Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Actress Files: Lee Remick

Lee Remick, Days of Wine and Roses
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
(lost the 1962 Best Actress Oscar to Anne Bancroft for The Miracle Worker)

Why I Waited: 1962's race among Bancroft, Davis, Hepburn, and Page, all among the first Best Actress nominees I ever screened, constitutes such an illustrious cohort that I was both eager to save the fifth nominee as a belated treat and nervous about how well she'd be able to measure up.

The Performance: I screened the original, made-for-television production of Days of Wine and Roses from 1958 in preparation for seeing Blake Edwards's 1962 screen adaptation. Differences between the two versions announce themselves quickly, and they involve major repercussions for the actress playing Kirsten Clay, the increasingly dissolute drinking companion of her husband, Joe Clay. In the television film, Cliff Robertson's Joe meets Piper Laurie's Kirsten as she's heartily knocking a few back at an office party. She's already, if anything, more given over to the stuff than he is. When they leave the party to go walking together, culminating in some very writerly speeches under a dingy bridge and some panting physical contact, it's clear that their shared dependency is already a major force in their coming together, as are their ways of talking about why they drink without admitting that's what they're doing. Flash forward and they have a baby together in a tiny New York flat, where Laurie's ornery Kirsten tries to get Joe to quiet down occasionally so they won't wake the child or suffocate it by having to close the door to its tiny room. From here, the couple withstands some intense lows and some temporary recoveries, most notably during a spell where they dry out by working longterm with Kirsten's father, a farmer and gardener played by the venerable 1940s character actor Charles Bickford. Bickford's character sticks around in the script long enough to see the couple relapse, with Kirsten in particular growing even more incapacitated than she was before. When he confronts Joe for teaching his daughter to drink, the accusation stings even though we know it not to be true, as does Joe. So too, perhaps, in some broken-souled and self-deceiving way, does Mr. Arnesen.

The 1962 film, though adapted by the same writer who penned the original, J.P. Miller, ditches most of these key points, save for the overall narrative trajectory and the casting of Bickford as the aggrieved father. (Bickford's moving performance on this second go-round opens the question of how such an affecting turn by a beloved and winless three-time nominee failed to earn Bickford a fourth citation, over the likes of Victor Buono and the coarse-grained winner, Ed Begley.) Joe is now impersonated by that smarmy-pants Jack Lemmon, whose work grows more powerful as the film continues—as indeed it might, given his indulging of so many relentless mannerisms and narcissistic impulses through the first hour. When he meets Kirsten, now played by newly minted Anatomy of a Murder and Wild River star Lee Remick, he does so under lurid professional circumstances, while procuring eligible girls to "entertain" his high-powered boss at a yacht party. Not only is this Kirsten a teetotaler, but after Joe confuses her with one of the paid escorts, the film spends a subsequent half-hour on his attempts to sweeten her up after making such a piss-poor first impression. This dilated passage of falling in love involves many of the same purple monologues from the original Days, this time spoken on a moonlit wharf instead of that grimy riverside underpass.  It also features Joe introducing Kirsten to her first drink, in the desserty form of brandy alexanders. It's harder to know why Kirsten accedes to Joe despite his evident drinking problem, in tandem with so much else that's errant or tone-deaf in his personality, and when they find themselves as young, married parents having a squall about his drinking, the old lines about waking the baby and suffocating in such small spaces stand bizarrely at odds with the elegant, rambling, high-gloss condo in which they seem to find themselves. Later, of course, when Bickford arraigns Joe for teaching his flailing daughter to drink, the line still hurts but its blunt truth carries less weight than the haunted mix of candor and dishonesty suffusing the same moment in the 1958 version. Moreover, the implication in the second that Kirsten's choices and destiny really have been mapped by her father and husband feels so much more limiting—of the movie's sense of Kirsten, and of Remick's choices as her interpreter—than was the initial, scarier, richer conception of Kirsten as the faltering steward of her own sinking ship.

One thing Edwards's Days has over the televised version, directed in improvisatory, straight-from-the-hip style by no less than John Frankenheimer, are its occasional moments of compositional elegance, even if there are at least as many of hollow, gratuitous "style."  Edwards's version also exerts the peculiar tragic force that comes from seeing two basically cheerful people descend into such sallow unhappiness, such irreparable stalemate as a couple (though again, Days blows its opportunities at making their initial fall into love very convincing). Still, whereas Frankenheimer shapes his piece as an exercise in educational discomfort, entirely powered by his actors, Edwards needs his actors to save a project that laundered screenwriting, plausibility problems, and the bloating of budgets and story-points have threatened to undermine. Nowhere is this contrast more evident than in Piper Laurie's and Lee Remick's entirely disparate approaches to the putatively "same" character. Laurie, as neurotic and bullish as ever, is very much the aggressive stage actress, an obvious peer of Stanley and Parsons, Dennis and Page. She plays every moment as though Kirsten's guts are a towel she is constantly wringing out, and she plainly doesn't mind the rough edges and weird excesses of her performance, an inevitable outgrowth of working on live TV, so long as what she ultimately produces is a tangible, idiosyncratic human being. She's kind of a buckshot actress, whereas Remick trades in lasers. She's a forebear in the Jennifer Connelly lineage of diamond-cut beauties who seem to gravitate toward troubled-soul characters, relying on fine-tuned mental calculations and subtle shifts in facial expression to register the high-strung emotions of plainly intelligent women who are nonetheless prone to unraveling.

