It’s Joanne Woodward’s birthday today. A re-post of my thoughts on Rachel, Rachel, one of her best performances.
By 1968, Paul Newman had garnered 4 Oscar nominations (for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Hustler, Hud and Cool Hand Luke). He was one of the biggest stars in the world, and a giant sex symbol. When he was younger, he had an uncanny resemblance to Marlon Brando, something he resented and worked against. Hard. Paul Newman always worked hard. He came from an Actors Studio background, and early on in his career you can see a sort of studied application of the Method in his performances. He is always compellingly good-looking, and obviously talented, but he worked. Early on, he seemed to “get” that his beauty could not be the only thing he traded on, although he certainly was no dummy and was aware of how his good looks had helped him. He needed to choose carefully in his parts, and he needed to be his own man. Think of what he did in, say, Slap Shot, and the kind of energy he brought to it, rough, profane, sexy, funny, and there is no way that you could imagine anyone else in that part. A mere 15 years before, he had struggled to differentiate himself from Brando. No more. (See my tribute to Newman here.)
Newman was open about the fact that he thought his wife, Joanne Woodward, was the genius of the pair. She never seemed to be working. It poured out of her in an unstoppable force, and all that needed to happen was a little bit of guidance here and there (for example, he only gave her one piece of real “acting” direction for her performance as Amanda in The Glass Menagerie: “Don’t cry.”) She was fully formed as an artist. Just put the camera on her and get out of the way. She is one of my favorite actresses. I remember watching The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds, by Paul Zindel, on a little black and white TV in our den downstairs. I had read all of Paul Zindel’s books (The Pigman is one of my favorite books of all time), but had never read the play or seen it. I would eventually play the part of Tillie, which was a great thrill for me. But at the time, in that den downstairs, I was 13, 14 years old, and I felt stunned to silence by the awful power of that story. It’s another film directed by Newman, but I had no idea of that at the time. All I knew is that my heart shattered. Gamma Rays is a ruthless piece of work, with some hope, I suppose, although the hope is not what I remember about it. Tillie is a good student and will hopefully survive (we assume she grew up to be Paul Zindel), but she will carry eternal scars from her upbringing. Joanne Woodward was so frightening in the part of the mother that I remember hiding my eyes (especially during the phone calls the character makes).
But before Gamma Rays came 1968’s Rachel, Rachel, Newman’s first film as a director. To think of the actor in Cool Hand Luke and The Hustler choosing this sensitive heartbreaking portrayal of a woman old before her time, of loneliness writ large, of the small details of life and psychology, is pretty extraordinary. Based on the novel Jest of God, by Margaret Laurence, it tells the story of a 35-year-old schoolteacher who lives at home with her mother and has done so ever since her father died, 14 years before. She lives quietly, going to work, taking care of her querulous mother, serving sandwiches for the bridge night, and walking home from school with her friend Calla (played by Estelle Parsons), who also teaches at the school. But Rachel feels like she is starting to lose it. She is starting to realize that she has never really lived. With a great screenplay by Stuart Stern (he who also wrote Rebel Without a Cause, another story of alienation and yearning for human connection), it may sound like a Lifetime Movie, which is the problem with describing “plots”. There are only so many stories out there. It is how the story is told that makes the difference.
Newman keeps the camera on Joanne Woodward’s face throughout. It is a movie of closeups. A friend said to Newman after seeing the film that it was like looking through his wallet.
Joanne Woodward had already won an Oscar at this point, for The Three Faces of Eve, and she was nominated yet again for Rachel, Rachel. The opening sequence of Rachel, Rachel sets us up for the kind of movie that it will be. Newman takes a strong stance, he is confident in the story he is telling and how he is going to tell it, which is essential for the picture’s success. Rachel, Rachel takes place in the mind of the main character. It is completely subjective, and Newman (and his cinematographer Gayne Rescher) make that perfectly clear immediately. Rachel, heading to school, starts to become convinced that everyone on the street is staring at her because her slip is showing. It is filmed as though it were real, and not just a horrible fantasy (akin to the kinds we all have, of being pointed at, and talked about). Her panic grows, the sense of wrongness, of fear, of being singled out (I immediately thought of Shirley Jackson’s terrifying short stories), of small-minded people making it their business to crush that which stands out. Rachel ends up screaming in fear, and then there is an overhead shot of her lying in the middle of the street, her skirt hiked up, revealing her slip, with people crowded around her trying to get her onto a stretcher. What has happened? I never guessed it was a fantasy until the next shot which shows Rachel, again, walking down the street, her slip not at all showing, and she tries to shake off the morbid fantasy she had just had.
