After years of refusal
HUSBANDS AND WIVES (Woody Allen, USA, 1992, 8)
Written July 2001 at Super-Secret Movie Nerd Group at Andrew Johnston’s prompting, after seeing the film following a nine-year boycott because it seemed based on the Soon-Yi affair, which Mia Farrow discovered while the film was shooting.
I had some of the reaction I expected, but quite a lot that I didn’t. It’s easily one of Woody’s best films of the 90s. I found myself even hungrier for a good, “new” Woody Allen film than I thought I was.
There’s obviously many more real-life parallels in the setup than the way it plays out, but (Here stand I stand, I cannot do other) I still felt like I was watching something pornographic in the three or so significant “state of our marriage” scenes between Woody and Mia — particularly the first, the movie’s second dramatic scene, right after Sydney Pollack and July Davis announce their divorce. I felt really protective toward Mia (the person, not the character she was playing) when she asks “would ever leave me for another woman?” As I hypothesized back then, with different actors or acting in another director’s film, I wouldn’t have felt so dirty.
Everyone else was right that Davis and Pollack are nothing less than marvelous (which I suspected would be the case). Has Judy Davis ever given a bad performance? Aside: anti-TV snobs should see her work earlier this year in the Judy Garland biopic; she makes the movie. Is there anyone else who thinks Sydney Pollack as good an actor as a director? Lysette Anthony, who played Sam (Pollack’s vegan-aerobicist-astrologer girlfriend), had the funniest scene in the movie — at the intellectuals’ party. Even Benno Schmidt easily overcame my “shock of recognition.” The only bad performance is by Juliette Lewis … or rather she has one horrible scene where she was obviously “acting,” the scene in the cab where she starts to criticize the novel. There was something excruciatingly mannered about her facial expression in some of those closeups, as though she was very proud of getting right her lit-crit lines.
But the real surprise came for me in Woody’s character. Not only is this by far Allen’s best performance as a (non-clown) actor, but in terms of self-apologia, HUSBANDS AND WIVES is no DECONSTRUCTING HARRY. The Juliette Lewis affair never becomes a source of tension in the marriage as such (I don’t recall Mia ever finding out about it) nor does it end like the “dirty old man” fantasy I had expected it to. Indeed, Woody’s character is the one left alone at the end, although not as a specific George Amberson “comeuppance,” as more like odd chance. There’s a brilliant throwaway part from the reading of Allen’s novel about two men — a man with five children who envies the freedom of the bachelor down the hall, who in his turn envies the security of the married man. It’s kinda cliche (‘the grass is always greener …’), but I really found it affecting partly because it was so unexpected given how dislikable I have found Allen’s persona in recent years. Nor do I think I’ll ever forget Woody getting the film’s last line “are we done, now?” or the look on his face in that final shot and the way the camera freezes on it for like two seconds. This is a deeply unhappy man whose great cross to bear is the full knowledge of how deeply unhappy he is.
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