Thursday, September 23, 2010

"The Subject Was Roses" and Patricia Neal--A San Francisco Album

Thank goodness for theaters like The Castro in San Francisco and The Music Box in Chicago.  They keep alive the exhibition of classic and nearly forgotten films, on a big screen, projected lovingly the way they were originally intended to be seen.

It was fortunate that we arrived in San Francisco the only night the Castro showed  "The Subject Was Roses".  It was part of a small tribute to actress Patricia Neal, who died on August 8.  Neal won an Oscar in 1963 playing opposite Paul Newman for her brief but impressive performance in her role as Alma, in "Hud".
In 1968 Neal was one of three actresses who lost in the Best Actress Category; she was a nominee for "Roses" when Barbra Streisand ("Funny Girl") and Katharine Hepburn ("The Lion in Winter") won in a tie. (Added trivia: Joanne Woodward was also in the running that year in a film directed by Newman, "Rachel Rachel". Vanessa Redgrave, in "Isadora", was the third also-ran.)

I had wanted to see "The Subject Was Roses" all my life.  I saw it once on a very poor-quality VHS tape, and I missed a lot due to the video "noise".

It was a special thrill to be there at the Castro Theater on a Thursday night with a handful of serious film buffs, to see an Oscar-winning film from 1968, (Jack Albertson picked up Supporting Actor).  I had that vague boyish thrill of the forbidden, when going to the movies on a school night was a rarity, or when I was allowed to attend a movie that was more adult in nature.

"The Subject Was Roses" is adapted from what is basically a three-character play, set just after WWII.  The son of an aging middle-class family returns from the service, and opens up old resentments between son and parents, and between mother and father.

It is a gentler but no less a wounding treatment of family dynamics and deception as "Virginia Woolf".

Albertson plays the more difficult role of patriarch John Cleary, who seeks an opportunity to rekindle a loving relationship with his wife. His is an unlikeable, inflexible character, but Albertson skillfully navigates the screenplay's last-minute attempts to make him more appealing. His John Cleary deftly embodies the stoic masculinity of countless fathers who came of age in the 1930's.

A young (and very attractive) Martin Sheen plays Timmy, the prodigal son, caught in a tug-of-war of affections and allegiances between his parents.  It is Timmy, who learned too well how to preserve the illusions of his parents and divert the conflicts under the surface, who precipitates the film's main crisis with the titular bouquet of roses.

Neal, as Nettie Cleary, is mesmerizing, compelling, powerful and remarkable.  She manages to communicate the seething self-conflicts with amazing and subtle reading of her dialogue, and commands the screen in searing closeups. Nettie achieves the broadest character arc in the film, going from an almost incestuous attachment with her son, and jealousy of her husband's attachment to him, to an odyssey of self-discovery and eventual resignation.

The film offers the experimental flourishes and the muted,  "realistic" lighting and color I loved in '60's films like "In The Heat Of The Night" and "Midnight Cowboy". 

After an intense emotional argument, Neal's Nettie leaves the house all day, and causes concern in her household.  Without dialog, Nettie simply "goes downtown, walks around", has dinner, and reflects on her life.   It's a lovely interlude, a montage of her meandering activity, scored to a haunting ballad by the wonderful Judy Collins.

Upon her return home, Neal delivers the most important words in the film, summing up the motivation of millions who choose not to go beyond the familiarity of their lives.  For a sensitive viewer, I think this brief dialog could change one's life, and sums up my own significant fear as I try to understand the process of reinvention:

Nettie Cleary: In all my life, the past twelve hours are the only real freedom I've ever known.

Timmy Cleary: Did you enjoy it?

Nettie Cleary: Every moment.

Timmy Cleary: Why did you come back?

Nettie Cleary: I'm a coward.
With the death of Patricia Neal, I hope more people will seek and re-discover this movie.  Frank Gilroy wrote a play about a particular family that has become universal over the years.  And Jack Albertson, Martin Sheen and Patricia Neal have given us characters from a bygone era that still can tell us something about how we live now. 

I will always equate the great satisfactions of "The Subject Was Roses" with the very special surroundings of the Castro Theater and the circumstances of my finally seeing it as it was meant to be seen.

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