Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Actress Files: Jane Wyman

Jane Wyman, The Yearling
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
(lost the 1946 Best Actress Oscar to Olivia de Havilland for To Each His Own)

Why I Waited: No strong reason, except I was worried about pap, as though the movie would be two hours of two comely adults beaming at their sun-dappled son and his little deer (even though, honestly, I can imagine worse things to behold). But I recently re-watched National Velvet by the same director and saw more in it than I had before. Then, too, I got more interested in Gregory Peck after seeing The Keys of the Kingdom. So the timing turned out right on this one.

The Performance: Jane Wyman goes honey blonde! I wasn't expecting that. I also wasn't expecting her to be the bad cop. While Peck, the handsomest man in 1940s movies, hugs his son and invites him places and dotingly talks him to sleep, Wyman makes a thick, doughy mask out of her saucer face and seems barely susceptible to the claims of her child. She's stern—not quite disapproving but more than aloof. I don't like the word "literally," but in a film whose first image of shimmering Florida wetlands made me literally catch my breath, even on DVD, Wyman's log-brown eyes are where all that light goes to die. Her skin has a pinkish glow, and every now and then you catch her smiling: there is vitality here, so its habitual suppression feels like a willful act, not a fundamental absence or a natural state. She's not an essentialized archetype: the Bitter Pill, the Cold Mother. She's an internal manager, thinking, always, about what to disclose, what to retain, and yet her surface barely ripples. She belies this inward activity with an impressive mirage of outward tranquility, however downcast. In other words, she doesn't betray a more vivid exasperation like that of Dorothy McGuire in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, who's tough and confusing to her kids, too, and shows all the eddies of disappointment, preoccupation, and nursed anger in her body and her face. Wyman's Orry Baxter is more still than that, less easily arousable. Whatever drives her discontent or her remoteness lies deeper in the groundwater of who she is, even though it hasn't always been endemic to who she is, and it still isn't. When she gets mad, which is more than once during The Yearling, because of bad luck or short-sightedness or because of her husband's encouragement of unaffordable sentiment in their son, the flares of temper soon seep back into that more mysterious state, that flat, grim calm.

That you have to say all of that, and you can't just boil it all down to "Orry Baxter is a hard, quiet mother," distills the virtues of Wyman's steady, smart, and nuanced playing of the character. It isn't as subtly victorious a performance as Anne Revere contributed to National Velvet, as the stoically affectionate mother who has clearly been many other women in her life on her way to her current persona, and whose steadfast support of her daughter is both engine and byproduct of so much else in her personality and history. The Yearling is a less exultant, perhaps more technically accomplished movie than National Velvet, but none of its characterizations are as offhandedly skilled and rounded as the parents' in the earlier film. But actually, working within a constrained range and palette pushes Wyman down a productive road as an actress. Only the year before, she wore her thespian strategies and her up-and-down feelings rather too obviously as Ray Milland's frustrated but loyal girlfriend in The Lost Weekend. She plainly thought it was an "important" movie, and comes across as intrigued by the tunneling psychological bent of the story and of Wilder's filmmaking. This piquing of her interest, though, results in the only performance I've ever seen Wyman give that seems too worked over, like an over-eager rehearsal, full of ideas but lacking cohesion and credibility.

By contrast, and even allowing for the sizable disparities between these two characters, The Yearling's Orry Baxter spends a lot of scenes in mild perturbation or just lost in herself, and Wyman doesn't make a big show of it. Even in the scene that "explains" her temperament, at exactly the moment and through precisely the backstory that I suspected, she doesn't indulge herself. In a Hollywood decade that seems especially filled with vengeful or idealized or punchliney mothers, it's compelling in and of itself to see a mother so simply played—not because she lacks complexity but because she doesn't theatricalize her complications. Moreover, she presents them as a thinking person's storehouse of ambivalence, not as traces of any romantic, "timeless" qualities of her heart or mind (see: Irene Dunne in I Remember Mama), or as symptoms of intricate, transcoded psychological complexes (see: Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce). I can't help wondering if what Wyman learned here about projecting a recessive maternity—about filling her warm face with something like coldness, or sometimes with the semblance of feeling nothing at all—marked a crucial step toward achieving that muffling of personality in her famous films with Sirk. In those movies, she somehow remains appealing as a lead character while staying consistent with Sirk's fundamental skepticism about how deep people really run, and to what extent our affects are really "our" own. To the extent that The Yearling finds Wyman doing more with less and, in some scenes, quite contentedly doing less with less, I'm pleased to see some interesting facets of her persona taking shape—and also a bit surprised, however pleasantly, that Oscar paid attention.

In that respect, it can't have hurt that the finale of The Yearling comes outfitted with one of those scenes that pour out all of the saline emotionalism that has hitherto been absent in the character, reassuring the audience that she does have "maternal" feelings, in the way we prefer to see them. She's good, but not more than that, at handling this turn into pathos. I was more impressed, though, by the peremptory, fists-on-hips way she calls her fellas to dinner yet seems a little bored by them and their cliffhanger stories about their day's adventures: "Are you gonna tell me, or maun I live in ignorance?" She chides her son a little for being twelve years old and "still lookin' for a play-dolly," just as she admonishes her husband after a destructive storm for preaching optimism. "Yes, find the good in it," she spits as Peck's Ezra Baxter rummages for silver linings in their cottage full of rotting food. Because Wyman plays the whole part with such a weighty taciturnity, these digs are more cushioned than they'd be in a more openly acrid take on the character. By the same token, though, they entail a heavier sense of reproach, because they seem to arise not from a momentary outburst but from Orry's dense, private, and sedimented way of thinking. She doesn't say anything she doesn't mean, and little she'd like to take back. She's a solid, unexpectedly formidable person, but not invulnerable: look how she double-takes when Ezra, in an uncharacteristic pre-emptive strike, says from his sickbed that Jody will be allowed to keep his fawn and to feed it real milk, and (I'm paraphrasing) she'd better not be such a bitch about it. Orry's ashamed to be so scolded in front of her son, and before she's done or said anything, but stunned, too, just to see such fire in her husband; possibly she is brought up short by being so evidently predictable in her own lack of warmth. Wyman shows you enough of this that you catch Orry's momentary hurt; she keeps you and the film from turning her into a foil, set up to fail against a paragon and a towhead who are so easy to like. But then she sponges the insult back wherever she sponges everything else, keeping you waiting every 10 minutes or so for a glance of surprise, an unsolicited story or memory, a grin, a blush, or a gunshot that reminds us that there's a great deal more to her than meets the eye, and she's not to be dismissed.

The Best Actress Project: 1 More Down, 36 to Go

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Blogger Dame James said...

I saw this movie last summer and had quite the opposite reaction to you: I hated it with every fiber of my being. A sentimental film about a young kid who becomes attached to his pet animal sounds about as pleasant as getting a cavity filled. Funny that you mention Clarence Brown's other film with that description, National Velvet because, for whatever reason, I've always thought that that movie was able to overcome my mental block while The Yearling plays into every stereotype I have about films of that nature. I thought Jarman and Peck were both pretty terrible (although Jarman redeemed himself in Brown's Intruder in the Dust a couple years later), but I must admit that Wyman was the best thing about the movie. She isn't able to surmount the film's badness, but she adds a little intrigue, a little mystery when Peck and Jarman simply stick to one-note caricatures.

12:51 AM, April 27, 2010  

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