Mass Appeal is the film version of a popular Broadway play about a comfortable parish priest forced into testing his own complacency by the presence of a hot-headed seminarian.
This older priest is a dandy character: a backslapping, utterly likable fellow who reassures his wealthy parishioners that everything is just fine, their sins are absolved, and if they want to donate a bottle of wine to his personal collection, why, what would be perfectly fine, too.
The conceit of the play and movie is that he will approach some sort of spiritual rejuvenation through knowing this excitable young seminarian who is assigned to his care. That’s a familiar (but not necessarily corny) theme, and Mass Appeal doesn’t find the right method of bringing it to life.
However, if the role of the older priest sounds tailor-made for Jack Lemmon, then you’ve been paying attention to Lemmon’s career. Lemmon loves playing these flawed, imperfect characters (for one thing, they usually make for the juiciest roles). And he’s well suited for Father Tim Farley. Lemmon wears the cardigan sweaters and pot belly of the self-satisfied pastor very easily.
Almost too easily, in fact; this kind of role fits Lemmon so well he may be guilty of the kind of laziness that inflicts the good father. But he does do well by the many one-liners in the screenplay by Bill C. Davis, who adapted his own play. The tippling priest excuses his frequent imbibing with the reminder that “Making wine was Christ’s first miracle – and he knew what he was doing.”
And when someone remarks that the arrogant young seminarian used to love to water-ski, the pastor is quick to quip, “He must’ve liked the feeling of walking on water.”
Well, that’s bread-and-butter Lemmon stuff. No wonder Universal Pictures was sure Lemmon would get an Oscar nomination (thus the film’s release date, two days after the nominations were announced). Surprise – Lemmon didn’t get his nomination; frankly, given the competition, that was probably a just decision.
No supporting actor nominations either, although there’s a hefty role for Charles Durning (who is getting pretty hefty himself), as the harsh leader of the seminary. He wants to kick out the young hot-head because the boy, now devoted to celibacy, had some bisexual affairs in his past.
Another possible nominee was Zeljko Ivanek (he was born in Yugoslavia, okay?), as the seminarian. He’s your typical ’80s character – runs 10 miles a day, insists that women be allowed into the priesthood. In short, he is dangerously close to being what Father Farley calls a “Bangladesh Granolahead.”
Technically, Ivanek is a commendable actor. But somehow the camera does not want to flatter him; he looks hopelessly bland. He’s the kind of actor who looks you can’t remember when he’s off the screen, and for all his range, he doesn’t really register.
So that makes it Lemmon’s show, and he dances his way through every compromise and contradiction in his character. Unfortunately, his adroitness swamps the competition and that makes Mass Appeal more of a star turn than a movie.
First published in The Herald, February 12, 1985
Ivanek has enjoyed a long career as a stage actor as well as his many screen roles, and he became more interesting onscreen as he got older. The cast also included Louise Latham, Gloria Stuart, and James Ray, who played the lead in Equus at the Seattle Rep in the late 1970s. Director was Glenn Jordan, a kind of A-lister of TV movies, whose big-screen comedy The Buddy System was something I liked back then.