Wednesday, August 31, 2016

MISS SADIE THOMPSON: Blu-ray (Columbia 1953) Twilight Time

William Somerset Maugham’s short story, ‘Rain’ (1921 and later to be renamed by Maugham as ‘Miss Thompson’) generated quite a lot of heat when it was first published; the moralists quick to condemn; the flapper age, eager to embrace it, at least, as salacious bedtime reading with the book and a flashlight tucked under their pillows. ‘Rain’ – the tale of a fallen woman brought to heel by exactly the sort of pulpit-pounding evangelist now condemning the publication of Maugham’s book, served a twofold purpose for the author; not the least, adding to his considerable cache as one of the glittering literati of his generation. As with all Maugham’s more prolific writings, Rain did more than merely tread on the tantalizing particulars of the clichéd bad girl out to get all she can. It also explored the hypocrisies in the seemingly clear-cut duality between good and evil; Sadie Thompson, actually more put-upon than self-indulgently a wanton; the holier-than-thou Reverend Davidson, exploiting the promise of salvation to mask his own libidinous desires, ditching his tight-lipped wife to possess the harlot for his own. Under either title, Miss Thompson proved an enduring and impressive critique of the foibles befallen human (im)morality. We are, after all, imperfect creatures, struggling with fallible misinterpretations of the gospel. How best to serve God in a thoroughly godless world? The irony, of course is it takes a great deal of effort to be good, and, not all that much temptation to slip into the inequities of life-altering mistakes, ultimately destined to prevent our ascendance to divine perfection.    
Maugham, perhaps better than most understood how ‘almost accidental’ sin comes upon every life – even when the participant resists its sway. He might have also harbored a little guilt over being a practicing – if closeted - homosexual; having seduced Syrie Wellcome, the wife of a prominent pharmaceutical giant, later to marry her and sire a child.  Little, in fact, was known about Maugham’s own ravenous sexual appetite then outside his close-knit circle of friends. To the world outside, he remained an erudite bon vivant, maintained an enviable lifestyle (rumored to be the highest paid author of the 1930s) and proving – as though proof itself were required – a self-made, cultured and exceptionally well-read gentleman. However, just like the character of Sadie Thompson, the minutiae of Maugham’s life were deliberately kept cloudy.  While Maugham was born to privilege, he also was orphaned at the age of ten and thereafter raised by his father’s emotionally remote brother. He shied away from entering ‘the family business’ as a prominent attorney, but completed medical school, before ditching the profession of doctoring after his very first novel, 1897’s Liza of Lambeth proved a runaway best seller. As with all good Brits, Maugham did his part in WWI, and in 1916 was recruited into British Secret Intelligence, flying under the radar in Switzerland and Russia shortly before the 1917 Revolution. Well-traveled, Maugham’s experiences would later inform his best literary works. It has since been suggested his 1922 short story compendium, Ashenden, about a gentlemanly sophisticate/spy, inspired Ian Fleming to later create the James Bond franchise. 
Director Curtis Bernhardt’s 1953’s adaptation of Miss Sadie Thompson – in 3D no less, is thrice removed from Maugham’s source material; Harry Kleiner’s screenplay a somewhat watered down affair, distilling the potency of Maugham’s rather unvarnished prose to satisfy the stringency of the reigning production code, but further hampered as it is expressly tailored as a Rita Hayworth vehicle – a sort of ‘welcome home’ comeback, for which Columbia Studio’s chief, Harry Cohn pulled out virtually all the stops to will a Technicolor spectacle shot partly on location in Kauai and interpolated with musical numbers to add tropical splendor to the exercise. The problem herein is ‘Rain’ is a rather claustrophobic story about a down-and-out trollop, whose last lifeline is about to be severed by a religious zealot; hardly the sort of breezy ‘star-making’ vehicle audiences expected from Hayworth, particularly after a nearly four year absence from the screen, thanks to Hayworth’s much-publicized and equally as disastrous marriage to Prince Ali Khan. Regrettably, Hayworth would follow up Miss Sadie Thompson with an even greater martial miscalculation to crooner, Dick Haymes and another semi-retirement from the movies – and this, at the height of her allure as a box office sex bomb. 
In more recent times there has been sincere speculation about the parallels between the fictional Sadie and Hayworth’s own life.  Lest we forget Rita, born Margarita Carmen Cansino, began her career as part of rather sultry adagio act that featured her own father, Eduardo – a professional dance instructor. While Rita’s mother, Volga, candidly yearned for Rita to someday become a great actress, Eduardo diligently put his thirteen year old protégée through the paces of a rather sexualized dance routine. The moves were so suggestive, in fact, the audience assumed Rita was Eduardo’s wife despite the fact he was nearly forty; an assumption Eduardo did not discourage. Did Eduardo Cansino sexually abuse his own daughter? Hmmm.  While there is no definitive proof of this, the veneer of a rumor begun long ago has since remained very thin and highly suspect. For certain, Rita’s first marriage, at age eighteen, to Charles Edward Judsen – a mysterious jack of all trades, though arguably, master of none, helped both to wipe the bloom off Rita’s fledgling womanhood and, in tandem, launch her movie career. Did she marry Judsen to escape her father’s domineering personality? If so, it was one of the most egregious cases of the tired ole cliché about ‘jumping from an overheated fry pan into the raging fire’.      
Rita’s 1937 Vegas marriage to Judsen was abhorred by her parents. Indeed, the already twice divorced and very shrewd businessman was as old as Eduardo and would prove, with time and plenty of opportunity, to be even more intimidating in Hayworth’s Svengali-esque transformation. Hayworth would later describe the marriage as “sad”, adding, “…he helped himself to my money.”  While Judsen proved instrumental in orchestrating Hayworth’s first studio contract, over at Fox, the dissolution of their marriage in 1942 coincided with a cancellation of that contract after only a few film appearances. Left virtually penniless, this was also the beginning of Rita’s meteoric rise to prominence as Harry Cohn’s Columbia gal, slated to become the biggest female star on the lot and one of the biggest of all forties box office draws, bar nothing. Cohn reshaped Rita’s persona; shedding her ‘exotic’ Spanish look through painful electrolysis to remove a widow’s peak, dying her hair red, and renaming the girl after her mother’s maiden name, Hayworth; more pleasing to the Anglo-Saxon ear and a better fit for the marquee.  Although Cohn tried to seduce his new star Hayworth, no stranger to men by now, effectively sidestepped sleeping with the boss while maintaining her status as the ‘love goddess’; a moniker she absolutely detested, but simultaneously helped to promote in movies like Gilda (1946).
