Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Molly Haskell

“I’m a fan of Jill Clayburgh and her gracdeful, klutzy, three-quarter liberated heroines. A ballerina manqué myself, I first fell in love with her as Erica, in that secene in An Unmarried Woman in which she is dancing around the bedroom, wearing high socks, bikini pants, and a T-shirt, to the music of “Swan Lake,” blissfully unaware that her magic carpet is about to come crashing to earth. And there was the final scene in which Erica makes her way through SoHo, carrying and being carried by the huge canvas bequeathed her by her departing lover. Her shaky odyssey was a pefect metaphor for the situation of the “new woman,” disoriented, yet gallantly trying to pull all the pieces together. With that sense of strength under fragility, Clayburgh comes closest of any actress to defining the reality of most women of my generation, caught as we are between ‘eighties feminism and ‘fifties conservatism.

“In I’m Dancing as Fast as I Can, she once again plays a woman in extemis—a television producer who breaks a Valium habit that has escalated to sizty milligrams a day, only to experience a psychotic withdrawal when she unwisely tries to quit cold-turkey. There’s a beautiful final scene that might almost serve as a sequel to An Unmarried Woman. Having lifted herself out of madness, Clayburgh’s Barbara Gordon has come back to CBS to recut the documentary on the dying woman poet (Geraldine Page) who has been both friend and adversary to her. The documentary ends, as the film ends, with Clayburgh running along the beach in obedience to the express desire of the dying woman. It is as if the older woman’s spirit and approval had entered her body, and she is summoning strength from the depths of the older woman’s soul.

“It is a marvelously triumphant image, and yet like other Clayburgh scenes it has a light, almost offhand quality. Because she has a flair for dealing with painful subjects glancingly, never begging for sympathy, Clayburgh is often taken more lightly than she deserves. Audiences will stand in line to see Sally Field’s moist-eyed, cuddly-feminine, true-blue working woman heroine and turn a cold shoulder to the classy, assertive Clayburgh variant.

“People complained of An Unmarried Woman that anyone who could afford an apartment overlooking the East River didn’t deserve audience sympathy. Or—an alternative complaint—she didn’t appear to suffer enough. And most unforgiveable: there was Mr. Super-Right, in the form of Alan Bates, waiting in the wings to rescue her from loneliness, and she had the never to turn him down.

“In I’m Dancing as Fast as I Can, there is no Mr. Super-Right. If anything, Nicol Williamson as Barbara’s lover is Mr. Super Wrong. Otherwise, some of the same old criticisms will no doubt be leveled at the new movie, but not by me. Jill Clayburgh doesn’t suffer as extensively as Barbara Gordon…, who detailed in her book every step in her ordeal: her imprisonment by her lover, her victimization by doctors (the most interesting aspect of the book, and softened considerably in the film), her institutionalization. But such lurid descents into hell, whether via madness, gambling, alcohol, or some other addiction, are too unrelieved and too predictable to make interesting drama.

“The filmmakers … have lightened the tone and shifted the emphasis from the heroine’s Freudian past to her workaholic present. Rabe relocates Clayburgh’s Barbara as a career woman caught up in her own success, a tense over-achiever who has shaved her ideals almost imperceptibly to fit the values and time slots of television.

“In a journey of self-discovery that is often as funny as it is horrifying, Clayburgh projects too much resiliency to remain down for long, and the filmmakers are correct in allowing her natural pluckiness to come through. When she strikes back verbally at the therapist (beautifully portrayed by Dianne Wiest), it is less as a patient than as an equal. And the book’s terrifying scene of madness à deux—in which an infantile Barbara becomes her lover’s prisoner—alters to the extent that one almost feels pity for Nicol Williamson. (Williamson … turns the book’s diabolical madman into an English eccentric.)

