A few years ago the annual Academy Awards ceremony adopted as its theme "The Year of the Woman." Many of Hollywood's most powerful and enduring female figures took center stage to praise the efforts of their sex in the motion picture industry. The running joke that year, of course, was that "The Year of the Woman" was like every other year, one in which there were too few good movie roles for women. Sadly, nothing much has changed since then. 1994 certainly set no new trends, not with the gifted Meryl Streep being reduced to starring in the action vehicle The River Wild. Still, though the overall picture remains bleak, there have been a handful of outstanding roles for women over the last year or so, and it is the purpose of this essay to have a look at several.
Two pictures in the nation's malls this winter of 1995 have offered lead performances by two of the finest young actresses at work in contemporary Hollywood. Though the pictures themselves are not equally successful, both Winona Ryder in Little Women and Jodie Foster in Nell distinguish themselves as performers at the very top of their craft. Little Women is easily the superior work. It's flawed by spotty character development and occasional narrative murkiness, but it still emerges as a family entertainment must. Nell on the other hand, despite the efforts of its star, is a clumsy contrivance. Watching Ms. Foster at work constitutes its only enduring pleasure.
Adapted from Louisa May Alcott's novel and directed by Gillian Armstrong (My Brilliant Career), Little Women is the story of the Civil War era March sisters: Jo (Ryder), Meg (Trini Alvarado), Beth (Claire Danes) and Amy (Kirsten Dunst and Samantha Mathis). Jo is the strong one, Meg is the pretty one, Beth is the good one, and Amy is the bratty little one. With their father (Matthew Walker) off to war, the March girls live on a tight budget, learning to take a great deal of amusement from the plays they write and perform in the attic of their family's large New England house. With their mother (Susan Sarandon) as a model and guide, the girls grow up with healthy egos, solid moral values and a fierce family loyalty. Eventually they experience romance, marriage and the inevitability of death.
Wholesome and fundamentally effective as it is, Little Women nonetheless suffers as many works do when trying to adapt the expansive story of a novel into the two-hour time frame of a feature film. Meg's character is given very little definition and Beth's too little to realize the fullest emotional weight in her battle against scarlet fever. Amy, meanwhile, is characterized as too self-centered for the redemption the film ultimately offers her. Even more problematically, Mrs. March is rendered as the font of all goodness and wisdom. She strides on screen largely to deliver aphorisms. Narrative developments, too, are sometimes faltering. Much ado is made of Mr. March's having been wounded in the war. The scene of his safe homecoming is delivered with considerable fanfare, but then the father character absolutely disappears from the picture. Most nettlesome, the movie proves particularly awkward in its handling of Jo's relationship with a neighboring young man named Theodore "Laurie" Laurence (Christian Bale). Jo convinces her sisters to admit Laurie into their attic "theatrical society," and by the time the young couple are in their late teens they consider themselves best friends. It comes as no shock, then, when Laurie eventually proposes. What's shocking is Jo's turning him down. We haven't the slightest clue as to what Jo finds lacking about Laurie.
All the same, Little Women stands as a motion picture well worth seeing (particularly with your kids). Whatever its shortcomings, it just brims with positive virtues. Ms. Danes will probably be lost in the shadows of Ryder's wonderful lead, but despite the underwritten nature of her role, Danes does a memorably powerful turn as the saintly Beth. And though Mom may indeed be too uncomplicatedly good to be true, the lessons she teaches are well worth being learned. In a narcissistic age it is important to be told that "time erodes beauty but cannot erode gentleness, kindness and moral courage." The film teaches other things as well. It reminds us that life is filled with sorrows as well as joys, that its sorrows can be endured and that its truest joys are intangible rather than material things. When both Beth and Jo marry poor men, it makes a crucial point about happiness being located in love and not in money. And elsewhere it encourages us to believe that angry words can be taken back and that fights can be regretted and forgotten. In Little Women grudges are quickly abandoned and forgiveness stands at the ready. The film's greatest gift is its underlying premise that the finest treasures we may know are those contained in friendship and in family.
