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MGM Home Entertainment
1983 / Color / 1:85 anamorphic 16:9 / 110 min. / Street Date 2003 /
Starring Linda Griffiths, Jane Hallaren, Jon DeVries, Jo Henderson, Jessica Wight MacDonald, Jesse Solomon, John Sayles, Stephen Mendillo
Cinematography Austin De Besche
Production Designer Jeanne McDonnell
Film Editor John Sayles
Original Music Mason Daring
Produced by Jeffrey Nelson, Maggie Renzi
Written and Directed by John Sayles

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

At the forefront of the modern independent film movement is John Sayles, a level-headed and serious filmmaker dedicated to working in a little-theater style: small stories, honest performances, unusual subjects.

Lianna is an insightful movie about lesbian realities made at a time when only a few Hollywood movies were coming out with 'shockingly honest' films about homosexuals, starring handsome movie stars. Considered daring - a little too daring and independent to be given serious Academy attention - today it plays as a sophisticated approach to a still-touchy topic.

Now handled by the IFC network and channeled through MGM for video distribution, Lianna surfaces as a handsome MGM DVD.


College wife and mother Lianna Massey (Linda Griffiths) is unhappy with her husband Dick (Jon DeVries), a film professor who treats her with selfish contempt. When she catches him with one of his students she goes to her child psychology professor Ruth (Jane Hallaren) for comfort and finds herself in a lesbian affair. Unfortunately, Lianna is too inexperienced to be cautious with her new self-discovery. Telling Dick about Ruth gives him the leverage to force a cruelly unfair separation, prejudicing her impressionable kids in the bargain. Telling her best friend Sandy (Jo Henderson) risks ruining Ruth's future at the college - Sandy can't handle the idea of lesbianism. When Ruth reveals that she never intended their relationship to go this far, Lianna finds herself isolated and depressed, no longer certain of her personal identity.

Mainstream 80s attempts to portray homosexuality often tried to downplay the sex content, with the odd result that we'd wait awkwardly through a soapy romantic story to see if two same-gender actors would kiss or not. The emphasis still positioned gays as a sideshow, and we'd wonder if the actors involved 'were' or 'weren't' instead of thinking about the story. Lianna has scenes of women in bed together and not always behaving themselves, and it refuses to brand sexuality within anyone's strict limits.

The story of Lianna Massey is one of female empowerment plain and simple. The character has been subservient for ten years to the needs and wishes of her film-teacher husband, even to the extent of letting him name their kids after his favorite movie stars. He's jealous of her time (she should be helping him for free) but reserves the right to philander to his heart's content with female undergraduates.

Lianna's drift toward the older, sympathetic Ruth becomes inevitable the moment the depressed housewife acknowedges earlier flirtations with girl-girl sexuality. In this case, honesty is her worst enemy. She opens a door to nothing but problems by innocently revealing her affair to her husband, and then to her best friend.

If this tale took place in the era of The Children's Hour it would all be over for Lianna. As it is, Ruth has reason to be concerned about having her private life made public. She does clinical psych research with children and an intolerant backlash could ruin her career. 1 Caught unawares by Lianna's foolhardy candor, Ruth starts to disengage almost immediately.

For Linda, the revelation of her sexuality is an entire change of life. Escaping from her small-minded husband is a victory, but the cost is terrible. Dick uses Lianna's dirty secret as blackmail to get his way, forcing Lianna to leave with nothing. She must take a small job and live in a dirty apartment while trying to figure out how to regain the trust of her children.

The best development in Lianna is that the film doesn't devolve into a melodrama about scandals and faculty witch hunts. The fear of such a thing happening is threat enough. A gay person like Ruth would probably never know if being 'outed' were the cause of later academic problems. Even now, the country is split on issues like this: What one couple does in the open might have no negative effect at all on one campus, but spell disaster in another academic setting.

Sayles instead concentrates on Lianna's isolation and pain. Her closest friend Sandy drifts away. She finds a companion in a lesbian bar and in the process verifies that she is indeed gay. A faculty friend (John Sayles) comes prowling for an easy score, reinforcing Lianna's newly-discovered disillusion with men.

The conclusion carries an encouraging uplift. (slight spoiler) Lianna loses her lover but the conservative Sandy finds the ability to overcome her fear and reaffirm her friendship. It's an impressive and moving scene. Sayles sidesteps position statements and stresses intimate character touches. Lianna doesn't ask us to condemn or condone anything, but simply to be understanding and sympathetic with each other.

The acting is exemplary. Canadian Linda Griffiths has worked mostly in television since this film, and the excellent Jane Hallaren's upward progress waned after a couple of promising parts. One has to make the unpleasant association that playing lesbians in Lianna earned them respect but more likely than not put invisible limits on their commercial careers. 2

The capable Jo Henderson returned in Sayles' Matewan a couple of years later.

The only hint of awkwardness in Lianna is the film-school setting. Cinema studies seem even flakier here than in other movies, providing easy wisdom about 'editing' the truth in documentaries, and excuses for odd scenes with students running around filming a party with Eyemo 16mm cameras. The professors use their students as easy conquests, something that I certainly saw happen in my experience. Either the references are awkward, or I'm defensive about my own film school background and it all cuts too close to home.

MGM's DVD of Lianna is an excellent rendering of a film that may have originally been shot on 16mm. Can't tell, exactly, although some shots early on look a bit soft. The picture was a blurry mess on early cable television but in this enhanced transfer has good color and image texture. The soundtrack contains many attractive Judy Collins-type vocals and is a big plus. A cross-promoted trailer for Casa de los Babys is on board as well.

A short interview featurette has Sayles and coproducer Maggie Renzi remembering the film but is too short to go very deep. Sayles gets to express a lot more in his feature length commentary; his commentaries are always a good listen.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Lianna rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Very Good
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: commentary, short interview-featurette
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: November 18, 2003


1. (spoiler) Maybe it does, and we don't know it. Ruth goes back to her home state to teach, and it's possible that besides rejoining a former lover, she's responding to pressure or hints of pressure. Ruth is so independent and thoughtful, it's altogether possible that she doesn't want to burden Lianna with the problem. Or doesn't trust her to be discreet, which is understandable.

2. I met Jane Hallaren when she took my wife's language class, even though I didn't know who she was until later. She's a fascinating and spirited lady - I have to confess that I remembered her because she knew about actors in The Wild Bunch and told me stories about them for 20 minutes!

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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