“Loving” and Eva Marie Saint: 2012 TCM Summer Under The Stars Blogathon Post #3
This is my third post as part of the “2012 TCM Summer Under The Stars” Blogathon, hosted by Jill Blake at her blog “Sittin’ on a Backyard Fence” and Michael Nazarewycz at his block “Scribe Hard on Film“, which runs through the month of August.
When people extol the virtues of 70’s movies, they tend to focus on the big names, from directors – Altman, Coppola, Scorsese – and actors – De Niro, Nicholson, and Pacino. However, while it’s certainly true many of the best films of the 70’s (in my opinion) came from those singular talents, it’s important to remember there were other great films that came out during that time that also shared little in common with those other great films except maybe an emotional honesty about its story and characters. One such case is Irvin Kershner’s suburban drama Loving, which came out in 1970.
If Kershner is remembered as a director today, it’s usually for four genre movies he did late in his career; Eyes of Laura Mars, a strange but fascinating horror/thriller starring Faye Dunaway and Tommy Lee Jones, Never Say Never Again, the last James Bond movie to star Sean Connery, Robocop 2, the sequel to the 1987 hit film, and, of course, The Empire Strikes Back, which many people (myself included) consider to be the best of the Star Wars franchise. But before those films, Kershner seemed to be drawn to tales of people struggling to achieve dreams that don’t quite come off, like The Luck of Ginger Coffey (a highly underrated Canadian film starring Robert Shaw in the title role) and A Fine Madness (his first film with Connery). George Segal had already received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, but his biggest days as a light leading man were still ahead of him. And Eva Marie Saint already had two iconic roles to her credit, as the grieving sister of a murdered dockworker in On the Waterfront and the sexy spy in North by Northwest, but hadn’t appeared in too many movies since then, and while some of them were good (The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming), most weren’t (Exodus, The Sandpiper). From these somewhat disparate talents came a terrific drama that, unfortunately, seems largely forgotten today.
Adapted by Don Devlin from the novel Brooks Wilson Ltd by J.M. Ryan (which I’ve never read, and which apparently is out of print), the movie tells the story of Brooks Wilson (Segal), an artist and freelance graphic designer. When we first see him, he’s in New York City painting in his studio, while his Grace (Janis Young), who works at a museum and who also is his girlfriend, sits at a desk. She soon storms off, and Brooks stops what he’s doing to chase after her. He eventually catches up to her, they argue (though we don’t hear it), they seem to make up, and he walks her to where she’s going, but when he tries to kiss her, she bolts. He then looks at his watch, realizes he’s late, and gets a taxi. Turns out he’s going to a play his daughter Lizzie (Lorraine Cullen) is in, and his wife Selma (Saint), and his other daughter Hannah (Cheryl Bucher) are there as well.
As it turns out, Brooks is also caught in his professional life as well as his personal life. The money he makes comes from his freelance work, and his agent Edward (Keenan Wynn) and Skip (Roy Scheider), who works at the ad agency Brooks is currently freelancing for, are both trying to land him a job with Lepridon (Sterling Hayden), a somewhat surly trucking company magnate. Yet while Brooks goes through the motions of trying to land the account – even, while somewhat drunk (more on that later), managing to impress Lepridon by saying how much he loves trucks – he’s not sure he wants the account. Or, at least he’s not sure he wants the trappings that come with it (if he gets the account, Selma wants to buy a bigger, more expensive house). What he really wants to do is just draw or paint (we see him do this even at his daughter’s school, just drawing on a blackboard), even though it won’t pay as much as the illustrating does, because he won’t have to put up with people correcting him all the time (we see Charles (James Manis), Edward’s assistant, trying to get Brooks to change some of his illustrations, to no avail).
