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'80s film showdown: When Alan Alda bends, he's funny




Alan Alda might seriously be one of the most unrewarded actors of the '80s. I'll watch his work from any decade (particularly his turn as Dr. Robert Gallo in 1993's And the Band Played On, 1997's Murder at 1600 and his short stint on TV's The West Wing), but don't forget that Alda and friends essentially ushered smart comedy/drama television into the '80s with M*A*S*H, which wrapped production in 1983.

Alda, who turns 75 today, should never lament that his "Captain Benjamin Franklin Pierce" will probably overshadow his movie work in the '80s. I have fond memories of two movies in particular. And since he didn't have five movies that decade to honor, I'll focus on just the pair that really stick out: 1986's Sweet Liberty and 1989's Crimes and Misdemeanors. Which is better? Let's find out.

The plot:
 A history professor at a small town college watches in disbelief as Hollywood invades to make a movie based on his book about the Revolutionary War.
Alda's role: Alda plays the professor, Michael Burgess, who falls for the actress who plays his book's lead female character (played by Michelle Pfeiffer).
Trivia: Alda also wrote and directed the movie.
Signature line: "I think I should warn you - I have a sword in my bag."
What critics said: "Sweet Liberty probably will play better when it arrives on TV, where its episodic structure will be more at home and it won't be so obvious how all of the little set-pieces don't hang together. Like most movies about movies, it's not very realistic." -- Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times.

The plot:
 An opthamologist's mistress threatens to reveal their affair to his wife, while a married documentary filmmaker is infatuated by another woman.
Alda's role: Alda plays the egotistical TV producer, who hires a filmmaker (Woody Allen) to make a documentary celebrating his career.
Trivia: Alda was only supposed to appear in the opening scene but Allen expanded Alda's part after being impressed by the actor's improvisation skills. Allen would write Alda's part as the movie went along.
Signature line: "If it bends, it's funny. If it breaks, it isn't."
What critics said: "Who else but Woody Allen could make a movie in which virtue is punished, evildoing is rewarded and there is a lot of laughter - even subversive laughter at the most shocking times?" -- Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times.

So yes, Crimes and Misdemeanors is easily the better of the two. But follow Ebert's advice: If Sweet Liberty comes on TV, make time to watch it. Hawkeye Pierce would appreciate it.

[Last modified: Friday, January 28, 2011 10:08am]


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