Joanne Woodward

Paris Blues (1961, Martin Ritt)

It’d be easily to blame Paris Blues’s lack of success on the screenplay. With three credited screenwriters and another with the adaptation, there’s literally not enough going on the film to keep it going for the ninety-eight minute runtime. There’s filler, whether it’s a jazz number or a scenic Paris walk, but there’s not enough story. There’s not enough character or there’s not enough story. But director Ritt needs to get some of the blame as well. He’s got enthusiasm, but he’s strangely inert when it comes to medium shots.

Here’s the story–Joanne Woodward and Diahann Carroll are friends vacationing in Paris from the United States. They meet Sidney Poitier and Paul Newman, who are jazz musician ex-patriates. They pair off, Woodward and Newman, Carroll and Poitier, and they all fall in love. Except Poitier and Newman don’t want to leave Paris. Poitier because it sucks to be a black man in the United States while it’s pretty darn cool in Paris; Newman because… he’s a troubled artist. Or he wants to be a troubled artist. He’s a great trombone player, but he’s not a troubled artist. He’s moody because he’s not.

Newman and Woodward’s romance and its problems are mostly just that moodiness. Newman has a bad day, is crappy to Woodward, who’s crazy about him and wants to dote on him. Meanwhile, Poitier and Carroll are having this great philosophical debate, with their romance taking a back burner to their arguments about Poitier’s refusal to participate in the American Civil Rights movement. Sure, the script never goes too far with their arguments and usually just ends a scene–Woodward and Carroll spend most of their time acquiescing to their men’s mood swings–but it’s something. Carroll and Poitier are playing characters. Newman’s a caricature. Woodward’s stuck pretending to be one, just because the script doesn’t give Newman anything more.

Oh, wait. It gives him Serge Reggiani’s cocaine problem. Newman’s trying to keep him clean because deep down he’s a good guy who cares.

There’s occasionally wonderful direction from Ritt–usually just composition, though Carroll’s performance in the third act, basically just watching Woodward and Newman, is fantastic. It’s a slight, because she should have had more to do, but she’s still developing her character. Everyone else has given up by that time. But Ritt loves trying to do the “real” Paris, cutting between sets and location, with the sets often fantastical but grounded thanks to Christian Matras’s black and white photography.

Weak editing from Roger Dwyre–thanks to Ritt’s messy medium shots and general lack of coverage–doesn’t help things. The Duke Ellington score does help things, however. And it’s awesome to see Louis Armstrong cameo as the whole package artist who Newman admires. Shame there’s not enough on their relationship. Or Newman and Poitier’s. Or Newman and Woodward’s. Or Woodward and Carroll’s. Or Carroll and Poitier’s. About the only relationship getting the appropriate attention is Newman and his French lover, played by Barbara Laage. But even she ends up just harboring slightly veiled hostility towards Woodward instead of actual scenes.

Messy, messy script.

Carroll’s great. Poitier’s great. Newman and Woodward are good, not great. Their material’s too thin to be great. Armstrong’s more cute than good. He’s having a blast acting. Reggiani’s good. Laage’s good. The problem’s not the acting. It’s the script, then Ritt, then the editing. Then, I don’t know, the rear screen projection.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Martin Ritt; screenplay by Jack Sher, Irene Kamp, and Walter Bernstein, adaptation by Lulla Rosenfeld, based on the novel by Harold Flender; director of photography, Christian Matras; edited by Roger Dwyre; music by Duke Ellington; produced by Sam Shaw; released by United Artists.

Starring Paul Newman (Ram Bowen), Sidney Poitier (Eddie Cook), Joanne Woodward (Lillian), Diahann Carroll (Connie), Serge Reggiani (Michel Devigne), Barbara Laage (Marie), and Louis Armstrong (Wild Man Moore).



Rally ‘Round the Flag, Boys! (1958, Leo McCarey)

It’s hard to describe what’s wrong with Rally ’Round the Flag, Boys!; not because its ailments are mysterious but because the sentence is just a little problematic. Rally is a light handling of what should be a mature comedy. It deals with big issues–fifties suburban malaise and boredom, not to mention a strange post-war animosity towards the military–but director McCarey tries to do it all Cinemascope slapstick.

