Jonathan Poritsky

Review: “A Delicate Place”, Walter Reade Theater

“Those are the ground rules“

Back in col­lege I took an English course focus­ing on British cin­ema. A snooty film stu­dent like myself fig­ured an out-of-department film course would be a breeze. In the end I dropped out of the course on the day I for­got to write a paper, but there were a few things I gained from the course. Two of my now most favorite films are ones that were screened in that course: Lindsay Anderson’s “If…” and Tony Richardson’s “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner”. Besides a love of lengthy titles, the lat­ter film fell into a spe­cial cat­e­gory of films with no name. For me, I know a film has entered this strata when I think to myself “wow, I didn’t know we could do that” after a screen­ing. It hap­pened when I saw “The 400 Blows”, “Knife in the Water, “Stranger Than Paradise”, and “Back to the Future II”, among many many oth­ers.

Thanks to the tal­ented pro­gram­mers at the Walter Reade, a Tony Richardson ret­ro­spec­tive is on the big screen this month. To be more spe­cific, it’s a Woodfall Films ret­ro­spec­tive includ­ing some other British direc­tors, but around 80% of the films are Richardson’s. So I fig­ured the time was ripe for me to redis­cover these rel­a­tively unseen films. It’s odd how films of the UK, like many of their ales, haven’t even come close to find­ing American audi­ences. We love their com­edy and their rock ‘n’ roll, but their cin­ema has been an alto­gether dif­fer­ent story for the American pub­lic ever since we stole Hitchcock from their clutches.

With that lengthy pref­ace, let me dis­cuss the film I saw last night, “A Delicate Balance” from 1973. Written by Edward Albee, directed by Richardson, and fea­tur­ing pow­er­house per­for­mances from stage and screen’s finest, I was thor­oughly impressed with this the­atri­cal film. At times the filmic aspects were almost annoy­ing, get­ting in the way of some­thing that was so obvi­ously con­ceived for the stage. At the same time, how­ever, the cam­era went places you would not expect it, that turned the expe­ri­ence into some­thing more breath­tak­ing than could ever hap­pen in the the­ater. There were very clear ref­er­enced to Bergman in the film’s makeup, though oddly, this is from a van­tage point of 2007 view­ing. The red inter­ti­tles seemed to evoke “Cries and Whispers”, but that had only been released a year ear­lier, which in its time may have felt more like a move­ment than an homage. And the bet­ter part of the film feels like another chap­ter of “Autumn Sonata”, which of course wouldn’t come out for another 5 years. So per­haps Bergman was invok­ing Richardson.…?

Nevertheless, as any­one who’s ever picked up an Albee script, you know that read­ing him, even alone from a book, is the lit­er­ary equiv­a­lent of run­ning the New York Marathon twice with high hur­dles every two blocks. His ver­biage twists and turns, turn­ing to metaphors for long stretches, inner mono­logues that come out at the wrong times, words the dic­tio­nary was sure to have for­got­ten come out of char­ac­ters’ mouths as eas­ily as CO2, and vio­lence is always a pos­si­bil­ity wait­ing off in the wings. This film is of course no excep­tion. What works so well about it is that these snooty char­ac­ters would speak in such man­ners. They are so melo­dra­matic about their own rich lives that they know no other way to speak, so it fits per­fectly well.

It was hard to keep up at first, as there were no cuts and the dia­logue was overblown and quick. But even­tu­ally it set­tles into a nice pac­ing, once Claire, the drunk sis­ter, makes her way on screen. I par­tic­u­larly like Joseph Cotton’s char­ac­ter, the fright­ened best friend Harry, who comes with his wife, Edna, in the night to stay with their dear­est friends for a time. Albee has found a way to take impo­tence to a new level with Harry and Edna. They are fear­ful of noth­ing, but it is a crip­pling noth­ing. However, they still have their fac­ul­ties about them to con­trol and manip­u­late oth­ers, even if they are so scared of their own home, which posses noth­ing out of the ordi­nary.

I waited as long as I could to dis­cuss Katherine Hepburn. She is one of those screen god­desses that went extinct long ago, as I think just about every­one can agree on. But here, well, here was some­thing I hadn’t seen from her yet, or many other actresses in his­tory. Many actresses have done old and decrepit, often against their will. Many have done the aging star, the once beau­ti­ful but now wrin­kled woman of the world. Hepburn, in all her glory and beauty and skill, entered ter­ri­tory rarely tread upon: the aging woman whose life has been a bore, who may never have been a beauty and who may always have been made of wood, but trudges onward into the far dis­tances of age. Her head bobs from sided to side in a fight against grav­ity; the cam­era takes no care in hid­ing her cav­ernous face. Agnes, the char­ac­ter, has spent a life­time sur­round­ing her­self with beau­ti­ful things, mostly small peo­ple or faces from vary­ing cul­tures, who appear to be their only guests save for the vio­lently unin­vited Harry and Edna. She loves her hus­band not for his money or his com­pany or even for his returned love, but for his staya­bil­ity in her unevent­ful life. They are the per­fect cou­ple, but only for each other. Not a day goes by they don’t dis­cuss divorce or each other’s death, which seems to have been going for years. It seems as though Richardson asked her for sim­ply a piece but she deliv­ered the whole cake. I don’t mean she over­acted. She sim­ply deliv­ered a beau­ti­fully nuanced per­for­mance to an incred­i­bly lay­ered char­ac­ter.

All of the play­ers were phe­nom­e­nal, but there is only space to talk about the piece as whole and of course Hepburn. I wouldn’t say this is becom­ing my favorite film. it’s cer­tainly a long jour­ney from Richardson’s “Loneliness…”, which at the end of the day is Britain’s answer to France’s Nouvelle Vauge. I am excited to see more of Richardson’s work as the screen­ings con­tinue, and I hope, as seems to be his call­ing card, to see more traips­ing across Europe, pick­ing and choos­ing which move­ment he should infuse his lat­est work with. Of course, it is his orig­i­nal voice that leaves us with the sweet­est taste in our mouths.

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