Jonathan Demme's breakthrough movie featured the shaggy energy and affection for marginal American eccentrics that marked his earlier Citizens Band (1977) and such later films as Something Wild (1986) and Married to the Mob (1988). Melvin Dummar (Paul LeMat) is a barely-getting-by Nevada milkman. One day in the early 1970s, while driving down a lonely highway, Melvin picks up a shaggy, bearded bum (Jason Robards Jr.) and offers him a ride into town. Melvin gives the bum a quarter at the end of the ride, and that, so far as Melvin is concerned, is that. The story goes off on a new tangent, involving the on-and-off marriage between Dummar and his contest-happy wife Lynda (Mary Steenburgen). During one of the multitude of financial crises endured by the Dummars, Melvin discovers that the tramp he picked up was none other than billionaire Howard Hughes -- and when Hughes dies, Melvin inherits $150 million. The movie's wide acclaim included Oscars for Steenburgen and Goldman's script and New York Film Critics Awards in almost all major categories, including Best Picture and awards for Demme, Goldman, Steenburgen, and Robards. Demme would gain even greater attention in the 1990s as the director of The Silence of the Lambs (1991) and Philadelphia (1993).
by Hal Erickson synopsis