An Historian Gets Upset When Hollywood Takes Liberties With the Truth in Alan Alda’s 1986 Comedy



Sweet Liberty is written and directed by Alan Alda. By this point in 1986, he’s a big star, thanks to his role on the television series M*A*S*H, which left the airwaves in 1983, but would live on in syndicated perpetuity ever since. In his role as a writer and director of feature films, he’s less well known. Alda directed four feature films (The Four Seasons, Sweet Liberty, A New Life, and Besty’s Wedding) as well as a couple of T.V. movies (chief among them: the finale of M*A*S*H, which broke all kinds of viewing records when it aired, and remains the most-watched episode of television to this day). His debut feature, The Four Seasons, in which he co-starred alongside Carol Burnett was a critical and commercial success. After that, though none of his movies were outright critical failures, they failed to get any serious traction at the box office. 

Sweet Liberty was, unfortunately, no exception. It opened to number three at the box office – behind the films Top Gun (which opened the same weekend and would go on to earn over ten times what Sweet Liberty would make) and Short Circut (in its second week). Alda’s movie would go on to have a second life once released on home video, and it got regular play on cable. In their commentary track for the film, Daniel Kremer and Nat Segaloff mention how they first encountered Sweet Liberty on VHS and HBO and became fans. Hopefully, Kino Lorber’s recent Blu-Ray release will do the same for a new generation.

Sweet Liberty is a mostly satirical take on the process of filmmaking. But as satire goes it’s pretty gentle. The lead actor of the film-within-a-film, Elliot James (Michael Caine), is an egotistical lothario, but he’s still given humanizing moments, and overall seems like a decent fellow. The lead actress, Faith Healy (Michelle Pfieffer) is a method Actor who’s ethereal and virginal while in costume, but the moment she switches into her civilian clothes, she becomes tough and earthy. Her commitment to remaining in character could be with far more ridicule (think on Laurence Olivier’s admonition to Dustin Hoffman while shooting Marathon Man: “try acting, my dear boy.”) but the movie backs off from doing that. 

The one character who’s allowed to be broadly comic is the screen writer, Stanley (Bob Hoskins). He’s at times needy, and nervous; egotistical, and insecure. He’s happy to sell out his craft to get the movie made, but secretly thinks the movie is terrible and wishes to be working on real art. It is perhaps one of the most realistic depictions of a screenwriter ever put on film. 

In the movie, Alda plays Micheal Burgess, a small town college professor whose book on the American revolution, also titled Sweet Liberty has been optioned and is being made into a major Hollywood film. The film crew comes to the college to shoot on location, and once there Burgess discovers that the only thing remaining from his book is the title. Everything else has been turned into a lewd sex comedy. He rebels against the picture, and with Stanley’s help, tries to inject more historical accuracy into a production that couldn’t care less.

Alda’s character is historian who is devoted to the truth. So much so that he can’t even tell a little white lie to her mother (Lillian Gish, who had just begun her eighth decade acting in film and would only appear in one movie more after: 1987’s The Whales of August) when he knows it would make her happy. He is also a man who relishes his freedom. He wants his girlfriend (Lise Hilboldt) to move in with him but baulks at the idea of them getting married. That level of commitment is a bridge too far for him.

There are a few laugh out loud moments during the film, most of which involve either Caine or Hoskins. The scene where Elliot drags his wife and his coterie of acquaintances (which include his mistress) along to an amusement park in order to cover up his affairs is very funny. 

Caine is a cad, but one so bloody charming that he can do no wrong in people’s eyes. He steals a helicopter and completely disrupts a reception, knocking people down, blowing tables over. When he lands, he’s greeted with applause and laughter completely shielded from the consequences of his actions. This is a character that the audience could be primed to hate. Caine, however, is just as bloody charming as his character and so we love him. Furthermore, Caine is given scenes, such as the one where he recalls a wartime encounter his family had with Winston Churchill, that serve to humanize him further. 

Of all of the main cast, Pfieffer is perhaps given the shortest shrift. She had been in Grease 2, Scarface,  and Ladyhawke before this. Sweet Liberty came out just before she went big with The Witches of Eastwick the next year. Then in short succession, she had this incredible run as an actress: Married to the Mob, Tequila Sunrise, Dangerous Liasions, and The Fabulous Baker Boys. The latter two saw her nominated for Academy Awards. The last three years of the 1980’s cemented her as a star. Her character, Faith, gives her plenty to do as she switches between the roles of “Mary Slocum” and Faith Healy, but her storyline feels truncated. 

Like the commentators, I too watched this film countless times on VHS when I was a kid. Watching it again now I enjoyed it, but wondered what the appeal was for then teenage me. I suppose like all kids, I liked defiance of authority, property destruction, and people taking their clothes off, even in their gentle PG-rated forms. 

Kino Lorber’s Blu-Ray comes packaged with the aforementioned commentary track, as well as a trailer for the film. There are trailers for related titles as well.