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 it 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 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!

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    1. Hi Gregory
      You weren't kidding when you said you lucked out in seeing some wonderful theater in your time! I would have loved to have seen this on stage. Your description of the experience does indeed sound thrilling!
      Hedda Gabler is such a favorite and I've sen it done by many people (Fiona Shaw giving one of the most original)...but I think Jackson will always remain my favorite.

      And what great news about her returning to acting via that radio show! Thanks so much for the info, I had no idea.
      I've never seen "Strange Interlude", but saw Stevie for the first time last year. A lovely performance.

  5. O, Great Ken... I know you're a Glenda Jackson fan.

    Ms. Jackson has returned to the stage in London. As King Lear. And to great acclaim. Of course. (Oooo, the photo here is scary! Age. Feh!)

    1. Thank you very much for thinking to share these links with me and any other Jackson fans who might happen upon the site.
      I have been reading about her triumph the last couple of days. So fascinating! I never thought she'd perform again. I wonder if she'd deign to bring it to the States? She's certainly be alone in being one of the few actresses here with her real face.
      Thanks, George!

  6. a girl who was born during the 1970s, I just always took Hedda's type of attitude as something that ALL women were EXPECTED to have, simply because they were women. You know, the lying, meddling, the scheming, the manipulation. It's sad when you grow up....and you barely know any other women who AREN'T like that.... :( Then again, the Southern California influence was strong in my life, so that I never believed that any people of any great intellectual substance populated the entire Southern half of the state.

    1. Hi PS
      You make a good point. One I think that is actually inherent in Ibsen's play. I think women WERE expected to behave like both the scheming Hedda and passive Thea. Women internalized these expectations, and I thin the film posits the theory that these behaviors were the result of a powerlessness women felt.
      Not allowed to participate in life as freely as men, their only power was to manipulate or selflessly support.
      I think you seized on a important aspect of the play/movie. Thank you!

  7. Nearly 8 years since this article was written and this movie is still not available on DVD.
    I don't understand the delay.

    1. Such a shame. I would love to see a pristine copy of this. And now with the Great Glenda Jackson returning to acting, the time is ripe.

  8. In the Big Three of Nineteenth Century literature's women-who-are-self-destructive-but-instructive-of-what's-wrong-with-society, Hedda Gabler is punk rock, whereas Emma Bovary and Anna Karenina are classical music.

    I appreciate your finding sympathetic aspects of Hedda's character, Ken, but I've never been able to see it. I think she's more like a school shooter. In that sense, Ibsen was a genius. He shot to the very heart of bourgeoisie nihilism, and correctly diagnosed where it would eventually lead.

    Perhaps this is a superficial reading of a great play, but I tend to go with my gut and miss a lot of nuances. And as far as Ibsen's women are concerned, Mrs. Alving's more my girl. While Ghosts has been criticized for it's campy melodrama, I think it is the one modern play that comes the closest to the unities of Aristotle's Poetics. While it may not rise to the level of a great tragedy, given the right production and casting, Ghosts can be excruciating, lacerating.

    Since Ghosts is almost never staged in this country, when the Brooklyn Academy of Music brought us a British touring production a few years ago, I made haste. Now my partner is a construction worker who likes Chevy Chase and The Three Stooges, but even he was knocked out by Mrs. Alving's ordeal. We were in the very last row of the balcony, but it still felt like the walls were closing in on us.

    Maybe what Ibsen created with Hedda just feels, within the confines of the play, a little too extreme. But he had the voice of prophecy, I think. Exene Cervenka, Lydia Lunch, Thelma, Louise, other Girls Gone Wild, and dear Hedda Gabler...

  9. Hi Rick
    I've never read GHOSTS but you make it sound fascinating. Hedda Gabler (especially Jackson's take) is like resistance rage without the respectability politics. I think I like and relate to it because it is SO much like I have felt so often (although I can't recall an instance of ever wanting to destroy someone's life so I can feel more alive...) Your "punk rock" allusion is very apt. I've almost always only been able to relate to the women in Anglo-Euro classic literature. Often the angier, the better! Off to get my hands on a copy of Ghosts. Thanks, Rick!