Melodrama as process


(versão em português aqui)

Paul Newman was a film star for five decades, he also was a great film director for a couple of those. A fact that doesn’t get talk much nowadays, probably because Newman’s films don’t circulate as often as they should (a boutique label like Criterion should put out a collection of Newman’s work to get the ball on a reappraisal going, it is just six features after all). It is not like Newman’s directing career received no attention when it was an ongoing event, his debut feature Rachel, Rachel (1968) was Oscar nominated, his last one, an adaptation of The Glass Menagerie (1987) that is probably the best Tennessee Williams put on film, was in the Cannes competition. The first time I was aware of Newman as a director was reading a Serge Daney 1977 interview when asked about which American cinema Cahiers du Cinema was interested at the time the then magazine editor come out with a short list “Robert Kramer, John Cassavetes, Paul Newman, Stephen Dwoskin, Monte Hellman”. That is a lofty list and one that gives a very specific non-Hollywood entry point for his work.

Newman’s six features are all adaptations (three novels, three plays). Four of them have his wife Joanne Woodward at center and a couple star himself (Woodward has a supporting part in 1984’s Harry and Son as well). They almost all deal with characters in dead end situations usually in working class milieus. There is almost always a clock running down, literal or otherwise. His best movie The Shadow Box follows three cancer patients who are counting their final days and receiving loved ones’ visits. For one of the biggest stars from its era, Newman directing efforts are surprising lacking in much narcissism in his films, at most he made a point of self-direct himself in his first role as an old man in Harry and Son, a movie that very self-conscious play as a dividing point in his career.

The usual dismissal of Newman’s work is that he is a stagey director of little interest beyond the performances. It is a lazy one about what movies should and can do. It is true that Newman don’t put any serious effort of open up his adaptations, outside of the wonderful immersive scenes of lumberjack work in Sometimes a Great Notion (shot by the second unit and among the finest stretches of labor put in a Hollywood film) there is very little elaborate action in any of them. Newman’s films are chamber pieces that are all about modulating drama. Beyond his natural handle of actors, Newman major asset is his feel for rhythm. Films like The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in the-Moon Marigolds and The Shadow Box are edited with a rare precision. His camera placement is always ready to make his spare sets feel dramatic resonant. The houses in The Effect of Gamma Rays and The Glass Menagerie are as expressive traps, both high symbolic of its characters’ limitations without overtaking the drama. He also has a very natural give and take between emotive feeling and restrain, a master of muted melodrama who always find the right devastating note, never tasteful, but always a bit removed. He also shares with Cassavetes a great eye for the kind of absurd detail that bring a scene to life and move scenarios away from everyday misery. Calling Newman non-cinematic makes as little sense as calling Ingmar Bergman’s and at least Newman’s work is rarely as closed off in his own mythology.

As for the performances they are indeed great.  Newman of course was married to Woodward, the most technically skilled actress to ever become a Hollywood star and she gives him some of her best work. It is worth pointing out that only Rachel, Rachel among their partnerships is really turned over completely to her. A movie all about her character subjectivity in which Newman often operates towards taking a step back and most filming Woodward’s Rachel as she herself makes an assortment of her life what happened, her options and what might be. In his other Woodward movies, she is more clearly positioned as part of an assemble. Even The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in the-Moon which at first might come up as a perfect awards vehicle often has Woodward serving up the two young actresses playing her daughters, both giving incredible sensitive with Newman and Woodward’s daughter Nell Potts offering the most wounded natural performance by a child actor I know. Newman has a gift for finding perfect use of unglamorous journeyman with a strong lived-in quality like James Olsson (Rachel, Rachel), Richard Jaeckel (Sometimes a Great Notion), James Broderick (The Shadow Box) and James Naughton (The Glass Menagerie). Michael Sarrazin who was likely the least expressive young leading man of the early 70s is excellent as the point of view of Sometimes a Great Notion. Karen Allen and John Malkovich had never been better than as Woodward’s sons in The Glass Menagerie (Malkovich who is such a mannered actor one often feels he can only work in highly artificial genre films or the stage is a particular revelation, fluid and warm in ways he never allowed himself to be otherwise). And then there’s Christopher Plummer pragmatic rage in The Shadow Box, particular in his scenes with Woodward when a lifetime of almost was and regrets are acknowledged without any part really giving much of an inch. A career performance in a movie that is all good people (Woodward, Broderick, Melinda Dillon. Sylvia Sidney) doing great work.

When I think of Newman’s work the first thing to come to my mind is this scene from Harry and Son with Robby Benson reconnecting with Ellen Barkin. They were a high school couple, she cheated on him and he decide to just ignore her, she is pregnant by someone else she is not even sure who and they obvious are still far too attracted to each other while all those bad decisions hang over them. He offers to help her carry groceries and Newman follows them as that melodramatic personal history is played up against the naturalistic action. What so great is how Newman manages to play their dance of resentment with its mutual attraction and repulsion, any given moment the scene seems ready to turn into either high comedy or descend in violence. One of those honest moments in the middle of pure messiness, movies don’t get too very often.