“Geraldine Page, clinging to dignity and truth through various stages of dying, is magnificent as the character who becomes the heroine’s conscience. Their extraordinary relationship, complex, taut, wary, is the heart of the film. It is like a richly expanded version of the Maureen Stapleton-Diane Keaton relationship in Reds, in which a proud, egocentric, established intellectual older woman rebuffs, ignores, needles, and at last embraces a younger woman who has finally earned her respect. If Clayburgh and Page don’t come up with at least Academy Award nominations for their roles in I’m Dancing as Fast as I Can, there is no justice in Oscarland.”

Molly Haskell
Vogue, May 1982

“The movie … is a stunning reworking of a difficult theme—lighter in tone, more triumphant in its ending, but no less true to that psychic split in the modern professional woman. Clayburgh is incandescent as the workaholic producer so caught up in what she is doing that she no longer knows who she is.

“…. The complex relationship between these two—the egocentric but fiercely truthful artist and the well-intentioned but callow media pro—becomes the emotional core of the film….

(Haskell continues in this June 1982 Playgirl review, re-stating, sometimes more concisely, sometimes less descriptively, the appraisals of Clayburh and audience reaction made in her Vogue review.)

Stanley Kauffmann

"[Hofsiss] also pushes our faces into the face of Jill Clayburgh. One of the several reasons this is a mistake is because of her oppressive lisp: she says “f” for “s.” There’s really no special need to be so close to her when she complains bitterly, “I feel like a bar of foap.”

“…. All we are shown is the breakdown and recovery of a successful woman. Nothing we see relates to her life, her past, her realignment of herself in relation to them: it’s just the chronicle of some events that are supposed to entrance, by being shown graphically—Clayburgh drooling, for instance.

“To me, Clayburgh is a naturalistic ham. She seems to be constantly summoning up her powers to appear not to be acting, just as ostentatiously as, a century ago, a ham actor would have summoned up powers to look theatrical. This reaction of mine is exacerbated by the fact that I find her personality and person unappealing….”

Stanley Kauffmann
The New Republic, March 24, 1982

Andrew Sarris

“Jill Clayburgh seems to have become and even more controversial actress than Jane Fonda or Diane Keaton, and I’m Dancing as Fast as I Can is unlikely to still the furor over Clayburgh’s allegedly abrasive femininism. In fact, this relatively upbeat treatment of Barbara Gordon’s grim memoir of addiction, withdrawal, and near madness is likely to intensify some of the backlash that has swirled around Clayburgh every [sic] since she came on like a whirlwind in An Unmarried Woman. At her best, and Clayburgh is very close to her best in I’m Dancing as Fast as I Can, she reminds me of what the late Otis Ferguson said of a ‘30s box-office-poison-feminist-before-her-time in Howard Hawks’s 1938 Bringing Up Baby: “Katharine Hepburn builds the part from the ground, breathless, sensitive, headstrong, triumphant in illogic, and serene in that bounding brassy nerve possible only to the very well bred.

“One could stretch a point to note that Jill, like Kate, was born with a silver spoon in her mouth, and it still shows a bit on the screen….

“…. [I]n Semi-Tough (1977), … Clayburgh displayed a commendably hard edge in a dangerously frivolous situation. The hard edge became a cutting edge in An Unmarried Woman, and the blood has been flowing ever since. Like every prominent actress of this era, she has been unable to escape the boom-and-bust cycle that forestalls any big-star-persona leverage for women in the film industry…. [T]he critics, detractors, and antifeminists were ready to pounce on her for It’s My Turn (undeservedly) and First Monday in October (deservedly). Her extensive work in television does not count for much in the Big Star sweepstakes, and the fact that she has paid her dues in the theater, whatever that means, does not seem to redound to her credit with the cognoscenti.

“From early indications, I’m Dancing as Fast as I Can is not likely to solve Clayburgh’s current career problems. Though the character she plays is from the outset extraordinarily insecure, there is once more some part of Clayburgh’s persona that remains invinvible even a Valium pill’s throw from the bottom of the snake pit. A Talia Shire, for extreme example, could have plunged much deeper into misery and wretchedness, but I am not sure that I would have found the resultantly squalid verisimo worth seeing. As it is, I came close to reaching for one of my own Valiums during some of Clayburgh’s clinical misadventures. Fortunately, the movie became darkly funny long before it approached the point of being unbearably brutal.