It is Rachel’s birthday. She says to her friend Calla, “I am now at the exact middle of my life.” Calla, played beautifully by the bizarre Estelle Parsons, is cheerful, friendly, and optimistic. She has recently become a born-again Christian and she wishes that Rachel would come to church with her. Rachel, used to being invisible, set in the grooves of her life, resists change, yet change is coming TO her. She can’t stop it. She is in a set pattern with how she sees her life, yet she has stopped being able to endure it. She cries for no reason, closing the door on her mother’s prying eyes. Her father was a mortician and she grew up surrounded by the stink of death, and it now seems to her that it is inside her. Death is her only destiny. Well, it is the destiny for us all, but while we are here, we might as well try to live. Rachel doesn’t know how. It’s not that she yearns to be married, although those feelings awaken during the course of the film. It is that she wants to live now, she wants to have some comprehension that her life exists, that there is such a thing as pleasure, joy, peace.
Voiceover is used. It is not a narration, but a fragmented inner monologue. Sometimes Rachel forgets where she is, because she’s so busy talking to herself. She’ll go off into a trance and have to be snapped out of it. She chastises herself for her fantasies, she goes back and forth, she has no center. Her own innards appear to be tailspinning out of control. There are quick shots of her fantasies – shoving sleeping pills down her mother’s throat, in the middle of a calm scene between the two – or taking a troubled little boy out of her classroom, saying to him, “Come home and live with me, James! Come on!”, before we cut back to the real action of the real scene. These are peppered throughout. It becomes the film’s rhythm.
An old childhood friend named Nick (played by James Olson) comes back to town to see his parents, and he and Rachel run into each other at the drugstore. He recognizes her and starts talking to her. He asks her out. She is so shy, so afraid of life, so accepting of her “lot”, that she turns him down. Woodward plays this scene like a maestro. Watch the expressions cross her face. Watch the sudden snaps of fear, of panic, of yearning (she has recurring fantasies of embracing men and kissing their necks). What does it mean to long for human touch, and yet be so out of practice that the very thought sends you into a panic? Rachel has never slept with a man. She has longings, but she lives at home with her mother, and is embarrassed by those longings, as though she is still an adolescent. She masturbates, but feels ashamed by it. The voiceover, a back and forth: “Don’t do it, Rachel. Don’t do it. But … it helps me to sleep …” How could she let a man into that world? It is such a solitary world. And Nick is not a knight in shining armor, although he does have much to recommend him. He is not a gentle suitor, urging her to come out into the sunlight and blossom. He is also not a calculating cynical playa. He’s just a guy. She knew him when. “Want to go out and find some action?” he says to her, and 5 things struggle across Woodward’s face in response. She is so self-consumed that she can barely hear what he has said. It’s not language that she understands.
There is an extraordinary sequence where Rachel goes to church with Calla. The preacher is played by the fascinating Geraldine Fitzgerald, with fiery red hair, and an intense face. The service is a mixture of flower-power, Large Group Awareness Training, and fire-and-brimstone. A young man in a woven vest smiles at Rachel from the pew in front of her, and hands her a daisy saying, “Love.” Rachel is taken aback. The service is led by Fitzgerald, but there is a guest speaker, played by Terry Kiser. He works the room. He speaks of love. He speaks of connecting to one another. He has them look at each other, he has them hold hands. It is an insistent assault on boundaries, typical of such group-catharsis events, and Rachel is unprepared for it. We are completely in Rachel’s viewpoint throughout. She is frightened by the love coming at her, she does not know how to process it, and the preacher, aware of her response, focuses in on her. The whole service becomes about her. Woodward falls apart. Her boundaries are so set, and yet at that very moment in time they have started to become porous, and the onslaught of love, given to her by the other parishioners, and this preacher, makes her snap. We start to hear her screaming, “LOVE ME, LOVE ME, LOVE ME” as we get blurry images of her pressing people’s hands to her faces. Again, to describe the plot at this moment does not do justice to what happens in that scene, and how Woodward plays it: how she plays breaking down, the agony of letting love in, and how that can be dangerous because you have to go back to your life afterwards, and where … where can you put all of it?
