BEST ACTRESS 1986: JANE FONDA IN "THE MORNING AFTER"
Saturday, August 21, 2010
After giving us one reenactment of her real-life Vadim-to-Hayden politicization after another, Jane Fonda finally came back to form with Sidney Lumet’s “The Morning After”, one of those minor stains on his otherwise fantastic filmography. Some of Fonda’s best performances have, as Emmanuel Levy’s pointed out, explored what it really means to be an actress in America – her Gloria Beatty and Bree Daniels are two of the most obvious examples of this, as both are women who’ve been thrown into numbingly desperate situations as a result of their lack of success in the profession. In this same vein, Fonda’s Alexandra Sternbergen, stage name Viveca van Loren, is a woman who’s found herself so beat-down by this art that she’s living solely on the thrill of past glory she’s never really had. (I’ve read one reviewer who looks at her as ‘Bree Daniels, fifteen years later’, and that’s an interesting take on this character.) “The Morning After” is a thoroughly terrible film, and that’s a real shame considering Sidney Lumet’s helming it. He shows occasional sparks of great, directorial vision in his eye for color, accentuating the dolled-up tackiness of Los Angeles; he’s captured this environment in an almost surrealistic way, so much that it’s easy to see how Fonda’s Alex could wallow around this city, full of plastic thoughts and plastic people, with such a low sense of self-worth. But it’s such a clichéd exercise in straining credibility; the thriller elements just get progressively more horrific to stomach as the film goes on. If we attempt to look at the film as a story of two very wounded, lost souls coming together, it doesn’t quite work, either – Lumet doesn’t ever find the right balance between these cheap boo tactics and more character-driven situations, so the film just ends up feeling like a tiresome dud.
The premise of “The Morning After” makes us think this film could’ve been something better than what it turned out to be – it’s about a hard-edged, numbingly brutal alcoholic ex-actress who finds herself awakening next to a corpse one morning. After a fantastic establishing shot that pans over a television report on fitness videos, an obvious parody of Fonda’s workout queen status in the eighties, our attention turns to her, and she’s absolutely sensational in these first few scenes. The script calls for her to be at her wit’s end with fear, terror, and disbelief, and she has a capacity to convey the immediacy of this relative disaster in a realistically terrified, yet somehow restrained, manner – she drifts from room to room, one in which she calls her ex-husband (the late, fantastic Raul Julia) and another in which she studies herself, cotton-mouthed and groggy-eyed, in her bathroom mirror. Fonda’s Alex seems like a woman who's inexplicably trying to make herself a product of the eighties, so she’s a little sad-looking – she wears oversized blazers that hide an incredibly shapely body, and she’s got punk-rock hair that could be right out of Jem and the Holograms; these qualities alone are enough to make us pity her. But we don't just pity her. Fonda's readings in this film have that extraordinary, dreamlike quality of evoking a motley of feelings that somehow seem to contradict each other – and that complicates how we understand her. She has such a precisely rich voice and a careful, wizardlike control over her diction that are both unmistakably hers, and it’s medicinal to see Fonda attack this role with such reckless abandon; the actress throws herself Alex so completely that we’re left wondering where this Fonda’s been hiding for so long.
The reason Fonda was, to some, considered the greatest actress of her generation was in part due to her fearlessness. She showed a sort of willingness to play bitingly honest characters when no other actress did; she was the Daria Morgendorffer of New Hollywood, always commenting on what she couldn’t stand about people from the sidelines while forgetting she had so many shortcomings of her own. This is a no-holds barred performance, too – there’s a craggy, husky charge to her voice offset by a shakiness that keys us into this woman’s inborn fragility; she’s that same kind of tough-but-brittle contradiction Gloria was. Fonda’s peppered her performance with brilliantly comic one-liners that have that same sardonic bite she became famous for, trumping anything she did in ‘comedies’ like “Cat Ballou” or “Barefoot in the Park”. There’s something wittily sarcastic and self-reverential in the way she mocks Jeff Bridges’ character when he can’t open his car door, for example, teasing him to “pull and shove”; in an earlier scene, after she realizes she can’t escape on a flight to San Francisco, she drops her sorry act and crudely asks, “How about Vegas?” She has a way of conveying this woman’s moribund, satirical crudeness without making it heavy-handed or angst-ridden; there's an acerbic, snakelike bite about her that’s both comic and heartbreakingly tragic.
