“Melvin and Howard” (1980) dir. Jonathan Demme


Despite the fact that Jonathan Demme’s “Melvin and Howard” won two Oscars in 1981 (for Bo Goldman’s screenplay and Mary Steenburgen’s supporting acting turn), the film is one of the best forgotten films of the last 40 years. The film is based on the true story about a ne’er-do-well named Melvin Dummar (Paul Le Mat’s best performance) who allegedly gave a ride to a hitchhiker … billionaire Howard Hughes … and how Hughes left a $156 million fortune to Melvin upon Hughes’s demise. The film chronicles the ups … but mostly downs … of Melvin as he stumbles along, bouncing from job to job and making bad choice after bad choice in his quest for happiness and success. The Hughes inheritance seems to be the one break Melvin has been working towards his entire life … until that’s taken away from him too.

Many of the events of this film seem unbearably sad, except that “Melvin and Howard” … like Melvin … always keeps its chin up. Even though Melvin’s actions oftentimes seems tragically foolish, it’s his optimism … even in the midst of a crushing reality … that makes the film eminently watchable and a true joy.

The attached scene is arguably the best scene in the film, despite the badly synced audio. Melvin’s wife Lynda, played by Steenburgen, has just won a lot of money on a TV game show … money that she hopes will lead to a normal life. Except that Melvin blows the money on a flashy new car and boat. It’s this moment where Lynda leaves him and there’s a very touching piece of dialogue between the two:

Lynda Dummar: C’est la vie.

Melvin Dummar: What’s that?

Lynda Dummar: French, Melvin. I used to dream of becoming a French interpreter.

Melvin Dummar: You don’t speak French.

Lynda Dummar: I told you it was only a dream.

One of the funniest and saddest bits of dialogue ever in an American film. A great, great movie. One of Demme’s best.