During the late 1960s and early 1970s, the infamous X-rating from the MPAA was evenly shared by mainstream movies (including the Oscar-winning “Midnight Cowboy” and Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange”) and less ambitious pornography. The porno eventually edged out the classy flicks to take exclusive domain of the X-rating.
However, during this period there was one little film which actually wore its X-rating while resting in both camps. Nelson Lyon’s independently produced “The Telephone Book” was the rare film which enjoyed the eroticism of the porn genre, yet featured a sense of style (it was shot in an artistic black-and-white that was uncommon for 1971) that rose it far above the standard cheapie pornographic offerings. As with most hybrids, it failed to find an audience and eventually flitted off into a tragically undeserved obscurity.
“The Telephone Book” focuses on Alice (played by perky Sarah Kennedy), the quintessential movie blonde who may be dumb but who is certainly not stupid. Alice lives in a spacious New York apartment decorated with Karma Sutra-inspired wallpaper and an American flag as a bedspread. One fine day, she received a call from a mysterious man whose obscene phone demeanor excites her to the point of ecstasy. Alice asks for his name and the chance to meet him, but he replies he is John Smith and she can find him in the telephone directory. Alice promptly begins to call every John Smith in the directory and sets off on a wild odyssey where she encounters a neverending line-up of creeps and perverts while searching for her elusive obscene caller.
Much of the joy in rediscovering “The Telephone Book” is its rich sense of humor. The film is frequently punctuated by a variety of narrators who share their respective sexual fixations and fetishes with the audience. Clearly the most memorable of this nutty bunch is William Hickey as a man who awoke to find his manhood stuck in a permanent erection. As he lies in bed and blithely describes the various inconveniences created by this anatomical surprise, he casually and inadvertently rests a magazine atop the blanket-covered member…as if he was dropping the periodical on a coffee table without even realizing his actions. Hickey keeps an innocent eye contact with the audience, though it is obvious the audience is not staring back at his eyes.
Elsewhere in “The Telephone Book” is Barry Morse as an aging porno star rehearsing for his grand comeback with a bevy of naked lovelies, Roger C. Carmel as an exhibitionist psychoanalyst who bankrupts himself while paying Alice to recount her various adventures, and Warhol superstar Ultra Violet as a leather clad toughie who flashes a mean whip. A then-unknown young actress named Jill Clayburgh can also be spotted if one pays close attention.
But the real asset here is the baby-voiced Sarah Kennedy, whose performance recalls the giddiness of Goldie Hawn from her “Laugh-In” days. As Alice, Kennedy maintains a wonderful balance of silliness and shrewdness; she never takes herself seriously and is, in turn, never taken seriously by those who try to take advantage of her supposed innocence. More often than not, she gets the last (and biggest) laugh. When the randy psychoanalyst tries to give her a Rorschach test and tries to get her interpretation of a doodle of a penis, she examines it and states the drawing reminds her of the state of Maryland! It is a pity that she never found film stardom or even a memorable niche.
Writer-director Nelson Lyon helmed “The Telephone Book” as a kinky vaudeville revue. When Alice’s obscene phone caller boasts that his talents could seduce the President of the United States and the entire First Family, he suffixes his claim that he would not try it because “I have no political ambitions.” There is also an animated sequence which comes happily out of nowhere and nearly steals the proceedings.
“The Telephone Book” is a fascinating effort whose obscurity is baffling and quite sad. If any curio of the 1970s is in need of a second look, it would have to be this film.
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