You want to watch a Mary Steenburgen movie? Of course you do! And you’ve got your pick of quite the selection. There’s Philadelphia, Back to the Future Part III, Elf, Step Brothers – the list truly goes on and on. And how about her new hit series, Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist? There’s so much Steenburgen to appreciate at the click of a button thanks to streaming services and digital distribution, but the crazy thing is, that’s actually not the case for the movie that got her an Oscar for Best Actress in a Supporting Role, Melvin and Howard.
The Jonathan Demme-directed film got a September 1980 release and featured Steenburgen as Lynda, the wife of the man who claimed to have met Howard Hughes one evening and then wound up being left a significant chunk of Hughes’ fortune in his will. Even though the film wound up with an Academy Award and a slew of other honors, you can’t find a legitimate digital copy of it and there are only a few old DVDs and VHS tapes available to buy on Amazon. How could this possibly have happened?
During an episode of Collider Connected with Steenburgen in honor of her phenomenal work in Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist, she took some time to look back on her experience making Melvin and Howard and to discuss why it’s so hard to find and watch today:
“Universal, at the time when that movie was made by the great director Jonathan Demme and written by the great screenwriter Bo Goldman, it came out and it was like the only reason anyone ever saw that movie was because of the critics. When people bad mouth critics, I always think [laughs], ‘I wouldn’t have a career without them,’ because that movie no one was gonna see because Universal buried it.”
As Steenburgen further explained, not only was there pushback from those affiliated with Hughes, but Universal also couldn’t figure out how to sell a movie about a guy like Melvin:
“We told his story and the people surrounding Howard Hughes weren’t all choked up about it because they didn’t want to believe in the legitimacy of that will. And then Universal got it and, I don’t know if they were pressured about it – I’ve never known that – but they certainly didn’t know how to sell the movie about this, what they deemed a kind of ‘loser,’ and so they just dumped it and they didn’t release it in Europe. It got no release in Europe. For years I would have people say, ‘Can you please tell us how we can see it?’”
As for the legitimacy of that will, Steenburgen has met the real Melvin Dummar and can’t imagine him forging the document:
“The story is about the kind of milkman who was a part of the Mormon Church and he claimed to be the heir to the Howard Hughes fortune. And the reason he claimed that is that he claimed that he – this is his truth, a true story – he picked up Howard Hughes in the middle of a desert after a little motorcycle crash that Howard Hughes had had, and he took him [back to] his hotel that he owned and he gave him all the change in his pocket, not knowing it was Howard Hughes. Just knowing it was some poor old guy that needed help. And while they were in the car, Melvin had written this song and he got Howard Hughes to sing his song, and that made him so happy. And then when Howard Hughes died, there was a will that listed all these people – this is before the age of computers or personal computers where Melvin could have looked up these people or researched it or figured this out – it was written in a type of ballpoint pen that Howard Hughes liked to write with, but then he bought up and it had been discontinued, and it said, ‘1/17 of my fortune to Melvin Dummar of Gabbs, Nevada,’ along with a whole lot of other names. And the others names were, I think for the most part, either business friends or very obscure relatives, and things like that. I saw the will and it was hard to believe that wasn’t true. It’s just hard to believe having met Melvin that he would have had – that anyone would have had the ability to have done that at that time and pulled that off.”
Sadly at this point, what’s done is done; Universal botched the release of Melvin and Howard, severely limiting the accessibility to the film. But given all the restorations and special edition at-home re-releases we get on a regular basis now, someone has to be able distribute Melvin and Howard properly, right? Perhaps, but Steenburgen did express some hesitation about doing so without Demme being part of it:
“Somebody needs to do it. You’re absolutely right. And I wish we would have done it while Jonathan was alive, but just out of respect for him because, you know, Jonathan Demme was one of the great American filmmakers and I cherished every single second of working with him. I’ve worked with him twice, also on the movie Philadelphia. It’s a really strange thing. It’s like the world conspired against this beautiful little movie. And it is, it’s an absolutely beautiful little work of art.”
For any Melvin and Howard fans out there who are itching for behind-the-scenes details and memories deserving of a spot on a DVD or Blu-ray special features menu, Steenburgen did recall one especially unforgettable day of filming:
“We were doing the scene where I’m getting re-married to Melvin and we don’t have enough money to pay for the little place in Vegas or Reno, or wherever it was. And I’m very pregnant. So we volunteer to be witnesses to other people’s weddings and we kiss them and stuff, and be the witnesses until we’ve done enough that we make enough money that we can actually get married to each other. And that was a strange day because I’ve never kissed so many people in one day. [Laughs]”
Clearly that unusual circumstance stands out for Steenburgen, but the memory she cherishes most from that day is tied directly to the supportive atmosphere Demme created on the set for a fairly tough shoot:
“The thing I member most about that day is that when I’m sitting in make-up, it was towards the end of the shoot and we were not really welcomed there because of this whole controversy about Howard Hughes and everything, so we weren’t staying in the nicest hotels and it had been a long, hard shoot and I was in make-up and Jonathan came in through the door in the make-up trailer and he had on this pinstripe suit with a big carnation in the lapel and I said, ‘Where are you going?’ And he said, ‘Nowhere.’ And I said, ‘What are you so dressed up for?’ And he goes, ‘You’re getting married today!’ [Laughs] That was his direction to me that day. He didn’t give me another direction that day. He just dressed up for my wedding. And that was the magic of Jonathan Demme. It was like, from the second I saw him and he told me that, it was like I had all the energy in the world, there were no problems. It was like, what a blessing to be able to do this scene today, you know? That’s what he brought out in you.”
If you’re looking for more memories like this from Steenburgen, you’re not going to want to miss her full episode of Collider Connected dropping soon! She discussed her early inspirations, meeting Jack Nicholson, working on Back to the Future Part III, her experience making Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist and so much more!