In hindsight, Rita was perhaps restlessly searching for a father figure after becoming estranged from her parents. Her failure to find such a surrogate speaks more to inner desperation than to the results; affairs with unattainable married actors like Victor Mature and later, brief unions to Orson Welles (arguably, the only man to truly love Rita for herself, but quite unable to manage her), then Ali Khan and Dick Haymes, suggesting an ongoing loneliness and isolation never to be fully satisfied. In varying degrees, all the men in Hayworth’s life were exploitive of her talents, their heads turned by the illusion of the sex bomb, prompting Rita to later admit, “They went to bed with Gilda, but they woke up with me.”  Undoubtedly, Hayworth brought a good deal of her own back story to her impressions of Sadie Thompson; a knock-about gal, using sex appeal to get by, occasionally to her own detriment. And indeed, of all the actresses to have played Sadie Thompson (Gloria Swanson in the silent 1928 original, and Joan Crawford in 1932’s scintillating ‘talkie’), Rita seems most comfortably to fit the role with a genuine sad-eyed clarity for the life lived by this alter ego; an assignation of two lives having met in the middle, the crosshairs yielding in a memorable musical number, ‘The Heat is On’; deemed a “filthy dance scene” by censorship mandarin, Lloyd T. Binford, who went on to describe the picture in totem as “rotten, lewd and immoral…just a plain raw, dirty picture!”  
The Heat is On’ was deliberately concocted (with music and lyrics by Lester Lee and Allan Roberts, and, Hayworth dubbed by Jo Ann Greer) to rekindle the elusive magic of Gilda’s ‘Put The Blame on Mame’. Alas, like the other numbers featured in Miss Sadie Thompson, this one merely intrudes on the dramatic intensity of Maugham’s story, and, in fact, takes the audience out of Hayworth’s otherwise finely crafted performance, forcing Rita to regress into the musical pantheon she already established in movies like Cover Girl and You Were Never Lovelier; infinitely better examples of her talents in this genre. Despite the inclusion of three songs, the most miscalculated of the lot, ‘Hear No Evil, See No Evil’ – sung to a corps of bright-eyed native children (seemingly excised from an altogether different movie), Miss Sadie Thompson is not a musical. Yet, it repeatedly lacks the impetus to otherwise be considered a truly fine melodrama with songs thrown in, perhaps, because Hayworth’s galvanized on screen reputation is being pulled simultaneously in two diametrically opposite directions. There is the cinematic Rita, that fun-loving songstress, aiming to please local G.I.’s inside smoky canteens nestled in these sweaty south sea islands, and then there is Rita as Sadie Thompson; the tormented and put upon woman of the world, having run away from a sordid past in the sex trade, only to rediscover its specter looming large in the mind of an over-ambitious hypocrite, who cannot rid himself of her mystique, and, aims through abject humiliation and hell-fired damnation, to bring Sadie to her knees; though hardly for more altruistic ‘religious’ purposes.
There is a point to be made about the picture and it is this. That of all three cinematic versions, only Miss Sadie Thompson dares to illustrate ‘the rape’ of our heroine; albeit, highly sanitized and achieved mostly through penetrating stares exchanged between Sadie and Davidson; cinematographer, Charles Lawton Jr. resorting to a few cutaways of flailing arms and legs and a groundswell of orchestral angst: about all the fifties censorship would allow without getting their knickers in a ball. It is rather effective pantomime; the impression of forcibly stolen sex doing well enough to establish the act without having to show us every distasteful detail. Alas, Davidson’s subsequent suicide, the other high water mark in dramatic suspense, is disappointingly handled. In Crawford’s 1932 remake, as example, Davidson’s body is gradually revealed in half shadow by director, Lewis Milestone, as having been caught in the submerged nets of native fishermen; a twisted leg and petrified dead hand disentangled. It’s odd, because moments of Miss Sadie Thompson just seem dashed off the cuff; the meticulous structuring of its first and second act inexplicably devolving into a series of not altogether prepossessing vignettes; stolen moments of regret between Hayworth’s wounded woman and co-star, Aldo Ray’s thick-necked, and as thick-headed lummox in soldier’s khakis.    
Fellow co-star, Jose Ferrer did not want to play the part of the villain or indeed any part at all in the making of Miss Sadie Thompson; a story he considered trash and a part he emphatically thought of as nothing better than a throw away. In fact, Ferrer had to be somewhat strong-armed by his agent to partake of the exercise. And while the picture certainly did no harm to his reputation, it also served to ease him back into the spotlight after being blacklisted as a Communist sympathizer. Part of Ferrer’s odiousness may also be attributed to the fact he was in the middle of his second – and rather messy divorce from actress, Phyllis Hill. Ferrer manages to capture all the hypocrisy of his character, though I would argue, without ever infusing it with the insidiousness required to truly make his penultimate off-screen suicide meaningfully tragic in any way. In the ’32 version, co-star, Walter Huston has a particularly effective moment preceding Davidson’s rape of Sadie; conveyed by one of the most erotically alarming looks of absolutely crazed lust ever subtly depicted by an actor. Ferrer refrains from reflecting virtually any emotion as he approaches Sadie in her bedroom; using the inflection of his dialogue to suggest the real reason for Davidson’s return.
Despite Harry Cohn’s sincere hope the picture would resurrect Rita’s career as Columbia’s greatest pin-up, the ole-time mogul had miscalculated on the grit and grime associated with the part; Hayworth, still looking every inch ‘the star’ but now, somewhat rough around the edges; less glamor queen and more a sex pot slowly going to seed. It works for the character she plays herein, but it also ostensibly redefined the parameters of Hayworth’s box office appeal in a less than flattering light; something Cohn was unprepared for and decidedly had not wanted to face. Undeniably, Rita is older and perhaps this too prompted Cohn to consider it high time for Columbia to pursue other starlets in the queue to eventually surpass her; chiefly, starlet Kim Novak, later to costar with Hayworth in 1957’s Pal Joey, further illustrating the superficial merits of youth over experience – at least, as far as the camera was concerned. Arguably, the actor who most benefited from his association with Miss Sadie Thompson was beefy and whisky-voiced Aldo Ray, as the rather brutish muscle head, Sgt. Phil O’Hara. Although Ray had already appeared in a handful of movies to limited effect, Miss Sadie Thompson would jet-propel his movie career, pitched as the fifties’ desirable ‘butch male’; husky, thick-necked, and raspy-voiced; the prototypical tough guy. Today, Ray’s brand of male machismo seems heavy-handed to say the least; a sort of Tab Hunter on steroids; a walking cliché of the uber-masculine iconography best eulogized in men’s magazines of a particular ilk and era when square-shouldered, and as square-jawed, men of decision were considered something of the aspiration, if never the norm.
Miss Sadie Thompson opens with a breathtaking travelogue of the island of Kauai beneath the opening credits; swaying palms and mountainous terrain sloping into gorgeous sandy beaches and perpetually rolling surf with a mild breeze blowing off the water.  The latest clipper from America has docked, the ferry bringing Alfred Davidson, his wife, Margaret (Peggy Converse), Dr. Robert McPhail (Russell Collins) and his wife (Francis Morris) to port. Davidson, vaguely referenced as some sort of evangelic missionary, arriving to inspect the progress made at a local hospital managed by McPhail, almost immediately comes into conflict with McPhail over his particular brand of hectoring Christianity. Those who ascribe to his teachings fly on the side of the angels, while those perceived as resisting are either meant to be converted by force or threatened with eternal damnation as sinners going straight to hell. McPhail does not see the point so cut and dry; ostracizing anyone who does not aspire to Davidson’s perverted and sanctimonious sense of morality. In McPhail’s view, no one is ‘beyond’ salvation, least of all the newly arrived Miss Sadie Thompson. Almost immediately, she has caught the eye of Sgt. Phil O'Hara and his underlings, Pvt. Griggs (Henry Slate), Pvt. Hodges (Rudy Bond) and Pvt. Edwards (Charles Bronson).  
