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 (although Hedda, who fancies herself a realist & pragmatist, would balk at the description). What they all share is a whole-hearted belief in and acceptance of unrealistic ideals and lofty aspirations. Romantic myths of happiness and fulfillment which are supposed to be satisfied by marriage, wealth, position or achievement. What makes Hedda Gabler and the others such fascinating individuals is not only that they suffer from a failure to have their lives live up to their dreams, but that their suffering is directly attributable to a grievous flaw in their character. A flaw which provides the defining obstacle preventing them from being successful in converting their idealistic fantasies into a 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. She has a temperament and restless curiosity for the world beyond the limiting confines of her sex and station, but, bristling at the constraints of her preconscribed life, she is simply too cowardly and bourgeois to break from it. In frustrated response, Hedda strikes out through the insidious and poisonous manipulation of the lives of those around her.
Hedda attempts to wedge herself between and 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's easy to feel trapped and imprisoned by the choices one's made if the propensity is to look outside of oneself, failing to recognize that change is possible only through introspection and a level of direct action (courage) necessary to enact change. Hedda dramatizes the fact that it is not usually external limitations that torment us, but rather the bars and prison walls we construct in our minds born of fear and selfishness.
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), 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 which 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 intent on closing in around 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 harboring 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    2009 - 2011

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 one another in the name of love.
Julia Roberts as Anna
Jude Law as Dan
Natalie Portman as Alice
Clive Owen as Larry
The tony trappings of upscale London fail to mask the rather ugly games of sexual one-upmanship that characterize the entwining relationships of the film's four lead characters. 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 and lays waste those who pursue love as though it were part of a self-fulfillment program. 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 most apt to give themselves license to lie, deceive, and and inflict pain, if all is done in the name of love.
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. He has a gift for shining a compassionate but cold light on some of the worst aspects of human interaction; and in the process, reinforces the notion that sometimes even at our most monstrous, most of us are rarely ever 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 protect ourselves, wound others, and ultimately 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 just 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 that are not often associated with waifish objects-of-affection. She is never less than compelling throughout and, for me, at least, 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 makes 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, I've made it sound as though Closer were an anti-romantic comedy (black comedy) and basically down on love. The truth is, like that other favorite of mine, Two for the RoadCloser is at its core a deeply romantic film. Chiefly because it dares to show the bare bones of relationships and dramatizes 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 (or lack the maturity) 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 its story with wit, intelligence and style only serve to make it one of my fave rave films of all time. A modern classic.
Natalie Portman - Stopping Traffic

Copyright © Ken Anderson