Monday, January 12, 2015

Notes on the Method: Jane Fonda, 1969-1971, Part I

Michael Sarrazin and Jane Fonda in They Shoot Horses, Dont They? (1969)

Jane Fonda entered movies in 1960 as a sex kitten with a killer instinct for comedy; in some of her early pictures, like Walk on the Wild Side and The Chapman Report (both from 1962), she played cleverly against her wide-eyed-innocent quality and her shimmering-starlet glamorousness. Her first husband, the French filmmaker Roger Vadim, used her wittily, especially in his soft-core sci-fi fantasy burlesque Barbarella (1968), where she was cast as a kind of female Candide – or Alice in a porno Wonderland. No one could have expected the cards she was holding close to her chest: that she had the gifts of a major Stanislavskian movie star. In 1969 she played Gloria in Sydney Pollack’s film of the 1935 Horace McCoy novella They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, set at a dance marathon on the Santa Monica Pier, and the next time out, two years later, in Alan J. Pakula’s Klute, she was Bree Daniel, a high-class Manhattan call girl who, freaked by a stalker, looks to a transplanted Pennsylvania cop named John Klute (Donald Sutherland) for rescue. These performances conferred a distinction on Fonda (she won the Academy Award for the second) that have never deserted her, though in only a handful of subsequent pictures (Julia, The China Syndrome, The Morning After) has she scored roles that gave her comparable acting opportunities. In that tiny corner of time where the late sixties and early seventies overlapped, she was the best actress in America.

The movie of They Shoot Horses doesn’t come close to the book, which is – like Edward Anderson’s Thieves Like Us, the source of the great Robert Altman movie of 1974 – one of the forgotten literary treasures of the Depression era. (The film caused the book to resurface briefly, in a paperback that also included James Poe and Robert E. Thompson’s screenplay, but it never really caught on. Both it and Thieves Like Us were included in the superb Library of America collection Crime Novels, published in 1997.) The era in which the picture came out permitted darker material in a mainstream studio release; in fact, Poe and Thompson’s screenplay is more relentlessly downbeat than McCoy's book, which is, I think, one of its shortcomings (that hopelessness that popular culture imposed on everything during the Vietnam years). Still, They Shoot Horses is right in the line of the glossy big-studio movies of the thirties and forties, and Pollack, an entertainer at heart with a master’s touch with actors, makes it exciting. It’s one of his most enjoyable pictures, like The Way We Were, Absence of Malice, The Firm, The Interpreter, the first half of Random Hearts and of course the transcendent Tootsie. Fonda’s Gloria is an aspiring actress who signs up for the marathon out of desperation and, when Rocky (Gig Young), the M.C., declares her partner isn’t healthy enough to take part, lands a drifter named Robert (Michael Sarrazin), who happens to wander into the dance hall and is too polite, too kind and perhaps too curious to turn her down.

Jane Fonda in Klute (1971)
Hard-boiled Gloria is a distinctly American type; if the movie had been made in the thirties, Bette Davis or Barbara Stanwyck would have played her, and Fonda manages to evoke both these amazing actresses, though with a combination of razor sharpness and neuroticism that are all her own (and that seem to modernize the character). Her bobbed reddish-brown hair gives her a flapper brittleness, like a character out of John O’Hara – she’d have been ideal for his Gloria, the protagonist of Butterfield 8, if the miserable 1960 film version with Elizabeth Taylor hadn’t blighted that material – and when we see her at four a.m., with her hair awry, the ends frayed, it’s as if we were seeing her unraveling. It doesn’t take much: her toughness and bitterness, which manifest themselves in brusqueness and argumentativeness, are inseparable from her despair. She’s in the contest not only for the food and the chance at the jackpot but also because it’s something Hollywood hopefuls do to garner the attention of the producers and directors who stop by to watch, but she doesn’t really believe anything will come of it, just as she thinks, after a few years of trying without success to get into one of the studios, that they’ve “got it all sewn up” at Central Casting. But Gloria’s cynicism isn’t tossed-off. Her world-weariness has deep corners: when Robert points out that one of the referees, whom she’s just been fresh to, has the power to disqualify her, she answers, with an almost silent laugh, “I’ve been disqualified by experts.” Her capacity for disgust is bottomless, and it’s indistinguishable from her taste for self-disgust. One of the other couples, Jimmy (Bruce Dern) and Ruby (Bonnie Bedelia), are married and expecting a baby. Gloria – who tells Robert, when he asks what she’ll do with the money if they win, “Maybe I’ll buy some good rat poison” – comments disdainfully on the prospect of bringing a child into the world: “Nature’s little miracle. Christ!” When she asks, “Who would want to bring a kid into this mess?” you can hear her anger at the world. Ruby’s pregnancy is a scab she can’t keep herself from picking; she goes at Ruby so often that Jimmy has to warn her to stay away from his wife.

