Thursday, May 27, 2010

Actress Files: Joanne Woodward

Joanne Woodward, Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams
★ ★ ★ ★
(lost the 1973 Best Actress Oscar to Glenda Jackson for A Touch of Class)

Why I Waited: So what if Columbia had no idea how to market this movie to a general audience, saddling it with that title Woodward hated so much and an even worse tagline on the poster: "Beautiful. Frigid. She is called a Snow Queen." Were they dead-set on losing their investment? For me, though, this prospect is pure catnip: a pedigreed lead actress, 30s darling Sylvia Sidney in a comeback cameo, and nominations for both. I've enjoyed looking forward to this one.

The Performance: I know there are exceptions to this rule, but especially after the mid-60s or so, "a Joanne Woodward movie" means something at least as specific to me as "a Howard Hawks movie" or "an Alfred Hitchcock movie." Lots of actresses take pains to advertise their versatility, and Woodward's most famous, Oscar-winning role in The Three Faces of Eve accomplishes just that in the space of a single film. But at the expense, I'm sure, of working as often as she deserved to, Woodward's presence above the title signifies a strongly internalized drama, slightly vinegar in flavor, depending entirely on very fine subtleties in line readings, rhythms, and facial expressions—notwithstanding the fact that Woodward has an acerbic, somewhat defiant screen presence that would seem to forestall rather than encourage spectatorial penetration. For the most part, she's the polar opposite of more florid, gestural performers like Ellen Burstyn and Jessica Lange, although she adjoins them in my mind because they all share a gift for seeming wholly committed to their characters even when they telegraph a cranky discontent with their movies. They also seem a lot smarter and pricklier than most of the people who interview them, are quite unafraid to disclose this, and are completely uninterested in amending those aspects of their acting that detractors most dislike: Burstyn's officious, very Actor's Studio compositing of character tics, Lange's restless riflings through her regular bag of mannerisms, or Woodward's tendency to lower the temperature in a given room while looking rather haughty about it. Probably, by someone, she is called a Snow Queen. Disciples of movie divas who crave bright colors, movements across a range of genres, and zingy PR are inescapably brought up short by Woodward. If you like her style, though, you really like it, as witness her becoming only the fourth actress to rack up three Best Actress citations from the New York Film Critics Circle.

Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams was the second of those three films, and it perpetuates the driving paradox of Woodward's big-screen career: almost every one of her starring vehicles serves as a kind of apotheosis for her flinty persona and for her particular angles of interest in human character, and yet, if you set Eve White, Rachel Cameron, Rita Walden, Amanda Wingfield, and India Bridge side-by-side, they barely resemble each other. As Rita, the frosty, ornery centerpiece of Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams, she has none of the frustrated sensuality that she lights so slowly and fascinatingly under her character in Rachel, Rachel. Rita is neither looking to change her life (though she'd evidently prefer for people around her to change their lives a little), nor is she trying to charm anybody, nor does she appear to suffer in her marriage, regardless of some unmistakably arid winds that blow inside it. One of the earliest scenes in Summer Wishes finds Rita paying a cantankerous visit to an eye-doctor, and we're a good many beats into the scene before we understand that Martin Balsam's patient doctor is also her husband, Harry. As will be true for the rest of the film, Woodward remains just this side of bitchy and Balsam pulls back from acting beleaguered. Their characters appear inclined in those respective directions, especially after a long marriage, but she would be bored and remorseful at inhabiting the cliché of the inhospitable cold fish, just as he would feel defeated and deprived if he were to resent more consciously her sharp edges and impersonality. So, she threads a little warmth and tenderness into their exchanges, even as she sometimes looks as though she has to remind herself to do this, and he reminds himself, via spoken oaths to her, that he really is her intimate, sympathetic partner and a harborer of sexual feelings, however largely thwarted... not, in other words, or by any means, a vaguely disappointed colleague of many years, more of a friend than a husband.

