THE FILMS OF ROBERT MULLIGAN, PART 4

March 13, 2012

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This the final post in my series on the films of Robert Mulligan. Click for parts onetwo and three.

As much as Robert Mulligan is associated with the South, for To Kill a Mockingbird and The Man in the Moon, he was actually born in the Bronx. A few years after his tepidly received L.A. noir The Nickel Ride (1975), he adapted Richard Price’s Bronx-set second novel, Bloodbrothers, which was released in ’76 (the film came out in September of 1978). An epithet-laced trawl through an Italian working class family, Mulligan toned-down the language (from the book’s first page: “His hand smelled from that oily shit inside Trojans”), but captured the twitchy, carnal energies that fueled such texturally dirty talk.

Robert Surtees, who had shot Mulligan’s Summer of ’42 (’71) and The Other (’72), returns as the director of photography, although the the gauzy images of those films are replaced with hard-edged, dark blue tones. Clearly Mulligan was impressed with Jordan Cronenweth’s similarly detailed work in Nickel Ride. The film opens in a helicopter shot of a smoggy Bronx as night falls, crossing highways and subways until there is a cut to a crane shot that eases onto the facade of Banion’s Bar, seemingly the palpitating heart of the borough.  This amiable joint, the local watering hole for the construction worker’s union, is named after wheelchair bound Irish carouser/owner Banion (played with immense warmth by Kenneth McMillan) who trades handjob jokes and chummy backslaps with the volatile De Coco brothers, the insecure macho teddy bears whose family is the center of the film.

Banion’s is more home to the brothers than their walk-up apartments, filled as they are with the disheartening markers of adulthood like children, wives and bills. Tommy De Coco (Tony Lo Bianco) and his brother Chubby (Paul Sorvino) are the patriarch of a struggling clan, with Tommy’s wife Maria (Laila Goldoni) on the brink of a nervous breakdown, while his fragile, feminine youngest son has been browbeaten about his weight into anorexia. Tommy’s hope lies with his eldest, Stony (Richard Gere), a handsome, reassuringly hetero playboy who is about to enter the construction union. But alas, Stony has dreams of escape, implied in the cut from Banion’s to the elaborately outfitted cavern-disco he frequents, with faux-stalactites dripping from the ceiling in honor of his own raging, confused hormones. Focused by the straight talk of liberated chick Annette (an inflammatory Marilu Henner) Stony shirks construction for a job as a recreation assistant at the local hospital, fulfilling his dream of working with kids. Tommy is incensed, and Stony has to choose between family or freedom.

The script by studio veteran Walter Newman (Ace In the Hole) is overstuffed with incident (and received an Oscar nomination for it), and Mulligan embraces the abundance by pushing for an across-the-board hysterical style of acting. This is grating and invigorating in turn, with Tony Lo Bianco performing as an over-gesticulating stereotype, while Paul Sorvino’s papa bear routine secrets away layers of pain that well up in his often overfilled eyes (although he does have the benefit of the most emotionally naked monologue in the film). Richard Gere is effective in mumbly James Dean mode, a figure of naive charm starting to become aware of a world outside the Bronx. Although, as with all of Mulligan’s coming-of-age films, this knowledge is rife with dangers. Just as William and Jane fly away into uncertainty in The Pursuit of Happiness, so do Stony and his brother drive off into the unknown, with only a few bucks to their name, but a dream of independence just over the horizon.

There is none of this richly moving ambiguity in Same Time, Next Year, a stodgy farce that Mulligan cranked out quickly the same year. It was released in November of 1978, only two months after Bloodbrothers. It was based on a hugely successful Broadway play of the same name, about two lovers who meet once every year for a one-night stand. Written by TV scribe Bernard Slade (The Flying Nun, The Partridge Family), it ran for close to 1500 performances and netted Ellen Burstyn a Tony Award. For the film, Slade wrote the screenplay and Burstyn returned to play the role of Doris. Charles Grodin, who played George in the stage version, was replaced by Alan Alda.

