The local public library and HBO conspired in the same month to grant me a chance to compare the two versions of Dennis Potter's "Pennies From Heaven" -- the 1978 BBC miniseries with Bob Hoskins and Cheryl Campbell, and the 1981 Herbert Ross film with Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters.
The library (a wonderful place) carries a growing selection of BBC DVDs, and how happy I was to find the original "Pennies" in stock. I hadn't seen it in probably 20 years, but I always remembered it, for it had a solid emotional impact on me when I first viewed it. So hungry was I to experience "Pennies" again that I watched it several times, focusing on specific scenes in order to really understand the main characters. I never got bored with it. As before, "Pennies" grabbed my mind and soul and pulled me right into its world.
For those unfamiliar with the story, it concerns a Depression-era sheet music salesman, Arthur Parker, whose life consists of professional and sexual frustration. His prim wife, Joan, rebuffs his advances, and he has a tough time convincing stodgy merchants to buy the latest pop tunes that he's convinced will become hits. And it's in those pop tunes where Arthur sees his utopia -- a grand place where people dress elegantly, dance gracefully, drink champagne and make love without a care in the world. A world where there is no hatred, violence, theft, madness, nor deceit. A musical heaven on Earth.
Arthur's fears and desires, as well as the inner feelings of the other characters, are amplified through lip-synching the pop tunes of the period. "Pennies" was Dennis Potter's first production to use this device: an incredibly dark and depressing scene is suddenly transformed into a bright musical number, the characters mouthing the words of a song while dancing with one another before dark reality throws them back in their place. Potter streamlined this device in later productions like "The Singing Detective" and "Lipstick On Your Collar," but for me, "Pennies" remains the model.
I suppose that's because Bob Hoskins, who plays Arthur, is fantastic. "Pennies" is one of his best performances. His Arthur is a liar, an adulterer and a cheat, but there's something incredibly fragile about him. In one scene he attempts to explain to some other salesmen what he sees in the songs he sells. He fumbles and sputters, admits that he's no good with words, but soon you get the idea. Arthur is very frightened. A veteran of the First World War, he's seen death and destruction up-close. Having survived that, he claws at whatever paradise he can find. And for him, paradise is fully explained in songs like "(Yes, Yes) My Baby Said Yes" and "Roll Along Prairie Moon." To Arthur, pennies from heaven are dropping all around us at all times, and we're too blind and ignorant to recognize this.
Arthur finds his human key to paradise in a rural schoolteacher named Eileen. Everything he's ever dreamed about exists in her, and of course he lies his head off in order to have her. Played beautifully by Cheryl Campbell, Eileen begins as a socially repressed country mouse who, once seduced and impregnated by Arthur, unleashes a sexual and emotional will that cannot be contained. And no matter what Arthur does to her, she stays loyal to him. Even when reduced to prostitution in order to eat, Eileen still thanks Arthur for rescuing her from a dead life.
Like everything else, paradise exacts a price, and for Arthur it's being charged and convicted for a crime he didn't commit. Despite all his petty behavior and personal deceit, you have to feel for Arthur, and by extension for Eileen. Their happiness together is short-lived and compromised by poverty and the hypocrisy of those who are enriched by poverty. Soul mates to the bloody end, their love transcends this horrible world and lives forever in song.
Steve Martin was moved enough by this production of "Pennies" that he pushed to remake it for the American screen. Give him credit -- Martin was coming off the huge film hit "The Jerk" and could've easily scored big with another comedy. Instead, he wanted to play Arthur Parker. Teamed with "Jerk" co-star (and then girlfriend) Bernadette Peters, director Herbert Ross, and Dennis Potter, who compressed his BBC miniseries into a screenplay (Hollywood money and exposure -- who can blame the guy?), Martin stripped his wild & crazy persona down to a dramatic monotone. Well, in most scenes, anyway. In the musical fantasy sequences, we get a measured dose of Martin's comedic side as he mugs, grins, struts and dances across the screen. You can tell that this role meant a lot to him. Martin put serious work into creating his Arthur. But no matter how hard he tries, Martin cannot compete with Hoskins's performance.
A major part of this is that Martin is simply too good looking for Arthur. He's too sleek, too polished in the dramatic scenes, so when he leaps into song and dance, there's no real difference. Hoskins, on the other hand, is short, broad, barrel-chested. His dramatic Arthur rings true. You've seen this guy a thousand times in real life. So when he jumps on a table to tap out a tune, the fantasy comes alive. There's no way the real-world Arthur could move like this. Plus, Hoskins is simply a better actor. He can be charming, disgusting, heart-wrenching, funny. Martin looks like he's marking time between musical numbers.
Peters's Eileen is a bit more inspired: there are quiet dramatic moments where she accurately hits Potter's darker notes. And, being a Broadway vet, she's no stranger to singing and dancing. But due to the brevity of the film version, Peters must transform quickly, whereas Cheryl Campbell had several hours to flesh out her Eileen. Some projects are just not meant for film, and "Pennies" is one of them.
It's always worth hearing Potter talk about what shaped him as a writer. The man endured a lot of physical pain and ailments throughout his life, which ended in 1995 when he finally fell to cancer (he named his tumor "Rupert" after Murdoch). In his final interview with Melvyn Bragg, given just over a month before he died, Potter openly explored what moved and inspired him. Frail, weak, chain smoking cigs, drinking white wine supplemented by sips from a morphine flask, Potter poetically bid adieu to a world whose horrors he creatively documented. The only thing missing was for him to jump out of his chair and dance around Bragg while lip-synching to Lew Stone's "Pick Yourself Up." ("Dust yourself off/start all over again!") A deeper truth found in fantasy. For Potter, the proper final gesture.