Wednesday, November 16, 2011

KLUTE 1971

There are many wonderful movie actresses whose work I greatly admire. But before Dunaway, Christie, Streep, Black, Blanchett, and Portman, there was Fonda. Jane Fonda was the preeminent actress of my youth — the gold standard — and for a long while there wasn’t an actress who could touch her. As beautiful as she is versatile, Fonda's transformation from bubble-headed ingĂ©nue (Tall Story and Any Wednesday); to libertine sexpot (Barbarella); to compellingly sensitive, serious actress (They Shoot Horses, Don't They?); mirrored the evolving role of women in America and charged her screen roles with an immediacy that quickly turned her into a symbol of the times. 

Onscreen she was Woman Emergent: the glamorous embodiment of a new feminine standard of intellectual and sexual liberation. Never more so than in the role of Bree Daniels in Klute. Braless, midi-skirted, sporting that iconic shag haircut, dressed in the height of post-hippie funky '70s fashion... Jane Fonda was the sex symbol redefined, and seemed to point toward a new era for women in film in the '70s.
Ostensibly, anyway. I mean, Fonda's Bree Daniels is yet another movie call-girl.
Time is Money: Bree checking her watch in the throes of artificial passion

Yes, even as late as 1971, Hollywood was still falling back on this overused clichĂ© in its limited stock of women's roles. If a woman wasn't a wife, a girlfriend, a marriage-minded virginity-guarder, or a repressed businesswoman: prostitute (or nymphomaniac, interchangeably) is invariably where imagination-starved screenwriters landed when stumped by how to write a female character who is attractive, independent, and has a sex life.  

Cinema's fascination with prostitutes and hookers-with-hearts-of-gold unquestionably has a great deal to do with standard male studio boardroom thinking that went: women in a film = sex. Thinking that also supported the double standard reasoning that if a woman in a film has sex outside the sphere of marriage, there's a problem with audience sympathy. Thus, the good-hearted hooker was born. She gave the movie all the sex and nudity it required, but her profession kept her at a cultural remove (she couldn't tarnish the sanctity of home and marriage), and her gold heart made her sympathetic to viewers. 
But in Klute, Bree Daniels being a call-girl is more than just steamy window dressing. Her profession is integral to the plot, and, as realized by Fonda, Bree is light years away from the usual idealized fantasy image of prostitution offered in movies. 
Jane Fonda as Bree Daniels
Donald Sutherland as John Klute
Roy Scheider as Frank Lagourin
Charles Cioffi as Peter Cable

John Klute (Sutherland) is a small-town detective assigned to investigate the six-month disappearance of local businessman and friend Tom Gruneman. His search takes him to Manhattan, where it appears Gruneman is in hiding and stalking Bree Daniels (Fonda), a call-girl he allegedly frequented. As Klute's investigation takes him deeper into the seedy underworld of pimps, drugs, and prostitution, his routine Missing Persons case reveals itself to be something unanticipatedly perverse and considerably more dangerous.

I really like the scene that introduces us to the character of Bree Daniels.
As one in an anonymous, objectified line of applicants at a modeling agency, Bree is dwarfed by photo blow-ups of a glamorously dehumanized model while being subjected to a blisteringly painful (to watch) "cattle-call" inspection that makes a meat-rack look humane.
Model from1970 issue of Harper's Bazaar
Real-life model Veronica Hamel appears briefly in an uncredited role as a model in Klute. Hamel would later go on to star in the TV series, Hill Street Blues.

This is the first of several scenes depicting Bree's pursuit of "respectable" employment (she's an aspiring model/actress) as being infinitely more humiliating and degrading than her work as a call-girl. In her pursuit of "legit" work, she finds herself far more objectified than during sex work. Potential employers take physical and emotional liberties (they feel free to touch her or make casually cruel personal comments straight to her face) while she's forced to mask her humiliation and dejection behind nervous smiles. With this cinematic device, director Alan J. Pakula economically and with great visual panache (thanks to cinematographer Gordon Willis) establishes the essential conflict of Bree's life and sets the stage for why she regularly sees a psychiatrist.