Remick's thoughtfulness, like her beauty, can be the same sort of impediment that they are to Connelly: some of her characters would make more sense if they seemed less self-aware, and frankly less smart.  The exquisite fineness of their features sometimes translates as a mask the actresses wish they could crack and discard, eager as they are to show us how honestly troubled they are inside. In Days of Wine and Roses, Remick's clear gaze and unfooled manner give Kirsten a refreshingly substantial presence on screen, even without the physical heft or outsized mannerisms of Piper Laurie. By the same token, hers is easily the most understated of the performances in her Oscar category, and though I wouldn't trade Bancroft's Annie Sullivan, Davis's Baby Jane, Hepburn's Mary Tyrone, or Page's Alexandra Del Lago for anything in the world, it's gratifying to see that AMPAS still had a taste for softer touches and stiller presences.

At the same time, Remick's elegant reserve, at least initially, exacerbates the problem of how Kirsten comes so quickly to deny and enable Joe's timebomb behaviors, which she patently clocked so quickly and with such distaste. It's exciting to see Remick turning so many internal gears in her close-ups, implying a strained and complex inner life that could account for Kirsten's outward inconsistencies.  Still, those mental gymnastics are not always dramatized on her glassy exterior, and you sometimes long for an actor who didn't seem so caught up in her own head, even when the script has virtually forced her into it.

None of this means that Remick's work isn't smart, affecting, even gutsy. In an early speech, wondering aloud why more men don't menace her when she goes walking late at night, Remick's unimpeachably beautiful Kirsten suggests a baffled, unpersuasively laughed-off insecurity that something else must be palpably wrong with her to invite such masculine indifference. Remick totally sidesteps the preciousness or the self-pity that might well be risked in this approach. She's lucid and confident in some fields of her life but a tangle of doubts in others, without just settling for playing Kirsten as a jittery mess. (Laurie, not surprisingly, reads this same speech with full and tough self-knowledge, as someone who knows that anyone leering in her direction would instantly detect what an intimidating piece of work she is, as are all Piper Laurie characters.) These character notes resurface later when a sobered-up Joe won't sleep with her: rejected yet again, despite her own almost embarrassing willingness, and from a man obviously lucky to snag her.

From a technical standpoint, Remick is very skilled at a lot of behavioral stuff that might seem simple but trips performers up all the time. She is great at laughing fits, great at looking and feeling tired, good at domestic annoyance without firing up all the way into full-tilt pouts and tantrums. She is superb in handling the well-known actor's boondoggle of drunken speech and movement—crucial, obviously, to the film's success. Through the second hour, when just about all the narrative and psychological beats feel more credible than in the first, she makes a convincing wreck of herself without coarsening her gestures. One of her best scenes is her last, when she summons a new kind of steeliness upon returning to a husband and child she has recently abandoned. She insists on her right not to go completely sober, and despite her evident longing for Joe and their daughter, she is a tougher, more self-conscious negotiator than Laurie was, with a quicker impulse toward self-assertion. She's also as believably baffled by Joe's latter-day capacity to reject drink completely as she was, in the first half-hour, by his helpless susceptibility to it. Even aside from the addiction spiral, Remick traces a humbling arc from showing us a woman who basically knows the score in most arenas of her life to one who wonders, transparently, whether she understands anything about anyone.  By the end, her only certainty concerns her needing to drink, at least a little, even as this blocks her from other relations and possibilities she desires, or toward which she feels responsible.

Remick is smart, engaged, and diligent, a code-breaker and aide to the script.  She empathizes with her character but does so with a tonic dryness, as though she considers herself a somewhat earnest student of The Mind, more than a student of Kirsten per se. She is a practiced gauger, fairly early in her screen career, of exactly what to offer the camera, how to shock it occasionally, and what to hold back—willing to shout, yet trusting the lens to ferret out her more whispered signals. She handles her part beautifully as an exercise but misses something that might make it hum more as a performance. And she isn't, finally, exceedingly memorable, partly because Edwards hasn't made nearly as good use of her most distinctive quality—her agitated watchfulness—as Otto Preminger did in Anatomy of a Murder or as Elia Kazan did even more in Wild River, Remick's own favorite of her performances.

When Remick's strongest in Days of Wine and Roses, you admire her very much; she's never bad, as Lemmon occasionally is, but neither does she excite the director or the audience as Lemmon irrefutably does in his peak moments. Something remains inhibited about her screen presence (again, as with Connelly's) despite her seeming to select parts with the explicit premise of pushing her own boundaries, and probing nervy issues in the culture. She's a sincere documenter of emotional dishevelment whose hands never get quite as dirty as one feels they ought, not because you see her holding back but because something about her seems obdurately immune. A less astute, less skilled actress might have just socked us with the pure, harridan force of her dissolution, and in that sense I thank Remick for her seriousness and discipline. Even allowing the handicaps that Blake Edwards and Warner Brothers imposed on the material, it would be hard to explain what it is that doesn't last or resonate in the performance, like trying to articulate to a promising B+ student why her paper just doesn't have the fire or depth that another writer—even a less polished and scrupulous one—might have brought to it. Remick's quiver is stocked with many arrows: she is strong, rigorous, careful, and moving, and every time I have seen her in a movie, I have wished for her sake that she go all the way and become the kind of cerebral yet hard-hitting actress she so obviously wants to be. She comes close enough to help put over Days of Wine and Roses, but in some ineffable way, she still comes across as a work in progress.

The Best Actress Project: 1 More Down, 21 to Go

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1 Comments:

Blogger Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

I have to say, I always love to hear you write about Jack Lemmon. I like him, but I know you don't (why exactly?).

I don't always really get Days of Wine & Roses...it's gruelling and though inspired I don't love it, but that Best Actress lineup...what a lineup. Strangely, I wasn't even rooting for Kate...I'm still slightly miffed at Anne Bancroft (good as she is in The Miracle Worker) for taking Page's Oscar...I'm curious to see if you like Page though, but I have a soft-spot for anything Tennessee Williams touches.

10:29 AM, May 18, 2010  

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