‘World According to Garp’ vs. ‘Best Little Whorehouse in Texas’ Which aged better? — Ultimate Movie Year
They’re both vying to capture the attention of grown adults. Are they worth catching up on?
“The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas”
Directed by Colin Higgins
Released July 23, 1982
Where to Watch
“The World According to Garp”
Directed by George Roy Hill
Released July 23, 1982
Where to Watch
After an adventurous start to the summer, the new films of 1982 are beginning to settle into contemporary tales of adult comedy and drama. This week’s two releases, “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” and “The World According to Garp,” are both vying to capture the attention of grown adults. Are they worth catching up on?
Based on the popular 1978 John Irving novel “The World According to Garp” highlights the life story of T.S. Garp (Robin Williams), an anxious fiction writer struggling with his self-esteem as his life becomes increasingly unconventional. His mother Jenny (Glenn Close, making her feature film debut) bares him out of wedlock and becomes an influential leader in a militant feminist movement. Both his wife (Mary Beth Hurt) and himself indulge in infidelity, and his best friend is a transgender woman (John Lithgow).
George Roy Hill, a Hollywood legend who helmed great films like 1968’s “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and 1973’s “The Sting,” directed this adaptation of “Garp.” The film benefits from his firm hand, but the greatest strength of “Garp” lies in its performance. This is Williams’ first significant dramatic role, and he skillfully establishes his credentials as a dramatic actor apart from the comedy he rose to fame with. Close and Lithgow also earned high acclaim, and received their first Academy Award nominations for Best Supporting Actress and Actor, respectively.
However, the main problem here is that Garp is the least exciting person in the movie. The reactionary plot highlights the rise of the feminist movement and the political violence of the 60s and 70s but from the perspective of a straight white man (which, it should be noted, has a total commitment from the main character to the author to the screenwriter to the director). While this may play well in the early years of President Reagan’s America, it’s aged like milk in 2022, making Garp incredibly petulant as viewed through a modern lens. Garp’s story isn’t unique from the hundreds of feature films about adult white men struggling with the realities of a contemporary world. In hindsight, framing the story around Jenny’s journey as a character who has decided to have as little to do with men as possible would be far more interesting.
“Garp” also suffers from a combination of whimsy and melancholy that, 40 years later, feels outdated and quaint. Many movies and television shows have shown more substantial commitment and better execution with this tone. “Garp” is a solid film that makes a case for B grades across the board and maintains the director’s quality standards. Hill also made more exciting films. In this modern age of countless hours of entertainment and drama to compete for our attention, it’s not a strong enough reason to revisit.
“John Irving’s best-selling novel, ‘The World According to Garp,’ was cruel, annoying, and smug,” wrote Roger Ebert for the Chicago Sun-Times. “I kept wanting to give it to my cats. But it was wonderfully well-written and probably intended to inspire some negative reactions in the reader. The movie version of ‘Garp,’ however, left me entertained but unmoved, and perhaps the movie’s basic failing is that it did not inspire me to walk out on it. Something has to be wrong with a film that can take the material as intractable as ‘Garp’ and make it palatable.”
While “Garp” is filled with bummer moments, the same can’t be said for the delightful “Best Little Whorehouse in Texas,” the comedy-romance film based on the 1978 stage musical of the same name. The movie concerns a brothel, the Chicken Ranch, a longtime institution in a rural southeast Texas community. The Ranch is currently run by Mona Stangley (Dolly Parton), who is also involved with the county sheriff, Ed Earl Dodd (Burt Reynolds), who lets the brothel continue to operate because nobody starts trouble over there. Mona is also a generous community supporter. However, a sensational media personality, Melvin P. Thorpe (Dom DeLuise), turns his attention (and audience) to shutting down the Chicken Ranch, putting Mona and Ed Earl’s relationship in jeopardy.
What’s immediately appealing about “Best Little Whorehouse” is that it features several charismatic star entertainers performing at the peak of their powers. Reynolds was one of the biggest movie stars of this era, and Parton, already a top country music performer, was successfully transitioning into feature films. With Reynolds’ bemused relaxed demeanor and Parton’s Southern belle likeability, they individually light up screens whenever they come into a scene while maintaining great chemistry. DeLuise, Jim Nabors, and Charles Durning (who earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his small part here) are also engaging and play to their strengths.
The best way to describe the difference between “Garp” and “Best Little Whorehouse” is the stars in the former are acting, and the principals in the latter are entertaining. Since the story in “Garp” doesn’t reach new depths or compelling perspectives, you can’t help but keep your eyes on the pop entertainment of “Best Little Whorehouse.”
Critics were very mixed on the final cut of “Best Little Whorehouse,” feeling it did not engage the material enough. It’s easy to say this decades later, but “Best Little Whorehouse” is provocative as a sex-positive story at the height of the Reagan era. It’s almost unthinkable something like this would be released in theaters with two of the biggest stars in pop culture today.
“The good features are just strong enough to set the movie up on its feet occasionally,” wrote Jay Boyar for the Buffalo Courier-Express. “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas isn’t a good film, but it isn’t as bad as its premise suggests. The movie’s diverting enough, although you end up paying for your pleasures.”
The two movies also have divergent responses at the box office. “The Best Little Whorehouse” was a certified hit, earning $69.7 million during its domestic run and becoming one of the year’s top performers. “Garp,” however, underperformed upon its debut. While “Garp” managed to hold onto its small audience for several weeks, it grossed a total of $29.7 million in theaters, putting it well in line with other financial disappointments like “Young Doctors in Love,” “Tron,” and “Blade Runner.”
As if the results weren’t convincing enough, “Best Little Whorehouse” also has another legacy. Parton used one of her original songs, “I Will Always Love You,” to conclude the movie. Not only did Parton’s song become a hit in 1974 during its initial release, and then again in 1982 with the film, Whitney Houston would record her version in 1992 to accompany her movie, “The Bodyguard.” Houston’s rendition would become one of the biggest singles of all time, solidifying “I Will Always Love You” as an essential song in movie history.
While some of those movies would become cult classics, audiences judged this weekend fairly. For many reasons, “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” is a more enjoyable movie experience than “The World According to Garp” and is my surprise of this memorable summer.
At the Box Office: The young women working in the world’s oldest profession turned a new trick this week. For the first time since it opened, “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” fell to second place in the box office race to debuting “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.” It was a squeaker, but “Texas” won the weekend with an $11.9 million three-day open, while “E.T.” earned $11.2 million. The lost little alien shouldn’t take it too hard, though: “E.T.” surpassed $150 million in domestic sales in its seventh week, outpacing every other film this year.
Far behind in third place was “Young Doctors in Love,” which grossed $3 million in its second week. “The World According to Garp” debuted in fourth place with a $2.9 million haul, followed by the re-release of “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” which pulled in $2.8 million in its second week.
One final new release, the Scott Baio comedy “Zapped!,” opened with a quiet $823,548 in 200 theaters. “Zapped!” would hang around in theaters for a while, finally receiving a wider release around Labor Day before finishing its run with $16.9 million in ticket sales.
Next Week: “An Officer and a Gentleman” and “Night Shift”
Originally published at https://www.ultimatemovieyear.com on July 22, 2022.
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