But Davidson considers Sadie as a threat to the essential moral fiber, not just to the easily corruptible American G.I.’s; isolated and thus deprived of female companionship for far too long, but also to the godless natives he has worked ever so diligently to convert into finer specimens of his own ‘intelligent design’ through charitable works. Alas, Davidson and his entourage are forced to share lodgings with Sadie in the island’s only hotel, run by the benevolent, Joe Horn (Harry Bellaver); an American expat married to a Malaysian woman, Ameena (Diosa Costello). Over the course of the next several days, Davidson will move heaven and earth to launch an inquiry into Sadie’s past; unearthing a disturbing history; including a stint as a ‘singer’ at a disreputable nightclub in Honolulu. While Sadie denies to Davidson she did anything more than sing at the club, she will later confirm for O’Hara her talents extended to more intimate after hours’ pleasuring of the club’s male clientele. Davidson is determined to see Sadie sent back to America from whence, it is suggested, she has fled incarceration on never entirely disclosed charges of prostitution. Sadie, of course, resists this deportation. She also attempts, without success, to keep O’Hara’s curiosity regarding her past at arm’s length. When Davidson petitions the Governor (Wilton Graff) to have Sadie forcibly ejected from the island, she appeals to the Governor for a reprieve. But Davidson is the ‘real’ law in these parts. The Governor will not rescind his order.
At the same time, O’Hara proposes to take Sadie away to live obscurely with him at a friend’s place in Australia. It sounds like heaven, except O’Hara, later discovers the truth about Sadie and suffers a momentary lapse of personal integrity, calling her a tramp. Boxed into an impossible situation, Sadie succumbs to Davidson’s dehumanizing assault. She renounces her former ways and, for a brief stint, is almost brainwashed into a complete reformation. Unhappy circumstance, that as Sadie draws nearer to repenting for her sins she becomes obsessively desirable to Davidson who is, after all, nothing more than a hypocrite, lusting after her. Davidson’s fall from grace is made complete when he enters Sadie’s bedroom after everyone else has retired for the night. Forcing himself upon her, the rape reawakens Sadie to a misperception about all men – they’re pigs! Sadie is haunted, but hardening as she prepares to return to America to face up to the fallout from that life she ran away from before the plot of this movie began. Mercifully, O’Hara arrives to inform Sadie of the discovery of Davidson’s body by local fishermen; Davidson seemingly having committed suicide by drowning. O’Hara now makes a heartfelt apology to his beloved. Whatever her past, he cannot help but realize she is the only woman for him. The offer of safe passage to Australia still stands, and O’Hara promises to rejoin Sadie just as soon as his release from the army is granted. The movie ends with O’Hara and his buddies hurriedly escorting Sadie to the docks where she boards a ferry bound for the clipper to take her to the land down under.
Miss Sadie Thompson’s finale is a wee too optimistic to be truly effective; Sadie, seemingly untainted by the rape, neither unnerved by the realization she was the catalyst for Davidson’s fall from grace and suicide, bundled off with a luminous toothy smile as she retreats to a new – and presumably, brighter future to be shared by O’Hara. It doesn’t quite fit into the dramatic arc or milieu of the rest of the picture or, the punishable edicts for all fallen women outlined in the Production Code, or in fact, the residual darkness that permeates Maugham’s short story and the play on which it is based, first given off-Broadway hit-status by producer, John Colton and stage/silent screen diva, Jeanne Eagels. Maugham’s tale of moral turpitude first published as Sadie Thompson in the magazine, Smart Set in 1921, and later to become a pivotal chapter in his anthology of eight, entitled, A Trembling of a Leaf, was something of a sleeper with Eagels as its star; the engagement at Maxim Elliott’s Theater alone running 608 performances and proving a veritable cash cow for Maugham. But the ending of the story and the play have Sadie reverting to her old ways, playing records loudly and spitting on Mrs. Davidson, accosting Dr. McPhail with a declaration that all men are filthy pigs. To varying degrees, the movies have had to grapple with a pseudo-enforced contrition of the central protagonist; not exactly brought to heel, but nevertheless developing a more or less cockeyed optimism about what the future may bring.
With the ink yet to dry on contracts for the 1928 movie, Maugham would gross a whopping $3 million dollars from the exploitation of this one story, and this at a time when a gallon of gas cost barely twenty-one cents! But Eagels, a severely underrated and all but forgotten actress today, would suffer a minor breakdown after being passed over for Gloria Swanson in the original movie. In hindsight, Swanson had the bigger reputation with audiences.  But it is one of Hollywood’s ironies – or perhaps even its ‘curses’ – none of these three big screen adaptations of Maugham’s perennially popular story did a thing to advance the reputations and/or careers of any of the actresses assuming the part; Swanson receiving the best reviews overall; while Crawford was almost universally panned (despite an exceptional break out from her MGM Teflon-coated ‘shop girl makes good’ image) and Hayworth virtually all but ignored. Arguably, audiences are still waiting for the definitive version of ‘Rain’ to hit the screen, an effective and affecting visual transcription of Maugham’s incendiary story of this no-good woman, clawing her way up from social outcast to moral ambiguity.   
Twilight Time’s 3D/2D release of Miss Sadie Thompson is hardly up to Sony’s usual impeccable mastering efforts. Overall, the image is fraught with inconsistencies in grain, color balancing, and contrast. Exactly how much of this is exacerbated by the gimmick of stereoscopic projection remains open for discussion. And, to be sure, there are some exquisitely understated uses of 3D scattered throughout this movie. Maugham’s tale could easily have done without the third dimension; Hayworth effectively blowing smoke from a cigarette out into the audience during one scene, or gyrating in and out of the proscenium during ‘The Heat is On’ adding quaint SFX that neither overpower the narrative nor, arguably, add much too it either. But back to the transfer quality for just a moment: for starters, the Columbia logo is in very rough shape, exhibiting residual fading on the right-hand side and looking fairly murky and slightly out of focus in either its 3D or 2D incarnation.
From this inauspicious beginning, things marginally improve; a rather lushly photographed main title with candy-apple red credits set against a vibrant green backdrop of Kauai’s flora and fauna. But soon, the image becomes intermittently plagued by a sort of thin dusty veil that renders flesh pasty and Rita’s iconic henna tresses (except in a handful of shots) looking more dirty brown/gold than anything else. Colors range from vibrant to murky. Rita’s dance in ‘The Heat is On’ is bathed in a smoky blue-gray mist that, in several shots, practically obliterates the action. Never having seen Miss Sadie Thompson during its original theatrical run, I can only speculate there was something more – or better – to Charles Lawton Jr. cinematography than this murky blend of fog and silt. Yes, we are meant to get the point – it is stiflingly hot in the tropics. No kidding. But this pivotal moment in the movie is marred by a lot of visual inconsistencies that tend to draw one out of the story. Overall, I was not engrossed by this presentation in either 3D or 2D; the visuals lacking overall consistency and, in some cases, even basic clarity, to keep me interested in the performances.
