Monday, May 24, 2010

Actress Files: Rachel Roberts

Rachel Roberts, This Sporting Life
★ ★ ★ ★
(lost the 1963 Best Actress Oscar to Patricia Neal for Hud)

Why I Waited: Until very recently, I also had Leslie Caron's and Shirley MacLaine's nominations to fill in from the same year, which, short of Hud and , has generally not offered a treasure-chest of great discoveries. Still, I figured it helped to catch 'em in close succession for sake of comparison, and if the Criterion Collection endorses this film, I figured it was worth looking forward to.

The Performance: To read Mark Harris's Pictures at a Revolution, as everyone seems to have done by now, is to make the indelible acquaintance of Rachel Roberts, the banshee wife of Rex Harrison, downing bottles of liquor till she's barking like a dog, howling for sex on or under the table, and rivaling the hundreds of animals on the Doctor Dolittle set for sheer cacophony and uninhibited instinct. This portrait hardly resonated with the imposing face but cast-iron reserve of the school mistress I had met in Picnic at Hanging Rock, and though I know I've seen her in two other pictures—Sidney Lumet's Murder on the Orient Express, which I've seen twice, and John Schlesinger's Yanks, for which she won her third BAFTA—I can barely remember more than a vague image of her from either performance. Not only has it been strange trying to reconcile the actress who is so often described in awestruck tones by the most demanding critics with these utterly evanescent semi-impressions, but I couldn't imagine anyone as harrowingly outlandish as Harris describes being so forgettable.

Just a scene or two into her one Oscar-nominated performance in Lindsay Anderson's This Sporting Life, I decided that I had seen Roberts before on one other occasion, playing one of the velociraptors who ferret those two kids out of the stainless-steel kitchen in Jurassic Park. With her scalpel brows, her incensed gaze, and an aura as tense as the surface of a drum, Roberts seems more than cut out for the role of the furious harridan. If anything, one of her obstacles, especially in a performance like this, is that her natural features and resting facial expressions imply that she's innately overacting the part, such that Roberts needs to act peevish, pessimistic, and miserly without looking like she just is this way; she may even need to pull back from the profound sourness that seems to course in waves off her body. But obviously, if she'd made this kind of forceful impression in the other films, I'd have a clearer recall of whom she played, and how. By contrast to those trace recollections, though, This Sporting Life's Margaret, more frequently called "Mrs. Hammond," constitutes an impressive etching of scabrous disillusion—suggestive of what the vituperative daughter in Secrets & Lies or the young protagonist of last year's Fish Tank might turn into after 25 more years of unreliable men, cruel setbacks, gruff but committed maternity, and tiresome chores in dark apartments.

Mrs. Hammond lost her husband Eric, a promising rugby player, in a freak drilling accident. We later connect this mishap to the tense, murky, disconnected impressions of danger and violence in the film's prologue, abstractly cross-cut with the groaning, intimidating sights and sounds of another rugby match (plus some chords of shrill, modern, experimental music thrown in for good measure). There is some question as to whether Mrs. Hammond has curdled into the broody, lemon-sucking skeptic she is today because of her husband's loss—as well as the various forms of class-based vulnerability that had him working such a risky job in the first place, despite the ostensible attention and salary paid him by the men who run the squad. Alternatively, Mrs. Hammond's withering hardness may itself have been one of the burdens that her husband had to shoulder during his life, possibly prompting him to tempt fate with tactical on-the-job carelessness. Does Mrs. Hammond know that some people think this about her? Did she conceive the possibility that she motivated Eric's suicide long before anyone else did, perhaps even while Eric was still alive? How much grief or humiliation is mixed in with her toxic mood of distrust and resentment? She still polishes Eric's shoes and leaves them out well past his death, but in the spirit of any plaintive, denial-based longing that he'll come swinging back into the door one day. Roberts suggests a powerful, ongoing, even carnal attachment to a man we suspect she would keep at arm's length, maybe even scream at, if he materialized for one more visit from the grave. No "ditto" and floating pennies and Whoopi-channeling and late-night pottery for these two; we imagine that no woman could look so armored and so forthrightly scabbed if Eric's premature death had interfered with previously uncomplicated bliss. Nothing about Margaret seems uncomplicated, not even her straight, no-chaser penumbra of hostility.

