— Loren Hardeman Sr. (Sir Laurence Olivier) in The Betsy (1978)
Here’s a little thought experiment:
Imagine if The Godfather had starred Laurence Olivier and Tommy Lee Jones.
That may sound strange but it actually could have happened. When Francis Ford Coppola first started his search for the perfect actor to play Don Vito Corleone, he announced that he could only imagine two actors pulling off the role. One was Marlon Brando and the other was Laurence Olivier.
As for Tommy Lee Jones, he was among the many actors who auditioned for the role of Michael Corleone. At the time, Jones was 26 years old and had only recently made his film debut in Love Story. As odd as it may be to imagine the quintessentially Texan Tommy Lee Jones in the role, Coppola always said that he was looking for a brooder as Michael and that’s definitely a good description of Jones.
Of course, as we all know, neither Olivier nor Jones were ever cast in The Godfather. Marlon Brando played Don Vito and Al Pacino was cast as Michael. However, a few years later, Olivier and Jones would co-star in another family saga that combined history, organized crime, and melodrama. That film was 1978’s The Betsy and, interestingly enough, it even co-starred an actor who actually did appear in The Godfather, Robert Duvall.
Of course, now would probably be a good time to point out that The Godfather is perhaps the greatest American film of all time. And The Betsy … well, The Betsy most definitely is not.
Based on a novel by Harold Robbins, The Betsy exposes the secrets of Detroit. Decades ago, Loren Hardeman founded Hardeman Motors and started to build his considerable fortune. Sure, Loren had to break a few rules. He cut corners. He acted unethically. He had an affair with his daughter-in-law and then drove his gay son to suicide. Loren never said that he was perfect. Now in his 80s, Loren has a vision of the future and that vision is a new car. This car will be called the Betsy (named after his great-granddaughter) and it will be the most fuel-efficient car ever made.
Since the film appropriates the flashback structure used in The Godfather Part II, we get to see Loren Hardeman as both an elderly man and a middle-aged titan of industry. Elderly Loren is played by Laurence Olivier. Elderly Loren spends most of the film in a wheelchair and he speaks with a bizarre accent, one that I think was meant to be Southern despite the fact that the film takes place in Michigan. Elderly Loren gets really excited about building his new car and, at one point, shouts out “Wheeeeeee!”
Middle-aged Loren is played by … Laurence Olivier! That’s right. Olivier, who was 71 years old at the time, also plays Loren as a younger man. This means that Olivier wears a hairpiece and so much makeup that he looks a bit like a wax figure come to life. Strangely, Middle-aged Loren doesn’t have a strange accent and never says “wheeeee.”
To build his car, Loren recruits race car driver Angelo Perino (Tommy Lee Jones). Angelo’s father was an old friend of Loren’s. When Angelo agrees, he discovers that the Hardeman family is full of drama and secrets. Not only is great-granddaughter Betsy (Kathleen Beller) in love with him but so is Lady Bobby Ayers (Lesley-Anne Down), who is the mistress of Loren’s grandson, Loren the 3rd (Robert Duvall).
Because he blames his grandfather for the death of his father, Loren the 3rd has no intention of building Loren the 1st’s car. Loren the 3rd wants to continue to make cars that pollute the environment. “Over my dead boy!” Loren the 1st replies. “As you wish, grandfather,” Loren the 3rd replies with a smile.
But we’re not done yet! I haven’t even talked about the Mafia and the union organizers and the automotive journalist who ends up getting murdered. From the minute the movie starts, it’s nonstop drama. That said, most of the drama is so overdone that it’s actually more humorous than anything else. As soon as Laurence Olivier shouts out, “Wheeeee!,” The Betsy falls into the trap of self-parody and it never quite escapes. There’s a lot going on in the movie and one could imagine a more imaginative director turning the trashy script into a critique of capitalism and technology. However, Daniel Petrie directs in a style that basically seems to be saying, “Let’s just get this over with.”
The cast is full of interesting people, all of whom are let down by a superficial script. Nothing brings out the eccentricity in talented performers quicker than a line of shallow dialogue. Jane Alexander, who plays Duvall’s wife, delivers all of her lines in an arch, upper class accent. Edward Herrmann, playing a lawyer, smirks every time the camera is pointed at him. Katharine Ross, as Olivier’s mistress and Duvall’s mother, stares at Olivier like she’s trying to make his head explode. Tommy Lee Jones is even more laconic than usual while Duvall always seems to be struggling not to start laughing.
And then there’s Olivier. For better or worse, Olivier is the most entertaining thing about The Betsy. He doesn’t give a good performance but he does give a memorably weird one. Everything, from the incomprehensible accent to a few scenes where he literally seems to bounce up and down, suggests a great actor who is desperately trying to bring a spark of life to an otherwise doomed project. It’s a performance so strange that it simply has to be seen to be believed.
Tomorrow, we take a look at another melodrama featuring Robert Duvall, True Confessions!