Adapted from Mark Handley's play Idioglossia and directed by Michael Apted, Nell is the story of a young woman who has lived an existence in the North Carolina woods so isolated that she speaks her own idiosyncratic language. Conceived in a brutal rape, Nell (Foster) is raised by a mother who has suffered a stroke and can barely speak. To protect Nell from society's cruelties, the mother has kept Nell hidden from the residents of the closest town. Mother and daughter live in a log cabin without electricity or running water. When the mother dies, Nell, now a young woman in her twenties, is discovered, and the question becomes what to do with her. Local doctor Jerry Lovell (Liam Neeson) wants her left alone. He doesn't think that anything is wrong with her, that's she's a bright, generous, inquisitive person who can gradually adjust to her changed circumstances if she's left in peace. Psychologist Paula Olsen (Natasha Richardson) isn't so sure, however, Nell wouldn't be better off with a lot more supervision. And psychological institute director Alexander Paley (Richard Libertini) sees Nell as a mother lode of potential human development research.
Foster is especially courageous here, and she's very well supported by Neeson and Richardson. Despite its failings, the film has other praiseworthy attributes as well. At mid-picture, for instance, Apted backs away from the nasty possibility of turning Nell into a rape victim. Best of all, the picture wisely acknowledges the fundamental difficulties of Nell's circumstances. She hails from a place that no one else can ever know, and she will always be a foreigner in her own land. Thus, commendably, Apted delivers an ending notable for its ambiguity and air of abiding melancholy.
If only the whole of the picture were so artful. But to a surprising degree from a director of Michael Apted's credentials (the award-winning documentaries 7 Up, etc., and such other well received films as Coal Miner's Daughter and Gorillas in the Mist), Nell surrenders to the hoariest and most despicable of Hollywood conventions. We can credit Apted for avoiding making Nell a rape victim, but he doesn't command much credit for getting her into perilous circumstances in the first place. Nell wanders away from Jerry and Paula on an initial outing to town and beelines it for a redneck bar. Why on earth would she do that? And even when the bad old boy pool players start teasing her, why would she pull up her dress to show her breasts? Nell is a cultural foreigner, not an exhibitionist or a moron. Elsewhere, it's understandable that the doctors would strive to understand Nell's language, but given her obvious native intelligence, why wouldn't they teach her English at the same time? A simple exchange of naming of things would seem a useful and friendly communication. Then as the picture nears its climax, why does Nell become catatonic? And as it reaches its climax, could the filmmakers think of nothing better than a courtroom setting? Frankly, we just cringe when Nell suddenly snaps out of her daze and, through Jerry's flawless translation, delivers a plea on her own behalf that aims to yank the hankies from our pockets. In sum, Nell is a failure of imagination. Well acted though it is, it's a concept developed only in cliches.
I think my favorite performance this winter, though, has come from Susan Sarandon in a role mysteriously less ballyhooed than earlier ones in The Client (a truly bad motion picture) and Little Women. In Safe Passage Sarandon is Mag Singer, a wife and mother of seven sons, the youngest of whom is in high school. As she nears age fifty, Mag is slightly disheveled and a little unfocused, the product of trying to juggle the demands of mothering such a huge brood of men. With only one child remaining at home, she has recently separated from Patrick (Sam Shepard), her husband of 25 years, and she's thinking of abandoning the comfortable but cluttered family home and moving to an apartment. Currently Patrick is sleeping at his office, but he doesn't seem to have relocated many of his belongings there.
Mag doesn't quite see it this way, but she's suffering a mid-life crisis. She's spent her entire adult life as a mother. As she puts it, "One minute I was hot for Patrick, and the next I had seven sons." Mag tells an acquaintance, "I was 35 years old before I could have dinner without having to cut someone else's meat." Now facing an imminent empty nest, Mag has become constitutionally cranky. Her grown sons don't need her anymore; her youngest will soon be gone as well. And somehow, strong-willed, independent Patrick is part of the problem with a life of mothering that has filled all her time but left her unfulfilled. Angry as she is, though, Mag retains a considerable measure of self-awareness. She admits that she's still physically and emotionally attracted to her husband. It's just that he seems to stand for a life that wasn't ever of her own choosing. And now that her mothering role is ending, she's left with a gigantic void in her life. Patrick's manly attractiveness is somehow responsible for this discontent. When he tries to humor her out of such an attitude, Mag becomes agitated. "When I laugh at your jokes," she explains, "it feels like I'm giving in."
