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Somehow I found myself at the movies in 1968 watching The Subject Was Roses, the adaptation of Frank D. Gilroy's Pulitzer prize-winning play. I doubt that I'd have chosen such a title on my own, being a fairly callow 16 year-old prone to attend every double bill reissue of Our Man Flint. To my surprise the three-character drama grabbed me and didn't let go. I hadn't been exposed to such an intense theatrical experience before, and I immediately identified with the characters. A "loving family" appears to function but is in reality beset with internal friction and distrust. For the parents the resentment seems to flow from dreams deferred or abandoned. These problems quickly overturn what should be a happy homecoming celebration. What's fascinating about the 1964 play is its universality -- I imagine a majority of viewers can recognize at least a little of their own experience in it -- and its purposeful lack of bombast. No guns are drawn, no huge revelations come to the fore. Everybody is going to have to live with each other after the curtain falls.
The emotionally deprived Nettie Cleary (Patricial Neal) has a son just returned from fighting in Europe. Her husband John Cleary (Jack Albertson) keeps up the illusion of domestic harmony but in reality is almost completely alienated from his wife, shutting down any hint of affection. He affects the important businessman even though he lost his early fortune in 1929; he keeps his finances secret. Nettie must nag him for housekeeping money. The homecoming celebrations for Timmy (Martin Sheen) immediately throw the Cleary family off balance. John is grateful that his son is not dead or maimed like other boys in the neighborhood, while Nettie is distressed by Timmy's less innocent attitude. Both parents compete for Timmy's attention and become angry when he expresses little desire to visit relatives with Nettie or accept John's egocentric views. Nettie is left alone while father and son take a ride to their summer cottage. Timmy brings a bouquet of roses and tells mother that they were her husband's idea. Nettie is deeply touched by the gesture. When John keeps behaving as before, the stage is set for a serious domestic explosion.
The Subject Was Roses is far less of a thrill-ride play experience than the previous year's Who's Afraid of Virgina Woolf?. Strongly publicized at the time was its significance as a comeback vehicle for Patricia Neal, who suffered a serious stroke three years earlier and had a very tough time working her way back to mobility. For over a year Ms. Neal was more or less helpless, and lovingly tended by her husband Roald Dahl, a story that drew highly positive publicity. Even the trailer for The Subject Was Roses (included on the disc) leads with the news that "Patricia Neal is back".
Ms. Neal's role was originally played on the stage by Irene Dailey. Both Martin Sheen and Jack Albertson reprised their performances. The interaction between the three is so natural that we immediately accept them as a family. Patricia Neal expresses 1001 shades of disaffection, yet never overdoes any of them. For Nettie life is one petty disappointment after another. When she cajoles Timmy into visiting her mother, Dad barges back in to change the plans, leaving her out, of course. She comes alive when Timmy offers his affection, but he draws back from her needy gesture of holding his hand. Lonely women must suffer terribly in situations dominated by male antipathy toward anything touchy-feely. 1
John's idea of a good time is to get out and drink, and encouraged by the roses, Nettie joins her husband and Timmy to hit a number of clubs. She's overcome with emotion -- or despair -- when John volunteers to sing an Irish song at one of the nightspots. That causes Nettie to miss her husband being approached by what is clearly an extra-marital girl friend.
A key scene in The Subject Was Roses is Nettie's rebellious escape -- she leaves for an entire day, without accounting for herself. Although handled as an extended montage complete with a vocal by Judy Collins, it's a hopeless gesture. She seems more isolated than ever, and her meal in an off-season seaside hotel is ruined by a pickup attempt.
The Subject Was Roses has its bleak moments but the Clearys are too alive and too real to be depressing; all three are basically decent people and deserving of a better relationship. Dad comes off as the most pugnacious but it's clear that he isn't emotionally capable of much better; for all real purposes he checked out of his marriage years ago. Nettie hides her desperate longing and is more than capable of making the other two miserable. Timmy just wants everyone to get along. We're impressed that the story avoids phony revelations. Timmy isn't revealed as a combat coward or a dishonorable discharge for some terrible crime ... this isn't a moral sledgehammer play like Arthur Miller's All Our Sons. Then again, The Subject Was Roses is a lighthearted romp when compared to Frank D. Gilroy's later Desperate Characters. That bitter film has parallels with this one but sees human relationships as ugly and depressing by definition.
Director Ulu Grosbard hasn't been very prolific, but two more of his movies are definite favorites. Clearly an actor's director, we don't feel short-changed for cinematic touches in his very good True Confessions and Straight Time.
The audience I saw The Subject Was Roses with back in 1968 watched in hushed silence, breaking into laughter at several telling lines and key moments, as when Timmy throws his head back and says that there's no way he can stay out of the husband-wife conflict. The show has its own behavioral sense of humor, and generates an intense affection for Patricia Neal's Nettie. Neal has played dangerous women (The Breaking Point), rational heroines (The Day the Earth Stood Still) and deserving survivors (Hud); in The Subject Was Roses we want to reach out and tell her how much we admire and love her.
The Warner Archive Collection's DVD-R of The Subject Was Roses is an impeccable enhanced 1:85 widescreen transfer that matches the quality of a full-on DVD release. Colors are excellent and the audio -- with Judy Collins' memorable song "Who Knows Where the Time Goes" -- is exemplary. The trailer included as an extra is interestingly edited -- it wisely doesn't try to explain the story and instead hits us with a smattering of confrontational highlights.
The Subject Was Roses makes many of today's "insightful" family dramas seem insipid. It is highly recommended.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Subject Was Roses rates:
1. Martin Sheen made a big impact on me in The Subject Was Roses; I would never have guessed that his birth name is "Ramon Estevez". I didn't pick up on Sheen much until eleven years later in Apocalypse Now, when his ruthless military assassin Captain Willard seemed a Vietnam-era perversion of the infantryman Timmy Cleary.
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