It’s not often a film focusing on teenagers doesn’t devolve into two young girls bickering about finding romance. Romance blooms in George Roy Hill’s The World of Henry Orient, but it’s that heady, semi-obsessive first crush on an impossible man that nearly every teenage girl recalls from her formative years (and some, not naming names, never really grow out of it). The World of Henry Orient is, at times, a bit too wacky for its own good, but this isn’t really about Henry Orient’s world…he just lives in it.
Val and Gil (Tippy Walker and Merrie Spaeth) are best friends enduing the eighth-grade, and their parents various failings, together. When Val develops a crush on pianist Henry Orient (Peter Sellers), it threatens their friendship, as well as Orient’s sanity.
I’ll admit, I’m not huge on Peter Sellers. I know his comic sensibilities are praised, and he’s an amazing part of Dr. Strangelove, but his hammy comedic turns always feel like gimmicks cloaked in bad accents. After watching him in Lolita (1962), I had to agree with Robert Osborne that he’s the weakest link in the chain with his various disguises and accents. Henry Orient’s bizarre Eastern European meets Brooklyn accent will immediately catch your ear. It’s said Sellers was mimicking the way director Stanley Kubrick talks. I originally assumed this was part of Orient’s shifting personas – that his accent changed based on who he was interacting with – but that’s not the case. Instead, we’re never told why he speaks this way, we’re just told to accept it. I found myself noticing it more than his performance because it’s so ridiculously unnecessary.
Outside of that, Sellers’ subplot involving his mistress (Paula Prentiss in full kerfluffle), makes for a lot of hilarity. Orient’s horrific piano playing makes people so furious you’re waiting for a lynch mob to form. Orient is woefully out-of-touch, yet constantly trying to please the avant garde. In his mad attempt to stay two steps ahead of relevance, he’s becoming woefully geriatric. His romance with Prentiss’ Stella actually works towards enhancing Val and Gil’s naive admiration of him. Stella and Orient are forced to make out on the rocks of Central Park as they grow increasingly paranoid of both her husband, each other, and Val and Gil. Their love is intense in their guilt, but also intense in their fear of being caught, ultimately leaving it empty.
But, really, The World of Henry Orient isn’t truly about Henry Orient; it’s how Orient acts as a conduit for two young girls coming into their own. Walker and Spaeth are the young, beating heart of The World of Henry Orient. Untested for the most part, these young girls are perfect ingenues, and it’s easy to see how Hayley Mills and Patty Duke were considered, because both Walker and Spaeth embody traits of both.
Novelist Nora Johnson wrote the film’s original source material, itself an autobiographical examination of her life and love for pianist Oscar Levant. Both Gil and Val desire a stable homelife, at least one that they’ve seen on TV. Gil lives with her mother and her mother’s “friend,” while Val’s parents are distant, both emotionally and geographically. Retreating into their secret world allows them to dream of a situation where Gil’s father will leave his new family in Florida, realizing he always loved his first wife and daughter. As a child of divorce myself, this moment feels particularly authentic.
With her shaggy bowl haircut and big fur coat, Walker’s Val “splitzes” throughout the entire movie. The script gives her an effervescent voice that never demeans the character, nor creates moments for the character to become comical. Her obsession with Orient yields laughs, but never at the expense of Val. This is where The World of Henry Orient creates young girls who act like young girls. Too often teen girl films are aimed at growing up too quickly and tearing each other apart for young male consumption. We know Val already idealizes growing up as a means of getting her parents attention, or creating the type of home she wishes she possessed. And it isn’t until the adults inject themselves into the young girls’ private world that Val and Gil split; they never tear each other apart.
Spaeth and Walker’s characters are so well-written and unique that Sellers just takes the shine away. Both girls untested acting plays genuinely without them ever coming off like polished performers. Slow motion scenes of them jumping into the air could have played very canned, but instead their facial expressions convey them as ingenues. Sellers is never bad, but because he’s an ideal construct for the girls, watching him prove them false plays predictably, a self-fulfilling prophecy. Angela Lansbury as Val’s bitchy mother, Isabel injects some glamour and a compelling villain. Isabel Boyd competes against her daughter, but unfortunately her daughter is unaware of the game. Lansbury always does well as a villainess, but her cold, apathetic views of her daughter comes off a bit sterile and biased. This is contrasted by Tom Bosley’s Frank as Val’s father, who makes up in sweetness what Isabel lacks in maternal instincts.
The World of Henry Orient won’t ensnare everyone. Nunnally Johnson’s script – Nora Johnson’s father – creates a loving portrait of teenagers without being condescending, although Sellers’ hamminess and the rather clear-cut parents make everything feel too cut and dry. Twilight Time’s new Blu-ray looks gorgeous and includes an isolated score, audio commentary, and theatrical trailer.