He does not succeed.

He’s lucky to have such a strong cast, because they really get the film to its finish. Its finish involves a Fourth of July pageant. The script lays the groundwork for that pageant real early, before taking a detour into a comedy of errors where Paul Newman can’t get away from Joan Collins’s roaming housewife, much to his chagrin and wife Joanne Woodward’s anger. The first twenty or so minutes setting up this part of the film are boring but gently amusing. Woodward and Newman are great together and Collins has a lot of fun.

Until her goofy dance sequences. There are maybe three of them. They all stop the film for a moment because they’re so awkward. Maybe if the editing were better. Louis R. Loeffler does a real bad job editing Rally.

But there’s also a tangent with teenager Tuesday Weld, who’s appealing but pointless if the film’s about Newman and Woodward. McCarey seems to be aiming high with the film’s ambitions, but he fails on all of them so maybe he wasn’t.

Rally’s fine, just unsuccessful.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Leo McCarey; screenplay by Claude Binyon and McCarey, based on the novel by Max Shulman; director of photography, Leon Shamroy; edited by Louis R. Loeffler; music by Cyril J. Mockridge; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Paul Newman (Harry Bannerman), Joanne Woodward (Grace Oglethorpe Bannerman), Joan Collins (Angela Hoffa), Jack Carson (Capt. Hoxie), Dwayne Hickman (Grady Metcalf, Comfort’s suitor), Tuesday Weld (Comfort Goodpasture), Gale Gordon (Brig. Gen. W.A. Thorwald), Tom Gilson (Corporal Opie) and O.Z. Whitehead (Isaac Goodpasture, Comfort’s Father).


Dark Stranger (1955, Arthur Ripley)

Dark Stranger is a high concept story about a writer meeting a character out of his novel. The concept’s ambitious because the script–from Betty Ulius and Joel Murcott–is so thorough. Edmond O’Brien’s writer isn’t a Bohemian who might buy into the idea. He’s calculating and positively bewildered.

The script goes through O’Brien’s investigations, his interrogating, all while the subject of his attention–Joanne Woodward–goes through her own crises.

Ripley is really good with the leads’ scenes together. The composition sometimes hints at where their relationship is going, sometimes offers more sympathy to one character than another. Stranger is a television production, so there isn’t much in the way of grand movements; Ripley just knows how to facilitate his actors.

Woodward excels in the second half, as she starts asking more and more questions. O’Brien’s solid. Good support from Evelyn Ankers.

The ending’s lame, but otherwise, Stranger’s good.

2/3Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Arthur Ripley; teleplay by Betty Ulius and Joel Murcott, based on a story by Ulius; director of photography, George E. Diskant; edited by Sherman Todd; produced by Warren Lewis.

Starring Edmond O’Brien (Ray Ericson), Joanne Woodward (Jill Andrews), Evelyn Ankers (Ruth McCabe) and Dan Tobin (Don Shaw).


Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams (1973, Gilbert Cates)

What is this film and how have I never heard of it.

Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams is somewhat indescribable in terms of plot. I mean, it obviously isn’t indescribable–I could list the scenes (there are about fifteen in the film, which means it averages a scene every six minutes and that calculation sounds about right) and there’s a narrative, but the film feels like an adaptation of a play. There’s a lot of conversation, a lot of dialogue, but at times, there’s also a lot of movement. So it couldn’t really be a play–the use of Johnny Mandel’s score, absolutely essential, wouldn’t have been done on stage and the film–the story–wouldn’t work without it.

During the last scene, it occurred to me Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams is the end of a long novel. It’s maybe the third part, where the two characters who each got their own earlier section, finally commingle.

Most of the film–it only runs ninety minutes, so most only means fifty minutes to an hour–belongs to Joanne Woodward. She starts it, her relationship with her family kicks off the second half, she gets to do voiceovers, she gets to have dream sequences. It’s her film for a while. But in the last twenty minutes–and here’s where Summer Wishes becomes something entirely singular and spectacular in any American cinema I’ve seen–the film ceases to be about her and becomes about her husband, played by Martin Balsam. Specifically, it’s about him returning–a World War II veteran–to a battlefield. These scenes are of astounding power. American cinema–good and bad–visibly devastates. Starting with the silents, through the Golden Age, into the seventies, now (especially now), it visibly devastates. It’s not good, it’s not bad, it’s just a feature of the way Americans tell stories. Summer Wishes doesn’t visibly devastate. A friend of mine’s coming to visit and wanted to watch a great film he’d never heard of from the 1970s and here I found it without looking.

