The Miss America Pageant annually blooms like a crop of late summer corn. It is one of those threatened institutions which has demonstrated remarkable powers of survival despite its many critics. A genuine bit of Americana, it lives on. Director Michael Ritchie (Downhill Racer, The Candidate, Prime Cut) and screenwriter Jerry Belson (The Grasshopper ) probe this all-American ritual in one of its smaller versions here called The Young American Miss Pageant. Smile is a well-crafted movie that is a satire on both beauty pageants and suburban values.
We follow the adventures of Robin Gibson (Joan Prather), a pretty girl who is one of thirty-three county finalists in a state Young American Miss Pageant. First she is bused to California's Santa Rosa Veterans' Memorial Auditorium. There she is processed and herded together with the other contestants, all the while being carefully segregated from the community. Brenda DiCarlo (Barbara Feldon), a former beauty queen who is in charge of the girls, admonishes them to "be yourself and keep smiling." Robin who hasn't mastered the ropes of the beauty contest system learns from her knowledgeable roommate certain tricks of the game showing big emotions, capitalizing on any problems, using Vaseline on her teeth to make long-term smiling easier. Slowly and painfully, she understands that all the girls represent no more than what the older generation thinks youth should be. If she wants to win, she must become a puppet of middle-age values.
Most of Santa Rosa's leading citizens believe that happiness is a psychic state of contentment in which pleasures outbalance pain. For many of them, the conditions of happiness can be satisfied by a suburban house, acceptable social status via membership in clubs, and success in one's work and marriage. And exemplar of that ethic is Big Bob (Bruce Dern) who joyfully sells mobile homes and is the Chief Judge in Young American Miss Pageant. His best friend is Brenda's husband Andy DiCarlo (Nicholas Pryor) who is undergoing a crisis in his suburban faith a marriage that isn't working, a drinking problem, and dissatisfaction with the Jaycees (particularly their rituals like the "exhausted rooster" ceremony where old, meaning over thirty-five, men have to kiss the ass of a dead chicken). Big Bob takes it upon himself to pull Andy out of the dumps with his "Young American Miss" positivism. Bob as further counseling responsibilities when his son is caught by the police taking pictures of the beauty contestants in their dressing rooms.
Some of the behind-the-scenes looks at the tension, confusion, and zaniness of the pageant are very funny the janitors worrying about clogged up toilets, the show's choreographer desperately trying to make dancers out of girls who can't dance, and the contestants sabotaging the baton-twirling act of an obnoxious Mexican-American girl who has tried to impress all the judges with samplings of her guacamole dip. On a much more serious level, Smile takes swipes at the male members of Santa Rosa's community who views the girls only as sex objects from the Jaycee leader who calls the pageant a "meat show" to the local cop who puts a confiscated nude photo of one of the girls on his automobile visor.
Director Ritchie draws out a fine performance from Bruce Dern as Big Bob, the outwardly optimistic judge who inwardly has learned to "accept less from life." Joan Prather is touching as the girl who realizes that she doesn't have it in her to smile forever-and-ever-world-without-end. And Michael Kidd registers well as the individualistic choreographer who doesn't buy the phony sincerity ethic of the pageant's sponsors.
The authentic look of Smile (excellently photographed by Conrad Hill) stems from the director's tactic of recruiting Santa Rosa's real townsfolk for the audience at the contest and not even telling cast members who the winner was to be until they were filming the last sequences of the picture. Smile is one of those "small" movies that squares with the human experience in a genuine, funny, and memorable way.