Bree, asked by her therapist why she is still drawn to prostitution after professing a desire to quit:

"Because it's an act. That’s what's nice about it. You don’t have to feel anything, you don’t have to care about anything, you don’t have to like anybody. You just lead them by the ring in their nose in the direction that they think they want to go get a lot of money out of them in as short a period of time as possible...and you control it and you call the shots."

The extended monologues of Bree's therapy sessions--exposed-nerve, free-association musings on why her life isn't working, wherein she reveals her intelligence and self-awareness--are contrasted with the coolly professional patter she employs with her "johns." Gone is any trace of emotional insecurity as Bree, in a deeply seductive lower-register voice, takes command of the situation while expertly playing the role of the carnal supplicant. Anyone operating so fully in such opposing modalities is clearly someone grappling with a lot of issues, and Jane Fonda brings incredible depth and complexity to the character of Bree, inviting the audience to relate to her as an individual personality, and not merely through the prism of a fixed moral stance taken on prostitution.
Working Nine to Five
Perhaps the biggest testament to how exceptional Jane Fonda is in this, her Academy Award®- winning role, is how the persuasiveness of her performance got audiences and Academy voters alike to overlook their personal responses to Jane Fonda, the political activist, and lose themselves in the character of Bree Daniels. There aren't enough accolades to effectively express how much I enjoy and admire Fonda in this movie. It would have been the most pedestrian detective film imaginable without her. Whereas Klute is atmospherically rooted in the early '70s (Bree's outburst, "Goddamn hypocrite squares!" can't help but elicit a giggle), but Fonda's performance is timeless.
Life Imitates Art: Bree Daniels' mugshot (above), Jane Fonda's real-life 1970 mugshot (below).
Fonda's by-now iconic run-in with the law (you can find this image on everything from purses to T-shirts) occurred after filming on Klute had completed

My absolute favorite scene in the film is Klute's initial interrogation of Bree in her apartment. Fonda is masterful in navigating the myriad emotional shifts in her character (anger, defensiveness, manipulation, vulnerability) which contrast to dynamic effect with Sutherland's stolid calm. (Love what Fonda does with Bree's reluctant confession that she is afraid of the dark.)  

In addition, this scene is a standout example of how to build suspense and generate fear by showing less, not more. Few things are more fright-inducing than those three little words "Don't be afraid," so when Klute says this to Bree and leads her away from a skylight, tension grows unbearable as the camera pulls to a confining, low-angle shot that shows us only Bree's hands on Klute's back reflected in a mirror. As he reveals to her that he thinks someone is on the roof watching them, Bree's hands, seconds ago in a caress (hands dismissed in an earlier scene as being "funny"), clench in tension while she emits a genuine terrified gasp which eerily echoes the sound of the orgasm she'd feigned moments prior with a trick. Just brilliant. Even today, this scene scares the hell out of me.

I like it when filmmakers don't play their audiences for dumb. When intelligence is applied and respect given to so-called genre films (movies that fit specific narrative constructs like westerns, horror films, and police thrillers), there's a real opportunity to create something unexpected and entirely innovative. 
John Klute's world in Tuscarora, Pennsyvania.
Bree Daniels' world in New York. A dingy apartment in a brownstone overlooking a funeral parlor.
In this shot, the small pot of flowers Bree carries connects with the lush green of the Pennsylvania scenes

With Rosemary's Baby, Roman Polanski took what could have been a routine horror film and fashioned it into a masterpiece of urban paranoia. With Klute, the late Alan J. Pakula (with the indispensable contribution of Fonda) takes an unremarkable detective story (the MacGuffin of Tom Gruneman's disappearance is dispensed with so quickly that even those who like the film would be forgiven if they fail to remember his fate) and emerges with a deeply insightful character drama that's also a solid and genuinely frightening thriller. On that last score, the contributions of cinematographer Gordon Willis (The Godfather) and music composer Michael Small (The Stepford Wives, Night Moves) can't be oversold. 

Klute is one of the best examples of what the New Hollywood of the '70s promised: a merging of art-film sensibilities with popular entertainment. And with Klute, Jane Fonda, my favorite actress when I was growing up, joined Shelley Duvall in 3 Women and Faye Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde, in giving what I think of as one of the finest performances in an American film in the '70s.
"Don't be afraid..."
Said by Bree to a trick to relax him,
 by Klute to Bree to calm her,
and by the killer to Bree before...

