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SEPTEMBER 21, 1998: 

The Muppet Movie

D: James Frawley, 1979
Frank Oz, Charles Durning, Austin Pendleton

Battle for the Planet of the Apes

D: J. Lee Thompson, 1973
Roddy McDowall, Claude Akins

Phantom of the Paradise

D: Brian De Palma, 1974
Paul Williams, William Finley, Jessica Harper

Happy belated birthday to Paul Williams! Yes, the same Paul Williams who's best remembered as the butt of many a Seventies short joke if not as the profane Little Enos from those awful Smokey and the Bandit films. The 5'2" Williams turned 58 on Saturday, September 19 and despite a film career that hasn't been overly spectacular, buffs shouldn't discount his acting and musical contributions to the big screen. After all, aside from his Smokey flicks, he shares an Oscar with Babs Streisand for Best Song ("Evergreen" from 1976's A Star Is Born). With that, here's a look at some the little man's finest movie moments.

Don't confuse the diminutive Williams with one of Jim Henson's creations -- he's in 1979's The Muppet Movie for a millisecond (making a cameo as a pianist in El Sleezo Bar). Still, his songwriting contribution to this film's score should not go overlooked. In fact, its best song, "Rainbow Connection," (which earned an Oscar nomination for Best Song) opens up the film as Kermit the Frog (with the aid of some fairly decent special effects) drifts through a swamp on his lily pad, strumming a banjo and crooning this inspiring ballad. Fortunately, he's singing in the right place at the right time because a Hollywood talent agent (Dom Deluise) is fishing nearby. In fact, this agent is bearing a copy of Variety with a casting call ad for talented frogs. This is enough for Kermit to realize his destiny and take to the road in search of fame and fortune. Along the way, he makes friends (Fozzie Bear, Gonzo, Rowlf the Dog, and the rest of the Muppet gang), finds love (Miss Piggy), and alienates the proprietor of a frog legs restaurant chain (Charles Durning). The best thing about the film (as is the case with most of the Muppet flicks), is that nothing is too sugar-coated. Sure, kids love the muppetry and cute characters, but the story and dialogue are accessible to adult audiences as well. Rowlf says he drinks beer after a hard day, there's references to Hare Krishna, and Steve Martin has the film's top cameo as an overtly insolent waiter (a character most of us grownups have faced a time or two). As a whole, The Muppet Movie has something for everybody. And despite changes in kiddie trends and advancements in special effects technology, it still holds its own -- visually, thematically, and musically.

Battle for the Planet of the Apes. No Paul Williams in sight!

Not the worst Apes film in the series (Conquest of... can lay claim to that one), 1972's Battle for the Planet of the Apes is set in a post-apocalyptic world where apes and humans try to live together in a forest society amidst distrust and prejudice. Alongside Roddy McDowell as Caesar, Williams stars as the brainy baboon Virgil, waddling around hypothesizng about the balance of good and evil within apes and men as well as other plot-essential subjects. The main story unfolds when a brutish gorilla, General Aldo (played by the late Claude Akins), plots a revolt against the liberal ape king, Caesar. Meanwhile, mutated humans (survivors of the riots that climaxed the previous sequel), learn of the ape civilization and rev up their recycled army gear in preparation for ape genocide. Despite decent acting from the lead apes, Williams, Akins, and McDowell, the actual battle scenes are downright lethargic. A few minor explosions and an occasional jeep rolling over a tent isn't exactly the stuff that inspired Saving Private Ryan. But what can you expect from a quickie sequel on an insufficient budget? While the not-so-mutated mutants and weak war scenes are laughable, the story isn't all that bad. It's the kind of stuff that's tolerable on a rainy Saturday afternoon, but even then seeing the original Planet for the 100th time may be more worth the while.

Phantom of the Paradise is Brian De Palma's 1974 spoof cum adaptation of Faust and Phantom of the Opera. Williams stars as Swan, rock & roll's reigning record executive and producer. He wants a dynamite act to open his new club, the Paradise. During auditions, he meets Winslow (William Finley), who has written an ingenious pop adaptation of Faust. In true fiendish fashion, he steals Winslow's music then has him framed on a drug charge. When Winslow learns that Swan plans to open the Paradise with a performance of Faust, he goes berserk, escaping from jail, on a mission to destroy his nemesis. Along the way, however, he becomes horribly disfigured and is thought to be dead by the authorities. With that, Winslow assumes the gruesome identity of the Phantom, and from there the fun begins. Stylistically, De Palma's vision is cleverly cartoonish yet sincerely black. At times, the viewer may often be left indecisive as to whether the Phantom's plight is pitiful or just harmless camp. As Swan, Williams is delightfully nasty, gleefully thwarting the pathetic Phantom at every turn and eventually seducing the object of his affection, a young Jessica Harper. Be advised, however, that their make-out scene alone may inspire more chills than the actual Phantom. Williams also did the songs and music for Phantom, and, while it is pretty solid stuff, it's woefully dated. Still, the surreal vibe provided by both his score and De Palma's tight narrative are enticing to say the least and (at least for camp value) beg a second look 24 years after its release.

-- Mike Emery

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