"Soft Top, Hard Shoulder"

and "Strictly Sinatra"

by Anne Sharp

A friend of mine who adores Peter Capaldi says that she suspects in his private life he's really a delicate soul.  I think that "Soft Top, Hard Shoulder," the 1992 film that Capaldi wrote and starred in, bears this out. I'm not saying that it's autobiographical--of course it's not. But when an actor creates a role for himself to play, he reveals things in the choices he makes that he himself may not even be aware of.

The film's main character, Gavin Bellini (note that the name scans the same as Peter Capaldi), might be seen as an alternate reality Capaldi, what the actor-filmmaker imagines he might have become if instead of quitting art school in Glasgow to pursue a successful career in the performing arts he had stuck with his training as a studio artist. Capaldi didn't see it as going well for Gavin, whom we meet holed up in London with no money and evidently no prospects of work. We see him nerving himself up to pitch a children's book to an editor (in a scene that looks very much like an actor's audition) only to receive a humiliatingly worded rejection (the well-meaning editor refers to him as a "failure" and describes his scary fairy tale art as "perverse"), after which he is forced to sell his camera in order to pay his rent.

At the same time he's fending off demands from his family in Glasgow to come home for his father's 60th birthday. As Gavin has informed us in the film's prologue, he comes from an Italian-Scots background in which love of family is "in the blood," but his mission as an artist has led him away from all that. Without his exactly coming out and saying it we also get the strong sense that Gavin doesn't want to go home to his family in Glasgow in the condition he's currently in. His dejection at being out of work and out of money and his existential anxiety over the prospect of being a failure as an artist are bad enough to deal with on his own. The shame of having to face his family in this state is just too much.

Now Capaldi departs from the hard reality of Gavin's situation to introduce his first element of storytelling magic. Gavin runs into his uncle Salvatore, who buys his starving nephew a nourishing meal of Italian food and ice cream(1) and tells him that if he makes the effort to arrive on time to his father's birthday party, he will give him a share of the profits from the family business. This motivates Gavin to get out his old Triumph convertible sportscar and set off for Glasgow.

After an unnerving near-miss accident, he pulls off the motorway to calm down with a cigarette, where he meets the film's second and most magical story element, Yvonne (played by Capaldi's wife Elaine Collins), a pixieish hitchhiker who, like Gavin, is headed for her native Glasgow. Initially reluctant to give a ride to a stranger due to his chronic fear of being murdered, Gavin relents and invites her to travel with him, and the rest of the film consists of their random winsome adventures on the road.

Caution: stop reading here if you are sensitive to spoilers

Though her upbeat personality grates on Gavin's strung-out nerves, Yvonne turns out to be a clever and resourceful companion that helps him out of all sorts of sticky situations. On their arrival in Glasgow there's a Hollywood-style climax and denouement in which Gavin, after pitching a nasty tantrum at Yvonne and abandoning her, realizes that he's made a mistake and goes after her. Tentatively they confess their feelings for each other ("You make me feel mental!" Gavin blurts) and Gavin escorts her to his father's party, where the newly created couple is lovingly welcomed into the Bellini family.

It's pretty clear that Capaldi intended the story of Gavin and Yvonne to be the public master image of his real-life relationship with Collins, much as Woody Allen created a media icon out of his offscreen relationship with Diane Keaton in "Annie Hall." In interviews Capaldi frequently tells quirkily endearing anecdotes about Collins (he credits her misspeaking of "Frank Capra's 'It's A Wonderful Life'" with giving him the concept of his Oscar-winning short "Franz Kafka's It's A Wonderful Life") and gives her credit for supporting and encouraging his career. He is the Soft Top, the temperamental artist, and she is the sensible Hard Shoulder he leans on. It's a similar motif to the easygoing Annie Hall bringing life-affirming companionship to the anxiety-ridden Alvy Singer. It also reminds me of how Fellini built his marriage to Giulietta Masina into his brand as a filmmaker, with the recurring theme in his films of the loyal long-suffering woman and her wayward mate, the master image of which is "La Strada," about the travels of a horrible man and his saintly female companion. There is more than a little of Zampano and Gelsomina in Gavin and Yvonne. I also see more than a little of "Pinocchio"** in their story, with Yvonne the chirpy little helpmeet in a frock coat doing her best to keep the wooden-headed Gavin on the straight and narrow.