Got this autograph of cinematographer Gordon Willis in 1984.
He was flabbergasted anyone actually knew what he looked like.
A friend of mine who was Veronica Hamel's
personal trainer during the Hill Street Blues years got this autograph for me

Opened on Thursday, June 24, 1971 at the Pantages Theater in Hollywood

Copyright © Ken Anderson  2009 - 2011


  1. Interesting reading! I need to see this again. I saw it on a grainy VHS about two-dozen years ago. One thing I did love was how, when Jane won the Oscar and was being heavily criticized by many people, she didn't broach the matter at all in her speech except to announce that then (Oscar night) wasn't the night to do so. I wish more stars took that route!


  2. Hi Poseidon. Boy, they don't call cinematographer Gordon Willis "The Prince of Darkness" for nothing. His trademark shadowy photography looked absolutely murky on my old VHS copy, and I hadn't watched "Klute" for years simply because I couldn't SEE it! You really should check it out again. Not only does the film hold up remarkably well, but Fonda is really something else. As for her Oscar speech, I agree. As much as I respect public figures like Fonda using their notoriety to call attention to political issues, sometimes in silence they are the most eloquent. Thanks for reading!

  3. Argyle here. Thanks again for your site. I just watched "Klute" last night spurred on by your post. I've always meant to watch it. It's another of those films that came out when I was too young and sheltered to get to see, but was aware of. Crazy how films you couldn't see still made an indelible impression: the typeface, the all sequin dress, the shag haircut emphasizing her eyes. Maybe that's how "glamour" works. Anyway, "Klute" has always been on my list. It's almost a list of things I AVOID seeing, sort of saving them for some future time when I'll need something amazing to see or read. (The only other item on the list that springs to mind is to read "In Cold Blood". The movie is incredible and I've read everything else by TC but always avoid ICB, saving it in some weird way.) Anyway, I loved "Klute" and your observations about Jane Fonda are excellent. She is incredible. I did feel like the story was a little weak and I was never in the grip of suspense, but that's OK. I'm glad it wasn't overly plot bound, Bree and Klute's characters were plenty. The cinematography and locations were perfect. I did think the music was a little problematic. I also just saw the first half or so of "Panic in Needle Park" which has a similar but slightly more documentary feel for the same period and setting. Pretty incredible. The lack of music there really kept you in the story, almost wouldn't let you out of the story. "Klute" is maybe a bit more a product of the studio system; it has a bit more romance. And I don't mean any of this as a negative criticism. I have nothing but admiration for film makers of that (or any) period who were trying to push the boundaries. Fonda, Sutherland, Pakula, and Gordon Willis were. When I was in college, Jane Fonda came to lecture. This was probably 1977 and so she was also promoting "Julia" (which has lots of good things about it.) She showed the trailer for "Julia" and then said something like, "Well I'd NEVER go see THAT based on that trailer!" And then went on to give a much more nuanced and accurate description of the film. So you got the sense of someone really chafing in the (SELL IT!) Hollywood system. Thanks again for your great site. I'm sorry I tuned past "The Matchmaker" the other night; another for my list!

  4. Hi Argyle. I'm glad you finally got around to seeing "Klute" and I'm flattered that it was in some way influenced by my blog. Your observations are spot on. Especially about the way some films stick with you when you're young, even when you were too young to see them. I had that experience with "In Cold Blood" which I saw for the first time in 2005. The ads scared the hell out of me as a kid and I avoided it, but never forgot it. I loved the film and that inspired me to finally read the book. I too have read all of Capote's works, and "In Cold Blood" will well be worth the wait once you get around to it. Coincidentally, I saw "Panic in Needle Park" two weeks ago for the first time. I loved its gritty feel. How did I NOT see this when it came out? Pacino is amazing!
    I like that you are able to see the pluses and minuses of s film and still process it it beyond simply "liking" it and "not liking" it. That's what I like about he perfect film is rare, but there is much to be enjoyed in films that succeed in some areas and falter in others.
    We have so many shared experiences...when I was in high school, Jane Fonda came to a local college to speak. No movie talk, just Tom Hayden promo. I got her to sign a photo of "Barbarella" afraid that she might balk (as she was in full feminist mode at the time), but she was a sweetheart and even laughed at herself in the image. Thanks again for your comments and sharing your movie memories. Your Jane Fonda story is terrific!