The film’s obviously not out on DVD–it apparently never even had a laserdisc release–so I got stuck with the pan and scanned VHS. Gilbert Cates, who I’ve never heard of, does an excellent job directing the film. The pan and scan can’t impair it. He makes each line of dialogue, each exchange, spellbinding. There’s an early scene with Woodward and Sylvia Sidney bickering about bickering with each other–the conversation ought to be drawing attention to the artifice, but it doesn’t. It does the opposite. The next scene, with the pair walking down the street, is marvelous (probably the first scene in the film where it occurred to me Summer Wishes was going to be quite good).

Stewart Stern’s script–for a while–uses both dream sequences and voiceover narrations. The narrations seem like a progression from the dreams (the dreams stop once the narration starts), but then the narration goes too. Instead of replacing it with another device, Stern tells the rest of the story without adornment. I kept waiting for the dreams to come back or for another narration, but not only did none ever come, I couldn’t figure out how Stern used them. While watching the film, the thought was brief as not to distract, but as I’m thinking about it now… I don’t understand how Stern’s script works. It shouldn’t, but it excels.

Woodward and Balsam both give great performances. I think Balsam’s a little more impressive, only because Woodward’s frequently excellent. Balsam’s a solid actor, but this performance is just spectacular.

The supporting cast–Sidney, Dori Brenner–is good.

During the last twenty minutes, after it becomes clear how good Summer Wishes is going to turn out, I kept getting excited. Each minute was, I predicted, going to be another great minute of film. And they are.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Gilbert Cates; written by Stewart Stern; director of photography, Gerald Hirschfeld; edited by Sidney Katz; music by Johnny Mandel; production designer, Peter Dohanos; produced by Jack Brodsky; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Joanne Woodward (Rita Walden), Martin Balsam (Harry Walden), Sylvia Sidney (Mrs. Pritchett), Tresa Hughes (Betty Goody), Dori Brenner (Anna), Ron Richards (Bobby Walden), Win Forman (Fred Goody), Peter Marklin (Joel) and Nancy Andrews (Mrs. Hungerford).


The Drowning Pool (1975, Stuart Rosenberg)

The Drowning Pool is a strange sequel. Not only doesn’t it continue Harper‘s attempt to make PIs hip and modern (more hip than modern, actually), it’s also doesn’t seem like the same character. In Drowning Pool, Newman’s Harper is the standard 1970s Newman character. He’s sick of the world, but he can’t quite give up on it. And even though Drowning Pool has a familiar cast, it doesn’t have the Technocolor glow Harper did. When the film started, I noticed there was nothing going on for Newman in the film, it was all about his exploration of the events around him. It all works out beautifully in the end. It’s like a Chandler set in the modern day, without drawing attention to the time between the novel being written and the film being produced. It’s a rather simple mystery, the kind Hollywood made all the time in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s and have always been the standard for mystery novels. (They’re too expensive for Hollywood to make any more and probably even in the 1970s… except Drowning Pool had Newman and he was the biggest or second biggest star in the world in the 1970s).

As a mystery, it’s not particularly surprising. Detective stories like this one–in that Chandler vein–aren’t so much about the surprising motive or the identity of the killer, but about the detective’s adventures forcing his way through the case. In The Drowning Pool, Newman’s surrounded by interesting people to interact with. The film’s got a number of great performances: Murray Hamilton’s fantastic as a crazy oil baron (crazy as in criminally insane, not ha ha funny crazy), Gail Strickland’s great as his wife, Andrew Robinson is good. The best performance–besides Newman, who’s perfect at this world weary thing–is Anthony Franciosa. His character goes through the most change and Franciosa just gets better throughout. Joanne Woodward’s good, though she seems like she belongs in a different movie, not just more serious, but one centered around her. The only bad performances are Melanie Griffith and Richard Jaeckel. Griffith’s limp, basically repeating her performance from Night Moves, only with more to do and she can’t handle it. Jaeckel’s just bad.

