Monday, June 18, 2012

Neglected Gem #18: Blue Sky (1994)

Jessica Lange and Tommy Lee Jones star in Blue Sky

Whenever Jessica Lange tackles Tennessee Williams directly – on TV in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, on Broadway and TV in A Streetcar Named Desire – she seems cowed; she falls back on stagy acting-class clich├ęs no one knew she was even capable of.  But she creates a great Williams character – part Blanche, part Maggie the Cat, part Amanda Wingfield – in Carly Marshall, the glamorous southern belle chafing against her role as an army role and suffering from bi-polar disorder, in the 1994 Blue Sky. Blue Sky was completed in 1991, when Orion was on the verge of bankruptcy, so the movie, like several others, was held back; the director, Tony Richardson, whose final picture it was, didn’t live to see it in release.  It’s not his most consistent work; there are two movies rolling around in it, and unfortunately in the second half the lesser of the two takes over.  But he had every right to be proud of the texture he got in the domestic scenes, and the way he coached his cast, especially Jessica Lange and, as her husband, Major Hank Marshall, Tommy Lee Jones.

The good movie locked inside Blue Sky has some of the sizzle and emotional engagement of From Here to Eternity and The Long Hot Summer It’s the story of Carly, who’s miserable about leaving Hawaii, Hank’s last posting, for airless, remote Nevada.  (The time is the early sixties.) Carly wears her hair in a Marilyn Monroe bob and tosses her head like Monroe; she even gets the rhythm of Monroe’s champagne laughter.  She’s hot stuff; her movie-star affectations (at the end she switches to Liz Taylor) and her flamboyant sexuality are her way of expressing what’s inside her – everything army conduct is supposed to tamp down.  Carly’s a beautiful woman, but she’s terrified of losing her looks.  She stares at herself in the mirror and swears she sees the ghost of the old hag she’s fated to become.  She thinks she’s going to disappear, and – both spooked and fascinated – she seems to be peering for evidence that the process has already begun to happen.  Mirrors mesmerize her, and Lange mesmerizes us.  She climbs inside her mirror and peers around – the psychic equivalent of Cocteau’s Orpheus breaking through to the underworld behind the glass.  At her best, Carly has esprit and a southern graciousness; that’s when her daughters, Alex (Amy Locaine) and Becky (Anna Klempt), can’t resist her.  At her worst, she throws tantrums or loses her self-control and takes on other men.  On the Marshalls’ first day in Nevada, she paces their unattractive new house like a caged cat, then goes wild, screaming and crying, smashing up the car, talking to herself in a local store.

Chris O'Donnell and Amy Locane in Blue Sky
Jones’s Hank Marshall is piercingly intelligent, a man of science with a knack for irony.  He also has a loner’s integrity that makes it impossible for him to swallow the standard incompetence of army bureaucracy.  And he’s the only one who can handle Carly.  He adores her, she excites him, and he can talk her down.  (Fed up with her mother’s acting out, Alex bursts out, “He’s blind and she’s crazy,” and her kid sister adds, “They’re perfect for each other.”)  Tommy Lee Jones gives a sensational performance as a man with a complex view of the world, and with the sanity and gratitude to navigate the moods of the complex woman he lives with, who sometimes hurts him badly.  And though she bristles around him when she’s feeling steamed up and frustrated and insecure, and even when she cheats on him, she’s dependent on him; this man she calls “Daddy” is the white knight she has to believe in.

There’s an impressively acted scene at an officers’ club party where Carly gets too close to Hank’s boss, Vince Johnson (Powers Boothe), on the dance floor while both Hank and Vince’s wife Vera (Carrie Snodgress) watch.  Richardson tracks the way all four of these characters are feeling:  Vince, who’s an opportunist; Vera, with her desperate optimism; Carly, fighting demons no one else but Hank can see; and Hank, who has to stop her when she goes too far.  And inevitably, she does; while he’s out on assignment, she goes to bed with Vince and then, when Alex and her new beau, the Johnsons’ son Glenn (Chris O’Donnell), find them together, Alex – who can be tougher on her mother than anyone else – makes her phone Hank and confess her unfaithfulness.  Lange is amazing in this scene, though it’s unhappily tricked up:  Hank can’t hear her confession because of a lot of loud machinery.  Jones has his best scene later on.  Hank gets into a brawl with Vince, and Carly, trying to break it up, falls through a window and ends up in the hospital, where the Marshalls have an edgy and difficult reconciliation.

Powers Boothe in Blue Sky
The writing (the script is credited to Rama Laurie Stagner, Jerry Leichtling and Arlene Sarner) has a fresh snap in these scenes.  Almost imperceptibly, Richardson layers the period detail and the army-post detail and the domestic detail so that we understand exactly where all the characters are coming from and where they’ve landed.  Carly and Hank’s relationship is completely plausible, and the four Marshalls behave convincingly like a family.  Locaine has an earthbound sensitivity; Alex is right on the brink of young womanhood, and Locaine lets us see both the tomboy she used to be and the more feminine adult she’s going to become.  Richardson’s encouraged her not to soft-pedal Alex’s adolescent anger toward her mother, so their scenes together, where Carly is afraid of Alex’s disapproval and penchant for holding a grudge, break the mold of mother-daughter exchanges in American movies. Richardson does well with the rest of the cast, too.  Snodgress is charming as the upbeat army wife who relies on her good suburban country-club breeding when she’s assailed by a woman she thinks wants to break up her home.  (One of Richardson’s invisible triumphs is the way he’s able to make us sympathize with both Carly and Vera.)  Klemp is a clever little actress, and O’Donnell manages to clean up his bad diction and wrassle up some energy and a bit of charm. (Unfortunately, he botches Glenn’s big scene with his dad.)  Boothe gives half a good performance as Vince:  in the second half of the movie he becomes a melodramatic villain, though it’s not really his fault.

What happens to Boothe is indicative of what goes wrong with the movie.  The other story takes over, and it’s a bummer. Hank is a nuclear engineer whose assignment in Nevada is to check for safety hazards around the testing sites.  Of course, not everyone is as meticulous as he is, and when the site isn’t properly evacuated and Hank raises a stink, he finds himself locked in a psychiatric ward – courtesy of Vince, who wants him out of the way so he can pursue Carly.  Not one scene in this part of the plot is believable, so when it begins to hog the movie you can feel your spirits sink. By the end Carly has become a heroine; the movie conveniently forgets how self-destructive she is. But Lange’s performance isn’t short-circuited even by this idiotic turn of events. Somehow she manages to stick to the throughline she’s found for this character, and she brings in a triumphant finale. And faced with scenes you wish he didn’t have to the play (like the one where, doped up and shocked out, he dribbles and can’t get his balance), Jones finds a way to make them work. These two actors are miracle workers.

 
 – Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny ReviewThe Boston Phoenix and The Christian Century and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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