Posted by David Kalat on January 25, 2014
Mike Nichols was a veteran comedy director of stage and screen, not to mention a comedy performer of no small renown. He would go on to become of the few people to win an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and a Tony (the fabled EGOT)—all but the Emmy being won for his comedy work.
Buck Henry was a prolific comedy writer whose career had taken him from the writing staff of The Steve Allen Show to co-creating Get Smart with Mel Brooks to updating Howard Hawks’ screwball classic Bringing Up Baby for a new generation under the title What’s Up Doc? In the years to come he would become a recurring host of Saturday Night Live, a contributor to The Daily Show and a guest star on 30 Rock.
Together they had collaborated on The Graduate, and Catch 22. They had a contractual obligation to producer Joseph E. Levine for a third film—and so in 1973 Mike Nichols and Buck Henry made a paranoid conspiracy thriller about a plot to use talking dolphins to assassinate the President. This is a not a joke.
Day of the Dolphin is NOT airing as part of tonight’s tribute to ’70s thrillers, but gee, why not? It stars the great, gruff George C. Scott as a marine biologist who has spent many years and many fortunes studying how dolphins use language. In part this has meant studying the dolphins’ own language of chirps and clicks. But it has also meant teaching the dolphins to speak English themselves.
Somehow, these comedy veterans Nichols and Henry manage to depict this absolutely ludicrous idea completely straight—and it is quite a feat to show a dolphin talking to George C. Scott and not have it be an absurd joke. (Or, for that matter, to include a scene in which the dolphin attempts to rape Trish Van Devere, Scott’s real-life wife playing Scott’s onscreen wife. This scene too is played without any irony or mockery)
But wait, there’s more…
You see, although George C. Scott’s character has constructed his own private Sea World out of a combination of scientific curiosity and desire to drop out of the unpleasant mainstream world, his research is being funded by a Sinister Cabal of venture capitalists and National Security spooks gone rogue, who are bankrolling all this because they want to use the dolphins as unwitting assassins.
I was a little leery about giving that plot point away, even though we’re talking here about a 40 year old movie, because it’s a 40 year old obscure movie that I assume most of y’all reading this probably haven’t seen. By my reckoning, any movie you haven’t seen is a new movie no matter how long ago it was made. But, this can’t really count as a spoiler since it was on the poster.
Which means I can really dig into this plot point, because it is completely bonkers. You have to give Nichols and Henry credit for having the courage of their convictions, because they commit to every nuttiness of the premise with complete sincerity. Even George C., who could so easily have phoned this in, makes his character absolutely believable. And the most impressive aspect of all is the performance by the dolphins—there are no mechanical dolphins here, no puppets, no men in dolphin costumes, no special effects. Just actual, living dolphins acting in the same frame as Scott and the other cast members. It’s stunning.
But it’s also what starts to unravel the already slender thread holding this together.
Because here’s the thing: Scott’s research has taken many years, and cost an outrageous amount of money. The end result is a dolphin that can communicate easily with human beings. Without realizing it, he’s gotten all the money to do this from a Sinister Cabal. The Sinister Cabal has paid this money, and been this patient, because they need an intelligent trained dolphin to go plant a magnetic bomb on the President’s yacht. But… that’s all they need. An intelligent, trained dolphin. Any old intelligent, trained dolphin will do just fine. They don’t need the dolphin to be able to talk.
In fact, they consider the dolphins’ ability to speak to be a severe liability—it means their reluctant assassins can serve as witnesses against them (although even this bizarre movie stops short of trying to visualize a talking dolphin giving evidence in court).
So what we’re dealing with is a film about a conspiracy that decides to invest many years and millions of dollars into creating a weapon more powerful than they really need. They could have just gone to, I dunno, Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium or somesuch and kidnapped some ordinary grade intelligent, trained dolphins and avoided the whole “this dolphin can talk” risk of exposure. (And while we’re on this topic, let’s also note that the bad guys haven’t really thought through the implications of using dolphins who a) can swim faster than any boat; b) have sensory apparatuses so sophisticated they can track boats through miles of open sea; c) have been armed with weapons; and d) know right from wrong. Whether these dolphins can speak or not doesn’t even really enter into whether they might turn out to be the wrong choice of assassin).
Lest you think that the assassination scheme really depended on the superior intelligence of these specific dolphins, let me just remind you of what I said a few paragraphs above: this movie was made using real dolphins. Their names were Buck and Ginger (and yes, Buck was named in honor of Buck Henry. Ginger was named in honor of Ginger Rogers). Every single thing the dolphin characters do in the film were done by real dolphins. Except speak, of course—Buck Henry did the dolphin voice.
But it’s not like 70’s era paranoid conspiracy thrillers ever really traded much on plausibility. In fact, I’m not able at the moment to call up a single 1970s paranoid conspiracy thriller whose conspiracy actually makes any sense in reality.
Then again, that was the whole point—in the 1970s, reality itself had stopped making any sense. Somehow, people were now living in a world in which police officers opened fire on unarmed college students, political leaders who advocated nonviolent ways to encourage others to live in harmony were routinely shot dead in public, and the President himself conspired with ordinary criminals to commit petty larceny.
It wasn’t easy to make sense of these absurd tragedies. And the tumult of the early 1970s certainly seemed to be one in which American society was being torn into two parts—on one side you had the peace-lovers, the gentle, the ones who believed in a progressive future and wanted to work towards that goal. On the other you had anyone in power, who had proven themselves willing to resort to any means, no matter how cruel or base, to protect and enhance that power.
Sure, that’s overly reductive and simplistic. But the appeal of the conspiracy theory was that it took the messy chaos of life and imposed order. The world was more complicated than that, but it made for an easy-to-understand story—and so naturally if you set out to tell a story inside such times, chances are your story would follow the same contours.
And in fact, as trippy as the Day of the Dolphin may be, it’s not as if you can draw a bright line between the insanity of its plot and the real world in which it was made. F’r’instance, the reason Mike Nichols and Buck Henry made this atypical work after The Graduate and Catch 22 was that they needed to settle a contractual obligation to Joseph Levine before they moved on to other projects elsewhere—and Levine was stuck without a director for Day of the Dolphin after its original director Roman Polanski had to quit. And why did Polanski drop out? Because his wife pregnant wife Sharon Tate was brutally murdered by Charles Manson—part of the spiraling crisis of violence that seemed to be eating America alive at the time.
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