The Drowning Pool‘s greatest asset, however, is the production quality. Stuart Rosenberg’s got some amazing shots, one after the other–though I’m not thrilled by the editor–and the way Gordon Willis shoots Louisiana is something particularly special. Whoever did the sound design–maybe Hal Barns (it’s hard to tell from IMDb)–did an amazing job.

It all comes together very nicely. The Drowning Pool, as a mystery, isn’t rewarding in that sudden, rousing way. But a bunch of people who knew what they were doing put together a film and they did a pretty damn good job.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Stuart Rosenberg; screenplay by Tracy Keenan Wynn, Lorenzo Semple Jr. and Walter Hill, based on the novel by Ross Macdonald; director of photography, Gordon Willis; edited by John C. Howard; music by Michael Small; production designer, Paul Sylbert; produced by Lawrence Turman and David Foster; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Paul Newman (Harper), Joanne Woodward (Iris Devereaux), Anthony Franciosa (Broussard), Murray Hamilton (Kilbourne), Gali Strickland (Mavis Kilbourne), Melanie Griffith (Schuyler Devereaux), Linda Haynes (Gretchen), Richard Jaeckel (Franks), Paul Koslo (Candy), Andrew Robinson (Pat Reavis), Coral Browne (Olivia Devereaux), Richard Derr (James) and Helena Kallianiptes (Elaine Reavis).


The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds (1972, Paul Newman)

Paul Newman must have had an interesting experience directing Man-in-the Moon Marigolds. His wife played the lead and their daughter played her daughter, the film’s protagonist. The mother’s awful (Joanne Woodward isn’t awful, the character is awful) and Newman sticks with her. Woodward manages to infuse her with some humanity, but only so much is possible. There isn’t very much tension whether or not things will be all right (they won’t), but the last act is structured with lots of moments of immediate dread, so many I forgot the inevitable and it still came as a surprise at the end.

Watching Man-in-the-Moon is watching an exploration. It’s not a character study, since Woodward’s character isn’t the protagonist, and the differences between the film and a character study make it all the more interesting. We learn all about this woman, who we’ve prejudged–there are a few moments when we might be wrong about her, but there’s really only like three–and the film goes and confirms everything we’ve already decided. It’s a strange formula, since it breaks one of those major tenets of good fiction, never let the reader prejudge the character. The reader engages a work to make that decision. This observation leads me to Man-in-the-Moon’s quality as fiction. I’m not sure it’s particularly good. It comes from a play and Newman does a great job making it not feel like a play, but the film wallows in a stifling helplessness. It’s good, but it’s good because the writing–by Alvin Sargent, who also adapted Ordinary People and knows how to make things work–and the acting and the directing all go together. There’s also the setting, some sad Connecticut town, populated with people who never went anywhere. Idealism is absent from Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds and Newman makes you work for anything positive.

As a director, I’m not sure who Newman learned from. Some actors (George Clooney) have very obvious influences, but Newman’s beyond quiet. He does let composer Maurice Jarre carry some of the weight, but otherwise, the camera isn’t even present. Still, its absence doesn’t make the adapted play feel stagy, Newman just doesn’t let the viewer interact with him. It’s a great approach and probably the one to make this material work.

All of the performances are perfect, not just Woodward and real-life daughter Nell “Potts” (you’ve seen her on the Newman’s Own labels), but also the other sister, played by Roberta Wallach (Eli Wallach’s daughter–love that IMDb). After seeing the film version–and I know Woodward is a big supporter of the theater, so I’m sure this reaction wasn’t at all her intent–I have no interest in seeing a staged version. It couldn’t be as good, which is the greatest compliment an adaptation can get.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed and produced by Paul Newman; screenplay by Alvin Sargent, based on the play by Paul Zindel; director of photography, Adam Holender; edited by Evan Lottman; music by Maurice Jarre; production designer, Gene Callahan; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Joanne Woodward (Beatrice), Nell Polts (Malilda), Roberta Wallach (Ruth), Judith Lowry (Granny), Richard Venture (Floyd) and Carolyn Coates (Mrs. McKay).


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