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. 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 up to his rescuer and before he is dropped off at the Desert Inn (which Hughes owns and therein resides), he identifies himself as the reclusive billionaire.
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 tapdancing 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 car 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.Paul Le Mat ..... Melvin Dummar
Mary Steenburgen ..... Lynda West Dummar, Melvin's 1st wife
Pamela Reed ..... Bonnie Bonneau Dummar, Melvin's 2nd wife
Michael J. Pollard ..... Little Red
Jack Kehoe ..... Jim Delgado
Rick Lenz ..... Lawyer
Dabney Coleman ..... Judge Keith Hayes
Charles Napier ..... Ventura
Jason Robards ..... Howard Hughes
The real Melvin Dummar has a cameo appearance as a man behind a bus depot counter.
Robards and Steenburgen went on to co-star in the 1989 comedy film Parenthood, with Robards playing the father-in-law of Steenburgen's character.
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."
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."
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."
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."
Melvin and Howard currently holds a 94% [fresh] rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
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.
Paul Thomas Anderson has cited the film as one of his favorites. Robert Ridgely, who played the host of the fictional "Easy Street" game show in this movie, would later be cast as The Colonel James in Anderson's Boogie Nights. Shots in his 2012 feature The Master recall this movie's cinematography. Additionally, Robards' final acting role was in Anderson's Magnolia.
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), Congressman Howard Baker (Dave Thomas), and Curly Howard (John Candy).
Awards and nominations
The film won the National Society of Film Critics Award for Best Film of 1980.
Mary Steenburgen won several awards for her performance, including the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, the Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress – Motion Picture, the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Supporting Actress, the Boston Society of Film Critics Award for Best Supporting Actress, and the National Society of Film Critics Award for Best Supporting Actress.
Jason Robards was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor and a Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor – Motion Picture, and was honored by the Boston critics.
Bo Goldman won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, the Writers Guild of America Award for Best Drama Written Directly for the Screen, the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Screenplay, the National Society of Film Critics Award for Best Screenplay, and the Boston Society of Film Critics Award for Best Screenplay.
Paul Le Mat was nominated for a Golden Globe Award for Best Actor - Comedy or Musical.