Monday, August 22, 2011

Rachel, Rachel

Rachel, Rachel
seen online via YouTube

When you talk about the great Hollywood romances, few get any better than that of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. In an industry where affairs come and go like ships in the night, it seems, these two stayed together for fifty years while being at the top of their game. They were married in 1958 after having met six years earlier on the set of the Broadway play Picnic. Newman was married at the time, however, and by the time he got a divorce he had fathered three children by his ex-wife. Though the guilt of his divorce would stay with him, he was much happier with Woodward.

After big roles in successful films such as Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Sweet Bird of Youth and Cool Hand Luke, Newman, turned to directing, and he made a big splash with his debut, Rachel, Rachel, starring his wife Woodward. He also produced. Based on a book, it's about a small-town schoolteacher going through a midlife crisis, only to find love in the arms of an old friend recently returned - but that brings up other problems as well. It would get four Oscar nominations, including Newman for Director, Woodward for Actress, and Best Picture.

Looking at it now for the first time, it seems like exactly the kind of movie that would be difficult to get distributed by a major studio today. (Rachel is a Warner Brothers film, through their division Seven Arts.) It's a quiet, subtle character study, an adult drama that doesn't rely on gratuitous amounts of sex and violence. If it were made today, it would probably go through the festival circuit (Cannes, Toronto, New York) before getting a limited release in December (the height of the Oscar voting period) through the art house theaters, by a company like Sony Pictures Classics or Focus Features, and then slowly expanding in January to capitalize on awards buzz.

I've never seen any of the other films Newman directed, but he does a remarkable job here in his debut. I thought he reminded me in places of Roman Polanski (who would have a huge hit with Rosemary's Baby in the same year) in terms of establishing mood and emotion with his camera placement. He used flashbacks creatively, as well as imaginary sequences where Rachel sees things she wishes would happen but don't. Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate came out the year before, and it's easy to imagine groundbreaking movies like those being an influence on Newman. (Indeed, Bonnie and Clyde star Estelle Parsons appears in Rachel.)

This is the first time I've seen Woodward in a starring role (apparently she was in Philadelphia but I don't recall her in it). She was very beautiful in her youth, that much is obvious, and Newman's camera clearly admires her, despite the plain-jane nature of her character. I liked the transitions between the present and the past, where we see young Rachel's relationship with her father. Newman occasionally inter-cuts images from Rachel's past to comment on her present. Woodward's role is not showy, but neither is it completely subtle either. In the scenes with her mother, for instance, one gets the sense of the ambivalence of Rachel's feelings toward her. Rachel feels beholden to her and is tired of it, but she doesn't quite know what to do about it and it frustrates her. Newman got a very strong performance out of Woodward. He was quite a director, even if he didn't make as many films as his pal Robert Redford.

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