It is nothing more than a filmed version of the play, taking place almost entirely in a hotel room, with little choreography inside the frame. It’s mostly Alda and Burstyn jawing back and forth at each other.  Robert Surtees returns as DP (his final film credit), and it contains the warm, nostalgic filtered light of Summer of ’42, but is only shown to its full beauty in a few exterior shots. The play itself is a clunky contraption, revisiting the lovers every five years or so, larded with cheap signifiers to denote each era. In the 60s, Burstyn dons Native American dress and talks about protesting, while Alda slides into a suit and talks about voting for Goldwater. The characters get lost in symbolism, and never crackle with erotic intensity (which comes with casting Alan Alda). The film was then of course nominated for four Oscars.

Mulligan, now deep into his 50s, began to slow down his working pace considerably. He had made ten features in the 60s, and six in the ’70s, but would go on to direct only two films in the ’80s, before capping his career with The Man In the Moon in 1991. He was still garnering awards and praise, so it is likely Mulligan could have been more productive if he so chose. But with the  turn to Jaws-imitating blockbusters, perhaps there were just not many appealing projects offered to him. His next feature, the supernatural romantic-comedy Kiss Me Goodbye (1982) would tend to affirm this theory.

Never one for “high-concept” plots, Mulligan has here agreed to direct a very loose adaptation of Dona Flor And Her Two Husbands (1976), about a woman whose dead husband begins to haunt her when she is to marry again. At the time of its release, the original was the most successful film in Brazilian history. It seems Mulligan could only make his kind of intimate drama if it had this kind of box-office goosing gimmick. And despite how ill-suited he was to this kind of genre mash-up, it ends up as a diverting treat, if not at the top-tier of his accomplishment.

He’s helped by a game cast, first and foremost Jeff Bridges, whose uptight Egyptologist at the Met Museum honorably channels Cary Grant’s similarly anal scientist in Bringing Up Baby. While not matching Grant’s athleticism and uncanny comic timing, Bridges does have a talent for embattled exasperation, his expression one of barely concealed disgust. And as Grant is drained by the  kookiness of Katherine Hepburn’s wealthy family, so is Bridges of his rich fiance, Sally Field. Field is innocuous in her usual chipper munchkin routine, so Claire Trevor (as her mother) easily sashays away with the show in her final feature film. It is worth watching just to see her grand industrial-strength bitchiness cut Bridges down to size. James Caan, as Field’s ghost husband, is woefully miscast as a charismatic Broadway choreographer, but he is nothing if not game, which could be said for this entire film, a modern contraption that Mulligan manages to make look towards the past. The film performed modestly at the box-office, finishing with $15.78 million, right in between Death Wish 2 and the re-issue of Star Wars (according to Box Office Mojo).

Then came the longest layoff in his career, six years, before he agreed to make Clara’s Heart (1988) for Mary Tyler Moore’s production company, MTM. He was clearly only willing to make films on his terms at this point, and this coming-of-age tale returns to his favored themes of maturation and disillusionment. Based on the novel by Joseph Olshan, it follows teenaged David (Neil Patrick Harris, in his first screen role), as he grapples with the death of his baby sister and the resultant crack-up of his parents’ marriage. He turns to his Jamaican nanny Clara (Whoopi Goldberg) for stability and strength. I harbored fears that this would devolve into one of those Hollywood wish-fulfillment fantasies where the kindly black character solves all of the rich white people’s problems, but thankfully, things simply get more complicated from there.

Mulligan had the good fortune to hire Freddie Francis (The Elephant Man) as his DP, and the film includes some of the most emotive set-ups of his career. In the opening sequence, Mulligan and Francis hold a close-up of David as a funeral ends, with flashes of black tuxedos passing him in the foreground. It is an image of a boy made scattered and incomplete by mourning. Later, they execute another shot of incompletion, during one of his parents’ arguments. In one long take, the mother is sitting screen right in a living room, the father to the left, in his study. The rooms are separated by a wall, so each are ensconced in their separate worlds. This image alone defines the dissolution of their union, and yet another rupture in David’s life.

