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Melvin and Howard
Theatrical release poster by John Alvin
Directed byJonathan Demme
Written byBo Goldman
Produced byArt Linson
Don Phillips
StarringPaul Le Mat
Mary Steenburgen
Pamela Reed
Jason Robards
CinematographyTak Fujimoto
Edited byCraig McKay
Music byBruce Langhorne
Distributed byUniversal Pictures
Release date
  • September 19, 1980 (1980-09-19)
Running time
95 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$7 million[1]
Box office$4.3 million[2]

Melvin and Howard (stylized as Melvin (and Howard)) is a 1980 American comedy-drama film directed by Jonathan Demme.[3] The screenplay by Bo Goldman was inspired by real-life Utah service station owner Melvin Dummar, who was listed as the beneficiary of $156 million in a will allegedly handwritten by Howard Hughes that was discovered in the headquarters of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City. A novelization of Goldman's script, which itself won the Academy Award for Best Screenplay – Written Directly for the Screen, later was written by George Gipe. The film stars Paul Le Mat, Jason Robards, and Mary Steenburgen, who won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. The film was released on September 19, 1980, receiving positive reviews from critics.


In the opening scene, Howard Hughes loses control of his motorcycle and crashes in the Nevada desert. That night, he is discovered lying on the side of a stretch of U.S. Highway 95 when Melvin Dummar stops his pickup truck so he can relieve himself. The disheveled stranger, refusing to allow Melvin to take him to the hospital, asks him to instead drive him to Las Vegas, Nevada. En route, the two engage in stilted conversation until Dummar cajoles his passenger into joining him in singing a Christmas song he wrote. Hughes then suggests they sing his favorite song "Bye Bye Blackbird", and they do. The man warms to his rescuer and he is dropped off at the Desert Inn (which Hughes owns and therein resides).

Most of the remainder of the film focuses on Melvin's scattered, up-and-down life, his spendthrift, trust-in-luck nature, his rocky marital life with first wife Lynda, and his more stable relationship with second wife Bonnie. Lynda leaves him and their daughter to dance in a sleazy strip club, but eventually returns, but she remains frustrated by her husband's futile efforts to achieve the American dream. Melvin convinces her to appear on Easy Street, a game show hybrid of The Gong Show and Let's Make a Deal, and although her tap dancing initially is booed by the audience, she wins them over and nabs the top prize of living room furniture, a piano, and $10,000 cash.

Melvin agrees to invest in an affordable house in a new development, but while Lynda tries to keep their finances under control, he rashly buys a new Cadillac Eldorado and a boat, prompting her to take their daughter and toddler son and sue for divorce. Melvin is comforted by Bonnie, the payroll clerk at the dairy where he drives a truck, and the two eventually wed and move to Utah, where they take over the operation of a service station her relatives had owned.

One day, a mysterious man in a limousine stops at the station ostensibly to buy a pack of cigarettes, but after he drives off Melvin discovers an envelope marked "Last Will and Testament of Howard Hughes" on his office desk. Afraid to open it, he takes it to Mormon headquarters and secrets it in a pile of incoming mail. It doesn't take long for the media to descend upon him and his family, and eventually Melvin finds himself in court, admitting he once met Hughes but vigorously denying he forged the will that finally fulfills his dreams.


The real Melvin Dummar has a cameo appearance as a man behind a bus depot counter. Gloria Grahame has a short appearance as Mrs. Sisk, but the majority of her role was cut.


Bo Goldman was originally hired by Universal president Ned Tanen to meet with Melvin Dummar in 1976, and Goldman then worked his story into a screenplay, even after Dummar's will was determined to be a fake. Mike Nichols was originally slated to direct the film, with Jack Nicholson and Diane Keaton in talks to star, but all three eventually dropped out of the project and Demme was hired.[1] Filming began in Glendale, California on February 26, 1979, and also took place in Salt Lake City and Willard, Utah as well as Las Vegas, Nevada, lasting a total of 10 weeks and wrapping on May 10, 1979.[4]

Mary Steenburgen revealed that she was worried about having to appear completely naked in the film. "In a scene, I'm at a strip joint and I quit. I rip off what I'm wearing, throw it in the air, and walk naked out of the place. The night before the scene, I thought, 'Who is going to be there tomorrow? There's going to be a skeleton crew.' I didn't sleep that night, but I thought I was prepared for what was going to happen. I had totally forgotten there were going to be about sixty guys - extras from Central Casting - sitting around. I did it OK for about the first eight times, but I started to lose it. I was becoming upset because these guys kept making comments. I called Malcolm [McDowell], and he said,'Listen, you've done it. You have already put it on film. Do it one more time, and just try and do it real well.' I had lost sight of that. I was so busy worrying about my clothes I had forgotten about the moment of it. I knew it was a moment of bravery and freedom, and he reminded me of that. So I went back and I did it really well. As I walked out, I flipped off the construction hat of the guy at the bar and I waved goodbye to all the other dancers on the stage. That is the one they used," Steenburgen recalled.[5]


Critical response

On review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes the film holds an approval rating of 92% based on 24 reviews, with an average rating of 8/10. The site's critics consensus reads: "A spirited character study and clear-eyed treatise of the American Dream, Melvin and Howard hits the jackpot with its lovable cast and director Jonathan Demme's humanism."[6]