The DTS-HD 2.0 mono, while hardly setting the world afire is nevertheless, quite competently rendered. Extras include an intro from actress, Patricia Clarkson (part of this release on DVD back in 2006). We get a brand new and highly informative audio commentary from noted historians, David Del Valle and Steven Peros, plus an isolated music and effects track and Julie Kirgo’s usual bang-up job on liner notes that read far more effectively as an essay. I’d like to say a word about TT’s rather ugly cover art; a heavily Photo-shopped depiction of Hayworth, barely recognizable with her head tilted backward, hoisted by actor, Harry Slate, whose lips appear as though to be breast-feeding through the fabric of her dress. Honestly, there is better cover art available. Overall, nicely put together extras for a marginally amusing movie. Bottom line: less than impressed with the transfer. Good but not great. Pity that.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)

Friday, August 26, 2016

THE PRINCE OF TIDES (TriStar 1991) Sony Home Entertainment

Barbra Streisand continued her exploration of self-discovery, arguably, a life-long quest to find her own inner beauty, using Pat Conroy’s celebrated novel, The Prince of Tides (1991) as her catalyst and inspiration. While the novel delves deeply into a centralized brother/sister relationship and the revelations occurring from their exhumation of profoundly troubling family secrets, Streisand’s colossus of emotion divides its run time between Conroy’s originally themed scenario and a new focus on the burgeoning romantic entanglements involving the movie’s conflicted protagonist, Tom Wingo (Nick Nolte in a superbly nuanced and Oscar-nominated performance, well out of his usual comfort zone) and Dr. Susan Lowenstein (the nothing short of brilliant, Streisand); a no-nonsense, though ultimately supportive Manhattan psychiatrist, passionate to spare Tom’s sister, the sensitive introvert/poetess, Savannah (Melinda Dillon) from another suicide attempt.  Upon the picture’s release, Streisand would be heavily criticized for this departure from and/or revision to Conroy’s prose, despite the fact Conroy, together with screenwriter, Becky Johnston, was responsible for the screenplay. And Conroy, something of a perfectionist in his own right, had nothing but the highest praise for Streisand’s devotion to his brainchild, in the end, sending her an autographed copy of the novel with an inscription that read: “To Barbra Streisand: The Queen of are many things… but you're also a great of the greatest to come into my life. I honor the great teachers and they live in my work…they dance invisibly in the margins of my prose. You've honored me by taking care of it with such great seriousness and love. Great thanks and I'll never forget that you gave 'The Prince of Tides' back to me as a gift - Pat Conroy.”
The Prince of Tides – the movie – has since become a sorely overlooked masterpiece from Streisand who, in a career outlasting most of her contemporaries, has unconventionally morphed from the elegant, if occasionally thunderstruck songbird of sixties’ road show movie musicals, into a dramatic star and, even more apparently unlikely refined storyteller, naturally poised to straddled the chasm between what goes on behind the camera and the impeccable performances she renders in front of it.  Arguably, Streisand urgently needed The Prince of Tide’s middle act to revolve around her. Yet, in hindsight, the carefully constructed mobile of plot points efficiently dangled, then dispatched to tell two major stories – one from the haunted recesses of childhood trauma, the other, its ever-present fallout and extraordinary aftermath – generates parallel narrative arcs on a collision course for the sort of heart-wrenching and emotionally satisfying finale, rarely seen in American movies then - and virtually unheard of in all American movies made today. In hindsight, Streisand’s lavish outpouring of unvarnished sentiment is not only very much in keeping with the novel’s diffused filter, spreading shafts of truth-revealing light on the ties that bind, but can also tear us apart; also, adding another cornerstone to Streisand’s fractured legacy from youth. By 1991, fans of la Streisand had discovered what many of her detractors still refused to concede; that apart from her ravenous perfectionism, often reinterpreted by the media as shrewish, exacting, emasculating and maniacal, Streisand nevertheless had defied what others misdirected and labeled as ‘ego’ to become one of Hollywood’s finest directors of her generation. Still, Streisand had good cause to gird her loins just prior to the release of The Prince of Tides; the picture, nominated in virtually every major category at Oscar time, except Best Actress and Best Director; the ole ‘boys’ club’ nepotism hard at work to shutter her chances from the competition that, in 1991, included such heavy-hitting and sincerely memorable entertainments as Oliver Stone’s J.F.K, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, Warren Beatty’s long overdue return to the screen in Bugsy and, the ultimate winner, Jonathan Demme’s Silence of the Lambs.   
But 1991 was a banner year for Streisand in other ways. Not only had she elected to release a ‘then’ thirty year retrospect of her music career, but the usually shielded diva whose reclusiveness, second only to Garbo’s rich mystique, endured a rather angst-shredding interview conducted by 60 Minute’s sage and master of the nitty-gritty, Mike Wallace, whose own journalistic chutzpah proved too great for Streisand to overcome or even deflect. Challenging Streisand as ‘self-absorbed and opinionated’ Wallace, who suggested he never really like Streisand to her face, cornered her under the auspices of ‘tough love’. “Why do you sound so accusatory?” Streisand generously inquired when pressed to explain her twenty years in psychoanalysis. But soon, she was unexpectedly opening up to chapters from her past otherwise kept tightly under lock and key; the loss of her father when she was only fifteen months old, and, enduring chronic verbal abuse from a cruel stepfather who berated an impressionable seven year old as being ‘too ugly’ to have ice cream. “He couldn’t give affection,” Streisand suggested, “He never talked to me. He was mean to my mother. This was not a nice man.”   In hindsight, that interview, in which Wallace continued to chisel away at Streisand’s usually Teflon-coated austerity, catching more than a glimpse of those childhood insecurities still able to draw on a wellspring of tears, is both revealing of Streisand’s purpose in making The Prince of Tides as well as her presence as the compassionate psychoanalyst in it, and, ostensibly, the reason for the picture’s critical and box office success. Clearly, she could relate to the catharsis. And The Prince of Tides, apart from being a thoroughly compelling exposé about the journey back from a thoroughly ravaged and barren brink of mental devastation, is, in many ways a tale told by Streisand about Streisand; the mirror held up and just a little too close to be of comfort or absolutely edifying to its puppet master.    
Too often movies in which the past and the present intermingle are marred by jarring cuts, clumsy dissolves or otherwise ever-dreaded clichés in the anticipated ‘flashback’, taking the audience out of one story to zero in their attention span on the other, toggling back and forth as a sort of a visual ping-pong match that, over the course of the film’s runtime, more often than not becomes stale and emotionally dissatisfying.  Streisand’s skillful maneuvering through the labyrinth of Conroy’s turbulent honesty is assuaged by her ability to find the connective tissue and nuggets of wisdom and revelation in those proses. She instinctually switches between the two; her transitioning from ‘now’ to ‘then’ – and quite often, more adversarial, as in ‘now’ vs. ‘then’ – navigates, exculpates, and ultimately liberates our hero and heroine from the devastating foibles of their personal histories apart, and, in the third act, drawing them closer together as compatriots of a mutual scarring, destined for an emotionally-charged sexual liberation. Lost in transition are whole passages from Pat Conroy’s novel, mostly devoted to the childhood brutalities experienced by the Wingo children; Tom, Savannah, and their beloved brother, Luke (intermittently glimpsed throughout, in ‘flashbacks’ and played by three distinct child actors, Grayson Fricke, Ryan Newman and Chris Stacy) who, along with their calculating mother, Lila (Kate Nelligan) suffer the slings and arrows of a mentally and physically abusive father, Henry (Brad Sullivan), and, the hellish nightmare of a home invasion, perpetrated by a trio of prison escapees; resulting in the fierce rape of Tom, Savannah and Lila. This latter trauma survives the artistic cuts and is compounded by Luke’s wherewithal to load his father’s shotgun and murder all three assailants, their bodies later committed to the swamp; the revelation beaten into submission by the frantic Lila and never spoken of again, nor revealed to Henry who was away on his fishing trawler at the time of the attacks.      