His relationship with Clara is fraught, as he transitions from bratty teen to the realization that she is the only stable part of his life. They test and circle each other, waiting to expose each other’s vulnerabilities, as their racial and class boundaries are forefronted by Mulligan (the cut from David’s suburban mansion to the Jamaican neighborhood in Baltimore acts as a closure – there is not easy passing between these two zones). They develop their own wary love for each other, and by the time Clara reveals her own past traumas (that are as vast and unresolved as David’s), they accept each other for the imperfect, guilt-ridden creatures that they are. This is Mulligan’s kind of (ir)resolution, the recognition of limitations his own happy ending. So he ends it with another close-up of David, this time free and clear of all obstructions, aside from the ones in his memory. The film bombed, earning just over $5 million (right behind the Chuck Norris cheapie Hero and the Terror) and earned no Oscar nominations.

The Man in the Moon is a distillation of this theme of irresolution, one which opens with the idolized older sister saying, “sometimes things just don’t make sense, and all of a sudden, I get scared.” As with the opening shot of Bloodbrothers, Mulligan has his DP (Freddie Francis this time), crane his camera down into the film’s thematic heart, instead of a bar, it’s a screened in porch. This downward craning shot also has an echo in To Kill a Mockingbird, in which the camera descended a tree and outlined the main drag of the town, before backtracking to introduce Scout. The Man in the Moon‘s shot reveals another headstrong tomboy, Dani (Reese Witherspoon, who, like NPH, makes her screen debut. Mulligan was an ace talent scout). She is listening to Elvis’ “Loving You” for the umpteenth time, and is chastised by her older sister Maureen (Emily Warfield), who a few moments later will discuss her undefinable fear.

The story is utter simplicity, but rendered with subtlety in Jenny Wingfield’s original script (her first). Dani is in the process of trashing her Elvis posters and fixing her attentions on a real live boy – the dreamy new neighbor Court (Jason London). He literally crashes her childhood idyll, jumping into a swimming hole she had considered her own private domain. This rupture spurs Dani’s maturation, and engages her in a world of petty jealousies, shocking violence, and unutterable tragedy. All of Mulligan’s coming-of-age stories are steeped in death, the loss of innocence revealing the world in all its unresolved, unanswerable reality. Dani, as with Scout, or William (Pursuit of Happiness), or Hermie (Summer of ’42) has the veil removed from their childhood games, and they shift from a mythologized childhood to fraught adulthood. This transition is made visible Mulligan’s through subjective camera, the low-angles in Mockingbird and the idolizing slow-motion of ’42 changing to sober eye-line matches and close-ups.

Dani is visualized in tracking shots, speeding from house to lake in frolics of determined intensity. The first is seen before her initial encounter with Court at the lake, the last in a mournful sprint from her first funeral service. She opens by racing to something, and ends by sprinting away, into the unknown.  There is also a visual rhyme to that opening crane shot, which has its correlate in the shattering closer. The camera drifts towards the front of the house, reversing the opening shot, before cutting to the interior. It floats past the newborn baby and settles on their  Mom and Dad in bed, as Dani asks (offscreen): “Marie? Is it always going to hurt this bad?”. The implicit answer is in their father’s face, played so engagingly laconic by Sam Waterston, who has an inexplicable smile on his face as he turns and faces his wife, happy to be at home, regardless of the tragedies outside.

This reverie stops as Mulligan cuts to a static shot of the walled-in patio, where Maureen is combing Dani’s hair. Now the dreams are in the interior of the house, and the adolescents outside are growing into the no-nonsense world of static two-shots:

Dani:  “Sometimes, I think that nothing’s ever going to make sense again”

Maureen: “Maybe life’s not supposed to make sense.”

Dani: “Doesn’t that scare you?”

Maureen: [whispered] “Yes, it does.”

Maureen’s tossed-off lines at the beginning of the film, meant to assuage Dani’s own insecurities, are now repeated, and have accrued layers of resonance. It is one of those scenes that can reduce me to tears, regardless of how many times I’ve seen it, which has made this particular transcription particularly vexing.These lines are an acknowledgment that there is no governing logic to our lives, but whatever happens, that it can be endured with grace. There is no better way to encapsulate his extraordinary career than those words of Dani and Maureen, in their brave resignation.

So, watch some Mulligan.

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