Richard Lester’s style of shooting and editing is so lively, you’d think Terrence McNally’s Broadway farce about a gay bathhouse would serve his natural friskiness, especially with much of the original cast intact. Alas, he adopts only a slightly less lethargic approach here than his absurdist British sci-fi comedy, The Bed Sitting Room. In both cases, Lester seems to have believed that the characters and their antics were so bizarre that it was sufficient to point the camera at them and leave it up to us to decide what to do about it.
At least in The Ritz we get to see the genuinely ritzy set design by Philip Harrison. I have no idea how well it approximates a New York bathhouse of the 1970s, but any verisimilitude is cramped by the inability to show nudity. It looks like a retirement home where be-toweled gentlemen play pool; it might as well be gin rummy. Although jokes are made to the effect that somebody’s having sex somewhere on the premises, it doesn’t seem likely. In any event, this British-made movie turns out to be an accidental time-capsule, no matter how distorted, for a bit of pre-AIDS queer culture.
The story can be described as loud Italian stereotypes clashing with gay stereotypes (although less so) as mediated by a big Puerto Rican stereotype in the person of Rita Moreno, re-creating her Tony-winning role as a talentless diva who keeps insisting she’s not a drag queen while biting off lines like “What arrr jew sayink to me, maricon?!” Jack Weston is hiding out from his mafia brother-in-law (Jerry Stiller) in this “hotel” that turns out to be a bathhouse, and instantly he’s targeted by a “chubby chaser” (Paul Price). Pratfalls ensue, with much door-slamming, mistaken identities, and hiding under beds.
This might conceivably seem hilarious if the whole audience were wearing towels and perhaps had just come from a rubdown and a couple of margaritas, but instead it looks flat and labored. The only “treat” is a shirtless Treat Williams, who adopts an annoying Mickey Mouse voice. Among those present are Kaye Ballard (thrown away), F. Murray Abraham (swishy with dignity), Bessie Love, George Colouris, John Ratzenberger, and an unbilled Nathan Lane. Released on DVD several years ago, that disc has now been reissued on demand by Warner Archive.