Friday, January 28, 2011

HEDDA 1975

When I think of Brut men's cologne, I think of the 70s. When I think of Brut cologne and the 70s, I always think of Burt Reynolds. 70s-era Burt Reynolds: porn-stache, tight pants, and swaggering, smirkily hirsute machismo - always looked to me as if he smelled of Brut.

Whether or not Reynolds actually wore Brut I have no way of knowing, but somebody in the 70s must have liked it an awful lot, because for a brief time during that decade the Faberge cosmetics company (the makers of Brut) got into the business of making movies. It makes me smile to think that such a foul-smelling after-shave was responsible for one of my all-time favorite Glenda Jackson films: Hedda.
This film adaptation of Henrik Ibsen's 1890 play, Hedda Gabler, is based on the 1975 Royal Shakespeare Company stage production which featured virtually the entire cast of the motion picture under the direction of Trevor Nunn, who also directs the film version.

Being a fellow of a somewhat dreamy nature myself, I find I'm drawn to narratives with protagonists whose lives are motivated (and ultimately undone) by their dreams. Hedda Gabler, like Flaubert's Madame Bovary or Clyde Griffiths in Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy, is an individual who believes in romantic ideals. In Gabler's case, perhaps superficially, but what they all share is a whole-hearted acceptance of and desire to realize that which they have been brought up to believe in. The romantic myths of happiness and fulfillment that are supposed to be satisfied my marriage, wealth, or position. What makes Hedda Gabler and the others such fascinating personalities for me are the ways in which they suffer, due largely to some flaw in their characters, at heir inability to convert those dreams into any kind of realistic way of living in and relating to the world.
Glenda Jackson as Hedda Gabler
Peter Eyre as Hedda's ineffectual scholar husband, Goerge Tesman
Patrick Stewart (with LOTS of hair) as mystery man, Ejlert Lovborg
Jennie Linden (Jackson's Women in Love co-star) as rival, Thea Elvsted
Timothy West as the sinister and lascivious Judge Brack
The tragedy of Hedda Gabler is that Hedda's "romantic idealism" is not romantic at all, at least not in the traditional sense ascribed to women. Hedda's ideals are almost masculine in nature, in that they are a longing for freedom and control and romantic license; all things Hedda is rather terrified of flouting convention to pursue. As the film opens Hedda, by all outward appearances, has already attained the romantic ideal appropriate to women of her time: she has beauty, social standing, a loving husband, an opulent home, and possibly a child on the way. The tragedy of Hedda's life is that all of this bores her to madness.
Hedda - desperately bored...again

Hedda's fruitless romantic longing is for independence and power (two things accessible only to males in 1890s Norway) and to live in a world in which perfect, heroic acts are rewarded by the wearing of vine leaf crowns. Bristling at the constraints of her preconscribed life, yet too cowardly and bourgeois to break from it, Hedda reacts through the insidious and poisonous manipulation of the lives of those around her.
Hedda attempts to wedge herself between a rival and a former suitor

"For once in my life I want to have power over somebody's fate."

Who among us hasn't, at one time or another, felt the frustration of living a life we perceive as growing increasingly short of options as we age? It is easy to feel trapped and imprisoned by the choices we've made if we tend to look outside of ourselves and fail to recognize that change is possible only through self-reflection and the degree of courage necessary to act to change our lot. Hedda dramatizes the notion that it is not our external limitations that torment us, but rather the bars and prison walls born of fear and selfishness we construct in our minds. Hedda is forever going on about how bored she is and how limited are her life's prospects; yet, by way of contrast, we observe that her friend & rival, the meek Thea Elvsted, is, in turning her back on social convention and abandoning her concern for what others think of her (terrifyingly unimaginable to Hedda), is infinitely braver (and freer) than Hedda could ever hope to be.
General Gabler's Pistols
Hedda's masculine longing for independence is phallically represented by the firearms
she must keep under lock and key

I have always been crazy about Glenda Jackson. Several years ago I had the opportunity to see Jackson in a Los Angeles theatrical production of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. To my great shock and dismay, I thought she was rather awful in it. Admirably, I suppose, she took the character of Martha to a place less traditionally bellicose, and for me, it just seemed flat. Quite a shock given that  onscreen, in my opinion, few actresses are as electrifying. As Hedda Gabler, Jackson commands the screen like a champ and never relinquishes it for a second. Like the stars of yesterday (Davis, Hepburn, Crawford), Jackson makes you watch her and rewards your attention with a layered characterization that makes this oft-performed role seem wholly new and revelatory. Hers is a cunning performance of wit and subtlety that makes the deeply neurotic heroine both frightening and touching (and rather funny).
Jackson, already a two-time Academy Award winner for Best Actress, received her fourth (and final) Oscar nomination for Hedda.  But of course, as Maggie Smith so hilariously pointed out in the 1977 comedy, California Suite, "...she's nominated every goddamned year!"
Hedda - "I think I'll burn your hair off after all!"