Woodward wears her character the way you wear a well-tailored leather glove. As in other roles, she is a consummate professional at eliminating almost any sense of space between herself and Rita, even though Rita clearly finds her own habits stifling and itchy at times (at other times, she's more than happy to flaunt them), and her affects must be slightly itchy for the actress to have to play. But hand Woodward a dislikable woman of a certain age, and she'll play dislikability like it's a prized viola. She comes across as a staunch, somewhat severe defender of her characters, partly for contextual reasons. That is, so few American actresses seem willing (or, to be fair, get asked) to play these sorts of women; "difficult" types in American movies are so often barnstorming crusaders in the Norma Rae vein, or comic villainesses, or harridans. Woodward was very rare, then, in establishing a métier in forms of everyday astringency, and not only refusing to dull these women's edges but actively working to sharpen them, the way a practiced cook takes care of her knives. What I find most remarkable about this is that Woodward's protectiveness toward the characters' refusals to be charmers or mannequins does not spill into a subtle PR campaign to get us unreservedly on their side. Rita is a pill with a point of view, but still a pill. Her ornery way of pointing out her daughter's self-involvement is not likely to prompt the girl toward newfound generosity, just as it's not clear who wins, including Rita, by being so very caustic at a family funeral, where her refusal to sell off the property of the deceased is no more or less reasonable than the eagerness of her relatives to get rid of the estate and divvy up the profits. A crevasse has opened between Rita and her offscreen gay son, who communicates only with his sister; given Woodward's talent at conveying deeper feelings inside an inflexible, almost cutting reserve, you don't need to meet this son to empathize with his decision to estrange himself, even though you can't write Rita off as a harpy or a bigot.

Though Woodward seems determined not to repeat past characterizations, her director Gil Cates and the screenwriter Stewart Stern, who also penned Rachel, Rachel, harbor few such compunctions. Indeed, they steer Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams toward some formal and textural choices that seem to suit it much less than they did Rachel, maybe because Newman seemed to be thinking in terms of images and studying the French and British New Waves more closely, whereas Cates just seems to be aping Newman, thinking in terms of writerly conceits and trusting, understandably, in his tony cast. It's hard to imagine Woodward thinking very highly of a fantasy sequence in which she falls asleep during a screening of Wild Strawberries and imagines confronting her ballet-dancing son and his grinning male lover in laughable, faux-Bergman monochrome. She's not tasteless enough to pull back from the scene, or from a later, overly stylized interlude when Rita gets claustrophobic in a London tube station. Still, what is taut, nuanced, and exciting in Woodward's performance just isn't palpable in these errant sequences. At other times, I would diagnose an opposite problem. When, for instance, Rita steals into a basement cupboard to sample some of the jams that her mother canned years ago, or finds one of her own secret diaries hidden in a haybale in the family farmhouse, and sheds tears over her old entries about a lost love, the scenes and the performance choices too strongly recall the sort of rehearsal-workshop scenes through which an actor "finds" a character. They feel too contrived, though, too insularly focused on the performer and her exploratory choices, to be credible within the finished narrative. I'll hazard a guess that these sorts of scenes kept Woodward interested, but they're also the apertures through which a starchy theatricality creeps into the work. Woodward's gestures don't get too big, exactly, though a high-decibel standoff with her daughter in that hay loft does push this particular envelope. My larger misgiving is that her magnified, self-serious playing in these scenes recalls those moments in interviews where stage-worshiping actors start intoning about their "craft" and "process" without realizing how humorless and hokily overblown they've allowed themselves to sound.

Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams has a sort of Goldilocks problem, then, where some scenes feel too director-focused and some too indulgent of the actors and their character work. At times, the movie has too much of the stern aloofness of Woodward's character, and at others it conveys the main feeling of a scene with discomfiting, even awkward directness. But the whole ship comes into port well enough, and "craft" and "process," for all the ecclesiastical solemnity I'd like to erode from those terms, are precisely the reason why. Woodward doesn't give a negatively shaped performance—it's not as though she succeeds primarily by reactively rejecting some coarser version of her character, rather than building one from the script up. Nonetheless, it's easier to describe what she attains in this part as a series of avoided banalities, climaxing in a few particularly brilliant scenes where she negotiations a psychological obstacle courses. Woodward and Balsam have one near-argument about their marriage that isn't quite a fight, and given the tight rein they've had to give on their feelings up to that point, it's remarkable that they don't take the scene louder and bigger, if only for the thrill of release (a thrill the audience may also, at that point in the film, be craving). Woodward squeezes unexpected laughs, or almost-laughs, at unpredictable times and from unexpected sentiments. The overall movie may be cold and dour, but defensively teasing her husband about the notion of possible mistresses he might take, or admitting that, in her claustrophobic panic on the Underground, she has soiled her own clothes, she leavens the chilly sobriety that could so easily overtake the whole film. And it's precisely by being funny, sexy, teasing, facetious, bitter, regretful, or undeniably right at certain precise moments (rarely, of course, the same moments) that Woodward lets us know why Harry likes being married to Rita, despite her overall bents toward tartness and stoniness. Rita has a quickly recognizable exterior—though it's barely ever glimpsed in American movies, and certainly not in the form of a lead character—but from individual moment to moment, she is unexpectedly full of surprises.

