Svengali Is Your Weekend Cheesy Movie

by Erik Amaya

Cheesy movies are a special joy. Despite an earnest attempt to create compelling stories, filmmakers often miss the mark. Some movies turn out simply mediocre. Others become entertaining in spite of their flaws or authorial intent. And yet others thrive on a tone not easily marketed in Hollywood. They become cheesy. In Your Weekend Cheesy Movie, we’ll examine some of these films for what they get wrong — when they get it wrong — and what they right do in spite of the wishes of the studio or the director.
This week: Svengali

It is possible to find cheese in even the most modest of stories and settings. One does not always need a tough-to-pull off fantasy world or a Star Wars rip-off to mature some fine cinematic cheddar. Sometimes, you just need the movie biz to rise up and tell you the business is tough, yo. In fact, this theme recurs in various movie-making cycles over the decades and hit again in the early 1980s. With the unprecedented success in the early part of the blockbuster era, plenty of films arrived to remind moviegoers that people pour their souls into making the dream machine function. Movies like All That Jazz were released and, oddly enough, Paramount seemed to specialize in this with movies like Staying Alive.
The fact this wave coincided with a major decline in movie musicals is worth noting, but it may require more research to truly ascertain if these movies came as a response to studios completely losing the musical as a cash cow. But for our purposes, it sets the stage for this weekend’s cheesy movie, Svengali — a tale of the rigors of entertainment set against a May/December romance.
The plot concerns one Zoe Alexander (Jodie Foster), a girl from the Midwest who moves with her boyfriend to the Big Apple with thoughts of becoming rock stars. They play modest Manhattan clubs where Zoe is discovered by talent agent Eve Weiss (Elizabeth Ashley). But because she’s a full-service talent scout, she forces vocal coach Anton Bosnyak (Peter O’Toole) to listen to the band play. Both agree the group is terrible, but Eve convinces him that Zoe is worth nurturing. In the wording of the old parlance, “she’s got something.”
That something seems to be fire as she and Anton do not get along at first. But considering this is a movie loosely about the recording industry and loosely based on the George L. Du Maurier novel Trilby, you know exactly where this story is going. To modern eyes, the love affair between the 22-year-old Zoe and the 50-year-old Anton looks a little more distasteful now than it might have back in 1983, when this film aired on US television, but it is part of the format and Svengali is sticking with it.
After a number of untold weeks, Anton — who we’re told brought the house down in a production of a Svengali musical some time before he began coaching — reshapes Zoe’s voice into that sort of mild adult contemporary sound that was actually popular on the country charts in the early 1980s. And following a performance for some record executives at Anton’s home, Zoe gets signed. But trouble almost immediately follows as she cannot find her voice in the recording studio. Anton, who promised to come to the session, gets stuck in traffic. Once he arrives, her voice turns to the exact sort of soft magic the company execs want. Shortly after this, Zoe and Anton become lovers and after a further unspecified time, Zoe’s single hits Number 1.
Trouble brews again, of course, as the record company expects her to go on tour but she refuses to go without Anton. Also, she fixes it so her old boyfriend and his band can back her on the tour.
And if the plot sounds like a dreary Journey B-Side, that’s sort of the charm. Svengali‘s melodrama is the chief reason to despise it, but also the major reason to watch it. The Du Maurier novel is about an artist’s model, Trilby, who is transformed by a hypnotist into a great singer. But when he suffers a heart attack, she cannot sing and recalls she never wanted to be a performer in the first place. The film deletes both the hypnotism and Svengali’s domination of Trilby’s will (and the antisemitic overtones) for tepid romance and Zoe’s intense insecurity about singing without Anton in the room. The movie itself, though, feels hypnotic thanks to the cheap production values and that sickly, gauzy feel permeating films at the time. Overly lit and soft of focus, the film feels strangley comfortable as the principals go through the motions of the story.
But beyond that warm, soft blanket feel the movie gives off, it has one major asset in its corner: O’Toole. Sure, it’s clear he’s not 100% into the overall story, but he loves the scenes where Anton shouts, dances, and carries on … well, much the same way O’Toole himself carried on at times. Age 50 during production, he’s not the old man we know from things like 2008’s Thomas Kinkade’s Christmas Cottage or even 1993’s The Seventh Coin, but it is clear he’s contemplating the loss of his youth here and he manages to get some mileage out of both pretending to be a younger man in some scenes and Anton’s weariness in others. In fact, it is the most successful element of the film. So much so, it brushes up against the writing more often than not as Anton tends to have a level head about things. And because he is not actively trying to seduce Zoe, his willingness to play Svengali for her later on is something the film never really pulls off.
It also never pulls off the romance, either. At some point, you’re suppose to believe their rapport is a mutual attraction, but that never happens. Anton’s handsiness is creepy from the jump thanks to 21st Century mores. Foster, for her part, tries her best and seems convincing when Zoe first suggests they sleep together, but their relationship subsequently has all the depth of a high school production of Romeo and Juliet. Then again, this is a movie that uses the term “making it” in lieu of some less broadcast friendly terminology for sex, so maybe the juvenile sensation to the love story is the intended takeaway. Certainly, Anton reaches that conclusion even if the film does not.
Which means the cheese develops out of the film’s overwrought earnestness. It wants you to see Zoe and Anton’s incompatibility as a great tragedy. She needs him for the sake of her career and she bring him back to life, so the fact they can’t make it work should be devastating. But as presented, it’s just an absurd notion — almost as absurd as Zoe’s single (written by Don Black and John Barry) reaching Number 1 on the country charts. In fact, I should mention that Barry’s talents as a composer completely flee from him here. In cheesy movies he scored, the music is generally a highlight, but it definitely feels he was also in the mood for the gauzy feeling of the cinematography on this production.
Nonetheless, Svengali is the sort of cheesy movie for a cold night and a warm drink. It offers the sort of odd comfort a lot of early 80s dramas seemed to draw out of the atmosphere even if it is not a particularly good film.
Svengali is not available on any streaming services, but can be found on certain online video sites.

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