Monday, January 26, 2015

Notes on the Method: Jane Fonda, 1969-1971, Part 2

Jane Fonda as Bree Daniel, in Klute (1971).

In the 1971 Klute, Jane Fonda plays Bree Daniel, a high-class Manhattan hooker who – reluctantly – asks for the protection of a cop named John Klute when she’s stalked by a creep (Charles Cioffi) who turns out to be a killer. Donald Sutherland gives a fine, understated performance as Klute, and the chemistry between him and Fonda (they were an off-screen couple for a few years and made one other picture together, 1973’s Steelyard Blues) is partly what makes the film so memorable, especially once the protagonist and the title character become involved. Klute is far from a romantic comedy, but it has a romantic-comedy set-up: the tensions between the hero and heroine, who come from different worlds – Klute is a small-town Pennsylvania police officer who meets Bree during an investigation into the murder of a friend – and rub each other the wrong way, turn out to be erotic ones. Sutherland’s nerdy looks – the gawky frame, the mongoose neck, the outsize ears – are used here to emphasize his character’s square-shooter persona, the very thing that Bree mocks and tries to undermine, at first reflexively and then as a form of resistance against the danger of losing emotional control. (During this early phase of his career, Sutherland generally played hipsters, most famously “Hawkeye” Pierce in Altman’s M*A*S*H; the fact that his goony appearance didn’t stand in his way is an indication of the way the Vietnam-era made movie stars of actors who would never have landed leading-man roles in any previous period, like Woody Allen and Elliott Gould.)

The murder mystery at the center of the movie is not much more than competent, though Alan J. Pakula’s direction gives it the requisite tension, and Gordon Willis’ darkly glittering cinematography enhances it. What’s special about the screenplay by Andy and Dave Lewis is the complexity of its female protagonist. What’s ingenious about it is that it employs a series of scenes between Bree and her unnamed analyst (Vivian Nathan) that allow Bree, a control freak whose fear of exposing herself runs neck-and-neck with her increasing terror of her stalker, to articulate her feelings about her profession and her developing relationship with Klute. These scenes, which were not remotely like anything seen before in a mainstream Hollywood picture, let alone a thriller, provide a nearly Brechtian commentary on the character. But only nearly Brechtian: as the Lewis brothers have written them, and as Fonda plays them, they’re the crucial element in a profound psychological study.

Donald Sutherland and Jane Fonda in Klute
The most famous one is the first. Bree is forging a career as an actress and a model; she’s seeing a shrink because she doesn’t know why she still tricks, and her therapist gets her to talk about how she feels when she’s with a john. The answer is that though she doesn’t enjoy the physical act of sex, she feels great afterwards because for that hour she’s utterly in control, that she can feel she’s the best actress and the best fuck in the world. We’ve just seen her in a meeting with a producer, where she’s not in control and she isn’t a good enough actress to hide her nervousness, her sense of how much is at stake. A scene of her auditioning for a revival of Shaw’s Saint Joan confirms that she’s not at her best in a conventional theatrical milieu, but when she acts for a john, she’s nonpareil. We’ve seen her seduce one in a hotel room, nestling into the crook of his neck while he whispers what he wants from her, and convincing him that she’s turned on by his suggestion (“Oh, yes, yes . . . Very good . . . I like your mind”). She gives an exquisite performance as every man’s dream bedmate, moaning in ecstasy and crying out, “Oh, my angel!  Oh, my angel!” as she simulates orgasm. But amazing as Fonda is in Bree’s hooking scenes – in another, her Bree excites one regular client, an aging Jewish clothing factory owner (Morris Strasberg), in a spangly black dress and a purple feather boa, by playing the role of a sophisticated traveler who plays baccarat and chemin de fer in Cannes casinos, a sort of Jeanne Moreau in Bay of the Angels type – she’s more amazing when she strips psychically for her shrink. This is as deep-dyed as naturalistic acting gets; there doesn’t appear to be anything standing between the actress and the character she’s playing, a woman who plays many characters but is, in a sense, standing off to the side, watching herself shift from one to the other. This is a classic Method performance, one of the high points in the history of American film acting.

Bree’s illusion of complete control comes apart when she begins to get scary phone calls from her stalker, who eventually uses her whore’s act against her, playing tapes of her at her most sensuous, urging a john to get rid of his inhibitions. It’s a hall-of-mirrors act: he’s putting her performance in front of her in a way that exposes it and so distorts it – and makes her understand that he’s the one in control. But that comes later, at the film’s climax, after he’s found half a dozen ways to unseat her. The phone rings in the middle of the night and Bree sits bolt upright in bed, while Pakula dollies back to frame her in a long shot that underlines how alone she is.