At present, Mrs. Hammond rents a room to another rising rugby phenom named Frank Machin (a hulking and excellent Richard Harris), and when she says she's only doing it for the money, we know she isn't making it up. Bent over a sewing machine, shooting off fuck-you glares while she makes the beds and brushes off Frank's tyro enthusiasm about his rise up through the ranks, Roberts's Margaret unquestionably feels that she's seen this all before: as an abandoned woman, as a wife who competed with the rival thrills of sport, as a toiler and saver in a highly class-stratified society where the working class oughtn't lie to themselves about their long- or even their short-term prospects. It's a brusquely pragmatic arrangement, and yet Mrs. Hammond does seem to study Frank as someone for whom she harbors both contempt and a grudging interest, as someone who might teach her something about the man she lost and/or pushed away, as someone whose own motivations for charming her children and begging romantic affection from her don't make immediate sense... though she may not be as dead-set against his hardbodied appeal as she thinks she is. And the prospect of more money—for all that she doubts whether Frank's burgeoning celebrity within the league will continue paying dividends or inspiring protectiveness from his owner-managers—cannot be lost on Margaret, either. She cracks one of many bitter jokes when Frank, after some nervy negotiation, returns to the flat with a kingly £1,000 paycheck. Shimmering with pride and excitement, he wants her to guess his worth before showing her the check. "Threepence?" she fires back, like a taut tripwire of emasculating blasts, yet her bolted-down frown does crack into its first smile as he divulges the actual fortune. Then again, it's only another moment before she reflects, spitefully, "It's a bit more than I got when my husband died... You didn't have to do anything for it... Some people have life made for them."

Mrs. Hammond's basic sense is that the world is rude, buffeting, and venomous, which is quite possibly what the "sporting" in This Sporting Life would mean to her: to hail from her caste or Frank's is to be the sacked and winded player, if not the tossed and manhandled ball, if not the stamped earth, routed with cleats, over top of which other people hammer and pounce at their tainted, pyrrhic goals. Roberts has to suffuse Mrs. Hammond with this outlook at all times, and even make her a deliberate poisoner of other people's self-contentment. The risk, not entirely avoided, is that Mrs. Hammond will play as a one-note figure, a shrew, a kitchen-sink Maleficent with blazing, belligerent irises. She bristles, repeatedly, upon being told that things will get better when she knows they won't, upon being pulled into bed by a rugged Adonis whose interest seems to dismay her when it isn't merely irritating. She's a knife-edged presence, written and directed with a kind of implacability that inherently constrains the range of variation in the performance. Moreover, because a certain acidic quality seems to come so easily to Roberts as it is, her enactment of Mrs. Hammond can feel, if not relentless, then at least somewhat qualified in scope, or like a product of can't-miss casting as much as skilled portraiture. Roberts pops off with some harangues, she takes literal and metaphoric blows in due course, and she's shot and lit with an intensity that frames the performance as an embodiment of an intractable, almost antagonizing force, rather than a human-scale character. You see fairly quickly where the performance is centered, and basically where it is headed, and how fundamentally occupied Roberts will remain in bringing Mrs. Hammond's already-impressive boil to an even more aggravated roll without appearing to overact.

