Thursday, September 15, 2011

Polly Platt, Jane Fonda, Barbara Loden and Their Work on A Masterpiece, A Classic, and then the Hedgehog

      There’s been a great deal of attention paid to the Film School Auteur generation that came of age in Hollywood during the last extraordinary artistic and commercial period from around 1966 when Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf became the first R-rated movie to around Star Wars when technology overtook human emotions.  To paraphrase George Lucas, directors either direct people or things and this period moved from intensely drawn human portraits to spectacularly presented epics about hardware.  (Don’t use that against them or blame the era:  westerns were about horses, riders, and mountains).  The focus during that period has been on men, but let’s look again at
three women and their contributions primarily around three movies.  All three came of age artistically during this period, but they were members of the Silent generation, rather than the Baby Boomers.

Polly Platt
      Polly Platt died in July and she’s not a household name, but she worked in film for over forty years, finally as a screenwriter and producer.  Shelley Long even played a fictionalized version of her in Irreconcilable Differences (as the charmingly creative writer in the first half of the film, not the vindictive virago in the second half).  She was Peter Bogdanovich’s wife and artistic collaborator, which he acknowledged, and the young married critic-turned-filmmaker who knew everything about the classic era of Hollywood movies and the costume designer-turned-production designer who knew everything about pretty much every other American art form charmed the aging professional directing legends.  She suggested that Bogdanovich film Larry McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show and it was acclaimed as an instant classic in 1971.  Forty years later, viewing it for a second time, it’s an unquestionable masterpiece.

      Some changes from the book actually strengthened the material such as cutting the sequence where the boys mount a blind heifer and changing Jacy’s mother from having a one night stand with the naïve protagonist to considering the possibility and then dropping it.  I’m certain Platt influenced both these changes, but Bogdanovich described how she came up with the sequences where Jacy (Cybill Sheppard) and Duane (Jeff Bridges) unsuccessfully consummate their relationship, but share glowing reports, and then later consummate it resulting in his glib arrogance and her frustrated disdain as well as the scenes where he generously gives her a watch that she carelessly breaks at a skinny dipping party without him.

A Scene from The Last Picture Show
Platt even found Sheppard on a magazine cover and pushed to cast her, which resulted in a realistic portrait of a spoiled, rural rich girl who just wants some attention and excitement, but has to contend with boring sexual misadventures and a misguided, quickly annulled elopement.  Sheppard has never surpassed that performance, though she won Bogdanovich from Platt.

      Platt’s production design is unparalleled, though Bogdanovich was smart to shoot in black and white, which wasn’t as uncommon then as it is now.  It’s set in a small Texas town in 1951 and it’s hard not to rub your eyes with all of the dust and tumbleweeds flying through or escape claustrophobia in the small living rooms, bars and, most significantly, bedrooms that are redolent of the era without unnecessarily calling attention to themselves.  This is a far cry from Peyton Place, which doesn’t have that different of a plot, but which is Hollywood swank glamour and always seems like 1958, when it was released, than 1941 when it was set.    The costumes in Picture Show look more like ordinary, sometimes ill used or worn out clothes that the characters pulled off a hanger than those a wardrobe mistress sewed and ironed.  The hilarious, poignant, and disturbing passage of time and the desperation for connection through sex are hallmarks of a ‘70s movie, though it’s still presented with frankness and discretion, reflecting both Platt’s and Bogdanovich’s taste.  

The Chase Finale in What's Up Doc?
      Platt worked on his What’s Up, Doc? and Paper Moon before they completely split.  He hasn’t made another significant movie whereas she wrote Pretty Baby (the first R movie I saw by myself – don’t ask – and I was the same age as Brooke Shields playing the child prostitute), A Map of the World, designed Streisand’s A Star Is Born and was Oscar nominated for Terms of Endearment, co-produced Broadcast News, Say Anything, War of the Roses, and Bottle Rocket.  She collaborated with James L. Brooks until her death and introduced him to Matt Groening because of his “Life in Hell” cartoon that led to “The Simpsons”.  Her last project was a documentary about notorious cheapie producer Roger Corman, who gave half of the best directors in Hollywood their start in the ‘60s and ‘70s including Bogdanovich, thereby starting Platt’s film career.  With all of these achievements and they’re pretty astonishing, I don’t think there’s been a serious examination of her life and career.  Start with The Last Picture Show because it’s a heartbreaker that captures rural small-town America almost more exactly than any other film I can think of.

Jane Fonda
      Jane Fonda still polarizes forty years after Hanoi and she’s had so many acts in her life (she claimed three in her autobiography from a few years back, but I’d say she’s had about seven) that it’s almost impossible to pin down her essence.  However, Sydney Pollack cast her as the tragic Gloria in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?   This was where her toughness and vulnerability began to define her image as a serious actress and then in 1971 Alan Pakula cast her as Bree Daniels, the skittish, neurotic, intellectual, sexy, waspish, daffy, kittenish, terrified, enraged call girl trying to enter the mainstream as a model or actress in Klute.  

It’s one of the greatest film performances ever and fully demonstrates Fonda’s chameleonic, kaleidoscopic talent and image and her mastery of the Method.  She’s so tied into the character that you cannot tell where the performer ends and the character begins and vice versa.  It’s basically two movies in one:   the updated private eye thriller where Donald Sutherland as Klute is investigating the disappearance and possible murder of his best friend and finds a lead in Bree; and then everything about Bree’s life, which is fascinating.  New York City really feels like it’s on the edge of a precipice and that it might go over.  Fonda moves like a panther in this movie and the first time that she casually reaches out and takes Sutherland’s hand while they’re walking down a street feels electric.  Later, she jumps out of a car and just keeps running and when Klute finally tracks her down, she curled up like a cat beside her former pimp (Roy Scheider). The psycho who killed Klute’s friend chillingly uses the initial, teasing phone conversation where she entices a potential john against her at the climax.  .