The core strength of Safe Passage lies in director Robert Allan Ackerman's refusal to play Mag's story for stagy dramatics. There is, crucially, nothing unusual about Mag's circumstances. Patrick isn't abusive. Both partners have been faithful to their marital vows. None of the children is deformed or psychologically impaired. And Mag is dealing with her existential frustration in a responsible fashion. She continues to be a great mother to her youngest boy. And she's been studying for a civil service exam which will qualify her for employment as a social worker. Mag Singer's problems, then, aren't those of movieland eccentrics but rather those of a normal person making her way through one of life's inevitable rough passages.
The appropriately halting resolution to Mag's problems is also handled in a subtle and true way. One of Mag's sons is a marine stationed in the Sinai. When a terrorist bomb explodes in the camp dormitory, communications are disrupted, and the Singers have to face the possibility that one of their children has been killed. Knowing how much their parents are sure to be suffering, the other six Singer boys gather at the family home to participate in the vigil for their brother. There is no bombast, no false theatrics of sharing. In time of trouble the family simply comes together. And the point is made. Mag's life, her marriage and her mothering, has been a smashing success. Seven rambunctious boys in one home have made for two decades of seeming chaos. But at the core of that chaos is a solid and unshakable core of love, of young men for their brothers, of sons for their parents. The power of this core is such that we viewers come to feel as invested in the missing brother's fate as do the members of the family. And that gives the film's climax as much emotional weight as any film I've seen in a good while.
Perhaps the most praised of recent female performances was Holly Hunter's in The Piano for which she won an Oscar last April. In its most gripping sequence, The Piano dramatizes an indecent proposal that makes the premise of the recent Robert Redford/Demi Moore film by that name seem the stuff of casual chit chat. Somewhere in the New Zealand bush, sometime in the age of Queen Victoria, a man makes a pass at the mute wife of his best friend. The woman is as vulnerable a character as one might conceivably imagine. She lives in a frontier world dominated by hard, dirty males. She is without family or friends. She has been stripped of the only material possession to which she feels any connection. And now, to get back her treasured piano, she's asked to avail herself sexually. Writer/director Jane Campion's development of the woman's response is both thoroughly surprising and richly revealing. What Campion accomplishes here in depth of character development makes The Piano a film of rare power.
The story is simple enough, though strikingly imagined for a writer working late in the 20th century. A voiceover at the beginning tells us that a young 19th-century woman named Ada (Hunter) has not spoken since she was six years old. Ada can hear, so her muteness proceeds from a mysterious exercise of will rather than any native disability. We also learn that Ada was impregnated out of wedlock, and is the mother of a 9-year-old daughter. As the film begins, Ada's father marries her to a man she's never seen, one who says he won't be bothered by her muteness. The husband, Stewart (Sam Neill), lives in a remote part of New Zealand where he trades baubles if possible, and guns if necessary, to the natives in exchange for their land. Stewart isn't exactly a monster. But he doesn't capture any blue ribbons for sensitivity either. He's an entire day late arriving at the remote beach to meet his new wife, leaving her and her daughter Flora (Anna Paquin) to camp out on the sand in a makeshift tent. Even worse, when it's time to transport Ada to his house, Stewart refuses to command his men to haul her prized piano up the mountainside to their home.
The piano is Ada's mechanism for expressing her most profound and complicated feelings. She can read and write and communicates extensively with Flora in sign language. But only when she's at the keyboard does her truest essence rise to the surface of her usually stern countenance. Ada has far greater success at getting her husband's neighbor George Baines (Harvey Keitel) to understand her attachment to the piano. When Stewart is away on one of his trading missions, Baines accompanies her back to the beach where he becomes enraptured by her playing. Immediately thereafter he trades Stewart 80 acres of land for rights to the piano and piano lessons from Ada. The piano lessons shortly become an occasion for sexual confrontation. And when Stewart finds out, his reaction is at first merely defensive and arguably restrained but subsequently almost unbearably violent.