I love how the film is shot in sumptuous gold-brown tones that emphasize Hedda's image of herself as a creature trapped in a gilded cage. This theme is further promoted in the elaborate & constrictive women's clothing of the time and in the overtly ornate trappings of her smotheringly cluttered home. Scene after scene ends with Hedda clenching her fists or fairly trembling with rage as she fails to find any avenue of escape from a world that seems intent on imprisoning her.

In the 1955 film, The Seven-Year Itch, there's a scene in which Marilyn Monroe, after having seen the movie, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, remarks that she felt sorry for the monster because, underneath it all, it just wanted to be loved. Well, I have a similar feeling about Hedda Gabler. There's no denying that in many ways, Gabler is very much a monster. Yet you can't help feeling a little sorry for her when, despite all of her schemes, she's unable to prevent her world from crumbling in around her, and, worst of all, having her worst fear - someone having power over her - realized .
Grotesque Charade
It's difficult not to feel the pain that lies behind Hedda's monstrous behavior because most of us know that there are few things more soul-killing than to harbor a desire for something you're too afraid to pursue.
Past adaptations of Ibsen's classic have portrayed Hedda as a victim of her time. This Women's Lib-era adaptation was somewhat controversial in translating some of the dialog in a more comedic vein as well as depicting Hedda as a more active agent of her own destruction. This non-victim point of view has the benefit of bringing to the forefront the irony behind Hedda's endless machinations, as it emphasizes Hedda indeed possessing the power to be the catalyst for many events, most of them proving only to be tragic and at cross purpose with her objectives.
"I will be silent in future."

In addition to Hedda, a very fine film I wish more people were able to see, there appears to be an entire catalog of Glenda Jackson films that have yet to be released on DVD. Among them: The Incredible Sarah (1976), The Nelson Affair (1973), Robert Altman's H.E.A.L.T.H. (1980), The Triple Echo (1972), Stevie (1978)...oh, the list goes on. Talk about your tragedies!

Copyright © Ken Anderson


  1. I agree with all you've said, and it's unbelievable this film is not available on DVD. If anyone's paying attention, get on this right away!

  2. Thanks for visiting my blog! It's a shame so many o fGlenda jackson's movies aren't on DVD. Haven't seen "The Incredible Sarah" since it first came out.

  3. Hedda is available on YouTube as a rip from VHS. I saw Hedda in a small art-house theater in Manhattan on a weekday afternoon, there were maybe three people in the audience (funny how I remember everything about seeing the film but not why wasn't I at work!) If the Brut/Hedda connections is weird, remember that Incredible Sarah was a Reader's Digest film -- probably the only one they produced. I've still never seen The Devil is a Woman. I've seen Jackson on Broadway and she can be excellent (Strange Interlude) and not so (Macbeth). BTW, because I can't figure out how to identify posts, I'll just refer to myself as OACDYCSF (xref 4/8).

    1. Hi OACDYCSF! (For all my time online I still can't figure out the google blog id thing, either.)

      Thanks for the notification of "Hedda" on YouTube:

      I'm glad that someone out there liked it enough to give people a chance to see it.

      I wish I could have seen this film on the big screen, but as you indicate by your experience, the movie didn't exactly have them lining up around the block. Being such a faithful adaptation, one might suspect schools jumping on it and showing it in English classes.

      Had no idea about the Reader's Digest connection with "The Incredible Sarah"...I guess financing for non-commercial projects was tough, even back in the so-called Hollywood's Golden Age of the 70s. I've never seen The Devil is a Woman, and it was only this past year that I finally got so see The Romantic Englishwoman. I hope that's a sign that more of her films are seeing the light of DVD day.
      Envy your having seen Glenda Jackson in those two plays. She may not have been aces all the time, but she certainly was an interesting actress. Thanks so much for writing!