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The 2008 Oscars aired recently and as always I had a morbid curiosity to see who got the biggest applause during the "In Memoriam" segment. Though last year saw the passing of several "big" names like Cyd Charisse and Robert Mulligan (neither of whom rated more than a smattering of clapping, sadly), the groundswell of audience reaction when Paul Newman's face closed the segment was immediate. Most people of course associate Newman with his iconic film performances, but he also had a number of very fine directing credits to his name, including his first feature film as helmer, 1968's Rachel, Rachel, starring his wife, Joanne Woodward. It's testament to Newman's artistic integrity that he chose to open his directorial career not with a slam bang big budget spectacle, but a quiet and unassuming character drama that highlighted his wife's acting abilities.
Based on Margaret Laurence's book "A Jest of God" (which was in fact the originally planned title for the film), Rachel, Rachel is about a repressed small town teacher, still living with her mother despite being in her mid-30s. The film opens with Rachel asleep in her bed, a bed on the second floor of the funeral home her deceased father once ran. It's instantly apparent that Rachel considers herself more dead than alive, and it's interesting to note that she sleeps flat on her back with her hands folded demurely across her chest--exactly as a mortician would "arrange" a corpse for family viewing purposes.
The film quickly establishes Rachel's almost pathological repression early on with a fantasy sequence where she imagines the town staring at her as she walks down the little main street because her slip is showing. The film in fact frequently bounces back and forth between Rachel's interior monologues and the objective reality that keeps jerking her back to the realization that she's unwed, unhappy and doesn't have much to look forward to.
Along for the "ride" (if it can be called that) are Rachel's harridan mother (Kate Harrington), a fellow teacher (Estelle Parsons), who invites Rachel to a faith healing revival but who also harbors some dark aspects to her own personality, and, most importantly, Nick (James Olson), a man Rachel had met when they were both children and Nick's twin brother had died and been brought to her father for burial. Now as adults, Nick puts the move on the obviously shy and inexperienced Rachel, and pretty much changes her life over summer vacation, albeit probably twenty years later than most people experience that kind of sexual awakening.
Rachel, Rachel is a very quiet, unassuming character piece highlighted by an equally unassuming, yet quietly commanding, lead performance by Woodward. It's to Newman's credit that everything about this film is crafted to show off Woodward to extremely good effect. Everything about her characterization is folded in on itself, her shuffling walk, her furtive glances, her inability to fully articulate her raging desires. It's a lesson in fine screen acting, one only heightened by Rachel's sudden blossoming and subsequent disillusionment as she struggles to comprehend the affair she's started and its unyielding consequences for the rest of her life. A scene near the climax of the film when Rachel discovers that one potential outcome isn't going to happen is a revelation of quickly changing emotions, which Woodward plays with impeccable artistry.
Parsons also does some very fine work here in the role that immediately followed her Oscar win for Bonnie and Clyde. Nowhere near as mannered as Blanche in that film, her Rachel character of Calla still has its ticks and oddities, which Parsons nicely underplays.
The film was probably more shocking in its day for some of its subplots (closeted lesbianism, possible unmarried pregnancy) than it is to our modern jaded palettes. Even given the passage of time, though, Rachel, Rachel is a penetrating little study of a "woman on the verge" or perhaps a "woman under the influence," obviously less comedic than Almodovar and at least slightly less neurotic than Cassavetes, but no less compelling. It may seem odd to modern viewers accustomed to billion dollar budgets and nonstop special effects wizardry that Rachel, Rachel chalked up an Oscar nomination for Best Picture in addition to its well-deserved nods for Woodward's and Parsons' performances, but that again is testament to the high esteem Newman was held in by Hollywood at large. Only an artist of considerable self-assurance would make a film this purposely small and introspective. Rachel, Rachel isn't showy or flashy, but it creates its world with a great deal of artistry and Rachel's predicaments are more keenly heartfelt as a result of that very quietude.
Rachel, Rachel is offered in an enhanced 1.78:1 image that reminded me a lot of another Warner-7 Arts film of that vintage, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. There's some grain, especially in brightly lit shots, and some of the film is a tad on the soft side, but overall this is a fine image that accurately reproduces what the film looked like in 1968. Color and saturation are strong if not exceptional and there's little if any damage to speak of.
The DD 2.0 soundtrack is, like the film, quiet and unassuming. Dialogue is all completely clear, and Jerome Moross' rather atypical score is beautifully reproduced. English and French subtitles are available.
A rather peculiar snippet (sans sound) of an exhibitor's featurette (when the film was still titled A Jest of God) is included. There's also the theatrical trailer.
Rachel, Rachel contains one of Joanne Woodward's most nuanced performances, a perfectly crafted examination of a woman at a crossroads who must decide if she even wants to take any of the paths ahead, let alone one of them. Parsons, Olson and Harrington all do fine supporting work, and Newman's first foray as director is unobtrusive yet well focused on character. Recommended.
"G-d made stars galore" & "Hey, what kind of a crappy fortune is this?" ZMK, modern prophet