Melvin and Howard is a sweet little film that comes at the tail end of the film renaissance known as “New American Cinema”, which started with Bonnie and Clyde in 1967 and puttered to a close in 1979 or 1980.
Melvin Dummar became a household name after Howard Hughes died as the richest man in the world in 1976, and soon after a will mysteriously appeared in the headquarters of the Mormon church naming the gas station owner as one of the billionaire’s heir. Dummar told the story of finding a decrepit old man at the side of a desert road outside Las Vegas in 1967, and drove him to a hotel. Along the way, the old man claimed to be Howard Hughes. Dummar didn’t believe the man until the will surfaced a decade later. A bitter court battle started which continues to this day.
The charm of this early Jonathan Demme film comes from the fact that it takes Dummar’s story at face value. Mary Steenburgen won an Oscar for her portrayal of Melvin’s first wife, who ran off with their daughter and found work as a stripper. The couple divorced, then married again, then divorced again, and Melvin married an accountant at the milk company where worked as a delivery man. The bulk of the film is spent on Melvin’s trouble home life. There is no attempt to discern if he was telling the truth or not, and the main focus is not on the court battles and media circus, but rather the struggles of a normal working guy who wants to mark out a little place for himself in the world, and suddenly finds himself wrapped up in something much bigger than he ever imagined.