I’m going to go out on a limb here and hazard a guess that Sir Laurence Olivier didn’t receive his knighthood for his scene in this movie where he got all turned on by watching his daughter-in-law nursing his grandson and ended up bedding her down at the conclusion of a ten o’clock feeding that left the audience sick to its stomach.
Whether this is the single worst scene of this movie is open to debate since the movie is strewn with them, but it has to be the most memorably tacky of them.
Sir Larry wouldn’t be the only guy to trade on his reputation as a film legend to pick up movie welfare later in life (paging Sir Richard Burton!), but surely there was some other big budget flop being made in the late 1970s that didn’t involve him attempting to play both an old coot and his younger self in flashback. Watching him with his absurdly dyed hair as we traveled down mammary lane with him to the 1930s only made us wish that we could go back to 1975 where a pasty-faced up and comer named Tommy Lee Jones took center stage.
I suppose the intent with this movie was to make one of those big screen soap operas about the rise and fall of a powerful family where we follow their battles in both the boardroom and the bedroom. It was after all based on a Harold Robbins novel and we all remember the rich, dysfunctional family that was featured in The Carpetbaggers. (That one qualified as enjoyable trash chiefly because of George Peppard’s scenery chewing and the film industry setting.)
The Betsy though is spread out over too many characters for anyone to really take control of the movie and its yawn-inducing Detroit automaker universe isn’t exactly the sort of industry that captures your interest. Everyone knows that The Carpetbaggers was to some extent a fictionalization of Howard Hughes’s adventures in Hollywood, but not only do I have no clue if The Betsy is related to the Ford, Chrysler, or Jeep families, I don’t even care.
You’ve got Sir Larry playing Loren Hardeman, the patriarch of the family and he’s one of those overbearing types who expects more out of his son and grandson than they can live up to.
For his part, Sir Larry’s grandson witnesses his father’s suicide as well as seeing his mom and grandfather in bed together. And just for maximum impact he sees all this on the same night!
This little kid grows up to be a very embittered Robert Duvall and for some reason he holds a grudge against gramps and as the president of the company uses whatever means he can to bring that dirty old man down. Even if it means destroying the Betsy!
The Betsy of course is the car that Sir Larry hires Tommy Lee Jones to build. Tommy Lee plays star race car driver Angelo Perino (trust me – I only wish I was making this up as I went along) and for some reason Sir Larry decides that since Angelo is a great racer, he’ll make an even better car designer.
Sir Larry wants the Betsy to be the car that the common man and woman buy like the Model T was back in its heyday. He envisions an economical car that gets really good gas mileage. The film then is about a family’s power struggle over whether to build an ugly compact car that Americans won’t buy.
So even though we’re supposed to be rooting for the ambitious Angelo and his oldster mentor in their quest to build the car that will put the company back in the black, we can’t help but agree with dirty, underhanded Loren Hardeman III (Duvall) when he complains that this car is going to sink the company.
Sir Larry though gets enough votes to extend the movie another 90 minutes, I mean to build the Betsy, and thus sets in motion a struggle for the very soul of the company!
It doesn’t take long before we see the lengths that Loren III will go to make sure the Betsy doesn’t succeed as we discover that Angelo’s helmet is bugged, he gets followed around Detroit during a test drive, an unfavorable report appears in an automobile magazine and he gets beat up by a bunch of thugs in a parking garage!
The funniest part of all this is that he’s test driving a Pinto with a new engine dropped in it! A Pinto? This movie stars both Sir Laurence Olivier and a souped-up Pinto? That probably even tops Dean Jones and Herbie the Love Bug in the annals of classic great actor/great car team-ups!
In between incidents of industrial sabotage and intimidation, Angelo finds time to get it on with a couple of honeys including Lady Bobby Ayres, who also happens to be Loren III’s somewhat ambivalent mistress!
When Angelo isn’t being squeezed in by Lady Bobby between bouts of adultery with Loren III, he’s humping Loren III’s daughter, Betsy. Yes, as in the famous compact car, the Betsy.
After making some deals with his shady relatives, Angelo launches his big attack on the various Lorens and seizes control of the company. This involves him pulling a bunch of different documents out of his briefcase which isn’t usually the hallmark of a riveting climax to a film. (Here’s the proof that you hired the auto magazine to discredit the Betsy, Loren III! Here’s the proxy of Betsy’s 40% interest! Here’s my grocery list for stuff I need to get after work! Here’s the “inspected by #5” tag that came with my new power broker briefcase!)
Go ahead and haul out all of your car wreck metaphors, flat tire similes, blown engine analogies, and lemon cliches because they all are appropriate in this case.
Somehow managing the difficult feat of being simultaneously laughable and boring, The Betsy even acts like it’s two terrible movies since the dull flashbacks to Loren I’s life in the 1930s is completely overdone and makes the stuff involving Tommy Lee in the 1970s only seem like the second-worst movie of all time.
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