Woodward brings a rare palette of affects to her movies, which is gratifying enough, but when she starts blending them together, the freshness of the combinations compensates for the pale wintriness of the overall portraits. Rita doesn't fascinate me quite the way Rachel does, and though the shortness of Summer Wishes's running time helps shape the movie as a compressed nugget of difficult emotion—its best scenes stay in your mind like a pebble you can't expel from your shoe—it also comes at some cost to Woodward's ability to flesh out Rita's arc a little more deeply. She loses a shot to evoke more gradations between "big" scenes, which is where this actress's talent always stirs me most. (I have a hard time with Eve, because it's so full of "big" scenes.) I remain an unquestioning Streisand voter in 1973, and given how disparate Katie Morosky's stridently showboaty excesses are from Rita Walden's minor-key irritabilities, or from Glenda Jackson's lacerating, slapstick ballbreaker in A Touch of Class, I wonder if Woodward admired these performances or whether she saw herself precisely as bringing something into American movies that the women in "he said, she said" comedies or sweeping, expensive melodramas recurrently miss. This often happens when I see or revisit a Woodward performance: after thinking of all the roles in which I'd love to have seen her cast in the right time and place (Julianne Moore's in The Hours, Annette Bening's in Mother and Child), I start wondering what she likes and dislikes in other people's performances. What can this mean, that I do this? I think it means that she often plays, as she does in Summer Wishes, somewhat imperious judges of character, in a way that implies her own high standards and flinty insistence on meritorious technique. I can imagine her being a very tough critic. But it also means that she's hard to predict, because even when you hand her a guarded or off-putting protagonist to play, she sees more things in that type of woman, and different things, than most other actors would be willing to see, or able to show. Her personal stamp is very, very strong, and I wonder about all the ways in which her range may not have been fully tested, but for all that, I must admit I never successfully predict what Woodward's got up her sleeve.

The Best Actress Project: 1 More Down, 13 to Go

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Blogger Dan Callahan said...

Very smart read on an actress I'm not too sure about myself. I love "Rachel, Rachel," but I think she's generally been wasted in movies. Did you like Sylvia Sidney? All I remember is that she has a heart attack--sort of graphically?

2:43 PM, May 27, 2010  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

I did! As your memory suggests, it's a smaller part than one is inclined to anticipate, but she doesn't overplay the "snipy and colorful old lady" angle, even when she's rolling her eyes at photos we don't see of that femmy offscreen son. And her heart attack truly is upsetting.

4:38 PM, May 27, 2010  
Blogger Dame James said...

I find Joanne Woodward to be one of the most annoying actresses on the planet. Where you find a calculated impenetrability, I'm hard pressed to find much acting going on. For whatever reason, Woodward bothers me in nearly everything I've seen her in. That said, I find her to be at least bearable, if not pretty good in Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams. I was surprised when I saw this movie just how much it effected me emotionally. It's not perfect, but there are so few films out there which cover such a small emotional landscape and do it as well as this one. For once, Woodward's mannerisms didn't bother me and I suppose that added to my enjoyment of the film.

12:22 AM, May 28, 2010  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

Interesting, DJH: which performances prompted this reaction to Woodward? I'm guessing *not* Three Faces of Eve, since whatever else one might like or dislike about that perf, there's a whole lot of acting going on. As French & Saunders would say, "The Sheer Acting of Joanne Woodward!"

I was surprised how much Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams got me, too.

12:26 AM, May 28, 2010  
Blogger Dame James said...

I suppose it was dumb, minor films like The Long Hot Summer and From the Terrace that ruined her for me. Neither of those films are very good, but she was about as interesting as wallpaper glue in both of them. And, no, you can't accuse her of underacting in Three Faces of Eve, but that felt like a surface performance, aided only by how much the film and script wants us to go "Oh, look at how much acting she's doing! She's a whore one minute and a simple housewife the next!" Rachel, Rachel didn't feel like anything special to me; I've seen her do that lonely spinster schtick before.

12:48 AM, May 28, 2010  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

Good tips. I'll eventually want to pick those up, but first I'm dying to know how Woodward gets on in The Stripper, which sounds like about as unlikely a vehicle for her as I can imagine. And I haven't seen Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds, and I am curious if it's on the Rachel/Wishes spectrum and, if so, how differentiated. I don't really know anything about that piece.

12:55 AM, May 28, 2010  

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