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, was based on a 1975 Royal Shakespeare Company stage production that featured virtually the entire cast of the motion picture under the direction of Trevor Nunn (who directed the film, as well).

Being a fellow of a somewhat dreamy nature myself, I find I'm drawn to narratives with protagonists whose lives are motivated (and sometimes ultimately undone) by their dreams. Hedda Gabler, like Flaubert's Madame Bovary or Clyde Griffiths in Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy, is a individual who believes in romantic ideals. Superficially perhaps, but what they all have in common is that they have bought into the myths whole-heartedly, and, due to some flaw in their personalities, suffer because of an 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 so-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. Hedda, by all outward appearances, has, as the film opens, 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. 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 unfeminine longing for independence is phallically
symbolized by the firearms she must keep under lock and key

Many years ago I saw Glenda Jackson in a Los Angeles stage production of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and thought she was rather awful in it, but onscreen, Glenda Jackson has rarely ever made a misstep. As Hedda Gabler, Jackson commands the screen and never relinquishes it for a second. Like the stars of yesterday (Davis, Hepburn, Crawford), Jackson makes you watch her and pays back your attention by serving up a character that is entertainingly multidimensional and contradictory. Hers is a cunning performance of wit and subtlety that makes the deeply neurotic heroine both frightening and touching.
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 movie "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 where Marilyn Monroe, after seeing 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. Gabler is very much a monster. Yet you can't help feeling a little sorry for her when, despite all of her schemes, her world starts crumbling in around her and her worst fears (someone having power over her) become 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 participant in her own destruction. I prefer this non-victim point of view, happily surprised that the device doesn't make her plight any less tragic.
"I will be silent in future."

Speaking of tragedies, as of this writing, this great film isn't available on DVD!!!

Copyright © Ken Anderson

Monday, January 10, 2011


If the amoral bed-hoppers that make up the bulk of daytime tabloid talk shows were articulate, intelligent, impossibly attractive and rich, their lives might be something like the lives of the four spiritually damaged protagonists of Closer, Mike Nichols' searing look at the pain people cause each other in the name of love.

Photographer Julia Roberts
 Novelist Jude Law
 Stripper/Waitress Natalie Portman
 Doctor Clive Owen

The tony trappings of upscale London fail to mask the rather ugly games of sexual one-upsmanship that characterize the entwining relationships of the four leads. Based on a play by Patrick Marber (who wrote the equally perceptive and acidic "Notes on a Scandal" (2006), Closer is a sexual roundelay that skewers romantic myth. Here, the believers of love at first sight...those souls whose religion is passion, chemistry, and the heart wanting what it wants...are revealed to be the ones who are freest in giving themselves permission to lie, deceive, and hurt.
Changing Partners

Having explored the ins and outs of caustic relationships in both Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) and Carnal Knowledge (1971),  Mike Nichols is cinema's unofficial frontline correspondent in the war between the sexes. With wit and candor, he goes to places of rare honesty in human relations and somehow finds ways of making us see parts of ourselves in some of the most odious characters, reinforcing that sometimes even at our most monstrous, most of us are rarely less than just human.
"Hello Stranger"

The language. Though biting and brutal, the dialog in Closer is too clever to be real:

Portman: “I don’t eat fish.”
Law: “Why not?”
Portman: “Fish piss in the sea.”
Law: “So do children.”
Portman: “I don’t eat children, either."

- but direct and to the point in revealing character and the small ways we use words to wound and conceal. The film is as much a treat for the ears as it is for the eyes.
The Truth: 
“Lying is the most fun a girl can have without taking her clothes off. But it’s better if you do.”

Years before Black Swan Natalie Portman proved that she was more than a sci-fi geek pinup. Though outrageously beautiful and possessing a natural star quality, Portman is refreshingly low on self-consciousness and unafraid to go to the uglier places a character might take her. Cast cannily as the kind of male fantasy dream girl she's been marketed as since her career began, Portman reveals levels of intelligence and will not often associated with waifish objects-of-affection. She is never less than compelling throughout and virtually wipes the rest of the accomplished cast off the screen.
 The Lie

At one point in the film, Portman's character describes the photographic artwork of rival Julia Roberts as “A bunch of sad strangers photographed beautifully.” She might just as well have been talking about the film she's appearing in.
Closer is indeed a film about unpleasant people acting unpleasantly, but everyone is shot so lovingly they practically glow. As a fan of vintage movies, my heart has a special place for that time in history (pre late-50s realism) when movies were populated exclusively by those humanoid gods and goddesses we called movie stars. They didn't look like anyone we'd ever seen and the world they inhabited onscreen didn't even remotely look like the one we inhabited. It was a hyper reality that created a dreamscape to build fantasies on.
Closer, with its gleaming sets and uniformly gorgeous cast, puts that old-time glamour in the service of presenting a merciless look at the dark side of romantic desire.

The one scene I never tire of watching is a sequence that takes place in a private room of a strip club where Natalie Portman and Clive Owen verbally spar about love, lust and longing.
It is amazing on so many levels.
From a purely technical standpoint, the astounding virtuosity of the camera angles alone make for a unitary lesson in filmmaking.
It's funny, tense, sexy as hell and oddly moving as these two enact a mating dance of the lonely.
It certainly doesn't hurt that Natalie Portman sets the screen aflame either.

From everything I've written thus far, it sounds like Closer is anti-romance and down on love. But the truth is, like that other favorite of mine, Two for the RoadCloser is at its core deeply romantic because it dares to show the bare bones of relationships and the hard work and self-sacrifice necessary to achieve true intimacy with another. The four protagonists in Closer all fumble about blindly seeking love without knowing how to return it, demanding love without earning it, and giving love without committing to it.
Love Gets Ugly 
It deflates the romantic ideal (much of it movie-based) of the instant attraction, the animal connection that sparks all great romances. Closer dares to posit that those who indulge this conceit are in love with the idea of love and are unprepared for what is required to become "closer" to another individual.
To my way of thinking, a film like Closer gives love the respect it deserves.

Not everybody has the stomach for movies like this. Indeed the public stayed well away from this film when it was released. But the relationships I grew up around (and I dare say a good many of the relationships I see today) look more like the ones depicted here than the inherently dishonest, wish-fulfillment fantasies of The Bridges of Madison County or Under the Tuscan Sun. That may be my curse or blessing, I don't know. But what I do know is that I've seen more tears shed and people hurt over the pursuit of false ideals than I ever have over people coming to terms with the fact that love takes courage, selflessness and a willingness to be vulnerable.
Law: “Deception is brutal. I’m not pretending otherwise”
Closer is an adult story about the responsibilities of real love. That it tells it story with wit, intelligence and style only serves to make it one of my fave rave films of all time. A modern classic.
Natalie Portman - Stopping Traffic

Copyright © Ken Anderson