Stephen Goldblatt’s lush and evocative cinematography, and James Newton Howard’s vibrant score, prone to groundswells of luxuriating orchestral sentimentality, extol the endangered splendor of South Carolina’s low country, contrasted quite effectively with the dusty inner-city sparkle of upscale Manhattan. And Nolte and Streisand – seemingly such disparate people in life, as well as oddly cast personalities on the screen, nevertheless possess the elusive firefly spark and magic of illuminating movie-land chemistry; neither, simplifying their characterizations herein; each, diving headstrong and heart-sure into the deep end of this creative pool; arms, legs, heads and hearts wrapped around a story that, in tandem affects and sooths. The salient elements of Pat Conroy’s novel linger and sustain, hyperbolized by Streisand’s yen for layering artifice onto verisimilitude, but with such mind-bogglingly impressive aptitude, the melding of these outwardly irreconcilable intangibles yields to an even more elusive third, more gratifying and self-assured as a universal, a parable and – yes, an ole-fashioned ‘love story’.  There is even a place in it for Streisand’s son, Jason Gould playing, what else? – Streisand’s movie son, Bernard Woodruff; a spoiled rich kid, given his first real lesson in manhood by Tom. Rule number one: learn how to throw a forward pass. Rule number two: never be held back from pursuing your passion. These lessons culminate in a devastating dinner party given by Lowenstein and her arrogant husband, concert violinist, Herbert (Jeroen Krabbé), who cannot resist treating Tom as something of an untouchable peasant in the midst of their cultured sect of sycophants until Tom threatens to drop Herbert’s Stradivarius off the balcony of their fashionable 5th Ave. penthouse, unless he publicly apologizes to his own wife for having an affair with his piano accompanist.    
Movies are, by their very nature, a communal activity; art by committee, as it were. But in The Prince of Tide’s case, the committee is undeniably ruled by the iron-fisted will of Barbra Streisand who knows precisely what she is after and is never afraid to demand it from cast and crew. Streisand’s inability to accept anything less than the passionate vision going on inside her own head is precisely the reason John Barry, the original composer chosen for this project, elected to bow out. “I can’t work with someone looking over my shoulder all the time,” Barry admitted. And Streisand is not only ‘looking over the shoulder’ but during her creative process, constantly reinventing, expanding and even changing and scrapping the perimeters of her own artistic license to begin anew, doubly reinvested in the outcome and the precision behind it meant to inform, cultivate and will a more concrete definition from that invisible value lingering in the back of her mind. “It’s how I grow,” Streisand once admitted, “How I get better and hopefully improve.”
The Prince of Tide’s opens with a spectacular montage of images gleaned from a seemingly idyllic childhood on the Carolina bayou; the Wingo clan, living in a great white house won by Tom’s great great-grandfather in a poker game; the children indulging in the sun-filtered steamy serenity of thigh-high reeds and rushes, shrimp trawlers lazily traversing the smooth waters, golden sunsets, and, the voice-over reflections of an adult Tom Wingo, superficially looking back on a time he would rather not explore more deeply. Nick Nolte’s great gift in the role is his uncanny faculty to covey the duality of conflict roiling close to the surface of Tom’s shaky resolve. His seemingly deadpan narration, at once suggests emotional detachment and yet an unrestrained fondness for the picture postcard images presently gleaned from this childhood he has yet to actually and fully come to terms. From this halcyon vantage we are plunged squarely into the nightmares of the present, soon to unravel, and yet ironically restore Tom’s inner soul; a phone call in the middle of the night alerting him to his sister, Savannah’s latest suicide attempt in Manhattan. Arriving in the big city after an estrangement from his wife, Sally (Blythe Danner) and their three children, Tom is alarmed to find his sister nearly catatonic and strapped down inside a padded cell at the psychiatric hospital; Savannah’s psychiatrist, Dr. Susan Lowenstein, not terribly interested in Tom’s glib and wholly unfair assessment of her skills as a ‘head shrinker’. “My only concern is my patient’s welfare,” Susan suggests. “Well, you’re doing a hell of a job!” Tom replies.
Lowenstein confronts Tom on a fundamental level: to tell her, the story of his life – and, by extension, Savannah’s – in the hopes of unlocking the inner torment causing Savannah such grave emotional distress. As it turns out, Tom is an even tougher ‘nut’ to crack. He has had a lifetime to build his own insular cocoon around his truer feelings, caustically slick and uncommunicative in anything beyond a pithy retort or embittered smart against their mother, Lila – a status-hungry matriarch who divorced Henry to marry Reese Newbury (Bob Hannah); a powerful attorney who, in Tom’s youth, manhandled the boy with thinly veiled threats of sending him off to boarding schools from which he likely would never return. Tom takes up residence in Savannah’s apartment, making small talk with her amiable gay landlord, Eddie Detreville (George Carlin). What could have possessed Savannah to end her own life? Tom reasons his sister has never entirely recovered from the loss of their eldest brother, Luke, an ex-Navy seal and Vietnam vet, likely suffering from PTSD, who applied military tactics in his personally waged war against the threat of a nearby power plant, destroying bridges and sabotaging building equipment. Luke, so we are later told, though ironically never shown, was later shot to death by the local police in a standoff.  
In the novel we get a lot more back story on the Wingos; particularly, severely flawed patriarch Henry, a WWII bomber crewman who survived a hellish bail out over Nazi Germany. Henry’s idea of family discipline during peace time is to regularly beat his children into submission while squandering his hard-earned wages as a shrimper on pie-in-the-sky business ventures; including a gas station advertising the added attraction of a live tiger, named Caesar; something of the family’s mascot, and, later to be unleashed by Luke on the prison escapees/rapists invading the Wingo household one rainy night. In the movie, Henry’s physical abuse is supplanted with mere verbal maltreatment. At one point, Henry grabs Tom rough by the arm. Tom, who is sensitive and thus rife for belittling, is defended by elder brother, Luke. We also get levity interjected: Lila, ordered by her husband to improve the swill she has newly concocted for their dinner, takes Henry’s plate back to the kitchen, mixing in several cans of dog food before re-serving the meal – now declared superb by him – as his children, knowingly look on. Even more interestingly, in the movie Tom has managed to reconcile his bitterness toward his father, enough to entrust Henry with his own three children, Lucy (Maggie Collier), Jennifer (Lindsay Wray) and Chandler (Brandlyn Whitaker), partaking of supervised outings on their grandfather’s shrimp boat. Tom’s relationship with Lila is, alas, never as fully resolved.
