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Hit the Road, Mac (and Frisbee)
In 'Rafferty and the Gold Dust Twins,' Alan Arkin and Sally Kellerman support spitball lead actor Mackenzie Phillips.
Streaming: The 70s were a turning point in my personal film history, a period in which I realized I enjoyed getting out of the house and watching movies, even more than I liked staying home and watching television.
Maybe it was because we only had B&W television sets at home, or because my siblings and I took turns in changing the channel by using a pair of pliers, due to a busted control know on the 13-inch tv in the room that my older brother and I shared. My favorite home-viewing memory is probably watching Steven Spielberg’s Duel on a weekend evening by myself in my parents’ room on their huge 19-inch B&W tv while everyone else was visiting with out-of-town guests in the living room. The movie kept me riveted throughout, and made me a lifelong Spielberg fan.
My parents looked out for us children and set viewing rules for us. When I started venturing out to theaters, first on public transportation, then on my bicycle, later in my used car(s), they cautioned me about seeking out any R-rated movie, which I followed faithfully. And so that meant that I didn’t see many movies that I desperately wanted to see — really, too many to list here — including movies that today might be rated PG-13 or even PG. In those days, however, a fair number of movies received an R-rating due to ‘adult content,’ such as certain profanities.
Different from today, in the 70s, movies did not specify exactly why they had received an R-rating, so I was left to wonder why, for example, Logan’s Run received a PG rating, even though it included several brief glimpses of attractive naked people, while something like Rafferty and the Gold Dust Twins evidently did not feature any nudity or violence. What drew me to Rafferty and the Gold Dust Twins in 1975 was one person in particular: Mackenzie Phillips.
By 1975, I had not seen her yet in George Lucas’ American Graffiti (1973), a film for which she received good notices as a beguiling teenager who grabs a ride with Paul Le Mat. She is very good in that film: confident and spirited. But in 1975, One Day at a Time drew me to both Mackenzie Phillips and Valerie Bertinelli. Watching the sitcom every week inspired similar-aged me to develop deep crushes on both of them.
Before she landed that sitcom role, however, Mackenzie Phillips had appeared in Rafferty and the Gold Dust Twins. According to IMDb, that film debuted in February 1975, but Mackenzie Phillips stood out to me even without seeing American Graffiti or the sitcom. Was it because of her slender build, or because she was about my age? I don’t remember, and crushes don’t make sense, anyway, but I am someone who can easily develop a crush, even without trying to do so.
TCM lists the movie as TV-MA, which prompted me to watch it when it showed up on their streaming component WatchTCM. Per the helpful notes written by the superb writer Nathaniel Thompson (known for his long-standing, long-helpful Mondo-Digital review site), the film went into production in late 1973. That means Phillips was only 14, which makes her performance at the more remarkable in my adult eyes.
Alan Arkin stars as the titular Rafferty, a role originally eyed by Jack Nicholson before scheduling issues caused him to drop out. He is singled out in a large crowd of many happy people, but he falls over out of his chair, apparently drunk. The next morning he wakes up and, like many 70s leading men, is disheveled and living in less than desirable circumstances, driving a beat-up that looks like it’s ready to fall apart.
He goes to work and, of course, he’s a driving inspector for the DMV! To put it succinctly: his life is terrible.
Born in March 1934, Arkin made his first memorable screen appearance in Norman Jewison’s The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming (1966). He starred in the likes of Mike Nichols’ Catch-22 (1970), Little Murders (1971), which he also directed, and Deadhead Miles, written by Terence Malick (1972). Per the notes by Nathaniel Thompson, Arkin had recently completed production on Richard Rush’s Freebie and the Bean (1974), opposite James Caan.
Appearing opposite strong actors, Arkin always appears to mesh well. He manifests his characters quietly; they are always convincing and come across as quite authentic. Here he plays a middle-aged loser. Soon, we will learn about his past and how that has brought him to a point in his life that might be called a middle-aged crisis. In any event, he’s ready for a change in his life, which comes after an informal encounter during his lunch hour.
Mac (Sally Kellerman) and Frisbee (Mackenzie Phillips) could be mother and daughter, so after a little light flirting, Rafferty is happy to give them a ride into Hollywood. On the way, Frisbee pulls a gun, and the friendly encounter turns potentially perilous for him. Soon enough, the armed interplay turns into something much different, as Rafferty realizes that he’s ready for something different in his life.
Moving from supporting roles in Robert Altman’s MASH (1970) and Brewster McCloud (1970) had a leading role opposite Arkin in Gene Saks’ Last of the Red Hot Lovers (1972), which I haven’t seen, but perhaps their comfortable chemistry in this film. She also had recently co-starred opposite James Cann in Howard Zieff’s Slither (1973), so perhaps that was another bond they have in common.
Rafferty and Mac are the ostensible parental figures, while Frisbee is their wild child. This holds true through the major portion of the movie, which writer Nathaniel Thompson places among the many ‘buddy road movies’ of the period that followed in the wake of Easy Rider (1969). As a youngster in the 1960s and early 70s, I can attest to the fascination and attraction of the road for many families. Gas was relatively cheap and shortages had not yet become a problem in 1975. Our family could not afford to fly; it was much cheaper to hit the road when we wanted to travel.
Of necessity, then, Rafferty and the Gold Dust Twins is episodic, even if the Los Angeles to New Orleans — just like Easy Rider! — trip is confined to California and Arizona, plus a side trip to Las Vegas. Still, Southern California and Arizona offer many open roads and a pleasing variety of landscapes and settings, so the movie is always hopping with invention. The multiple settings also allow young Frisbee to manifest her criminal tendencies as a grifter at heart, even though she has described herself as a writer to Mac.
The episodic nature allows Alex Rocco to spice up a few scenes, and, later in the movie, Charles Martin Smith as a soldier on leave, reuniting him with Phillips (though I can’t remember if they shared more then brief appearances together in American Graffiti), and Harry Dean Stanton as a crusty, foul-mouthed former flame of Mac. (His dialogue is filled with f-words, which was probably responsible for the film’s R-rating.)
I loved Arkin’s performance, which mixes notes of defiance, determination, and resignation, especially in contrast with Kellerman’s upbeat, realistic portray of a woman who has not yet reached her peak, and Phillips’ harder-edged turn as a teenager who is rebelling against a system that tries to hold her back from deciding for herself what she wants to do with her life.
Dick Richards directed from an original screenplay by John Kaye. Richards was known as a director of notable commercials in the 1960s; he made his directorial debut in 1972 with The Culpepper Cattle Co., which featured Charles Martin Smith in a supporting role. Richards would go on to direct Robert Mitchum in Farewell, My Lovely (also 1975) and Gene Hackman in March or Die (1977), as well as a few other pictures, including Death Valley (1982).
Reportedly, the picture enjoyed “a very modest critical and commercial success,” again per Mr. Nathaniel Thompson. It’s a gentle and very modest film that is easy to watch and enjoy. [Currently available in standard definition on Watch TCM through June 16.]