“The Wife”: Glenn Close’s Oscar Bait, Built on Literary Lies
August 27, 2018 § Leave a comment
There’s a wonderful scene in “The Wife” that will probably win Glenn Close an Oscar. As her Nobel Laureate husband Joe (Jonathan Pryce) delivers a sappy paean to her role as his literary muse and helpmate, Joan Castleman sits silently while an array of emotions–disbelief, regret, betrayal and rage–pass across her face like fast-moving clouds. It’s a master class in acting that no viewer will ever forget, and a capstone of Close’s distinguished career.
Unfortunately, it occurs in a so-so movie built on a false premise: that Joan, whose literary brilliance is already in evidence during her undergraduate years at Smith in the late 1950’s, must choose between failure as a woman writer and success as her husband’s ghostwriter. After falling in love with Joe, her married English professor, Joan chooses the latter path while working for a New York publisher, whose editors are seen rejecting all manuscripts written by women. Meanwhile Joe, whom she’s supporting (because their adulterous affair has blackballed him from Ivy League teaching jobs, he says–which never happened back then) is more than happy to encourage his wife’s self-defeating attitude. Soon she’s rewriting his turgid, rejected first novel, which is promptly published and becomes a literary best seller. After this coup, Joan continues ghost writing for Joe for the next thirty years, producing a shelf of acclaimed novels under the name of a man who barely reads them. Then he wins the Nobel Prize, and the trouble begins.
I call bullshit, but not on screenwriter of “The Wife,” Jane Anderson, or its director, Björn Runge. The responsible party is Meg Wolitzer, who wrote the novel of the same name and whose premise so far has escaped scrutiny. Critics who are unacquainted with the period could simply search online for American women writers of the 1950’s and find Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers, Patricia Highsmith and Mary McCarthy, for starters. Or they could look at the Wikipedia page on 20th century American women writers, which has nearly four thousand entries. But apparently no one has bothered, so it falls to me.
In the film, Joan is first glimpsed (in a lovely portrayal by Annie Starke, Glenn Close’s daughter) as a Smith student in 1958. At the time Smith was probably the best possible college for woman writers, with a faculty that included Mary Ellen Chase, one of the most famous English professors and literary critics of her generation. Recently Smith had graduated a literary star: Sylvia Plath, class of ’55, who was a nationally published writer of short stories and poetry at twenty, won a Fulbright and earned a graduate degree at Cambridge. Guess who was back at Smith teaching in 1958? Plath, who no doubt would have taught Joan Castleman if Joan weren’t fictitious. With her slew of prizes, publications and fellowships, Sylvia Plath would have been a much better role model for Joan than Elaine Mozell (Elizabeth McGovern), the film’s lady writer, who tells Joan that even if she’s published she’ll never be read, so why bother? The fact that Elaine strongly resembles Mary McCarthy, Vassar ’33, makes this assertion even more bizarre, since by the mid-1950’s McCarthy had accomplished all of Joan’s goals: literary success, fame, massive book sales, marriage and family. Far from being lonely and unread, McCarthy recently had spent two years on the New York Times best seller list (with The Group) and would remain a leading literary figure for the rest of her life.
Baffled by this counterfactual history, I did a little research on Meg Wolitzer. It turns out she went to Smith–before transferring to Brown, from which she graduated in 1981. The Wife therefore might be interpreted as a slam against her orignal alma mater. Still, there’s little doubt that Wolitzer was aware of Mary Ellen Chase during her time there, and none that she was well-acquainted with Plath, who arguably is Smith’s most famous alumna. Another striking biographical detail is the literary career of Wolitzer’s mother, Hilma Wolitzer, a novelist who, despite being close to Joan Castleman’s age, has somehow managed to publish a number of books.
It’s a shame that one of the rare films that deals with literature is hollow at its core, but that’s what sinks “The Wife”. The idea that Joan is forced by sexism into thirty years of fraudulent literary servitude is so absurd that even Glenn Close’s bravura performance can’t redeem it. As for Wolitzer, she should be glad that Mary McCarthy, a master of the literary put-down, isn’t alive to deliver the sharp-tongued rebuke her premise deserves.
