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Paul Newman was fortunate to be able to touch of lot of bases in his fine career, pursuing personal goals between acting roles as a leading man. In 1968 he directed his first movie Rachel, Rachel, starring his actress spouse Joanne Woodward. The drama provided an excellent role -- as opposed to a vanity showcase -- for Ms. Woodward. The result was entirely encouraging, earning critics' awards and nominations.
Rachel, Rachel is the character study of Rachel Cameron, a small town school teacher too easily described as "repressed". At 35 Rachel is unmarried and emotionally stifled. She lives with her mother (Kate Harrington) in the upstairs rooms of the funeral parlor of her late father (Donald Moffat). Rachel feels as though she has neither peace of mind or free will. Her mother orders her about like a child, as does her principal, who Rachel calls The Groper. Friend and fellow teacher Calla Mackie (Estelle Parsons) urges Rachel to attend a revival meeting, which turns into a claustrophobic disaster.
Rachel feels that she'll go crazy if something doesn't happen in her life. She's already daydreaming about sex with acquaintances, and entertaining morbid thoughts conjured by her past as the daughter of an undertaker. She visualizes herself as a golden-haired child, skipping rope and peeking into her father's work basement. Rachel considers herself a passive coward. Half of her life is already gone. What's she doing about it?
Paul Newman's direction is sensitive to but not obsessive about Rachel's situation; she's unhappy but not psychotic, as was Catherine Deneuve in Repulsion. The movie is also not as bleak as Barbara Loden's Wanda. Rachel Cameron has choices and a certain level of self-esteem but is simply indecisive. She's approached by Nick Kazlik (James Olson), a local come home to visit his folks. Desperate for attention, Rachel goes on a few quick dates that soon lead to bed.
Rachel's love affair with Nick is both pleasant and sobering. Rachel claims that she's happy for the first time in her life, yet quickly realizes that Nick has nothing in mind except a quick conquest. To her surprise, Rachel discovers that she's more interested in her sensations than she is attached to Nick. She no longer feels like a fool, and even better, gains the wherewithal to look beyond spinsterhood to a more desirable future.
Stewart Stern's dialogue is good but Paul Newman's visual choices are even better. We understand Rachel's need for physical contact, even with a favored pupil, and we also feel her panic trapped in the nightmarish revival meeting. Newman's intelligent handling of "symbolic" scenes makes points without belaboring them, as when Calla gives Rachel a small potted plant. Newman organizes some tricky transitions to introduce Rachel's daydreams and memories. This material was challenging for mainstream audiences in 1968, but Dede Allen's assured editing keeps it all easy to follow.
Joanne Woodward doesn't overdo Rachel or beg for sympathy; neither do we need to scrutinize her face to read her every thought. We worry for the character and are rewarded with a story about breaking free of a stifling existence. James Olson plays an honest heel; the first thing he asks of Rachel is if she wants some action, so it isn't as if he's seducing an innocent. When Rachel breaks finally down into a full-on crying fit, it's about something else.
Estelle Parsons is excellent as Calla, the "other" potential spinster who, it turns out, has feelings of her own for Rachel. That's a jolt for Rachel and another personal complication for her to solve. Geraldine Fitzgerald and Terry Kiser make good impressions at the church meeting as the Reverend and her guest speaker. Rachel, Rachel more than satisfied 1968 audiences, and was nominated for four Oscars, including Best Picture.
Warners' Paul Newman Film Series DVD of Rachel, Rachel is presented in a flawless enhanced transfer with excellent color. Gayne Rescher's handsome cinematography shows off the small town greenery and the evocative, emotional music score is by Jerome Moross. If the then- new Warner Bros.- Seven Arts conglomerate signed talent to multiple picture contracts, it might explain why Moross ended up providing the terrific music for the next year's The Valley of Gwangi. Actor James Olson earned good notices for Rachel, Rachel but was somehow handed off to England's Hammer films to appear in Moon Zero Two and Crescendo -- also Warner-Seven Arts releases.
The disc includes an original trailer that stresses Paul Newman's artistic debut as a director. Also on board is a fragment (no audio) of a promo reel using several pieces of behind-the-scenes footage and feature outtakes. 1
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Rachel, Rachel rates:
1. Rachel, Rachel was one of many studio financed pictures of the late 1960s that resembled upscale versions of what earlier would be associated with independent filmmaking. I'm thinking of pictures based on plays, novellas and memoirs, like I Never Sang for My Father, The Subject Was Roses and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. The audiences I saw these movies with loved them.
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