Newman longevity as a star, as the most adaptable of the actor’s studio alums, can sometimes mask how much he is a figure of the 50s. And as a director he very much seems a descendent of post war melodrama. There’s a hint of Kazan to his work and a good deal of Nicholas Ray feel for a alienation and longing (it is worth pointing out Rachel, Rachel shares its screenwriter with Rebel Without a Cause). The high emotionalism of a lot of it comes from the same post war tradition as well, it is intriguing to observe the difference between Newman novel adaptations that place those feelings into relative naturalistic scenarios, while his theatrical ones all take place in a more abstracted world. All those movies are predicted in a longing to disappearing in a neglecting world, but there’s a demonstrative quality in the more abstracted ones.

One could do worse than take a look at Sometimes a Great Notion to appreciate Newman’s work. Unlike all those other movies, this wasn’t a movie Newman plan to direct at first only taking over after the original director Richard A. Colla got fired early in the shoot. It is adapted from a Ken Kelsey novel that I found pretty unreadable when I tried to get through it but I was told is pretty incredible by those who fall for its eccentric bloated charms (Kelsey wrote it after One Flew the Cuckoo’s Nest and there’s few more clear stabs at “the great American novel”). It is very much in the spirit of the many anti-authoritarian pleas for American individualism Newman starred in the 60s. Newman plays Henry Fonda’s older son and Sarrazin the young sensitive one (their casting is so predicted in iconic associations one suspects the studio tried to get Peter Fonda and begrudged settle for Sarrazin after he laugh them off). It is very much a movie about work, full of wonderful panoramic scenes of Fonda’s crew cutting trees down and with an immersion in nature and physical labor that sets it apart from Newman’s other films. Sometimes a Great Nation has a certain 30s Warner programmer feel to it while replacing the working class New Deal ethos of those with everyone for himself, individualism where family rules and class solidarity is an enemy (there’s an essay to be written about how one of the best American films about labor happens to be about union busters whose motto is never give an inch). Newman brings a pragmatic eye to action, downplaying all the big dramatic fireworks as this isn’t a movie about anyone willing to talk about their feelings as much as drinking them (it is for instance pretty obvious that Sarrazin is supposed to be having an affair with Newman’s wife, very well played by Lee Ramick, but one pretty much only have the two actors body language to acknowledge it).

Newman is happy to just catalogue all that self-serving behavior as much as he is in position it up against all that wonderful location shooting with emphasis on the trees’ greens. Then it comes, one tree falls wrong hitting Fonda while letting Jaeckel near submerged at the river, what follows is one of the great wrath of God comedy of errors scenes as both situations go wrong in all possible ways escalating quickly, intense, physical, funny and sad in equal measures, Newman trying to get Jaeckel from below the tree before he drowns is probably the one scene from his directing oeuvre one is likely to heard about, it is careful detailed while the cosmic retribution aspects never been further from one mind and as often in Newman’s work the modulation of the buildup is great, one never has any doubt of where it is going, it is one of the most horrifying protracted death scenes in movies (Jaeckel got an Oscar nomination on the strength of it), but Newman care to get there and all the attention for the interplay between gesture and nature involved plays off.

Whatever reason Newman had to get Colla fired, it is certainly had nothing to do with highlighting his performance. If something sets Sometimes a Great Notion apart for a movie like like Hud is how much Newman submerge himself into the large cast. Indeed, most of the time he is underplaying while letting Fonda, Sarrazin, Remick and Jaeckel shine until a very late scene when he is alone after all the disaster striked and he films himself just taking stock of everything that happened, the what ifs and the reality of it all. A great small piece of acting. There’s a lot of scenes like that in Newman works, scenes with a long history hanging around and actors against the setting just taking a hard look at how things are and could be. Rachel, Rachel is pretty much constructed around such scenes. It settles the tone for all the Newman films to follow. If Newman’s characters always seem to be taking stock of where they are in life, it is because his movies are all about dealing with the relative lack of perspectives available. A typical Newman character has been deal a bad hand in life and is trying to negotiate to make at least a little of it.

Rachel, Rachel is about a woman in her 30s deciding she wants something more in life, but it is surprising how little the movie follows the opening to world formula such premise promises. Instead Newman goes around presenting how unpromising that world is given to a dry description of small town life and harsh prospects. It is all very unsentimental and the dramatic parts that are supposed to signify potential like Ollson rather unpromising suitor are muted. If Rachel achieves some freedom it has more to do with self-awareness suiting a movie that is all about her interiority. It is less a film about escaping than understanding a life lived and unlived and try to come up with some form of possibility to what is to come.