Another major departure from the novel is Streisand’s handling of the revelation of the family’s darkest secret - the rape. In both the novel and the movie, this pivotal moment arrives late. However, in the book, Tom and Savannah are both eighteen at the time of the incident, while Luke is in his mid-twenties. In the movie, all three are still very much children; Luke, barely sixteen; Tom and Savannah more like twelve or thirteen. This alteration serves a twofold purpose: first, to make the already insidious nature of the crime even more despicable because it is now being perpetrated on the very young; but second, to heighten the confession Tom makes to Lowenstein as an adult in the present; an amplification of both its emasculating and humiliating qualities.  In the book, Luke releases Caesar from his cage – the animal viciously attacking and killing two of the rapists, while Tom kills his own attacker with a rifle. In the movie, the onus for the penultimate retaliation and murder is squarely placed on Luke’s shoulders. The boy shoots the attackers dead with an uncharacteristically vindictive aplomb for one so young that not only rivals the rage of the attackers’ but portends to Luke’s future vigilantism against the state, resulting in his own death. Tom’s confession to Lowenstein ends with a paralytic stare. When asked how the incident was later explained away to both Henry and the police, we learn from Tom that Lila maniacally threatened her children to remain silent; scrubbing away all evidence of the blood-stained coup and sinking the battered remains in the mire of the nearby swamp; effectively burying the physical evidence, though never able to fully expunge the emotional wounds, left to fester and dehumanize Savannah and Tom, leading directly to their inability to connect with anyone in their adult lives.
In the present, Tom remains in contact with Sally. During one of their long-distance phone conversations, she confides a proposal of marriage from a mutual friend; neither, particularly wanting to address the prospect of getting a divorce. Instead, Sally and Tom have affairs; Tom with Lowenstein, whom he rightly assesses as always being ‘so sad’. She has begun to admire the sacrifices he has made in order to free Savannah from her tortured memories. Tom tries to encourage Lila to provide her account of the rape to Lowenstein. Alas, she is as ever resolved to pretend it never happened, despite the fact her acceptance of the truth might further along Savannah’s recovery. “Who taught you to be so cruel?” Lila insists. “You did, mama,” Tom astutely points out. It is a moment of truth so utterly blood-curdling and revealing of the sort of devastating impact a terrible mother can have on a young boy’s life. And Streisand handles it with uncharacteristic intensity without ever dwelling on the situation. Some things will never change. To gain new insight into Tom’s failed venture as a former teacher and football coach, Lowenstein asks if he will instruct her son, Bernard on the finer points of the sport with a few tips on how to ‘tackle’ the sport. Bernard is spoiled; also, likely bitter over his parents’ dysfunctional relationship; a father, too self-absorbed in his own prominent career as a virtuoso violinist, and a mother seemingly on the cusp of throwing everything away to have a tryst with one of her patients. Tom is not about to take any guff, however, but especially not from Bernard. He puts the kid through the paces of basic training. From this, Bernard learns physical and mental discipline. But he also comes to respect Tom as the type of father-figure he would like to have had; and Tom equally warms to Bernard; in the movie’s penultimate farewell, showing utter amazement for the boy’s obvious skills as a budding concert violinist. “Boy, I tell you if I could play the violin like that I’d never touch a football,” Tom tells Bernard, moments before sending him off on a train at Grand Central. “What’s wrong with doing both?” Bernard suggests. “Absolutely nothing,” Tom is pleasantly forced to admit.
Recognizing the positive change in her son’s attitude, to show her gratitude Lowenstein invites Tom to a social gathering at her husband’s penthouse; the soiree attended by a hoity-toity blend of Nuevo riche and self-important prigs; literary critic, Madison Kingsley (Frederick Neumann) providing his ‘gold seal of approval’ on Savannah’s book of poems, recently published before her suicide attempt. Yet, even here, Susan’s husband, Herbert cannot be a gracious host; earlier, accosting Tom with a rather sly rendition of ‘Dixie’ to illustrate for the rest of his guests what he misperceives asTom’s limited music appreciation and now, revealing to everyone, under the guise of ‘polite dinner conversation’ Savannah’s precarious mental condition.  The tone of the party turns darker still when Herbert refocuses his slightly inebriated disgust on his own wife, accusing her of transforming their sensitive son into ‘Quasimodo in a football uniform’. “I can’t believe you’d let Bernard play football when you know it could ruin his hands,” Herbert’s piano accompanist, Monique (Sandy Rowe) declares, to which Susan swats back, “…and I can’t believe you’d come to my house when everyone knows you’re fucking my husband!”  Having thrown down the gauntlet, the evening looks as though to have come to a grinding halt when Tom expertly interjects a moment of levity; holding Herbert’s priceless Stradivarius hostage over the edge of the balcony until he apologizes for his smug condescension. Turning to Susan, Tom adds, “Now I know why you always look so sad.”
Now, director Streisand moves into the biggest departure from the novel. At the time of the picture’s release, the affair de Coeur between Tom and Lowenstein was heavily criticized as The Prince of Tides biggest blunder; several uninterrupted days spent in blissful escapism in the country, having great sex overlooking an endless series of roaring fireplaces; all of it caught in a montage of overlapping images set to one of James Newton Howard’s less tome-like music cues. Undeniably, it all looks very good for the cameras. But it equally tends to bring the central narrative to a screeching standstill. Mercifully, this flagrante delicto leads to a sort of nostalgic assignation; a mutual awareness for Tom and Susan. There can be no future together. Despite having been brought together to lend solace to each other, they nevertheless come from very different and irreconcilable worlds. Thus, Tom returns to Sally, renewing his commitment to their marriage and family; a decision Lowenstein is unable to argue with, having already recognized Tom as the only man to whom her heart belongs. In New York, Tom witnesses Savannah gradual coaxed from her schizophrenic hallucinations; Lowenstein, using her newfound knowledge of the Wingo’s family’s background to liberate her patient from the tyrannies of her past. Witnessing his sister’s slow recovery is very gratifying for Tom. He knows he has done the right thing by divulging these suppressed family secrets. Has Savannah come through the storm of her own private hell with a new resolve to withstand future attempts to take her own life? Only time will tell. Still, The Prince of Tides remains open-ended, open-minded and optimistically hopeful of this prognosis as Savannah and Tom share in their heartfelt reunion; then, farewell as Tom prepares to go home to Sally. Lowenstein and Tom embark upon a bittersweet goodbye of their own; one last dance together inside The Rainbow Room; a sequence originally intended to play host Streisand’s rendition of ‘For All We Know’, but instead set to an orchestral arrangement of that J. Fred Coots/Sam M. Lewis time-honored ballad.  Lowenstein and Tom will likely always remain paramount in each other’s memory as the idyllic coupling never to be. But the heart is a strange appendage, prone to fondness for the things and people it cannot ever fully possess, as Tom drives home across the causeway, whispering Lowenstein’s name as both an exultation and prayer of thanks for his former life, now restored to him.
