Supporting Actress Sundays: 1962... Plus a Major Twist
Unfortunately, one turn you won't hear us dissect is Jane Fonda's in the redolent, subversive, and nearly extraordinary 1962 drama Walk on the Wild Side. In only her second or third movie role, Jane Fonda plays Kitty Twist (!), a hot-tempered hot patootie whom Manchurian idol Laurence Harvey meets on the side of a dusty Texas highway. They're both hitching to New Orleanshe in order to reclaim a lover who's gotten away, she in order to hit, gobble, and fucking own the whole town. If Fonda's acting serves any indication, usurping the screen as her own birthright and eminent domain, we should all be placing our bets on Kitty.
In the first of many curves in Wild Side's walk, Kitty gets dumped just as she's poised to seize the picture. She'll re-emerge later, and you can basically guess when and how, but the script throws Kitty a few more twists, and it's hard to say whether she or New Orleans ultimately emerges victorious in their brutal, feline fight. Fonda's insolent sexuality and growling entitlement explode into the same sort of fireball that Angelina Jolie detonated in her early, Gia-era performances. If you only know Fonda as that silly noodle from Barbarella, or as the national landmark from Klute and Julia, or as the latter-day harridan of Monster-in-Law, you owe it to yourself to see how it all beganhow her carnality, her intelligence, and her defensive anger were inextricable from each other, bleeding out of her very public persona as Henry Fonda's volatile daughter, yet all in the service of an increasingly complicated character. She's also a whiz with a laugh-line: just look how, when a dumbfounded Harvey stumbles across her in a high-end bordello, he asks her what she's doing there, and she slings out the retort, "I run the candy concession."
From what I can glean, Walk on the Wild Side still labors under a derisive, almost bilious critical reputation, but I can't for the life of me figure out why. For one thing, it's a Supporting Actress Smackdown in itself, rounded out by Anne Baxter, using her smarts and sensitivity to neutralize her odd casting as a Mexican diner matron; and Barbara Stanwyck, alternately imperious and obsequious as a French Quarter madame, abjectly in love with her costliest girl and willing to kill to keep her. The mononomic French actress Capucine is a knockout as Stanwyck's reluctant wardalso, crucially, Harvey's long-lost paramourbut it's the agency, introspection, and dawning bitterness of her performance that anchor the picture. Even Harvey's good, if outclassed by the orbiting women. Elmer Bernstein delivers a tasty score that's an utter contrast to his To Kill a Mockingbird compositions of the same year, and Edward Dmytryk mounts his scenes with ferocity and precision, transcending the "moody" photography and deepening the nonetheless-succulent camp. (Need I remind you: Jane Fonda as a would-be hooker named "Kitty Twist," Barbara Stanwyck as a desperate dyke, and Anne Baxter as a Mexican.) Walk on the Wild Side gets much further with tragic love and futile rescue missions than Richard Brooks' Sweet Bird of Youth does, and the fully believable whorehouse is more tangible as a jail than the one in Birdman of Alcatraz. You might quibble with errant peripherals, many of them related to Stanwyck's legless husband (!), but Walk on the Wild Side stands mighty tall among 1962 releases, and Fonda is a miracle worker unto herself. A
(Images © 1962 MGM/UA, reproduced from the IMDb PhotoGallery; and © 1962 Columbia Pictures)