Calla, in trying to comfort Rachel after the service, lets it be known that her interest in Rachel is not just as a friend. It is a beautiful and shocking moment, handled perfectly. Rachel pulls back from the kiss with a look on her face that cannot be described. Calla is devastated. Rachel runs off, and their friendship is severely impacted by this new information. In that moment, and in the aftermath, I realized that Calla, although she has better coping skills than Rachel, and perhaps a better attitude, is just as lonely and trapped as Rachel is. It’s a horror. There are those who do not understand prolonged loneliness. It is a difficult thing to understand if you have not been there, and it is an even more difficult thing to capture and describe. When loneliness is a way of life, what does that do to someone? This is the Shirley Jackson territory, she describes it like no other writer I can think of … and the relationship between Calla and Rachel made me think of so many of her stories, and its portraits of friendships where the essential things cannot be said. Where, when you close the door at night, you are left alone. The reverb crosses the galaxy, nothing in the way to stop it.
Rachel’s romance with Nick takes over her life. She aches for the phone to ring. She plays cards with her mother, but the hollowness has begun, the giant need she has always walked around with now made manifest. The boil has been lanced, and nothing will stop it now. She cannot go back. Now that she’s got a taste, she needs more. Langston Hughes wrote about the “dream deferred“. Things warp when a dream is deferred too long. It is all well and good for people to parrot on about waiting for the right guy, but often the factor of Time and Dreams Deferred are not considered. Time changes us. Endurance changes us, and not always for the better. Nick pulls up outside and she runs to his car. I found myself thinking, “Oh God, Rachel, be careful …” But of course she cannot be careful. She has waited too long. When a person has been starving, you cannot suddenly hand them a full plate with all the trimmings. They would vomit. Starvation can lead to a lifetime of accepting deprivation, of being unwilling or unable to accept fulfillment. Rachel is literally starving. One of the ways voiceover is used here is to show how Rachel has a hard time staying in reality. When she comes back from dates with Nick, she’ll start to tell herself the story of it, to re-live it, but she embellishes. She has to chide herself for that. The voiceover: “Now, Rachel, you know he didn’t say that. He didn’t call you ‘honey’.” How true that is. How a starving person tries to make a MEAL out of a crumb on the floor.
Woodward’s performance is transcendent. Every moment, every second, is alive. She is riveting. You are watching life, not an actress going for the brass ring. It has humor in it, warmth, you can see what this woman might have been if she had been loved a little bit. It’s compassionate, human, and, at times, scary. Babies perish if they are not fed, and they are severely impacted emotionally if they are not held and cuddled. Rachel is living in the reality of that. Newman moves in his camera so close that at times her face is blurry. He allows the blur to stay. Fantastic, it is emotional filmmaking. It adds to the completely subjective feeling of the picture. Rachel is not a “downer”, she doesn’t droop around or mope. She is capable and you can see, too, that she is a good teacher. Her friendship with Calla is an important one, in more ways than one, and by the end of the picture there is a moment of redemption that only a friend can provide.
Rachel Rachel had long been unavailable on DVD or anywhere else for that matter. It was impossible to find and very rarely seen, which was unfortunate. The great Dede Allen did the editing, and it’s a superb job, keeping the emotional thruline intact through fantasy, flashback, and reality. The editing does not make Rachel’s inner life into a gimmick, which is the big trap with material like this. Rachel is not a pathetic “head case”. She is haunted, lonely, bored, and panic is rising in her throat. Allen’s editing takes all of the elements and makes it one continuous flow. Rachel, Rachel was nominated for four Oscars: Estelle Parsons was nominated for Best Supporting Actress, Woodward was nominated for Best Actress, Stewart Stern was nominated for Best Screenplay, and the entire film was a Best Picture contender. Paul Newman won a Golden Globe for Best Director, and Woodward won a Golden Globe for Best Actress. They also both won the top awards from the New York Film Critics Circle. But for three decades, unless it was on television, you couldn’t see it. It was finally released on DVD in 2009, with four other Newman pictures.
It’s about time.
This is a shattering portrait of endured loneliness from Joanne Woodward, as accurate a depiction as I have ever seen.