March 5, 2009

Rachel, Rachel

Reviewer: Jeffrey M. Anderson
Rating (out of 5): ****½

When movie stars turn director it can be for a number of reasons. Sometimes they're looking to further their career and expand their repertoire. Sometimes they're fed up and have decided that if they want something done right, they have to do it themselves. Sometimes they've found a juicy role for themselves. Other times they have a vanity project that no other director will touch. In the case of Paul Newman's directorial debut, no other director would touch it, but Rachel, Rachel (1968) could hardly be called a vanity project. Rather, it's a small-scale character study about a plain, spinster schoolmarm (based on Margaret Laurence's novel "A Jest of God") in which Newman wanted his beautiful and Oscar-winning wife Joanne Woodward to star.

It's even more amazing when you consider Newman as of 1968. He had received four Oscar nominations for Best Actor and was one of the country's biggest box-office draws. He was like a leaner, more vibrant Brando, rippling with Method acting muscles but with more bravado (and less off-puttingly peculiar). He seemed unafraid to try anything; just a few years earlier he played a crazy Mexican bandit in Martin Ritt's The Outrage (1964), which has been released on DVD alongside Rachel, Rachel. It's difficult to imagine this Newman behind the camera, making something so intricate and quiet.

Woodward stars as Rachel, in her thirties, probably closer to forty. She announces that she's reached the mid-point of life, and that from now on all she has to look forward to is decline. She teaches school in a small town and lives with her mother (Kate Harrington), serving sandwiches to her mother's card-playing cronies. She has never been married, and probably never even slept with a man. With summer approaching, she wonders how to fill her time; she could buy a bottle of suntan lotion, but will she use it? Her best friend Calla (Estelle Parsons) invites her to a creepy church gathering, but Rachel doesn't take to it; when Calla tries to comfort her, things just get more uncomfortable.

Fed up with not taking chances, Rachel finally responds to a invitation to a night out with Nick (James Olson), a neighbor who is back in town for a while. They have an awkward date and some sex. Overwhelmed, Rachel confesses her feelings, but will Nick call again? Newman adds in a neat trick, showing us little alternate realities of what Rachel would really like to do in any given situation, then quickly flashing back to the reality. (This technique has become common in today's comedies.) Though the screenplay was penned by no less a writer than Stewart Stern (Rebel Without a Cause), it's actually rather pointless to describe the plot, as the center of the film consists of Rachel's actions and reactions rather than any kind of story.

Woodward carries everything with her faultless performance. One writer at the time liked her occupation of the character to the soul's occupation of a body. Too many repressed women characters are just embarrassing stereotypes, acting oddly and badly in every situation (see the current He's Just Not That Into You), but Rachel acts truthfully, based on a lifetime of built-in fears and comforts. The actress uses everything in her physical and emotional arsenal to build a character that seems to have existed long before the film ever begins. She was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar (she lost to both Katharine Hepburn and Barbra Streisand in one of the Academy's rare ties!). The film was also nominated for Best Picture and Best Screenplay, as well as Parsons for Supporting Actress (she won the previous year for Bonnie and Clyde).

Rachel, Rachel has been one of the great missing American titles from DVD, and Warner Home Video has now released it along with four other Newman titles. Extras include a trailer and some silent behind-the-scenes footage.

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Posted by cphillips at March 5, 2009 1:50 PM
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