What she can’t handle are gentleness, compassion, emotional support. She doesn’t understand why Robert stands up for her with Jimmy (who could kick his ass) and she’s entirely at sea with Mrs. Laydon (Madge Kennedy), the lonely old woman who shows up in the audience every day and champions her and Robert – her favoritism makes Gloria feel awkward and uncomfortable. The kicker in Fonda’s performance is that, no matter how much her behavior seems motivated by the perpetual taste of bile in her mouth, there’s a layer of vulnerability underneath it that makes Gloria pitiable, though the last thing she wants – or thinks she wants – is anyone’s pity. It’s in her eyes, which are piercingly alert (she doesn’t miss a nuance) yet darting and frightened; it’s in her musicality of her voice, the slight quaver that Fonda plays against the granite hardness of her dialogue. You see the vulnerability clearly, as if her armor were translucent.

Aside from that the-whole-damn-world-is-rigged overlay, the movie has other problems: overexplicitness and a flashback/flash-forward structure that is just ornamentation. (It’s also confusing.) And though the role of Robert cries out for a young James Stewart, Michael Sarrazin doesn’t have anything going for him but his moony eyes and callow earnestness. But the otherwise splendid ensemble, in addition to Bedelia and Dern, includes Red Buttons as a sailor, Allyn Ann McLerie as his partner (the first one to “squirrel”: she imagines bugs crawling all over her), Susannah York as a kind of low-rent Blanche DuBois. York has a near-genius for playing fragile women who pull themselves to some remote edge away from sanity, which is what happens to Alice when the sailor collapses on the floor of a heart attack and she throws herself, fully clothed, into the shower, frantic to wash the touch of death off her. (She has a shocking moment when the nurse on duty, whom she won’t allow to pull her out of the shower, finally gives up and withdraws, and Alice flashes her a triumphant look. I’m a fan of York’s and this may be the best single moment of her movie career.) And Young, who always sounds a little oiled, his consonants somewhat slurred and his words bunched together like grapes in a cluster, gives Rocky a core of something unexpected: honesty and even a sliver of compassion underneath the “yowza” bullshit and clich├ęs. His father, we learn, was a faith healer and as a boy he operated as a shill for the preacher. This is a supporting role, but Young takes it into Eugene O’Neill territory.

Gig Young and Jane Fonda in They Shoot Horses, Don't They?
They Shoot Horses is absolutely Jane Fonda’s movie, however. She gives an electric performance; all her nerve endings are alive in every scene. She and Young have a terrific moment when, without spelling it out, he invites her to have sex with him in his office; she gets the intimation immediately and turns him down. Later she reconsiders. One of the two gowns Alice has brought with her is stolen and then turns up tattered, and she feels so low that she persuades Robert to make love to her during one of the breaks. (The idea doesn’t quite make psychological sense, but York gets it to work.) He’s too kind to turn her down, but when he walks out a moment late for the next dance round, a beat or two after Alice does, the abashed look on his face when he catches Gloria’s eye gives him away instantly. And Fonda shows us the gradations of her response, from surprise to amazement to disappointment to cynicism (“Perfect,” she murmurs). Of course she won’t admit to Robert how his “cheating” with Alice makes her feel (abandoned). When she walks away at the next break and he calls her name, she turns back with raised eyes and a small almost-smile that suggest three things simultaneously: her curiosity about whether he can come up with an explanation for his conduct; her judgment on him; and her curdled satisfaction that, once again, her vision of the world has been confirmed. As a kind of revenge on Robert, she strides into Rocky’s office to give him what he’s been hinting at, and also as a way of hunkering down to the ugliness she believes the world is drenched in – but she won’t let Rocky touch her while she unbuckles his belt.

This stunningly layered scene is matched – surpassed, even – by her final one, after she and Robert have walked out on the marathon and her anguish is complete. She’s in a different place now; her talk about suicide carries a conviction it hasn’t before, and ironically Fonda gives it a tremulous vibrancy. On the pier, she talks to Robert about “getting off this merry-go-round” and then asks him to stay while she takes a pistol out of her purse. “Help me,” she begs him (supplication is a new note for her), though it’s not clear whether she’s asking Robert or God. Whispering, “Please, please,” she hands him the gun and when he takes it she exhales with profound relief. He puts the gun to her temple and asks her, “Now?” and when she repeats the word, in affirmation, it has a quality of ecstasy in it. This scene is a small miracle within a performance that’s already miraculous.

– 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 Review 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 Movie.

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