Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Pauline Kael

“Jane Fonda looks great in her tan weather-beaten makeup and tight jeans, but her acting is disappointingly constricted. This woman rancher is more taciturn even than the Westerners of Gary Cooper and Clint Eastwood, but where their silence was entertainingly heroic, hers is a matter of repression and man-hating. When Ella’s neighbor, Frank, is shot, she puts him on a cot in her barn, on dirty pillow ticking. He lies there in his bloodstained underwear, and all she does for him is leave some canned food nearby. When he gets better, she informs him that he owes her for the food and that she expects him to pay the debt by working on her ranch (Hostile Acres?). Eventually, Dodger reveals that her (now dead) father raised her as the son he never had. That wheezing line—it used to account for why a heroine wore pants or didn’t ride sidesaddle—doesn’t explain much. Why would being raised as a boy prevent her from keeping a wounded man clean? The movie turns into a cow-country version of Summertime: eventually, the patient, long-suffering Frank defrosts the tight, spinsterish Westerner. Caan holds his own with strong women (as he demonstrated in Funny Lady); he does it with dignity and without strain, using his smaller screen presence as a foil to their strength….

“Fonda and Caan ride and rope with convincing assurance, but the roundups are surprisingly brutal. The way that the panicking running animals are roped and come crashing down on their heads may be authentic, but it works against the film’s liberal and ecological theses. We’re supposed to see that Ella’s dedication to ranching preserves the land, while the nearby areas are being dynamited in the quest for oil. Yet it’s hard to work up much sentiment for this pair of honest ranchers who are tossing cows into back flips before sending them off to be slaughtered….”

Pauline Kael
The New Yorker, November 13, 1978
Taking It All In, p. 487
[left out a little from p. 488]

Stanley Kauffmann

“....Lately, however, Fonda has been deepening and freshening again…. [I]n three very different pictures in the last two years, her roles were well-enough written and she showed us superior acting. In the pastry puff Fun With Dick and Jane, she bubbled…. In two current films she gives performances excellent in themselves and all the more impressive because they can be seen in tandem. Their differences make each one seem stronger.

“Both, unfortunately, are in questionable pictures, but if you're interested in acting, they are very much worth seeing for Fonda. In Comes a Horseman…, she plays a woman who inherited a small ranch and, with the help of one old man, is trying to keep it going against various odds. The moment she appears, she is that woman, coming to us out of a life of physical labor, hard skill earned with difficulties, hard principles defended with every nerve. Not a gesture, not an intonation, not a tremor of her presence comes from anywhere but the woman’s being: these are no actor’s characteristics studied and acquired, they are the natural results of a character created.

“And Fonda is in California Suite…. The moment she appears, her physical silhouette--I don't mean her dress, of course--is so different from Comes a Horseman that there's a small shock of fright, as if the transformation by art had something supernatural about it….

“I haven't seen such an accidental juxtaposition of two differentiated fine performances by an American film actor since 1972, in Paul Newman's films Sometimes a Great Notion and Pocket Money. As with Newman, in Fonda's two roles there are no limps, no wigs, no broad accents, no stock-company trickery. Just (just!) creative imagination and the talent to embody it. For a number of years in the 1960s, I conducted a series about film on the PBS station in New York, and sometimes I would do a program on acting, with clips from two or three performances by the same actor. I don't often miss doing that program nowadays, but I wish I could do one with these Fonda films. Besides the pleasure it would give, it might possibly also do a little--o wan hope--to offset the rubbish that gets published about film acting, about these two performances especially.

“I can't quite contend that Fonda has become the first-rate artist I thought and still think is in her. For one point, she has been lax in her choice of scripts. For another, she has missed playing some of the great roles that only the theater could give her…. [S]he ought to let one medium feed the other in her work. Still she is the preeminent actress on the American screen. We have other good ones--for examples, Ellen Burstyn and the lately arrived Meryl Streep. Fonda, further on (she has already finished two more films), could move still further, could surprise us unsurprisingly. That is, she could move to unforeseen new strengths that nevertheless grow out of what we know about her.

“Futile Question No. ????. With actresses like these on hand, how can Diane Keaton still be taken seriously? How can her parlor-act broken-arc comedy and facile hysterics not be perceived for what they are?”

