When Corky first takes the stage for Amateur Night he totally bombs. Once this hits home his habitual timidity suddenly falls away and he berates the audience for failing to appreciate his card tricks. Corky relates this story to his bedridden mentor and revises it as he goes. We see select flashbacks that could verify or contradict his narrative depending how you figure it, and so right from the start Magic (1978) is already playing with misdirection, albeit conservatively so—you get to feeling the movie can’t bear to let Corky be truly humiliated. Next time we see Corky perform he’s got Fats in tow, and all that rage Corky couldn’t keep in check has now been channeled into Fats. This miniature version of Corky redistributes Corky’s repression, cursing and insulting everyone in the room and having them roaring with laughter. With Fats’ help Corky now gets paid for his tantrums. Fats even helps Corky win the affections of that beauty he loved from afar in high school. You might even say Fats can get away with murder. Or try, anyway. Magic is a little like Dead Ringers (88) except instead of two Jeremy Ironses you’ve got Anthony Hopkins and a dummy.
Okay, so Magic isn’t nearly as fascinatingly perverse, chillingly sexy, or generally psychologically juicy as the Cronenberg, but it’s still pretty nifty, if a tad overlong. Adapted by William Goldman from his own novel, directed by Richard Attenborough before Gandhi (82), and starring Hopkins long before Hannibal Lecter, there’s a sense that this modest horror picture with the high-grade talent probably caught most audiences off guard. It left a number of critics sniffy and dismissive, but it’s developed something of a cult following and is available on DVD and now Blu-ray from Dark Sky.
The dummy really is creepy, but this has much to do with Hopkins’ uncanny ability to convey the clot of pettiness nurtured by the damaged child locked inside the beefy adult, something that comes across like lightning every time his face goes from slack to smiling. Hopkins is very good with the ventriloquism—a practice once suspected of being in league with the devil, and one, we should note, usually mastered before puberty—but the movie is almost better when you can see him move his lips. Burgess Meredith has a terrific supporting role as Corky’s manager, bald on top, with glasses and foot-long cigars that make him look like a Vegas Hunter S. Thompson. Eschewing camp, he’s somehow just about Magic’s most sympathetic character, yet his affection for Corky, who he’s convinced with be the next Rich Little, is perhaps best not thought about too carefully. Corky’s clearly got a screw loose long before Fats starts to nag him like Norman Bates’ mother.
Victor Kemper’s cinematography is lovely and effective, evoking the movie’s pervading sadness through diffused light, and often playfully doubling Corky with ostentatious shadows. Breaking away from the epic for a change, Attenborough’s strengths here lie with his attention to actors and their business. Besides creating the right space for Hopkins to give his very polished but nonetheless remarkable performance, Attenborough also gets terrific work out of even the minor players, such as the cab driver who gives Corky a tour of his home town and looks like Keith Ritchie from the A-Team. But I think Magic’s most wonderful surprise is Ann-Margaret—that’s right, Anthony Hopkins gets to make out with Ann-Margaret. She’s great because she seems to understand that the teenage hottie once desired by every boy in town might grow up to be lonely, lost, and a little loopy herself. Her spastic glee upon seeing old Corky do his thing with Fats feels just a little off—most gorgeous women I’ve known don’t usually get so excited about nerds with talking dolls. Of course, we can always fantasize.