In his review in The New York Times, Vincent Canby called the film a "sharp, engaging, very funny, anxious comedy" and commented, "Mr. Demme is a lyrical film maker for whom there is purpose in style...Melvin and Howard is commercial American movie-making of a most expansive, entertaining kind."[7]

Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times described it as "wonderful" and added, "This is a slice of American life. It shows the flip side of Gary Gilmore's Utah. It is a world of mobile homes, Pop Tarts, dust, kids and dreams of glory. It's pretty clear how this movie got made. Hollywood started with the notion that the story of the mysterious Hughes will might make a good courtroom thriller. Well, maybe it would have. But my hunch is that when they met Dummar, they had the good sense to realize that they could get a better – and certainly a funnier – story out of what happened to him between the day he met Hughes and the day the will was discovered. Dummar is the kind of guy who thinks they oughta make a movie out of his life. This time, he was right."[8]

Variety said, "Jonathan Demme's tour-de-force direction, the imaginative screenplay and top-drawer performances from a huge cast fuse in an unusual, original creation."[9]

Pauline Kael gave the film a very positive review in The New Yorker: "Jonathan Demme's lyrical comedy Melvin and Howard which opened the New York Film Festival on September 26, is an almost flawless act of sympathetic imagination. I doubt if Jason Robards has ever been greater than he is here. Mary Steenburgen's Lynda Dummar has a soft mouth and a tantalizing slender wiggliness, and she talks directly to whomever she's talking to – when she listens, she's the kind of woman a man wants to tell more to. Demme shows perhaps a finer understanding of lower-middle-class life than any other American director."[10]

Dennis Bingham's Whose Lives Are They Anyway? The Biopic as Contemporary Film Genre cites Melvin and Howard as the first film in the subgenre "biopic of someone undeserving," or "BOSUD," which was later popularized by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski with Ed Wood, Man on the Moon, The People vs. Larry Flynt, and Auto Focus.[11]

Paul Thomas Anderson has cited the film as one of his favorites. Jason Robards's last feature film appearance was in Anderson's Magnolia. Robert Ridgely, who played the host of the fictional "Easy Street" game show in this movie, would later be cast as Colonel James in Anderson's Boogie Nights.

The comedy show SCTV parodied the film in a sketch called "Melvin and Howards". Melvin (Rick Moranis), after picking up Howard Hughes (Joe Flaherty), also picks up Howard Cosell (Eugene Levy), Senator Howard Baker (Dave Thomas), and Curly Howard (John Candy).

Awards and nominations

Award Category Nominee(s) Result
Academy Awards Best Supporting Actor Jason Robards Nominated
Best Supporting Actress Mary Steenburgen Won
Best Screenplay – Written Directly for the Screen Bo Goldman Won
Boston Society of Film Critics Awards Best American Film Won
Best Supporting Actor Jason Robards Won
Best Supporting Actress Mary Steenburgen Won
Best Screenplay Bo Goldman Won
Golden Globe Awards Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy Nominated
Best Actor in a Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy Paul Le Mat Nominated
Best Supporting Actor – Motion Picture Jason Robards Nominated
Best Supporting Actress – Motion Picture Mary Steenburgen Won
Kansas City Film Critics Circle Awards Best Supporting Actress Won
Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards Best Supporting Actress Won
National Board of Review Awards Top Ten Films 5th Place
National Society of Film Critics Awards Best Film Won
Best Director Jonathan Demme 2nd Place
Best Supporting Actor Jason Robards 3rd Place
Best Supporting Actress Mary Steenburgen Won
Best Screenplay Bo Goldman Won
New York Film Critics Circle Awards Best Film Runner-up
Best Director Jonathan Demme Won
Best Supporting Actor Jason Robards Runner-up
Best Supporting Actress Mary Steenburgen Won
Best Screenplay Bo Goldman Won
Venice International Film Festival Golden Lion Jonathan Demme Nominated
Writers Guild of America Awards Best Drama Written Directly for the Screen Bo Goldman Won

See also


  1. ^ a b "Catalogue – Melvin and Howard (1980)". AFI. Retrieved January 27, 2024.
  2. ^ Box Office Mojo
  3. ^ "Melvin and Howard". Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved March 27, 2016.
  4. ^ D'Arc, James V. (2010). When Hollywood came to town: a history of moviemaking in Utah (1st ed.). Layton, Utah: Gibbs Smith. ISBN 9781423605874.
  5. ^ American Film, Volume 7, Numbers 1-10, p. 20 at Google Books
  6. ^ "Melvin and Howard (1980)". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved September 20, 2023.
  7. ^ Canby, Vincent. (1980-09-26) Melvin and Howard (1980). Retrieved on 2011-10-05.
  8. ^ Melvin and Howard. Retrieved on 2011-10-05.
  9. ^ Melvin and Howard. (1979-12-31). Retrieved on 2011-10-05.
  10. ^ Pauline Kael : Taking It All In ISBN 0-7145-2841-2 pp. 71–78
  11. ^ Dennis Bingham Whose Lives Are They Anyway? The Biopic as Contemporary Film Genre (Rutgers University Press, 2010) ISBN 0-8135-4658-3 p. 148