Stanley Kauffmann
New Republic, date ?

“One way to pass the time while watching a turkey with big people in it is to wonder why they agreed to do it. Not that big people always choose infallibly: Jane Fonda’s career is hardly unfluctuated. Still, why did she agree to do this incohesive, luridly melodramatic script? Or Jason Robards? Or the director, Alan J. Pakula?….

“None of this would matter much, it would be just one more (apparent) botch of a possibly good idea, except that Fonda gives her best performance in a long time. The lolling on her talent that I’ve sensed in recent work is jolted away here by her insistence on creating a stubborn, strong, quixotic woman, a credible Westerner who lives by self-reliance. Curious, too, that Fonda should do her most galvanized work in years in the role of a conservative! And it’s wasted. Pity.”

Stanley Kauffmann
The New Republic, November 25, 1978

David Denby

“I have no idea what the filmmaers thought they were saying in this picture, but I’m sure the only commercial element (if there’s any at all) will be the greening of Jane Fonda. As always, she creates her character with considerable physical detail. Her hard-pressed pioneer wears faded pants and plaids, her face is sunburned and leathery, and she has a gaunt, ravaged look—like an unhappy, worn-out woman in a Dorothea Lange photograph. A distant, hardened battler, she refuses to show any tenderness, or to receive any either. Fonda is a great actress, but this harsh performance is unbelievably solemn. Barbara Stanwyck used to play bitchy ranch-owner roles too, but Stanwyck, striding around in black skirts with a riding crop in her hand, suggested that she had more life in her than any man could handle—if only a few men would try. Her malice was freezing one minute, enticing the next. Fonda, on the other hand, just seems parched, depleted; she’s taken the fun out of the role without adding much depth.

“In any case, we can all see that Caan is so patient and sweetly masculine that she’s bound to turn toward him in the end. And sure enough, she does. But since this is a respectable, high-type Western, we’re not allowed to view the seduction, only the gravely tender morning after. Feminists may be offended by what happens next: Fonda lets her hair doesn, puts on a dress, and goes square dancing with Caan, a radiant-smile on her face. That return-to-life smile is an embarrassing cliché, yet it’s the only time anyone connected witht his grim and muddled movie tried to give the audience pleasure, and I was grateful for it.”

David Denby
New York, November 13, 1978

Stephen Farber

“Fonda etches still another brilliant characterization. This time she’s a fiercely independent frontierswoman who’s wary of any human contact. She mistrusts everyone, and she won’t allow any emotional relationship to distract her from her overriding obsession with the land. Her pride is both commanding and maddening, and Fonda doesn’t try to soften the character or make her lovable. She makes us think of those old photographs of western matriarchs with leathery skin and the glint of steel in their eyes. There’s an entire history of American tenacity in the rich character that Fonda creates.

“Although James Caan’s character isn’t as well conceived, he makes a perfect foil for Fonda. In his quiet way he’s just as proud as she is; he’s not intimidated by her severity…. There’s a real sexual chemistry between the two stars, and we relish the slow development of their relationship; it’s in the best tradition of hard-boiled Hollywood romances….

“Pakula may not recognize his own strengths. It’s amusing that this expensive, overproduced epic western is most compelling when two people are talking over the kitchen table, but it drops dead when the camera sweeps over those vast outdoor vistas. However, even the love story runs into problems in the second half of the movie. In the best movie romances, there’s an equal give-and-take between the lovers. Comes a Horseman is out of balance because Caan has nothing to learn from Fonda. He’s perfect even at the start—a proud but gentle man who teaches the cold-hearted heroine how to love. In the later parts of the film Fonda recedes into the background as Caan takes the reins and tames her. Pakula’s films often demonstrate a subtle but troubling sexual prejudice. He is fascinated by strong women but also seems somewhat frightened of them; he wants to put them in their place. In The Sterile Cuckoo the abrasive Liza Minnelli was finally rejected by the sensitive hero; in Klute Jane Fonda was rescued from degradation by supercop Donald Sutherland. Comes a Horseman reworks the same story: A strong, proud woman realizes that her salvation comes in submitting to an even stronger man. My objections to this solution are aesthetic as well as political; the drama evaporates after the heroine melts….”

Stephen Farber
New West, November 6, 1978