I'm not a fan of romantic comedy and one of the things I like about "Soft Top" is the nearly complete lack of romance in it. There is no Hollywood kiss between Gavin and Yvonne. In fact the closest they get to physical affection is doing an impromptu line dance together. Whether Capaldi just wasn't interested in visiting that particular station of the conventional romantic comedy in his screenplay, or he and Collins just didn't feel like making out in public,(3) the result is that Gavin and Yvonne's relationship evolves as a friendship rather than a potential love affair, which puts the inevitable final scene of them together as a couple on a somewhat firmer foundation than usual. The usual feeling I get at the end of a Hollywood-style romcom is "Well, those two won't be together long." But when "Soft Top" was produced he and Collins had already been together for the better part of a decade, which would explain to a certain extent why the scenario he devised for them wasn't the usual "aw, heck, I'm a guy and you're a girl, let's put aside our differences and mate" one, but something much more character-driven.

Gavin is nervous and self-absorbed, superficially charming when he wants to be but with a nasty temper underneath that we see him taking out on Yvonne several times. She is a serene, self-assured individual who is willing to overlook Gavin's acting out, but only up to a certain point, when she tells him in no uncertain terms that he's a hysterical mess and needs to get a grip on himself. This reality check is exactly what Gavin needs, and by the end of the film it's dawned on him that it will be worth his while to hold on to Yvonne. Though I think it's fair to ask what Yvonne is getting out of partnering with an emotionally abusive unemployed narcissist whose only material asset is a broken-down sports car. I'm guessing the answer is she's getting Peter Capaldi. Fair enough.

"Soft Top" got a nice reception on its initial release, and I suspect that Capaldi originally wrote the screenplay for "Strictly Sinatra" with the idea of making a follow-up starring himself and Collins.  As it turned out the film wasn't produced until 1999, and although this time he was allowed to direct (and proved himself a much more effective visual storyteller than Stefan Schwartz, who directed "Soft Top"), he and Collins were no longer in the right age bracket to play the leads. So Ian Hart played Tony Cocozza, the below professional grade Glaswegian Sinatra impersonator with Capaldi-style long curly hair, and Kelly Macdonald delivered strikingly Collins-like line readings as Tony's girlfriend Irene. I suspect that Capaldi implemented some of the feedback he received from "Soft Top" in this new film. This time the boy and girl explicitly state their sexual interest in one another and a Hollywood kiss is duly performed, for people who like to watch that sort of thing. Tony is also given the opportunity to deliver a heartfelt anti-date rape message, which may be my man Capaldi making amends for having included a rape joke in "Soft Top." Your turn next, Woody.

A major theme in "Soft Top" is Gavin's extreme reluctance to return to Glasgow, and "Strictly Sinatra" gives us more information on why he may have felt this way. Unlike Gavin, whom we learn from his interview with the children's book editor is a talented artist who just hasn't found the right subject matter yet, Tony is talent-free but shockingly unaware of it, perhaps because unlike Gavin he's never been out of Glasgow and hasn't had to compete in the real-life market for professional artists that he aspires to. The Italian-Glaswegian community Tony inhabits is a depressing and dangerous place, rather like New Jersey, with aging small-time Uncle Salvatore-like wise guys and their entourages living on grotesquely dated dreams of Sinatra's Manhattan.  And just as Yvonne steadied Gavin on his journey back to Glasgow, Irene provides the necessary reality-based female cameraderie Tony needs to get the hell out.

The fact that they end up in New York City does not seem like much of a happy ending to me--more often than not delusional fantasists who try to live their dreams there end up in a world of hurt--but then here's another tie-in with "Soft Top." At the beginning of that film Gavin tells the story of his Italian grandfather, who spent his life savings to board what he thought was a boat to New York, only to be dumped in Glasgow. The grandfather's reaction was to go into a profound lifelong denial that he was not in fact in New York. One of the denizens of Tony's neighborhood, also a victim of the same tragic swindle, reacts in the same obstinate manner as Gavin's granddad and even runs a sad little New York-themed diner. So, in this scheme of things, Tony's arrival in the genuine city of New York, even with no money, no green card and no chance in hell of making it there in the "New York, New York" sense, is an epic success. Even if he does end up having to give up on his Rat Pack dreams and move to Hoboken.


(1) Gavin's family, like Capaldi's and many others in Glasgow's Italian immigrant community around the turn of the 20th century, made a living making and selling ice cream.

(2) In 1995 Capaldi published an essay about Disney's "Pinocchio" in "Sight and Sound."

(3) As Michael Caine describes it in his "Acting in Film," for most actors performing a love scene that will look good on film is an uncomfortable and embarrassing process.

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(c) Anne Sharp. All rights reserved.