Since he got back from Vietnam, the priorities of Harry Bailey (Elliott Gould) have changed and he has joined a college to train as a teacher, trying to leave his recent past as a figure of the counterculture behind him. However, his fellow students, most of whom are a few years younger than he is, look up to him and think that if he joins them in getting stoned or endorsing their pet causes then he will enhance their experiences. But what Harry really wants to do is get his degree so he can guide the next generation, something which is becoming harder to do when so much of his life is fraught with problems he is running in circles trying not to face up to.
Talk of Getting Straight today and if anyone recalls it the most common word used to describe it is "dated", as its plot is caught up in the student movement of the late sixties and early seventies. But this is also about a man rediscovering his integrity and managing to grow up a little, which is surely relevant to many people even in the twenty-first century. And who better to embody that rebellious spirit than Elliott Gould? Well, if you examine his style he's a strange choice, a mixture of the jaded and exasperated who should not really ring true as this hero of the day.
Of course, casting Gould was an inspired choice and the sheer humanity that emerged in his best roles was rarely better employed: he is quite superb in this. Not that Harry is always sympathetic, he acts like a condescending jerk at times where he allows himself to get carried away with his frustration, but there is great skill shown in Gould, director Richard Rush (here coming off some true sixties cult favourites) and writer Robert Kaufman (adapting Ken Kolb's novel) coaxing us into relating to the protagonist's genuine feelings of not fitting in and not being sure if he wants to fit in anyway.
This teaching course he is taking is actually a way of burying his head in the sand as on one side he is being pulled towards the students and their naïve ideals that they cannot see will fall away as they get older, and on the other there are the academics who are suspicious of him and represent the dull, middle class lifestyle Harry has been trying to avoid. So if he does not belong with either of these groups, who can he join with? He ends up trying to lose himself in his studies, as if doing so will insulate him against the blare of modern existence.
The ironic thing is that when we see him teach the so-called "dumbbell" class we realise that he would be a terrific tutor, funny, encouraging and tolerant of his students' abilities, however limited they may or may not be. It's just that he cannot stand the baggage that goes with it, just as the lecturers are unwilling to accept him into their fold, and his nemesis (Jeff Corey) uses the fact that he cheated on one exam to give him the excuse to fail him for the whole course. To top that it is Harry's stoner friend Nick (Robert F. Lyons) who has sold him out in the midst of a breakdown about being drafted, something Harry is painfully aware he cannot help with.
As if that were not enough, Harry is suffering through an on-and-off relationship with Jan (Candice Bergen), who sums up both his attraction to a steady lifestyle and his rejection of those values he sees as hopelessly stifling. Rush allows Gould to fall back on ranting too often, but you forgive him as he is putting in one of the performances of his career, and as student riots build to a violent climax so does Harry's anger: the sequence where he carries out his oral exam and realises that his examiners are idiots who he wants no part of is both hilarious and savagely pointed. It's a shame Getting Straight has been neglected - it was a flop when it was released and has only received intermittent attention since - as it is shows many creative film people at their best. Music by Ronald Stein.
Cult American director who never quite made the most of his talents, mainly due to circumstances beyond his control. He spent the 1960s working on exploitation films of increasing stature, some of which have become cult favourites, such as Hells Angels on Wheels, Psych-Out and The Savage Seven, until he gained recognition with counterculture drama Getting Straight. The 1970s followed with one other film, buddy cop comedy Freebie and the Bean, until in 1980 The Stunt Man, which many consider his best work, was released. After that he had just one more credit, for unintentional laugh fest thriller The Color of Night. His fans wish Rush had enjoyed more creative opportunities.