19 September 2006

Hollywood Commie Love Story: Reds

It says a lot when we see the guy's face but not the lady's 
in a historical romance movie poster....

Turner Classic Movies showed the Warren Beatty motion picture, Reds (1981), last night, so I tuned in to see what all the fuss was about. The movie came well-recommended, and as far as I know, Beatty has the distinction of being the only man, the only person, besides Orson Welles with Citizen Kane, to be Oscar nominated for writer, director, producer, and best actor for the same film (and Beatty had done it before with Heaven Can Wait [1978], so he's the only one to pull it off twice). I like Beatty and I like his movies, though it's funny that after all his acclaim, he still seems to have a weird reputation as a pretty boy. It isn't easy to live down a face like that, I guess.

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So, what's Reds about? Well, it concerns two people you've probably never heard of, and a couple others you might have. Beatty plays Jack Reed, a radical, American journalist, labor advocate, and later, Communist to Diane Keaton's Louise Bryant, an early feminist, Marxist, and writer. Heard of them? I didn't think so. The film is first and foremost an epic love story, and in that sense it is hugely successful as Jack and Louise follow each other across the world as they lose, find, lose, and find each other. Much of this is really lovely, though some arrives a bit over-done for my taste. The second major, and overlapping--competing--narrative concerns early 20th century politics, Communism, and the 1917 Russian Revolution, because, you see, Reed and Bryant were in Russia when it was all going down while reporting on the revolution and its major players. After returning to the States, Reed became a delegate from an American Communist organization and died in Moscow in 1920. He is the only American honored by burial at the Kremlin.

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Our leads. (There's a terrific shot in this scene 
on the train where Keaton looks like Louise Brooks.)

It's great, exciting, epic stuff, and the film covers a lot and is long (194 minutes), but probably needs to be a little longer in order to fill in a few historical and emotional holes. The problems I have with the film have primarily to do with Beatty and Keaton and I'll start with Keaton. She plays Louise Bryant as a dilettante who grows into a committed writer and intellectual--fine. But she comes off as a whiny bore for most of the first half of the film, espousing free-love when she wants to bed Reed's friend, Eugene O'Neill (played by Jack Nicholson in a complex performance), then throwing a ridiculous tantrum when she hears Reed has slept around too. Maybe this is historically accurate, maybe she was directed this way--who can know for certain--but it reduces the Bryant character to an unsophisticated, nagging pain, always annoyed that Reed is off doing political work when he should be with her. The incoherence of the character is only resolved at the end when she makes an arduous, and illegal, journey to Russia to be with her man. I don't mean to suggest that Bryant should have been more likable in the film--more the opposite--I feel her convictions and motivations should be more consistent and convey the vibrant, brainy woman she appears to have been. (Side bar: we get some of our info about Bryant from interviews with Reed's living contemporaries that brilliantly punctuate, and puncture, the film narrative. This device strikes me as the most interesting feature of Reds and serves to position the events in history, even while it unravels the film's portrayals of Reed and Bryant.)

Maureen Stapleton as Emma Goldman

My other gripe about Keaton, is the way her acting conveys the politics of her character in the film. Only Maureen Stapleton really offers a sustained portrayal of political conviction as the anarchist, Emma Goldman--she won an Oscar for it, and she's terrific: sardonic, tough, utterly committed, and fierce. Keaton, on the other hand, gives a long speech at Nicholson where she just rants at him, and when she takes a breath, the whole thing falls apart, as if she were only trying to get through it. As I watched, I thought, is this a speech from someone who believes what she's saying, or a performance of what someone thinks conviction is supposed to look like? Obviously, I believe it's the latter, and especially when you compare it with anything Stapleton does--and almost all her onscreen dialogue is of a radically political nature--because she acts circles around Keaton here. Where Keaton blasts through her lines as quickly as she can, Stapleton modulates, punctuates, and colors, as though what she were saying didn't all signify the same thing, which is how it feels with Keaton. Thus Diane Keaton almost always comes off as politically naive and a crass ideologue, which isn't moving or involving, and makes Bryant's politics seem flat, not passionate. The exception that proves the rule occurs in Bryant's scene before Congress--here, Keaton is restrained, wise, and sarcastic, which suits the character immeasurably.

Love triangle-y

Beatty has a similar problem, and his Jack Reed just seems to repeat himself without displaying any of the charisma we are told that Reed had as a public speaker. I know Beatty had his plate full as producer, director, and star, but the part demands more than the attitude of political conviction--all we really get of Reed is that he was a hard-worker, and all his real passion is relegated to the love relationship with Keaton. Because Reed's radicalism is meant to complicate, and be at some odds with, the love story, the muted nature of Reed's politics and Beatty's performance throws the film off balance. Clearly, this wasn't Beatty's intention as the movie is structured around the back and forth of love and politics, which again only "works" when Bryant throws her lot in with Reed entirely in the final chapter. This sort of politics vs love/work vs domesticity/male vs female matrix could only be written, as far as I'm concerned, by a man. This, for lack of a better word, gender bias accounts to some degree for the way Bryant appears--incomplete, inconsistent, vacillating, and hysterical--for much of the film, and therefore Stapleton's Emma Goldman rises as the spectre of what Bryant should or could have been, which I think is both an intentional contrast in the script, and a kind of return of the repressed in the Bryant character; a repression that occurred in the way she was written.

Stapleton died this year at 80, by the way.

Beatty's acting demands one last note about how he often resorts to a comic reading of a scene, line, or reaction. I'd need to look more closely at his work in other films, but here it comes off as a crutch, a short-hand to make Reed sympathetic, and perhaps as a conscious foil for Beatty's own good looks. I'll only give one example: Reed and Bryant's Moscow flat has a crystal chandelier that hangs a little low for Beatty's Jack Reed (Beatty is 6'2"), and he hits his head on it every time he passes by it, and reacts comically every time as the crystals tinkle distractingly. Twice, this would work, but after that, even the most absent-minded professor would remember to duck or do something, anything, differently. Nuff said.

So is Reds any good? Yes, I think it's a great, wonderful film--though uneven here and there and a movie whose project and execution are at odds with one another. In short, Reds is an important, American film that is absolutely worth seeing. I cannot leave unmentioned the spectacular photography by Vittorio Storaro (a Bertolucci DP who has received well-deserved recognition for his work on films as different as The Conformist, Apocalypse Now, Dick Tracy, and The Last Emperor), which locates simple, intimate rooms; huge, frozen landscapes; moody, crowd scenes; emotionally-relevant, figure/spatial arrangements; and unsparing, facial close-ups on the same screen. His work is the great bond that holds the film together where the script and performances falter. There is much to learn of what not to do as well as what succeeds in this film. Joe Bob says check it out. PS Stephen Sondheim wrote parts of the score.

Of course, I can't help thinking of another Hollywood Commie Love Story, which I'll gripe about another time because it shares so many of the problems that plague Reds. That film, of course, is...

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Jewish Radical loves Aryan God

But I've said enough for now. Instead I leave you with two seconds of comic relief and Babs, in one of her more unfortunate outfits:

The Norma Desmond look was hot hot hot that year....

1 comment:

Demosthenes said...

Aren't all communists whinny bores?
As to Bab's outfit - you're just jealous.
Now I have to put this on my Netflix que.