[leaving out quite a bit because I’m tired]

“The movie is thus not faithful to the book, granted, and I’m glad it isn’t. Clayburgh has simply too much spunk, humor, and resiliency to fit into the more agonizing scenarios of addiction. Yet I am not convinced of the validity of the sincerity and authenticity routines either…. Clayburgh herself partakes a bit of counterculture smugness. Still, I was moved almost in spite of myself by Clayburgh’s high spirits and defiant gestures in the face of adversity. Whether we like her or not, Clayburgh is some kind of woman, and in future times people may look back at her more appreciatively, not because she was the most winning and seductive actress of the ‘70s and ‘80s, but because she was in some ways the most eloquent expression of a brave and free woman in this troubled age.”

Andrew Sarris
Village Voice, March 16, 1982

David Denby

“At first, we seem to be watching a story about the way New York’s high-pressure life induces Valium addiction…. Clayburgh, hunched over in her editing room like an old man praying in an icy synagogue, looks pale, clammy, physically knocked out. Her Barbara snaps at her assistants, sucks frantically on cigarettes, and ritually pops Vals, pried loose from her bag or worked out from beneath the cellophane surrounding a cigarette box, until she achieves a glassy-eyed tranquility.

“Most of this stuff seems like a Nichols and May skit without laughs….

“…. There’s something that audiences all over the country share—not a Jungian collective unconscious but a more practical kind of knowledge a common unspoken agreement about how to act in times of love or grief or danger or whatever…. All screenwriters and directors … know … that when they put behavior onscreen that is crazy or merely stupid…, the only way to hold the audience is to make poetry or tragedy out of the craziness and comedy out of the stupidity.

“Rabe and Hofsiss do neither. At first, Derek’s not calling the doctor—any doctor—when Barbara is chewing the East Hampton sand seems like a cheap, gothic-novel trick, a device that gets us to the next stage of the movie, in which the two of them, locked in Barbara’s gray-walled apartment, begin to unravel. But then, as we watch these two bash each other and sink into the pits, we decide that the filmmakers point is that they are both mad as hatters. Not calling a doctor now makes a kind of sense, but Barbara and Derek, as dramatic characters, have ceased to matter to us in the same way, since the insane aren’t responsible and therefore don’t have the same moral life as the sane.

“Derek, it turns out, is a screaming lunatic who loathes Barbara’s success so much he wants to do her in. Swigging vodka like Tab, he makes the pathetically enfeebled Barbara his prisoner, refusing to call for help even when she requests it, humiliating her, beating her up, finally strapping her to a chair. We seem to be watching “An Unmarried Woman Meets the Wolfman.” Clayburgh writhes around, shrieks, and wears her bruise makeup with sullen pride, vamping the camera with haughty looks. She’s a trouper all right, but who cares? She’s lent herself to a creepy, dumb spectacle. I’d rather watch explaitation-film sadism, which you can easily shrug off, than this kind of ‘serious’ sadism, produced out of the evident belief that the audience will be improved by having its nose rubbed in something painful and disgusting…. [T]he middle section of this movie is like a particularly virulent and meaningless exercise in Off Broadway psycohodrama. Like so many dramatists, directors, and actors burning with rage, Rabe and Hofsiss have nothing interesting to say. If we’ve got to be put through the wringer, let it be for a problem more weighty than lingering emotional “dependency” in successful media executives.

“Barbara, it seems, is an extremely neurotic woman whose use of Valium has prevented her illness from coming out in the past. We never do discover the source of her problems, although find out that men—invariably weak, cruel, and stupid—screw her up and that only women can save her. The movie turns into trite inspirational feminist therapy in which Miss Put-Upon finds the road to sanity and self-reliance at last by learning from two strong women. But by this time I was long past caring.”

David Denby
New York, March 15, 1982