Ebertfest Day 4: Rambling Rose, with director Martha Coolidge

The screening of Rambling Rose requires a longer essay, which I will write when I am not so busy. Martha Coolidge was at the Fest to present her film, a movie Mitchell and I saw in its first release in Rhode Island. After we saw the movie back then, we went out and had a HUGE conversation about it, a conversation we still remember.

Robert Duvall has a moment in the film I’ve always considered his best work (and that’s saying something, when you think of his career). During that conversation a million years ago, Mitchell broke the moment DOWN, describing how it operated, the layers of it, how Duvall went deep in the first phase of the moment, and then he went deeper, and then finally he went to the core, the core of himself, and in there there is shame, and guilt, and love, and pain … The moment happens TO him. He doesn’t “act” it. He ENDURES it.

At any rate, I was determined to ask her a question about that moment, and I did. And her ANSWER … The second they moved on from her answer to the next question I looked at Mitchell, who was sitting there in tears (we made spectacles of ourselves throughout the festival), and he whispered, “That was the most satisfying answer to a question EVER.” We were in awe. We then whispered excitedly to one another about all the new information we had received about this moment we have been talking about for almost THIRTY YEARS.

She gave us anecdotes, she gave us her plan for filming that moment, she told us how “Bobby” wanted to do it, and the effect that had on Diane Ladd, how they broke up the scene in order to GET to that moment … It was a generous and detailed and process-oriented answer and so revelatory about Duvall. How well he knows his own instrument.

I thought I was in an alternate universe, especially since Mitchell and I saw this film together in 1991, had a hugely profound conversation about that moment of Duvall’s, and then so many years later, I get to ask a question about that moment – and Mitchell happens to be sitting next to me? Cosmic tumblers clicking down …

It was maybe the most satisfying moment of the festival for me. For us. The two weeping excited people in the 3rd row, who have been best friends since we were teenagers, talking about acting with the same enthusiasm now as we did then.

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4 Responses to Ebertfest Day 4: Rambling Rose, with director Martha Coolidge

  1. Kate F says:

    What was your question and what was her answer?!?!

    • sheila says:

      Okay, so late in the film there’s a scene – THE scene – where a conniving doctor speaks with Duvall and Diane Ladd about the “problem” of Rose’s sexuality. He suggests a hysterectomy, speaking with obvious relish about all the changes Rose will go through once menopause hits. She’s barely 20 years old. At first Duvall’s character thinks, “Well, that would solve the problem” but his wife rises up in outrage – not only on Rose’s behalf, but on behalf of women and their healthy sexuality in general. (It’s already been established she and he have a loving and good relationship.) She says something along the lines of – “If you actually mean what you say – then you are not the man I thought you were.”

      Duvall, at first, is contrite – but still confused at the implications of what he actually agreed to with the doctor – he doesn’t quite “get it” yet. Doesn’t quite get just how horrifying his agreement was. But over the course of her monologue – it starts to resonate, he starts to understand – and then, in a couple of separate moments (all filmed in one take, though) – he goes deep, he realizes what he has done, and he is flooded with shame – FLOODED – and he apologizes to his wife – but the shame goes even deeper – the apology won’t get rid of it – he realizes everything that is at stake. Not just his marriage. But also who he is as a man, as a “patriarch.” Would he want his wife’s vibrant active sexuality to be cut off? He has a daughter who is around 11 years old … what about her? How will he handle it when SHE starts to want to have sex? (He doesn’t say any of this – but with Duvall’s acting, he doesn’t need to.) He is so upset at himself – and nothing he says can make it right – there are tears on his face and he says – strongly – “You were right. I was wrong.” And his sense of his wrong-ness goes to the center of the earth.

      I swear, with all of his great acting moments, this is his very best. It’s his most vulnerable – because what he is confronting is the “privilege” of his own male-ness – there’s a sense of outrage like “who am I to judge this young woman for having sex? Who the fuck do I think I am?” It’s the kind of moment many men never allow themselves to feel – to acknowledge (and look at the state the world is in today. The moment is revolutionary.)

      Mitchell and I could not stop talking about the moment back after we first saw it. It has lost none of its power.

      So I raised my hand to ask her about the moment. I told her Duvall was one of my favorite actors and I think this is his best performance. In that moment with the doctor – how do you set up a scene like that? What was Duvall’s approach?

      Her answer must have lasted 5 minutes?? Maybe more. It was so in-depth.

      One thing she revealed: when Duvall first took the role, he wasn’t playing that his character was attracted to Rose. It wasn’t in his conception. This is a good man, he’s happily married, he wouldn’t cross that line. Martha noticed this – and pulled him aside, saying to him, “You’re attracted to her, Bob.” Then: “and the next day of filming, it was all there.” He made that huge adjustment.

      When it came time to film the doctor scene – Duvall asked Martha if he could “go first.” Do his side of the conversation first, and then film Diane Ladd’s side second. He knew he didn’t have a million takes in him for this moment – and he knew himself well enough to know he had to go first.

      This caused some upset with Diane Ladd. She saw this as her big Oscar speech (ha!) – and it really was – it’s a monologue in defense of female sexuality, and if you deprive Rose of this aspect – which is really just how she gets love – then you will be killing something and how DARE you make that decision for another human being?? Anyway, Diane Ladd was pissed. Martha could tell she was pissed so she said, “The studio is making me do Duvall’s side first” even though that wasn’t true.

      It took them 3 days to shoot the sequence. Robert Duvall “got” that moment on the first or second try (Mitchell whispered to me, “He knew himself so well”) – but as the shooting went on, Diane Ladd started getting tired – throwing him his lines off-screen, etc. Wearing out the lines, saying them so many times.

      “And, as it turns out, her frustration – the fact that she was getting worn down – ended up being so perfect, and it’s all there in her performance. She wasn’t in control of it.”

      Which is so true – since Ladd is phenomenal in that scene too.

      anyway, I had no idea when I asked my question that I would get THAT much information. When they went on to the next question, Mitchell looked at me – no words – with tears streaming down his face. I was like, “Can you believe what just happened??”

      • Kate F says:

        Oh my gosh. Thank you so much for that detailed and vivid response. That is an incredible story. I’ve never seen Duvall do that. I totally admire and respect his work, but he always seems to be a “bro” first, you know? This sounds like it’s just dripping in humility. I want to see it!
        thank you. and love you. xoxo

        • sheila says:

          You have to see the movie!

          and you hit the nail on the head. It’s a moment that actually critiques male-ness. and it HURTS him. It COSTS him dearly to admit what he admits in that moment.

          My heart just explodes!

          Love you!

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