“Nico, 1988”: A Biopic Worthy of Its Beautiful, Enigmatic Subject
August 3, 2018 § Leave a comment
It means a lot to me that the only two theatrical releases I saw in July, both excellent, were directed by women: first Deborah Granik’s “Leave No Trace,” and then Susanna Nicchiarelli’s “Nico, 1988.” When I arrived in Los Angeles with filmmaking ambitions in 1989, any untried young male had a better chance of directing than the most qualified woman, and screenplays by women were generally rejected because they didn’t appeal to the coveted 14-year-old boy demographic. Thus it’s gratifying to see that women directors are now being given a chance, and even some money, to make their films.
I had no particular expectations of “Nico, 1988,” though I was very interested in its tragic subject. For those unfamiliar with Nico, she began as a teenage model and actress in the late 1950’s but achieved her greatest fame as an Andy Warhol Factory girl in the mid-late 1960’s. During those years, she starred in some of Warhol’s films (notably “Chelsea Girls”) but more importantly reinvented herself as a musician, singing with the Velvet Underground and making important connections in the music world–not only with Lou Reed but Bob Dylan and Jim Morrison. Two of her early hits, “These Days,” and “The Fairest of the Seasons,” were written for her by the teenage Jackson Browne, and decades later brought Nico a new audience and respect when Wes Anderson used them in “The Royal Tenenbaums.”
I was a young child when Nico first appeared on the scene, and can remember the universally low regard she enjoyed as a performer. The general opinion was that Warhol paired her with the Velvet Underground solely for her looks, which happened to be spectacular: long blond hair, huge green eyes, high cheekbones, bee stung lips. Nico’s singing voice–low, droning and German-accented–was compared to a foghorn, which was not a compliment. The only critic I know of who saw beyond her Teutonic pulchritude was Richard Goldstein of the Village Voice, who wrote, “She sings in perfect mellow ovals. It sounds like a cello getting up in the morning.” (Nevertheless, he made a point of calling her “half goddess, half icicle.”)
By the opening of “Nico, 1988,” Warhol’s goddess is unrecognizable. Pushing fifty, she’s a longtime heroin addict with a heavier frame, rotting teeth, bad skin and dark hair. Living badly in Manchester and performing in tiny clubs, she’s a has-been. Though the only similarity between the current Nico and the old is her bangs, all she’s ever asked about is her Warhol-Velvet Underground days. Steering interviews toward her current music is as difficult as turning a cargo ship, but she never stops trying. “Call me Christa,” she says at one point, but almost no one ever uses her real name. Nevertheless, it’s not all bad. Nico has continued to write and record music, and her new songs have a power Lou Reed never guessed at. Her performing style has evolved, too: no longer a laconic mannequin, she belts out “Janitor of Lunacy” like the punk rocker she is.
Nico has a manager of sorts, Richard (John Gordon Sinclair), a club owner who is secretly in love with her. Richard soon takes her on the road with her marginally talented band, cramming everyone into a Land Rover for a European tour of unmatched grottiness. After some dispiriting dates in France and Italy, they go to Prague for what turns out to be an illegal concert. Worse yet, there’s no heroin. Nevertheless, Nico gives an electrifying performance before the police arrive, forcing the entire group to flee for the border. Around this time, Nico is also reunited with her son (by Alain Delon) Ari (Sandor Funtek), who by his mid-twenties has followed his mother into heroin addiction and suicide attempts. Improbably, they both embark on methadone treatment and, when the film ends in the summer of 1988, seem to be recovering.
Nico is wonderfully played by the Danish actress Trine Dyrholm, who manages to sound exactly like her when she sings. Unfortunately, Dyrholm looks nothing like Nico apart from her hair, and Nicchiarelli makes no attempt to increase the resemblance. Still, the film is beautiful, its dream-like qualities enhanced by Jonas Mekas’s footage of Warhol, the Velvet Underground and the real Nico. Archival footage is sometimes a distraction, but in “Nico 1988” it slips in effortlessly, before evaporating like the gorgeous memory it is.
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