Directed by Paul Newman (1972)
by Shane Collis
"I'm the original half-life, I got one daughter with half a mind, the other whose half a test tube, a house half-full of rabbit crap and half a corpse! That's a half-life alright." - Beatrice Hunsdorfer
Paul Newman is arguably the most famous actor of his generation, with celebrated roles in such films as The Hustler, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Cool Hand Luke, and The Sting among many others. But sadly his work as a director is seldom discussed outside the most ardent cineaste circles.
His directorial debut; Rachel, Rachel (1968) was a hallucinatory spiral into the disconnected world of a middle-aged school teacher. Starring his wife, the superbly talented Joanne Woodward; with whom he would share fifty years of marriage. The legendary couple would co-star in ten films and Newman would direct four more starring Woodward.
Newman's sophomore directorial effort would be an adaptation of Paul Zindel's quizzically titled Pulitzer Prize winning play; The Effect Of Gamma Rays On Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds. The play premired in 1964, at the Alley Theatre in Houston, Texas. Before beginning an off-broadway run spanning 819 performances; from April 7th, 1970 through May 7th, 1972.
The story revolves around middle-aged Staten Island widow, Beatrice Hunsdorfer as she struggles to make a life for herself and her two daughters: rebellious, epileptic Ruth and shy, introvert Matilda. Despite her lower middle-class existence, Beatrice still has some degree of vanity. In the films opening scene, Beatrice tries on wigs in a department store. Staring at herself in the mirror, it is quite obvious she does not like what she sees. She attempts to attract the romantic interest of her neighbour, only to brand him a "homo" when he declines her company.
The state of the Hunsdorfer home practically sums up their lives. A house as dilapidated as Beatrice herself, in her own words "A pig sty." Her two daughters could not be more different from each other. Ruth, the eldest, suffers from epileptic seizures. Defiant of her mother, Ruth openly mocks her in front of her classmates by performing a skit in character as Beatrice, an ironic fact given that she is most likely to end up just like her. Matilda on the other hand is a total anomaly: a quiet, shy, and inhibited creature, interested in science and animals. Especially the rabbit she brings home from school. She attempts to explain her scientific interests to her mother and sister but is met only with incredulity. Her science project serves as a metaphor for her personality and gives the film it's name.
Beatrice dreams of opening an elegant tea room..."a nice little neighborhood place" she intends to call "The Man-in-the-Moon tea shop." In the meantime she rents out her spare room to elderly boarders, the latest of which is an ancient wheelchair-bound woman. As Beatrice matter of factly states, "If anybody had ever told me when I was younger I'd end up feeding honey to a zombie I'd have told em' they were crazy...I'd be better off driving a cab." The presence of someone so frail and close to death is somewhat disturbing to Ruth, whilst relating her disgust of the situation to Matilda, she suffers a seizure.
Matilda's project earns her a place as a finalist in the school science fair, which requires the attendance of her mother on stage in the auditorium. Beatrice promises to say something simple if Matilda wins; "My heart is full." Beatrice dresses herself up in a garish fashion and arrives late at the school, only to humiliate both her daughters and make a fool of herself in front of the entire school, proclaiming "My heart is full" to the stunned reaction of the crowd. Upon returning home from winning first prize at the science fair, Matilda discovers that Beatrice has killed her rabbit. She cradles it in her arms and carries it outside, laying it down in front of her mother. The film's closing scene is Matilda's internal monologue: professing her love for science and her wonder of the universe and the atoms that hold it together. In a reply to Beatrice's earlier question as to whether she hates the world, Matilda solemnly states, "No mama, I don't hate the world."
While also taking on the mantle of producer, Newman enlisted some notable heavyweights for this now almost forgotten drama. The screenplay was penned by the prolific Alvin Sargent, known for such thoughtful character pieces as Paper Moon and Ordinary People. Shot in sombre tones by Adam Holender who made his mark with the 1969 classic Midnight Cowboy as well as Al Pacino's starring debut The Panic In Needle Park (1971). While Academy Award-winning composer Maurice Jarre, of Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago fame, would contribute the subdued musical score.
The cast features the criminally underrated Woodward's tour de force as Beatrice, a performance that would win the Georgia born actress her first and only best actress award at the Cannes film festival. The Newman's real-life daughter, Nell Potts, is surprisingly good as Matilda. The film's theater origins are clear, nonetheless the staging is effective. Woodward's powerhouse portayal of down-on-her-luck widow Beatrice, struggling to raise her two daughters, is sure to rank among her very best work. The story does at times draw parallels with a project later undertaken by the Newman's; the 1987 film adaptation of Tennessee William's The Glass Menagerie, In which Woodward again displays her unrivaled talent for inhabiting complex and deeply troubled women.
Newman's direction is assured and purposeful. He directs as you imagine an actor would; searching for truth in the performances, rather than in visual flair or style. Newman's stature in the industry had the potential to launch him into a Clint Eastwood-like second career as a director. Yet I feel his project choices, while unique and interesting from a critical perspective, were somewhat limiting when considering box office appeal. Newman would direct five feature films and one TV movie: The Shadow Box (1980), also starring Woodward. He would serve as producer on several films, including one of his most famous, Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid (1969).
His final credit as a producer would also prove to be his last on-screen role, portraying Max Roby in the 2005 HBO mini-series Empire Falls. Paul Newman died on September 26th, 2008 leaving behind an enviable body of work, portraying some of the most iconic characters in film history. His work behind the camera is interesting but not stellar. You may surprise many film fans by informing them of his directorial work. You may also delight by introducing them to it. If his presence as an actor was unique, I would argue his sensibilities as a filmmaker followed suit.