Campion is unfortunately blase about the virtue of artistic tightness. She has bragged about her inclusion of native Maori people among her characters. But she doesn't develop a single native character in the slightest way. And even the Maori's purpose as backdrop characters is left annoyingly vague. If they are to represent sexual naturalness, as the Polynesians are used in The Bounty, for instance, Campion expects the viewer to make an awfully lot out of terribly little. Elsewhere, the script inadequately details the course and cause of Flora's changing relationship with Stewart. The two almost never interact. But at a critical juncture the youngster is calling him papa and taking his side. And the picture's climax doesn't make adequately clear whether we're dealing with accident or attempted suicide. The most grating passages, though, are those in which Ada caresses her husband in the most intimate sexual way, all the while refusing to embrace him in a normal sexual manner. Campion has defended the scene as one in which Ada treats her husband as men so often do women: as a sex object. But I can't at all reconcile such cold exploitation with Ada's character as otherwise revealed.
Still, whatever my individual reservations, The Piano is an unusually accomplished work. Stewart, for example, is developed in greater depth than we've come to expect of movie villains. He's not an enlightened man. He's clumsy and in many ways crude. But he's not inherently cruel. He's even surprisingly patient in his sexual expectations of his new wife. When he learns of Ada's involvement with George, we are made to feel his torment and his struggle for a proper and controlled response. For these reasons, the ultimate violence of his fury is all the more horrifying. Moreover, Ada's story illustrates both a 19th-century woman's utter vulnerability in a world dominated by men and at once a single individual's incredible strength, courage and resilience in the face of bewildering and overwhelming circumstances. Hunter's tiny stature and fiery spirit are perfect in this regard. In her fights with Stewart, Ada is almost completely helpless. But whereas she is easily defeated, she is never conquered.
Considerable controversy has arisen over the explicit nature of the lovemaking scenes between Ada and George. I would here like to mount their defense. The beginning of George and Ada's flirtation is marked by an exquisite uncertainty. We know that George is taken by Ada in a way that her husband isn't. He's moved by her piano playing and can't spend enough time listening to her. On the other hand, there's a distinct possibility in the early going that George is a fiend. Promising Ada that she can earn back ownership of her piano one key at a time, he convinces her to allow him to lie under her feet and look up her dress while she plays. Later she consents to play without her blouse. But as she continues to agree to his demands, we recognize that these acts are as exciting to Ada as they are to George, are mutual acts of stimulation rather than desperate and degrading endeavors by Ada to reclaim her spiritual security blanket. When George and Ada finally consummate their love, the sequence has uncommon passion. It is indeed explicit. But it is most certainly not pornographic. It stirs you not in your loins, but it in your heart.
I am even fonder of a lesser-seen "woman's" film which played alongside The Piano for a time a year ago. The determined and successful subtlety of Stephen Gyllenhaal's A Dangerous Woman is probably best illustrated at the picture's end. The camera discovers an adorable toddler and closes in on the child's cherubic face to elicit from the audience its expected chorus of "Awwwww!" But just as everybody starts to feel warm and gushy, the baby splits our ears with piercing shrieks. Every parent knows the paradox of a beautiful child: one second a contented angel, the next a screaming tyrant. Things aren't all one way, the movie deftly submits. More often than not, they're many contradictory ways all at once.
Adapted from Mary McGarry Morris's novel, A Dangerous Woman is the story of Martha Horgan (Debra Winger), a young woman who has suffered since birth from a minor personality disorder. Martha isn't retarded and hardly incapable of taking care of herself. But she is decidedly odd. She isn't physically deformed, but her severe myopia has made her so clumsy and deliberate that at first glance we think there's something wrong with her: a victim of polio, perhaps, or mild muscular dystrophy. Fundamentally, her oddness proceeds from her manner. Her affect is different from that of most people. She's out of synch with the rhythm of the conventional world.
Martha lives in a tiny house adjacent to the splendid luxury home of her aunt, Frances Beecham (Barbara Hershey). Frances has been charged with caring for Martha since Frances was 15 and Martha 9. Today Martha works at a dry cleaners, but Frances obviously provides for the bulk of Martha's support. Martha's awkward manner makes it difficult for her to make friends. She's incapable of the kind of flexibility with the truth that's central to the conventions of tact. She's never figured out what things people say to each other and what things they don't. When a job applicant shows up for handyman work on Frances' property, Martha bluntly tells him he needs to shave, change clothes and otherwise clean himself up. When she's moved by a co-worker's act of kindness, she blurts out "I love you."