Originally Klute discovers those tapes in the possession of his dead friend, and they lead him to Bree. She plays a series of roles with him, too: the tough broad who makes it difficult for him to get information, and then the seductress who offers him sex (“You have such a nice mouth,” she tells him) in exchange for the tapes, and then the hip demi-mondaine who condescends to him because in her view he’s a “hypocrite square.” Klute doesn’t fall for any of them. And he puts her at a disadvantage when, visiting her in her apartment, he hears someone on her roof and, taking her hand, leads her to her bed, in order to put her in the safest place while he runs up to check whether she’s in danger. It’s a remarkable moment, simultaneously paternal and romantic. But she hates being beholden to a man, especially one she’s tried to manipulate. So though he gives her the tapes out of kindness, she can’t resist needling him. “Did we get you a little bit?” she demands, the we referring to the Big Apple, the temptation of all that big-city sin. He tells her he finds it pathetic, and the truth that she didn’t come close to ruffling his moral and psychological confidence infuriates her. (She tells him to fuck off.)

Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland in Klute
Each of them thinks that’s the end of their interaction, but in the course of pursuing his friend’s murderer, he needs her help to track down another prostitute, a junkie named Arlyn Page (Dorothy Tristan) who used to be in the stable of Bree’s sometime pimp, Frankie (Roy Scheider). Then the phone calls from the stalker unnerve her enough to take refuge in Klute’s rented room. He gives her his bed so she can feel protected for a night, while he takes the pull-out couch. In the middle of the night, she joins him and he responds to her gentle come-on. But she can’t admit to herself that this connection is genuine, so after lovemaking she compliments his performance as if he were one of her pick-ups, allaying his concern that the sex was one-sided by assuring him, “I never come with a john” and strolling away as if were merely playing a game, proving to herself that at last she’s succeeded in getting him to surrender his virtue because “everybody always does.” This is her way of reclaiming her control, which she forfeited when she showed up at his room because she was afraid of sleeping in her own bed. And her post-coital treatment of him is a slap in the face to Klute, who has responded to her not as a randy customer with a yen for what a knowing whore can offer but as a decent man attracted to a woman beyond whose whore’s fa├žade he’s able to see. Next she takes him to see Arlyn and her boy friend (Barry Snider). Bree and Klute’s presence scares away their dealer and leaves them flailing, frantic for a fix, and Fonda shows us Bree’s awareness of how close she is, in the New York sexual underbelly, to the edge these two druggies reside on. (Tristan and Snider are terrific in this jangly interlude.) Her response is to deny it and deny her attraction to Klute at the same time. She runs out of his car and into a club, plunging back into the life she knows he doesn’t understand or approve of, playing the party-girl role that makes her feel what we now know is only the illusion of control. Frankie is at the club; she retreats to his arms. But the illusion lasts exactly as long as it takes for her to confront a fresh assault from her stalker, who ransacks her apartment and stains some of her clothes with his semen. When Klute arrives to take care of her, she acts like a frightened child and at the same time like a wrecked adult who’s watching herself revert to a childlike vulnerability she can’t prevent.

That’s the beginning of a new stage in her relationship with Klute, but it’s not the end of her struggle against him. When her apartment is broken into again, she returns to the dubious comfort of her old connection with Frankie; Klute goes after her and intervenes physically, and Bree, confused and threatened by this unfamiliar white-knight experience, turns not on the pimp but on the cop, attacking him with scissors. And though he succeeds in disarming her, her horror at her own action drives her to seek out first her shrink (whom she can’t locate) and then the clothier, Goldfarb, whose relationship to her has always been generous and avuncular (but he absents himself from the office, leaving her money, which she doesn’t want). The narrative segues from this mad grab for counsel into the climax of the mystery: she runs smack into the murderer. This is a convenient way for the screenwriters to escalate to the climax of the plot, but it works emotionally because it places Bree is at her wildest – and ready, at last, to capitulate to the life she has been evading because she doesn’t believe she deserves it. “You’re not going to get hung up on me, are you?” she asks Klute in bed, after she’s told her shrink, incredulously, that he’s seen her at her ugliest and meanest and yet he continues to hang on. At the end of the picture, she closes up her apartment and goes home to small-town Pennsylvania with him, even as we hear, in voice-over, her admission to her shrink that she can’t imagine setting up house in the sticks. “I don’t know what’s going to happen,” we hear her say at last. “Maybe I’ll be back” – and then, with a chuckle, “You’ll probably see me next week.” The pessimism is a cautious, perhaps a superstitious, note. We might recall Dana Andrews’s Fred Derry, in the finale of William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives, tells the woman he loves (Teresa Wright) and has finally reconciled with that they won’t have anything for themselves, that they’ll probably work for years without getting anywhere. Once again these downbeat words sound an unmistakable note of hope.

– 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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