The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in the-Moon Marigolds and The Glass Menagerie are something of mirror films both centered on Woodward as a difficult controlling mom and her effects in her children, both very dedicated to the misery of a family ties (they are even both titled after high symbolic elements on the characters real and shattered possibilities). They are also of course in their own ways films about one fictions of escape, about the alternate dreams contained inside those lives. They are also opposite films given how everyone is ultimately tied in intimacy in The Effect of Gamma Rays and isolated in the drama in The Glass Menagerie. There’s a lot of love and warm in the former and even more because of that a constant sense of home battleground with all the small resents and passive aggressive gestures that are so true of family life. Woodward, Potts and Roberta Wallach have a wonderful chemistry and Newman concentrated observation on their lives comes with a very natural movement between the dispiriting world and the young daughter resolve about it. There’s a quiet resigned quality in how Newman’s dreamers negotiated their limited options never more so than in The Glass Menagerie. Newman films the play in full (there’s no one even credited with adaptation) without a single hint of open it up, but through precise camera placement he positions it far away from filmed theatre. The comes and goings of the son on the early going and the courtship between the suitor and the daughter later on are observed against the vastness of the house set which gives it context as much as nature does in Sometimes a Great Notion. Michael Ballhaus cinematography is some of his finest work and highlights the feeling that there’s nothing small about the human drama playing in that place. Most people adapting Williams assume the best way of dealing with the repressed urges that are contained in his writing is to let it play up in all its grotesque glory, but Newman packs it in and find it is even more devastating when everyone even Woodward’s mother just acknowledge it with quiet acceptance.

This pragmatic acceptance is all over The Shadow Box which is Newman’s finest achievement. Taken from a recent award winning Michael Cristofer play and filmed for TV, it remains very underseen despite some high profile defenders especially among European critics. It is a very blunt and direct film. The Shadow Box might be about terminal illness, but it refuses to progress towards any big dramatic fireworks or revelation.  All the three characters dying have come to terms with their situations long before the camera roll. There’s no pity or sentiment here, yet there’s drama. Newman is interested in all the gestures accumulated in those talks with loved ones, those last rites of the soon gone. There’s a lot of previous history to deal even more so because they are supposed to stop so soon. The cabins the meetings are set are very spare and presented by Newman’s images as near abstracted from the world, it is all very quiet and clinical. Newman imagines melodrama as process. It makes sense in a film about accepting death. The biggest of emotions dramatized in a way that dried them up while also liberating them to be more felt.

Mortality is also very much in Harry and Son’s mind. That is the hardest to qualify of his directing efforts. In some ways it has more to do with a couple of twilight day vehicles he did much later Robert Benton’s Nobody’s Fool and Fred Schepisi’s Empire Falls (both taken from Richard Russo novels, the later one was actually Newman last on screen performance). All very episodical comical working class panoramas grounded by Newman’s presence as unreconciled rascal and his difficult relationship with his son. Harry and Son stands out as the one actual vehicle for himself even though a good deal of it is given over to Robby Benson as the son. Newman plays a widower who just lost his construction job, has health issues and a wayward wannabe writer son whose lacks of perspectives drives him insane. As I mentioned early Newman who was 59 when the film come out is very self-conscious that Harry means the end of his matinee idol days. Much like Eastwood’s Unforgiven, Harry and Son is about the superstar’s aging beyond his usual accepted image and it is no accident that Newman follow it up with Scorsese’s The Color of Money in which he not only replayed one of his more famous roles 25 years later, but did so against Tom Cruise whose unofficial job in the late 80s and 90s was telling aging male stars their years were up. Most of the film moves between Newman/Benson contentious scenes and comic vignettes around Benson many jobs and Newman increasing exasperation at his increasing lack of power (the scene between Benson and Ossie Davies is particular wonderful observed). Somehow Newman performance comes off as both very energetic in how focused and specific it is and tired as a portrait of a man who is just slipping away a moment at time. Benson performance is an acquired taste, he isn’t quite good in any conventional sense and he has a tendency to play up his entitlement in non-productive ways, but he has a disarming openness that serves the movie intentions. Newman goes around everything in such a quiet manner and most of the movie feels deceptive light and it take a good part of the running time before one might notice how much effort it put in the main relationship. It is also the one time Newman direct he and Woodward together and there’s wonderful sense of intimacy and shared history to their moments together.

There’s this moment on Harry and Son when Newman gets to read his son first writing acceptance letter, it is writing pretty much in the obvious expected way, yet both director and actor pulls back never allow it to ring false and cloying, there’s one moment of acknowledge sentiment and they are down to earthlier matters, a shared beer, the son helping the father getting laid. Because the sentiment only erupts for one stolen glance, it is actually allowed to resonate for the remaining film. That is very representative of Newman’s work as whole, this most discreet of auteurs, dedicated to modulate drama out of this few moments when lives that have few choices are reckoned with a moment of possibility.

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