Eventually, Martha's unrestrained honesty and automatic high-mindedness get her in trouble. She reports a co-worker for raiding the company cash register. And when he denies the charge, she stubbornly tries to unbuckle and unzip his pants to prove that she saw him shove bills into his underwear. Worse, when the dry cleaners neglects to complete a rush order and her boss decides merely to spot-clean the garment, Martha reports the fraudulent service to the customer. Afterwards, it's surprising only to Martha that she gets fired.
There is very much to admire in this production, most of all the filmmakers' careful and complex construction of even its minor characters. Martha's friend Birdy (Chloe Webb) is perceptive enough to see beyond Martha's surface oddness. Birdy talks with Martha, advises her and includes Martha in social activities. But Birdy is no saint, and when Martha demands too much, Birdy cuts her off. Comparably, another co-worker, Mercy, (Viveka Davis) is capable of casual kindness to Martha. But such off-hand goodness co-exists with a willingness to sleep with her best friend's fiance. Getso (David Strathairn), the office thief, is pretty much an incorrigible rat. But he's not a monster. His sins are petty, and he wouldn't go out of his way to hurt someone. In fact, he might be capable of something humane, if the action didn't involve much self-sacrifice. When we first meet State Assemblyman Steve Bell (John Terry) we think him the stereotypical political slimeball. He seems to place public image above all else. Meanwhile he's cheating on his alcoholic wife, Anita (Laurie Metcalf). But just when we think we've identified unalloyed sleaze, Gyllenhaal includes a scene where Anita shows up sober at a party for Steve. When the two dance, we realize that they are both redeemed by the power of the love which beams from their embrace like a lighthouse beacon.
The constructive depth of the film's major characters is even more impressive. At first Frances seems cold, haughty and imperious. But we come to realize how much her manner is a response to a lifetime of hurt. She was only 16 when she married her rich husband, and everybody assumed she did it only for the money. But we come to know how much she loved the man and how lonely his death has left her. We may judge Frances for her subsequent involvement with a married man, but we feel her sense of abandonment when he goes back to his wife. Frances' relationship with Martha is not everything it should be. Frances is impatient at times, and she too often makes her exasperation apparent. Yet, however often Frances fails in her actions, we come to perceive that her love for Martha is unwavering and profound.
Probably the film's most intriguing character is Mac Mackey (Gabriel Byrne), the itinerant handyman with the severe drinking problem. Mac recognizes in Martha the substantive person behind the awkward manner. He likes Martha, and he feels her innate goodness. Mac sees that Martha needs a greater degree of independence than Frances is willing to grant her. And he sees that she needs to be afforded the dignity to make mistakes and have silly impulses. Martha's vulnerability calls out to Mac, and he's drawn to her. One of the film's great moments comes when he dances with Martha by letting her stand on his feet. But Mac's drinking makes him unwise and allows him to involve himself with Martha in ways he shouldn't, in ways his sober and better self would resist.
And, of course, in the development of Martha resides the film's creative core and greatest achievement. Critically, Martha is never sentimentalized. We're invited not to pity her but to see her humanity. Martha is a person who doesn't hear the same music as the rest of us. But that doesn't mean she doesn't have the same needs. Even as her oddness drives people away, she aches for friendship. Like anyone else, she hungers for love. She may not know the appropriate rituals for romance, but like most of the rest of us, she is a sexual creature with a normal sex drive. Such controversy as the film may arouse is tied to Martha's sexual appetite. When she is stimulated, she masturbates. As the film itself acknowledges, some may see her sexual connection with Mac as something hideous. But the sex is absolutely consensual; it brings Martha both immediate pleasure and longer term joy. To regard this sexual act as exploitative, however much it is at once wrong of Mac, is to demean Martha's right and ability to make adult choices. And it's that kind of complicated insight that sets this film apart from most that Hollywood consents to finance.
Little Women and Nell have done enough business at the box office to be considered modest hits. The Piano was last year's sleeper smash, crossing over from the art houses to sold-out theaters in the malls. Safe Passage and A Dangerous Woman have undeservedly drawn far less attention. Seek out the worthy former before it disappears from theatrical release; find a video copy of the latter and relish a genuine movie treasure.