up a filmmaker with a genre he has no affinity for and the results are, at times, amusing. At some point, you either surrender yourself to the goofiness of the whole enterprise or resist this maddeningly frustrating effort. Aesthetically, it is typical Altman fare but content-wise he’s out of his depth: sometimes, this can result in a fascinating train wreck or a big ol’ bore. This movie falls somewhere in-between. I can’t totally dismiss it but I don’t watch it very often either. This one is for Altman completists only.
Stephenson, Hunter. “Let O.C. and Stiggs Live.” Apology Magazine.
Zuckoff, Mitchell. Robert Altman: An Oral Biography.Vintage. 2010.