But I must say, Roberts's moments of stock ferocity are much fewer and farther between than they might have been; that it's an achievement in any event to sustain such basically ill temper for two hours without the viewer wishing to be rid of you; and that she shades and layers Mrs. Hammond's personality over the course of This Sporting Life in ways that enrich the film as it plays. It's partly down to her and to the even hardier performance she helps elicit from Harris that This Sporting Life seems more complex as you mull it over, even after some climactic bouts of histrionic misery and needless literalizing of themes threaten to dull the force of a very strong, very sharp, robustly executed picture. When Frank takes his landlady and her children out for a day of picnic and sun, Roberts swipes a few occasions to show us a Margaret who enjoys a game, who appreciates company, who is pleased at seeing her children happy and her own consternations rendered unnecessary. Still, she unveils these hints in very brief, surgical strokes, avoiding the clichéd approach of showing a Mrs. Hammond who "softens," categorically, during anything so paltry as one sojourn in the fresh air. Indeed, her devices for evoking a bit of levity or unguardedness in Mrs. Hammond always manage to underscore, at the same time, the very formadibility of her usual defenses and overall disabusement. She fosters an impression not of a warmer woman eager to escape the body of this frosty and ornery one, but of a creature of kiln-fired habit for whom any restored sense of comfort pushes her awkwardly off balance, as though she's walking on legs she hasn't used for years.

One of the centerpiece scenes in Frank and Margaret's relationship—and in the script's mapping of how blue-collar heroes are as coarsely unprepared for privilege as they are systematically denied it—involves a doomed outing to a high-quality restaurant. Roberts is at her most labile leading up to this excursion: intrigued and even excited to be going, chagrined at the mink coat that Frank has bought her (which she knows her neighbors will castigate as the bit of childish ostentation it is), hopeful of finding some steady way of relating to this man who is also an eager and quite literal meal-ticket, furious at seeing what asses he makes of both of them in public, gratified in some dark way at having been right that he's an oaf, that the whole world is rigged, that she was foolish to imagine some deliverance into ease. This sequence hit home harder for me than some dramatically pivotal but on-the-nose exchanges between Frank and Margaret in the graveyard behind a chapel, although, during those latter scenes, Roberts takes a punch to the face with less flinching than many a male action hero. And it's here, as she howls about the late husband whom she dares Frank to even speak about, as she lacerates him with allegations that men as a race are a categorical horror, as she signals with a new kind of pain in her eyes that she'd yell just about anything to get him to leave her alone—it's here that Roberts makes Mrs. Hammond's anger the most total and harsh it has been to that point, but also the most polychromatic in its breadth and outrage and woundedness. She's a woman who's been used badly; a woman who maybe rebukes herself for not succeeding in keeping either of two men; a woman who might hate herself precisely for turning such a scouring, blaming eye on herself; a wise woman; a narrow woman; a self-consciously cash-strapped woman; a raped woman; a woman who'd rather be raped than paraded in tacky and ill-earned finery; a woman who saw all of this coming and didn't listen to herself; a woman who didn't see this coming and can't believe she's allowed Frank so close to her.

Sometimes you look at Roberts and see mostly that white-hot expression that serves as a backbone for most of her performance. That expression in turn can feel like the only affect she's recruiting into a scene: potent, but slightly familiar, and evidently close at hand for this performer. But at least as often, you look at that white-hot light and remember that white is not the absence of color but the total of all of them, and that inside the deceptive purity of Margaret's rage, there's a whole spectrum of separate frequencies. Not unlike the Patricia Neal performance that beat her to the trophy, Roberts's work comprises a series of deepening plunges into a predominating chord of feeling: plangent but aroused taken-for-grantedness in Neal's case, domestic truculence, ardor, and a taste for conflict in Roberts's. It's a smaller part than her male costar's and, in many ways, it exists to refract onto his. But Roberts, like Neal, manages not to seem like she's "supporting" anyone. She has her own story to tell, through and as this scrupulously drawn character. Within the film, you really feel the change once Mrs. Hammond, like Hud's Alma, departs for good; later, it's impossible to think back on the films without seeing these women's faces.

The Best Actress Project: 1 More Down, 16 to Go

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Blogger tim r said...