The Prince of Tides is supremely edifying entertainment; an eloquent elegy to everlasting love made by a master film-maker/star who capably understands the type of heartfelt movies that can sell tickets almost singularly on her box office clout alone. And, to be sure, Streisand never disappoints in her proficiency in front of or behind the camera. Think it easy to be star, director and executive producer? Think again and then try it sometime. What Streisand has achieved herein is nothing short of lyrical, smart and sexy; a beautifully crafted, solidly acted, exquisitely photographed and superbly underscored masterpiece; the way all movies based on best-selling novels ought to turn out, though far too few actually do. Streisand and her co-star, Nick Nolte have great on-screen chemistry; conceived in mutual antagonism but ultimately burgeoning with more subtly nuanced threads of mutual respect, and, tinged with flashes of comic relief. Nolte commits to some of the finest acting in his entire career; running the gamut of emotions and really getting under the skin of his alter ego. It’s an adult performance, which sounds rather condescending, except that far too few male leads in American movies - then or now - actually give us reflections of adulthood from the masculine perspective. No, what we generally get is tough guys or boys behaving like they think ‘real men’ ought; the clichéd swagger and boastfulness of a guy’s guy, too self-involved and thinking muscle tissue and testicles the mantra for self-professed paragons, distilled into cock of the walk. Nolte, however, gives us ‘a real man’ – warts and all; imperfect, damaged, sensitive, and utterly terrified of being found out as anything less than. It is a tour de force for which Nolte was passed over at Oscar time: the Best Actor Award, almost forgivable in going to Anthony Hopkins’ towering presence in The Silence of the Lambs. We will forgive the Academy…this time.
The Conroy/Johnston screenplay, often erroneously described as ‘uneven’ is actually a miracle of concision, concentrating the action of the novel, and even expanding upon its certain theme; adding to the milieu by morphing the tale to suit the medium of the motion picture. It ought to sink through contemporary film-maker’s heads: a great movie need not – and, in point of fact, should not be a literal translation of any great work of literature to function as its own entity, but excel as a movie pop-u-tainment. Like it or not, American movies have never aspired to existentialist, experimental art house. The few and far between ventures in this direction have generally proven unmitigated bores and quite often box office disasters. Leave the neorealism to the Italians, folks. Hollywood movies are about stars, glamor, the excitement and the fantasy of stepping into a world created, not a world to be discovered in nature. That’s fine. Heck, under the right circumstances, it is art too. No false modesty here. And Streisand knows implicitly where to draw the line. She unpacks the novel’s weighty psychological trauma and familial angst. But she never forgets or mislays the central purpose of her movie – to entertain with a subtext as the time-honored morality play. The Prince of Tides is a truly magnificent achievement with few peers in its day and virtually none in competition for the top spot today.   Streisand’s own drawing power at the movies used to be secure. I cannot say as much, as the actress has moved away from such finely wrought portraits, committed instead to such drivel as 2004’s Meet the Fockers and 2012’s Guilt Trip. La Streisand in a Seth Rogen movie?!?! Did she really need the money that badly? Ugh, I wanna throw up!!! 
In a perfect world – hell, even a just one – by now, The Prince of Tides ought to have made the leap to Blu-ray, along with Streisand’s other miracle of self-exploration, 1996’s The Mirror Has Two Faces: also Gillian Armstrong’s Little Women (1994), and, Andy Tennant’s Anna and the King (1999). It is quite obscene to be celebrating Blu-ray’s 10th anniversary in 2016 and not have such monumental picture-making readily on tap to champion the format. Far too many substandard releases and even more A-list Blu-ray releases of substandard pictures have made their way to hi-def, so why not these gems? But I digress. Sony’s old DVD release is about what you expect; imperfect but competent, with plenty of age-related artifacts floating about; colors that consistently adopt the pallor of orangey flesh tones, weaker than anticipated black and contrast levels and some minor edge-enhancement sporadically cropping up. Now, no one has more admiration for Sony’s more recent endeavors on Blu-ray. Indeed, the studio has led by example with a stunning output of both quantity and quality hi-def releases.
So, in the spirit of encouraging them to do more; I would politely suggest to their EVP in charge of Asset Management, Film Restoration and Digital Mastering, Mr. Grover Crisp (who I am a big champion and fan of) that it is high time Sony get busy and release more of its more recent catalog. Of the aforementioned titles listed above, three of the MIA are under their banner. The Prince of Tides DVD is desperately due for a video upgrade. Darn it anyway – it’s a movie so ripe and deserving of the honor! So, here is to hoping this plea for a Blu-ray has not fallen on deaf ears. The DVD’s 5.1 audio is adequate, but only just.  Extras…forget about it. We get some scantly prepared ‘bios’ on cast and crew – basically a less than informative Cole’s Notes version of the Los Angeles’ directory with highlighted movie credits; also trailers for The Mirror Has Two Faces and The Way We Were (another obscenely absent Streisand classic, given short shrift but mercifully, at least a limited Blu-ray release through Twilight Time).  Bottom line: hoping for a Blu-ray to rectify the sins committed herein. We’ll see.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Sunday, August 21, 2016

PATCH ADAMS: Blu-ray (Universal 1998) Universal Home Video

In my 2010 review of Barry Levinson’s Man of the Year (2006), yours truly suggested, “There needs to be a special place in heaven reserved for the utterly gifted Robin Williams; a man so generous with his ability to make us laugh at the absurdities of being human, that to simply classify him as a ‘comedian’ is to shamelessly distill those formidable talents into crass pop-u-tainment. Like Chaplin before him, Williams is a consummate raconteur and astute philosopher of life: deceptively weighty in the tiny nuggets of wisdom he peppers throughout his bravura routines. His genius lies not in the myriad of rapid fire laughs, farcically - if generously – ladled one upon the next, nor in his unrelenting sugar-spun delivery – the wisp and waggle that confounds the senses as it tickles the funny bone.” Alas, in 2010, I could not have imagined a world without Williams’ virtuosity; certainly, not in my own lifetime, despite Williams having a solid twenty years head start on life’s journey. Has it really been more than two years since Robin Williams bid us all a sudden farewell? My God, where has the time gone? And sadder still to reconsider what has become of our contemporary strain of comedy in the movies without him to steer this now rudderless ship into port. Even at his most ribald, Williams’ vein of court-jesting was skewed toward seeing the shocking fragility, silliness and ineptitude of the human world; a reflection, perhaps, of the raging insecurities from within, yearning to make meaning and sense of it all through the rubric of comedy.
Yet, in preparing this review almost two years after Williams’ passing, I continue to grapple with my own conflicted sorrow over his untimely death. It goes without saying Robin Williams was very much a part of our family’s good-humored movie-viewing, a sort of benevolent go-to on rainy/snowy afternoons when a pick-me-up was sorrowfully needed. However, in the two years that have since gone by, I have sincerely resisted revisiting Robin Williams at the movies; his passing on Aug. 11, 2014 somehow altering my appreciation for his talents, not as they have been diminished in my own meager estimation, but rather because time has only served to illustrate the peerless perfection gone away for good. I find myself being unable to sit through the wit without as painful sadness ready to engulf, reminding me, as though reminders were needed; first, and rather obviously, that Robin Williams is no longer with us; although I have no doubt he is presently entertaining the angels, apostles and the saints right now with his bawdy take on the incongruous nature of an eternal heavenly rest. Perhaps, I am still in mourning.
