A movie that has gone in and out of print several times, “The Ritz” is back on DVD thanks to Warner Archive.
Based on Terrence McNally’s first Broadway hit, the 1976 movie version was shot cheaply in England and received very limited distribution in this country. The film was directed by Richard Lester on a lark, in between major projects such as “The Three Musketeers” (1973) and “Superman II” (1981).
Lester shot it in a fast and loose style reminiscent of the Beatles films that put him on the map a decade earlier — “A Hard Day’s Night” (1964) and “Help!” (1965).
The director wisely opted to use many of the actors who appeared in “The Ritz” on Broadway, including Jack Weston, F. Murray Abraham and Rita Moreno.
Moreno won a Tony for the stage version of the material, and you can see why from the film — it’s a delightful comic turn as a delusional Puerto Rican nightclub performer named Googie Gomez.
The role gave the actress a chance to send up the sorts of stereotypical “ethnic” roles she was first restricted to when she arrived in Hollywood in the 1950s. Although the theater had always given Moreno a chance to stretch her wings — she did everything from Lorraine Hansberry to Neil Simon on New York stages — her film roles didn’t begin to match her talent until many years after her “Latin spitfire” starlet phase.
“The Ritz” also draws from one of the most eccentric star-is-born stories of the New York entertainment scene of the 1970s — Bette Midler’s emergence as a potent singer-comedienne after she decided to take a gig as the floorshow at the Continental Baths on the Upper West Side.
Midler started developing an intensely loyal gay following by performing in the bathhouse and it inspired other singers and comediennes to do likewise. Nobody was quite as successful in the venue as Midler, but many would-be superstars (like poor delusional Googie Gomez) hoped they could follow in Midler’s footsteps.
“The Ritz” mixes a scrambled identity farce in with Googie’s shenanigans. A straight Italian businessman (Jack Weston) with a contract on his head decides to hide out in the bathhouse until a mob crime war blows over.
It takes the businessman forever to figure out what most of the other men are looking for at the Ritz, until he finds a friendly guide in the form of F. Murray Abraham as a frequent gay visitor.
“The Ritz” is a potent reminder of Abraham’s long stint as one of the finest characters in the New York theater — those of us who had seen him on stage were not surprised when Milos Forman took a chance on the actor for “Amadeus” many years later, with Oscar-winning results.
“The Ritz” is slight and frequently a bit too zany — farce never works on film as well as it does on stage — but it captures a long-vanished New York show business scene and some of the city’s best stage actors as they were 40 years ago.