Thoroughly agree about this performance and this movie, and we can only assume it was the cost of Roberts's on-set excesses that she stopped being cast much -- though she's substantially on show in Anderson's O Lucky Man! a decade later, and had a small part before this in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. I'm surprised how well the field's shaping up in the otherwise dismal 1963, though I have no idea about Wood, and Maclaine is obviously a bit of a makeweight...

2:24 AM, May 24, 2010  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

Fabulous... and hopefully you'll agree even more now that I've copy-edited all the embarrassing typos and most (okay, SOME) of the humiliating run-ons.

I have nothing good to say about Wood in Proper Stranger, but then I barely ever see in her whatever it is that her fans see. But yes, the Caron/Neal/Roberts trifecta looms pretty imposingly by comparison to the creams of the crop in most other years. A welcome surprise!

3:21 AM, May 24, 2010  
Blogger Laika said...

Yet again, you've done an amazing job of parsing a performance in an incredibly lucid way that immediately makes me want to go back and watch the film again - although in this case, it's one of my favourites any way.

I think its worth checking out Roberts in 'Saturday Night and Sunday Morning' from a couple of years before this, where she plays another disappointed working class wife. Her character there is hungry for a good time; it's a very loose, warm performance, totally different from Mrs. Hammond - and I think enough to suggest that there's a greater rage than your assessment might imply. The velociraptor has disappeared (although admittedly she isn't nearly as indelible in that role). She also has a very funny scene as a suicidal housewife in 'O Lucky Man!', and for some reason I always find her thickly-cut performance as Wendy Hiller's companion in 'Murder on the Orient Express' really enjoyable (almost as enjoyable as Hiller's).

I've always hated Rex Harison on screen, but with Roberts and Kay Kendall, his taste in wives seems to have been impeccable (just not, you know, from his own point of view...)

I saw 'Love with the Proper Stranger' for the first time recently, and whilst Wood is pretty dreadful, telegraphing everything she does, she is oddly engaging in her first scene - enugh for everything else to be a crushing disappointment.

6:00 AM, May 24, 2010  
Blogger Laika said...

'Enough', that is...

6:01 AM, May 24, 2010  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@Laika: Thanks for the recommendations on Roberts. You're right that I didn't mean to suggest her range was limited, just that she's got the sort of face and presence that you'd imagine she almost has to "get out from under them" in order to play a wider breadth of roles.

Is Natalie Wood's first scene in Love with the Proper Stranger at home with her family, or in the store? I remember having the same reaction, on both counts.

8:53 AM, May 27, 2010  
Blogger Laika said...

Wood's first scene in 'Love with the Proper Stranger' is, IIRC, with McQueen in the dance hall during the day - he's one of the musicians looking for work. She's there to break the news of her pregnancy, and Wood charts her shift from a friendly approach - taking the small humiliation that he doesn't even remember her in her stride - to a furious retreat after his predictably selfish response undermines whatever denial her unadmitted investment in him and his resources was allowing. It isn't the subtlest acting, but it is relaxed and seems like an unexpected take on the girl in trouble, self-possessed and already past the point where she is willing to listen to McQueen's BS - which makes it a double pity that the rest of the film turns on her shrill self-pity and anger - with the 'ethnicity' turned up to 11.

Still, I entertained myself with the idea that she grew up to be Cher in Moonstruck.

1:31 PM, May 27, 2010  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@Laika: I feel basically relieved of ever needing to write up this performance, since this comment just nails it—refreshes my memory perfectly and hits the head of a particularly grim nail. I forgot about Wood when I wrote that Caron had the biggest deficit to make up for with the all-or-nothing prospect of The L-Shaped Room. Based on Rebel without a Cause, I guess I still do harbor a fraction more good will toward Natalie than I did toward Caron, but I really, really, really hope Splendor in the Grass discloses something truly special about her. Because usually....

Well. Thumper's mother, etc.

1:41 PM, May 27, 2010  

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