Friday, July 7, 2017

Neglected Gem #104: Girl with Green Eyes (1964)

Rita Tushingham and Peter Finch in The Girl with the Green Eyes

Considering how prolific the Irish writer Edna O’Brien is – and how inherently dramatic her books are – it’s surprising that so few of them have been made into movies. (She’s also the author of a marvelous play, Virginia, neglected since its original productions at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario with Maggie Smith in 1980 – which I saw and have never forgotten – and the New York premiere with Kate Nelligan in 1985.) There are TV movies of her breakthrough novel The Country Girls and Wild Decembers (she wrote the teleplays for both), but only twice has her work reached the big screen: in 1964, when she adapted the middle book in the Country Girls trilogy, The Lonely Girl, as Girl with Green Eyes, and in 1972, when she turned Zee and Company into X, Y and Zee, and which starred Elizabeth Taylor in one of her best performances, opposite Michael Caine and Susannah York. Neither film is remembered today.

The Country Girls Trilogy, published in 1960, 1962 and 1964, chronicles the adolescence and young womanhood of two girls, Kate Brady and Baba Brennan, who get themselves thrown out of a loathsome convent school in the Irish countryside where they grew up and move to Dublin. (O’Brien wrote a short epilogue in 1986.) Though the third book, Girls in Their Married Bliss, divides the narrative between the two women, shifting back and forth between their voices, the protagonist of the trilogy is really Kate, who occupies the center of both The Country Girls and The Lonely Girl. Girls in Their Married Bliss is more ambitious but less successful than the first two, I think because you miss the focus on Kate, whose combination of tentativeness and bravado makes her unlike any other fictional heroine and whose mood changes constitute the psychic map of The Lonely Girl, in which she enters the working world and loses her virginity. O’Brien was denigrated in her native Ireland for writing candidly about the sexual lives of young women – she was a scandalous figure, like Sean O’Casey decades earlier – and she’s never received her due as one of the great living novelists. The Country Girls, in which, as a teenager, Kate falls in love with an older married man who vows to leave his wife but, at the last moment, can’t do it, is heartbreaking. The Lonely Girl, in which she has an affair with another married man, Eugene Gaillard, an Englishman whose wife has decamped with their daughter to the United States, is even better – it’s amazing. It ends, like the first book, with the dissolution of a romance, only this time it’s not a fantastical one that exists mostly in the heads of the dreamy Kate and the self-deluded Mr. Gentleman, but an actual relationship that has gone sour. (In Girls in Their Married Bliss Kate, having discovered she’s pregnant with Eugene’s child, reconciles with him and marries him, with miserable results.)

Rita Tushingham and Lynn Redgrave

It seems unlikely that Girl with Green Eyes would have been made at all if it had not been for the all-too-brief stardom of Rita Tushingham, who had played the leading role in Tony Richardson’s 1961 movie of the Shelagh Delaney play A Taste of Honey. Tushingham has an odd, elongated gamine look that the camera transforms into something unaccountably beautiful, and a physical awkwardness that can turn unexpectedly elegant; and she conveys every quiver of inchoate feeling in her face. A genius at precisely the kind of mood shifts O’Brien captures in her portrayal of Kate – she can convert a flash of steely anger into longing with a sudden infusion of melancholy in those enormous, mesmerizing eyes, or into joy with an unrestrained schoolgirlish grin. Tushingham is such an inspired choice for the role of Kate that you can’t imagine any other young actress from her era playing it. Her performance is exquisitely delicate, quite as remarkable as her work in A Taste of Honey.

Richardson’s camera operator on A Taste of Honey (as well as Tom Jones and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner) had been Desmond Davis, and it was Richardson who encouraged him to make the leap into directing with Girl with Green Eyes and executive-produced it for him at his home studio, Woodfall, where many of the classics of the English New Wave were made. Davis stumbles here and there, mostly when he has to stage broad comic effects, as in the scene where Kate’s alcoholic father (Arthur O’Sullivan) shows up, well oiled, at the home of her lover, with two other middle-aged men in two and demands the return of his ruined daughter, who is literally hiding under the bed. (It’s also farce because Kate is still a virgin at this point.) Overall, though, it’s a graceful movie debut, and even more so for the cinematographer Manny Wynn, working in the impressionistic black-and-white palette for which Woodfall was famous. Wynn went on to shoot The Luck of Ginger Coffey for Irvin Kershner and Catch Us If You Can (Having a Wild Weekend) for John Boorman, but his career was cut short tragically when he died in 1975, at the age of forty-seven. The veteran on the Girl with Green Eyes team was John Addison, Richardson’s favorite composer, whose plaintive score is one of the film’s pleasures.

Lynn Redgrave, two years shy of playing Georgy Girl, had her first major role as Baba, whose mischievousness and flirtatiousness and sense of adventure both fuel Kate’s less overt version of those qualities and throw her more neurotic nature into relief. Baba always acts on her impulses; Kate hangs back initially, and then when she leaps into action, she dwells on the complexities and contradictions of the results and resides in the gray area of hesitation and regret. Redgrave – whom Richardson had cast in a small part in Tom Jones – counters Tushingham charmingly. Peter Finch’s performance as Eugene is the linchpin that makes the whole concoction work. The character, a writer, is first amused by Kate, who isn’t like any other girl he’s known, and then he’s touched and finally enchanted by her, and he’s sweetly patient with her as this convent girl from the country becomes accustomed to the idea of sex. (Their initial encounters in bed are chaste.) But he’s essentially a loner, and he still maintains his ties to his estranged wife in America, and not just because of their child. The deeper Kate gets in this relationship, the more she needs from him, and the less he’s capable of giving her. Finch plays the role gently, emphasizing Eugene’s frankness with Kate: he doesn’t make promises he can’t keep. But that’s not enough for her, of course. It would be easy for an actor to shortchange Eugene, especially since the movie is from Kate’s point of view, but it’s impossible to do that when you have an actor like Finch in the part – Finch, who is a master of conveying the anguish of the reticent Englishman. (See Far from the Madding Crowd and Sunday, Bloody Sunday.) The scenes between him and Tushingham do full justice to the astuteness and layering of O’Brien’s treatment of this doomed romance.

– 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 Movies.

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