  5. I took another look at "Klute" this week. So much to say about this film...

    As you've noted, Ken, it's not really a typical example of its genre. Also, it's worth noting that, despite placing much of its focus on the character of Bree Daniels and her profession, the film totally manages to avoid glamourising the career of a call girl. The film doesn't even attempt to make concessions to audience members expecting softcore erotica disguised as an art film. This might be the least sensationalised film in existence about prostitution.

    I really dig the parallels between Bree's aspirations to become an actress and the nightly act that is her work as a prostitute. Also, who could ever forget that classic line that Bree says to Klute: "Do you hayve any identi-fah-kay-shun?"

    The cattle call scene is funny in the sense that Bree Daniels looks just like Jane Fonda, but the people running the show seem to pay her little regard (I feel like yelling "Wake up, she looks JUST like that gal from 'Barbarella', hire her already!"). Yeah, I know, in the context of the film, Jane Fonda The Actress "doesn't exist", but I derive an odd sense of enjoyment/frustration from such things all the same. Same with Barbra Streisand in "Funny Girl"--"Ugly duckling? Are you kidding? She looks just like La Streisand!"

    On a similar note, the model who is passed over because she's "been used" about Madison Avenue overestimating its audience! I don't think your typical fashion magazine voyeur would really care and probably has a short memory, anyway. Look at the giant picture of the glitter covered lady on the wall, that could be pretty much anybody!

    I'd also like to know how in the world Jane Fonda managed that scene where Bree listens to the tapes. I mean, she's not just weeping, she somehow manages to make snot drip from her nose on command. The camera is trained on Miss Fonda for what seems like a good thirty seconds, and suddenly, a long stream of mucus drips from her nose. I could just imagine some overly self-conscious actresses and addle-brained directors being embarrassed by such a discharge. Are you freakin' kidding me? For me, Jane Fonda snotting all over herself MAKES that scene. I'm not at all trying to be funny here, and this film has a value far beyond any glittering accolades, but that gummy discharge is probably what ultimately won Lady Jane her first Oscar. I mean, she's really just phenomenal in that scene--even by just sitting there are doing very little, Bree Daniels looks positively terrified.

    Those conversations between Bree and her shrink are quite revealing, too! The only major question that I have is why this film was entitled "Klute"--no disrespect to Donald Sutherland and the contribution that he makes here, but shouldn't it have been called "Bree"? And I can't sign off on this one without saying how groovy Miss Fonda appeared in this film--the hairstyle, the outfit, everything! It even rivals her multitude of costume changes in "Barbarella"!

  6. This a great thriller, still so watchable after all these years. Fonda gives a mesmerising performance as a very confused woman who is vulnerable but who wants to be in control in a society that does not respect women enough.

    Thank you for your excellent essay, Ken! It was intersting to read about how badly treated Bree gets treated by the outside world when she's trying to get a respectsble job. I want to watch it again soon to catch more of the nuances in Fonda's performance and to see how her tone changes whether she talking frankly with her psychiatrist or when acting with her customers.

    I love the cinematography in "Klute". Many years later films of the 80's like "Flashdance" seemed to have a similar approach for the visuals. I am also crazy for the rich hippie fashions worn in this film. It was fashionable for a very short time, before everyone just wore jeans and t-shirts all the time. All those midi skirts and kinky boots! Rarely was this style captured on film. The only other movie I can think of with similar clothing style is "A Clockwork Orange" (a film I find too hard to watch).

    Jane really deserved to win the Oscar award for her role as Bree. She gave one of the strongest performances I have ever seen on film.
    - Wille

    1. Hi Wille
      Yes, "Klute" still holds up as a solid thriller for me, too. And you make a good point about the "look" of the movie, both in terms of the cinematography and fashions. They are very much of their time, but rather than make the film feel dated, they seem to freeze the moment in time like some of the best old classic films of the 40s and 50s. The sleaze factor of "Klute" needs to feel like New York in the 70s, and it does.
      And I'm with you on "A Clockwork Orange"...I've seen it twice, and while I respect it's craftmanship, I think it's a tad too inhumane for my tastes. Thanks for visiting this older post, Wille. Glad to hear this film is a favorite of yours as well!