Admittedly, we’ve seen this story many times before; the cry of the artist who thinks they’re too good for the real world. We’ve also seen it set against the context of the suburbs, with a character feeling stifled by the “conformity” of them and yearning to break free (usually a man, only occasionally, as in Diary of a Mad Housewife, a woman). What distinguishes Kershner and Devlin’s treatment of this material is how even-handed it is (this could very well be true to Ryan’s book, but again, I unfortunately have never read it). Brooks is in all likelihood a talented artist – at least from the work we see, including the nude painting he paints – but the movie doesn’t try to make him out to be a modern-day Van Gogh, or someone like that, stifled by the commercial world; he’s good enough to make a living. And while he drinks a lot, including at a lunch where he makes a few tasteless remarks, and at the party that takes up the last third of the movie, the movie doesn’t explain whether he drinks so much because he’s unhappy with his life, or if he’s unhappy with his life because he drinks so much. It’s just there. Also, while Brooks has a girlfriend (who is ready to leave him because he won’t leave Selma), and is also being pursued by Nelly (Nancie Phillips), wife of his neighbor Will (David Doyle, best known as Bosley on the original TV series version of Charlie’s Angels), Brooks obviously does love Selma and his two daughters, and again, the movie neither endorses nor judges his affair. Kershner and Devlin just show it, letting you draw your own conclusions. Obviously, this wouldn’t matter as much if Segal wasn’t so good as Brooks. Pauline Kael pointed out in her rave review of the film (which is what got me interested in watching the film in the first place) that because of Segal’s likable performance and persona, we can’t dismiss Brooks no matter how much we might not like his actions (as Kael puts it, dismissing him would be like dismissing almost all of humanity). He also plays drunk without ever overdoing it, and you even believe it when, while still somewhat drunk, he manages to charm Lepridon.
Although Brooks (and Segal) is the main focus of the movie, he’s not the only part. Kershner and Devlin pay attention to every character, no matter how small; when Brooks and Selma go visit that more expensive house Selma wants, the divorcing couple (Ed Crowley and Diana Douglas) that owns the house even gets a brief scene showing their humanity. Cullen and Bucher had never acted before, and except for Cullen’s appearance in Diary of a Mad Housewife that same year, never acted again, but they have a believable rapport as sisters, and add to the color of Brooks’ household. Wynn avoids the usual agent stereotype to make his character human and believable. Hayden only has one scene, but you see both his slightly eccentric nature and believe he could have made all that money. Finally, Grace is perhaps slightly underwritten, but Young never plays her as shrill (we see in a flashback how she and Brooks were in love), and we understand why she ultimately wants out of her relationship with Brooks.
But the film wouldn’t work nearly as well without Saint’s performance as Selma. The easiest thing to do to stack the deck in favor of Brooks would be to make Selma’s character frigid or repressed, or any variation of that. Saint may not be what she was in North by Northwest, but she’s still pretty and desirable. What’s more, she still loves Brooks, and still wants him, as we see in a scene where she’s posing in an embrace with him for a picture and she doesn’t want to let go. Yet at the same time, Selma won’t put up with his crap. She’s capable of deflecting his complaints with humor (when Brooks asks for a comb to get a hair out of his eggs, she plucks it out and jokes he needs tweezers instead), but she’s also unafraid of making her anger known (as when he refuses a dinner plate she’s saved for him when he comes home drunk and late, and she slams it down on the table). Saint never overdoes any of these actions, either, and always is able to suggest her own inner life. Late in the movie, at the party, Selma suffers a great humiliation (which I won’t spoil), and Saint is subtle in her reaction – she barely keeps her face composes, and brings her arm up partway to her neck, as if she wants to block out what she’s seeing but she can’t – which makes it all the more powerful. As necessary as Segal is to making us care about Brooks even when we don’t like him, he wouldn’t be the same without someone as powerful as Saint to react to.
There is one other valuable player in this movie, and that’s cinematographer Gordon Willis. When we think of Willis, we tend to think of his work on the Godfather movies, his work with Woody Allen (particularly Annie Hall, Manhattan and Zelig), and All the President’s Men, movies that all earned him the nickname “The Prince of Darkness”. But he was comfortable working with a wider range of genres than you might think, and among those were smaller scale dramas such as this one. This was only his second feature film (he started out making documentaries in the Air Force and, when he was discharged, became an assistant cameraman before his first film as cinematographer in 1969 with End of the Road). Already, it shows his talent for, as he has put it in interviews, taking something complex and making it simple. As is his wont, he uses a lot of long takes, whether the characters are moving or not, to let the emotions of the scene build up. And while there are plenty of scenes where he does earn his nickname, none of them are there just to show off, but make sense to the plot, especially a crucial scene between Brooks and Nelly at the party. Willis’ work, along with all the other principals, is just another reason why Loving, I think, is one of the great underrated movies of the 70’s.