Lumet’s film never really delves into the whole topic of alcoholism – it doesn’t try to be an abstruse thesis on the sickness, either – but Fonda still has a way of making this part of Alex’s personality terribly interesting. Alexandra’s alcoholism may just be for her what hooking was for Bree – a very troubling, addictive means of self-expression. Alex feels free and loose when she’s under the influence, boozing her way out of her own problems and self-denial, but she’s also very much constrained by it. Fonda said she talked to numerous doctors and sober alcoholics, went to AA meetings, and even studied the lives of Frances Farmer and Gail Russell in preparation for this role. But I can’t help thinking, just a bit, that Fonda also must’ve drawn upon her own history of bulimia to key herself in to this woman’s psychology; on the surface level, I imagine both sicknesses are painfully consuming and certainly addictive, and Fonda, like Alex, struggled with this same kind of dimming self-image for much of her younger life.
Fonda’s also got intensely good chemistry with Jeff Bridges, who’s basically playing a closeted neo-Nazi (an aspect of the film that never pans out, and therefore ends up just feeling incredibly awkward). What Fonda does here is essentially what Debra Winger did phenomenally in “An Officer and a Gentleman” – she communicates that she can’t imagine her life without this man, one of the few who's ever sympathized with her; she latches onto him. She's also a bit similar to Burt Lancaster’s Lou in “Atlantic City” – she isn't a has-been, she's a never-was. I sympathize with Alex so much more than I do Lou, though, because Fonda has the magician’s ability to charm us even when her character is compulsively needy – how can we have sympathy for a woman who seems so cloying? Fonda shows us how, because she possesses an intense, star-quality charisma that windows us into this woman’s very tortured life.
I was initially lukewarm about this performance because the film’s just so damn messy, but Fonda’s understanding of this character triumphs even when the film does not. There’s a phenomenal sequence in which she, in her almost-but-not-quite-drunken stupor, tells Jeff Bridges’ character that she was groomed to be ‘the next Vera Miles’ – here, she’s not only able to capture the intense bitterness this woman has but also the notion that she feels wronged by the world, as if she’s been cheated out of something she really thought she deserved. This was this woman’s life, after all, and even if we scoff at the inherent absurdity of her claim, we're heartbroken by it, too. Another rather horrific scene shows Fonda’s Alex proclaiming her infantile, fangirlish love for Nancy Drew – initially, I found this sequence laughable. But we’re supposed to laugh at Alex – and cry for her, too, because Fonda intentionally makes her both earnestly childlike and comically embarrassing in this scene, showing the glimpses of hope, youth, and a desire for a life that’s unadorned by the complications she’s living with now. It’s sort of hilarious in a campy kind of way, and I’m not sure if I’m supposed to cringe for Fonda the actress or Alexandra the character in this scene. But Fonda’s a very smart actress – she knows what she’s doing, and, even if she does occasionally cede to the hokum of the source material a la her shrill turn in “On Golden Pond”, she doesn’t ever seem willing to abandon her character; she wants us to cringe. Fonda can’t save her film when it’s collapsing – and, boy, does it collapse – but her commitment to this woman is remarkable.
Fonda’s nomination this year is one of those “what the fuck” nods that didn’t get any precursor attention. But as we’ve seen with Julie Christie’s fantastic realism in “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” and especially Giancarlo Giannini’s otherworldly turn in “Seven Beauties”, these surprises are often blessings in disguise, and I couldn’t be happier that Fonda was recognized – she’s brilliant. It’s unfortunate that this slaphappy screenplay never lets us penetrate fully into Alex’s soul, because Fonda clearly has the capacity to go much deeper. Still, Fonda goes as deep as she can, and she’s able to spin an invariably complex, believable human being out of this rather unbelievable source material. She’s a woman who’s been so psychologically beaten down, both by circumstance and her own shortcomings, that she constantly puts her faith in people no normal person would trust. Fonda can’t alleviate the drear of this film, but if she can’t, then who can? I consider her, along with Liv Ullmann, to be our greatest living actress; she has a fantastic way of translating her incredibly rich, varied lifetime – which, like Alexandra’s, is also full of self-inflicted pain – to all of the women she plays, and this isn’t any different. The way she’s written, Alexandra Sternbergen can’t even touch Bree Daniels or Gloria Beatty. For a moment here, though, Fonda comes awfully close.