      The rest of Fonda’s ‘60s – ‘70s film career reflects the progressive feminist and political culture of the era.  She never found a role on the level of Bree, though she was offered everything.  She turned down Bonnie in Bonnie and Clyde because of pregnancy and was right to do so.  Her wit and independence would have made no sense with Beattie’s Clyde; she’d have broken away from the gang and started her own.  She turned down Chinatown (Faye Dunaway has thanked her for these roles), probably because she didn’t want to play a victim, but it would have been great to see her directed by Polanski in something.  She turned down Daisy in The Great Gatsby, which was a wise decision since the movie sort of tanked, but she and Redford made a great team in other films and her vitality and elegance would have made it heartbreaking when Daisy chooses Tom over Gatsby.  She turned down An Unmarried Woman because the part “wasn’t relevant”.  It’s about a middle-class urban woman finding herself and being a role model for her daughter after her husband leaves her.  

Jane Fonda in Julia
Almost every part Fonda played in that era (Julia, Coming Home, The China Syndrome, 9 to 5) was about a woman finding herself and somehow raising her or her milieu’s consciousness so I don’t understand her reasoning.  To top it off, Coming Home focused more on Jon Voight’s character than hers and he had the better part.  Jill Clayburgh should have won the Oscar that year for An Unmarried Woman (but that’s another story).

      A recent Fonda biography has posited that she would have been a great stage actress.  It’s probably true and she has gone back to Broadway in the last couple of seasons.  I wish she’d played Hedda Gabler instead of Nora in the film of A Doll’s House.  Nora’s the original consciousness raiser as she slams that door and walks out, but Hedda is mercurial, complex, wickedly funny, and poignant.  What would she be like as Alexandra Del Lago in Sweet Bird of Youth?  I still think she’s got a great film performance in her if she can find the role and if she’s even interested (she’s probably not).

Barbara Loden on a 1964 Post Cover
      Barbara Loden is not a household name.  However, she wrote, directed, and starred in Wanda, an independent film (almost before there were such things), released in 1970.  She’d been a stage and screen actress.  She was wild and over the edge as Warren Beatty’s older sister in Splendor in the Grass giving their father (Pat Hingle) hell.  Elia Kazan directed her in that film, married her, and then directed her in Arthur Miller’s autobiographical After The Fall.  She won a Tony in 1965 as Maggie, Miller’s thinly veiled portrait of Marilyn Monroe.  Film director Karen Moncrieff played the part when I was in college and she did all she could with it but, ugh, it’s a dreary play even though it’s a self-righteous psychological striptease.

      Loden wrote the script in 1962, but couldn’t secure the financing to film it for about seven years even though she was married to the most influential American director of that era.  Of course, John Cassavettes faced the same challenges, but he’d shoot on weekends when cast and crew were available over a couple of years while making Faces.  Loden went out with a three-person crew and shot in the middle of Pennsylvania on a shoestring and a limited schedule.  Wanda is in color and the long shots that are beautifully framed (she really had an eye), sparse dialogue, and overwhelming sense of alienation recall Michelangelo Antonioni’s Red Desert.  Antonioni, though, hedged his thematic bets by focusing on beautifully dressed, articulate, glamorous characters.  Loden never patronizes the character of Wanda or her world; she works without a net, but she doesn’t get away without breaking her leg.  

      When the film begins, we see a coal tip and Neil said “uh oh, they’re not going to be able to dig themselves out of this.”  They didn’t.  It’s naturalism, all right, and it’s symbolism and it foreshadows the descent of Wanda and considering that she begins, passed out, on her sister’s couch, a viewer might not think she has far to fall.  I don’t want to give away too much of the plot and to quickly recap it would make it sound like a dark comedy, rather than the ‘tragedy of suffering’ that it is.  Yes, it’s the Aristotelian definition that I’m using.  Wanda neither displays the tragic hero’s pride nor the sense of self-examination; she is acted upon by others who leave her, use her, fire her, beat her up,  but, above all, rarely show her attention.  

      There’s one sequence where she connects with a vaguely creepy, middle-aged guy (Michael Higgins) who is indifferent to her, but doesn’t ignore her.  He decides to give her something to do as his getaway driver during his somewhat complexly planned bank robbery.  Unfortunately, this goes wrong and I saw it coming a minute before it did.  It’s ironic, all right, but it seems inevitable.  Is there anything at which Wanda can succeed?  She’s not a charming loser or a kooky flibbertigibbet.  She’s dense, unmotivated, and unhappy, but she’s a survivor.  Full disclosure:  since I’d recorded it on DVR,  I fast forwarded a few times because it was so slow and I found the inarticulate, psychic pain at times to be pretty unbearable.  The final freezing image is unforgettable.  Wanda’s in a bar with some strangers and she’s about to have a drink and the look on her face says it all: “is this it?” It’s a profound and unsettling movie, but it’s not entertaining, though Loden’s achievement is memorable.

Wow!  Eric sure knows a lot about movies.  I better add some of these to my Netflix que.


Pinky Kushner said...

In a lot of ways Wanda foreshadowed the recent novel, The Flamethrowers, as the author Rachel Kushner freely admits.

Dexter said...

Thank you for the recommendation. It's one we've wanted to read. Look for our review in the future.