The Bootleg Files: Uforia

BOOTLEG FILES 827: “Uforia” (1985 comedy starring Cindy Williams, Fred Ward and Harry Dean Stanton).

LAST SEEN: On YouTube and Vimeo in unauthorized postings.


REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: The film is hampered by music rights clearance issues.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: There doesn’t appear to be a great rush to get this out.

When Cindy Williams passed away earlier this week, news sites and social media postings recalled her brilliance on the sitcom “Laverne & Shirley” and her early film work in features including “Travels With My Aunt,” “American Graffiti” and “The Conversation.” But far less attention was given to one of Williams’ most interesting work – a small film from the early 1980s called “Uforia” (sometimes spelled “UFOria” – it is hard to say which version is correct because the film’s opening spells the title entirely in upper case letters). “Uforia” never found the audience it deserved – and, by extension, Williams never found the big screen stardom she should have enjoyed.

“Uforia” is set in a small community in the California desert where Williams plays Arlene, a born-again Christian who works as a supermarket cashier and has an extreme interest in UFOs – she manages to overlap her incompatible beliefs by insisting Jesus came to Earth in a flying saucer.

Arlene’s life is disrupted with the arrival of Sheldon, a small-time crook and drifter who arrives in town by driving a convertible with his right foot on the dashboard, a beer in his left hand and Waylon Jennings blasting on the car radio. Sheldon is played by Fred Ward with an insouciant charm and swagger – and Arlene’s initial unease with him is quickly assuaged by his good ol’ boy personality.

Sheldon reconnects with an old pal, Brother Bud, a phony faith-healing preacher. He is played by Harry Dean Stanton with a delicious mix of pragmatism and showmanship. Sheldon is folded into Brother Bud’s shenanigans, first as a phony cripple who is miraculously “healed” by the preacher’s touch and later as the driver of a shipment of stolen cars that Brother Bud resells to unsuspecting buyers.

But things start to go awry when Arlene has dreams of a spaceship that will arriving in her desert community. Brother Bud views her sincere insistence on the coming arrival of extra-terrestrials as a potential moneymaking scheme while Sheldon isn’t entirely sure what to make of Arlene’s claims.

“Uforia” was the feature film directing debut for John Binder, who also wrote the screenplay and had previously written the screenplays for the Willie Nelson vehicle “Honeysuckle Rose” and Alan Rudolph’s “Endangered Species.” The film was shot in 1981, and at that time Hollywood had a growing surplus of small, quirky, character-driven films populated with eccentrics and outsiders. Melvin Simon Productions was responsible for the film and had a deal with 20th Century Fox for its theatrical release, but the studio belatedly concluded “Uforia” had no commercial value and shelved it.

Two years later, “Uforia” was picked up by Universal Pictures, but that studio seemed to lose interest in the production after two disappointing test market screenings under the title “Hold On to Your Dreams.” A better reaction was generated at the 1984 Filmex Festival, and in 1985 the film had a brief release in Boston, San Francisco and Los Angeles – albeit with almost no promotional back-up by Universal.

“Uforia” finally scored a lucky break on January 3, 1986, when it opened at the Bleeker Street Cinema, an art house theater in New York City. That was the first Friday of the year, which is traditionally a very slow weekend since no new major films go into theatrical release in that part of the month. Vincent Canby of the New York Times gave “Uforia” a lengthy and glowing review that praised the film’s stars and Binder’s approach to comedy. On the strength of that review, Universal opened the film in other markets – including Chicago, where Roger Ebert added his enthusiasm to the production while his frenemy critic Gene Siskel was less enraptured by the film but honored Williams work by declaring that “she might be a major movie actress by now” had it not been for “Laverne & Shirley.”

Indeed, Williams could have been an Oscar nominee if Universal got behind “Uforia” and marketed her for award consideration. Arlene is a difficult character – she is naïve but steely, obsessed but honest, painfully aware that Sheldon is leading her into temptation yet so crushed by the loneliness of her Christian faith that she ruefully embraces his flaws without truly realizing the hold she has on him. A more extroverted performer like, say, Sally Field might have tried to put too much dominance into Arlene’s presence with actress shtick, but Williams plays her like a real person instead of an Oscar bait caricature.

However, for that year Universal was heavily pushing “Out of Africa” – and grudgingly pushing “Brazil” – for the Academy Awards, and the studio did not see the need to push Williams for award consideration. While it was probably unlikely that Williams would have elbowed out Geraldine Page’s award-winning turn in “The Trip to Bountiful,” Williams’ performance was more textured and genuine than Anne Bancroft’s “Agnes of God” and Jessica Lange’s “Sweet Dreams” – two performances that were certainly not among the best of either woman’s career but somehow wound up in the Best Actress category.

“Uforia” was plagued by bad luck after its theatrical run. The film’s VHS video release required a re-recording of the soundtrack because of problems clearing the country music tunes used throughout the film – and the music rights issue has kept it out of DVD release. And while it reached more viewers via cable television broadcasts, it never truly found an audience that embraced it as a kooky cult classic.

While Ward and Stanton continued steadily working in films, Williams never had another chance to secure film stardom. Her post-“Laverne & Shirley” career was, admittedly, unmemorable, and a renewed viewing of “Uforia” via an unauthorized online upload affirms that she could have gone beyond sitcom slapstick to the proverbial bigger and better.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

Listen to Phil Hall’s award-winning podcast “The Online Movie Show with Phil Hall” on SoundCloud, with a new episode every Monday, and his radio show “Nutmeg Chatter” on WAPJ-FM in Torrington, Connecticut, with a new episode every Sunday. His new book “100 Years of Wall Street Crooks” is now in release through Bicep Books.