Yet, somehow knowing Robin Williams was morose and deeply troubled behind the laughter only serves to stir a wellspring of tears, regenerating his legacy now, tainted and offset from that celebration of his life, more impossibly false and marred by silent tragedy.  But no, Robin Williams' great gift to the world ought not be remembered in this way; rather, for his affecting fondness for the audience. His film career has constantly striven toward loftier platitudes, even when the films have been less than ample to sustain his grand insanity. So, perhaps it is not surprising to find my admiration for Williams’ work reached his creative pinnacle in Tom Shadyac’s Patch Adams (1998); the tale of an unhappy and near suicidal middle-aged man, rediscovering not only his chosen calling in life, but better reasons to live it, perhaps even more fully than he might have at first perceived; the title character based on a much-celebrated and semi-biographical account, Gesundheit: Good Health is a Laughing Matter’ written by the real Hunter Doherty ‘Patch’ Adams (co-authored by Maureen Mylander) and astutely consolidated into a manageable – and frequently vivid – screenplay by Steve Oedekerk. Patch Adams works, not so much as a biographical account of Hunter Adams’ early life and career, but as a seminal reflection of Robin Williams’ own struggles to find self-worth and make meaning of the world: a project about one man whom he so clearly admires, could relate to, and, was able to breathe creative life into, through his inimitable brand of graceful, sensitive humor.
In one of the fictional Patch’s penultimate speeches, an impassioned Williams addresses his detractors with, “You treat an illness – you win, you lose. You treat a patient I guarantee you win every time!” And although Robin Williams is likely to be long remembered for a myriad of other performances, meant more directly to capitalize on his gifts of farce, as an all-around entertainer he could have wished for no finer an epitaph than this movie. Whether Patch is challenging himself to do better, caught in a search for soulful satisfaction, while redefining the first precept of the Hippocratic Oath – ‘do no harm’ – or taking it to the absolute extreme, by attempting to inject more than a modicum of hope-enriching goodness in a roomful of various sick and terminally ill patients trapped in their unflattering sort of depressive limbo, too much with their silent thoughts, Williams characterization of Patch Adams brings a sort of unapologetic dignity to the forefront of his performance. Patch dismantles the self-professed pomposity of being a ‘good doctor’ in his soul-searching quest to ultimately become a great one. Williams invokes a certain kind of ‘every man’ heroism into this odyssey of self-discovery; questioning, probative and even off-putting to the status quo. Alas, from the vantage of 1969 – the year our story is set – Patch’s journey was rife for monumental disappointments. The fictional Patch Adams comes into conflict with the school’s administrative pufferfish, Dean Wolcott (Bob Gunton) who sees no joy in the purpose, goal or place of modern medicine, and finds Adam’s verve for discounting the ensconced authority of their chosen profession in favor of a more humanistic approach irresponsible ‘feel good’ nonsense. At a juncture where most patients arrive to surrender themselves completely to the capacities of a ‘good doctor’, Patch seems to simply be inferring the best cure of all is a little levity brought forth to its most absurd conclusion.
Like the very best comedies, Patch Adams becomes embroiled in its sincere ambition to do a great deal more than simply give the audience a multitude of reasons to be amused in the dark. The picture’s endeavor as consciously-made social activism put forth as undiluted entertainment remains a mantra most movies made then – and virtually all made today – would never attempt, and most doctors remain sorely unaccustomed to in their daily practices. Not surprising, director, Tom Shadyac has cast his movie with important dramatic talents rather than foppish, comedic ones; from Robin Williams, who has always harbored the base hallmarks of humanity in his best work, to the late Philip Seymour Hoffman; yet, another titanic loss to Hollywood’s ever-evolving artistic community. Gosh almighty, 2014 was not a good year for saying ‘goodbye’ to the very best Hollywood had to offer. Hoffman, who could – and so eloquently did – discover compassion in even his unlikeliest of roles, as in, playing the bombastic storm chaser in 1996’s Twister, or bumbling boom operator in Boogie Nights (1997), and could play it right down the middle with an ominous streak of iniquitous homoerotic lasciviousness, as in his dazzling performance as the prep-school bully, Freddie Myles in The Talented Mr. Ripley (1998), herein emerges as Mitch, the tightly wound heir apparent to a family legacy in medicine; a bright mind utterly lacking a human soul until he is able to at least acknowledge, if never entirely embrace Patch’s precepts for the business of doctoring with a smile. 
And Hoffman is only one of the solid talents on tap in Patch Adams. We get an eclectic blend of the established and up-and-comers in this movie; from Peter Coyote’s gruelingly embittered father and husband, Bill Davis, dying of pancreatic cancer, to Monica Potter’s doomed Carin, an uppity student, resisting Patch’s mercy; to Irma P. Hall’s clear-eyed nurse, Joletta, who begins by admonishing Patch as yet another wet-behind-the-ears egotist, but eventually comes around to his way of thinking, and finally, Josef Sommer’s benevolent Dr. Eaton – Patch’s one friend in this otherwise austere community of dyed-in-the-wool physicians who have taken their ‘life-saving’ far too seriously to actually be effective or even of meaningful passing comfort to their patients. In all, Patch Adams excels at establishing this roster of sensitively honed performers and their alter egos without ever dwelling upon the particulars of their character traits; actors who are able to tap into their own charity and disseminate it to the audience. And even more miraculous, the exercise never devolves into stiff archetypes. It is something of a grand disappointment in movies today, most have abjured from providing anything more or better than thumbnail sketches of the people they are supposed to be playing; the part, just a part, and not a person to be believed as anything better or beyond an attractive stick figure with no soul. But Patch Adams is a movie all about the breadth of compassion built into the human soul, set to repudiate and withstand that harsh and malingering world just beyond these ivy-covered halls of academia.
Patch Adams may not get all of the particulars of ‘Hunter Adams’ life just right (in point of fact, there’s a lot of leeway and artistic license applied throughout), but at its core Shadyac’s movie delivers the sort of unabashedly sentimental one-two knockout punch to the heart, teetering on the brink of becoming artificial and maudlin, but never entirely transgressing into sticky treacle that could so easily have befallen the exercise and caused it to fall entirely out of fashion. Love, after all, is a universal of life; like good, as the evil and hate and compassion and contempt; polar opposites for a fascinating influx of narrative threads, brought even more unexpectedly together in their satisfying crescendo; the movie’s penultimate graduation ceremony. Having sidestepped Dean Wolcott’s repeated endeavors to end his brilliant career even before it has begun, Patch accepts his diploma before a gathering of his peers - in the raw - having cut away the backside of his graduation gown to reveal more than just his unbridled disdain for Wolcott’s waning brand of academic stuffiness. It’s the sort of showy – ‘literally’, as well as figuratively – finale I personally could have done without; a gilding of the lily, as it were, that nevertheless manages to pull off one final outburst of exuberant laughter from a story as much about tears of sadness as it remains ensconced in drawing upon the infinitely more satisfying tears of joy – or, laughter through tears – and effortlessly punctuated by an upsurge of composer, Marc Shaiman’s supremely audacious underscore. 
For all its attributes, Patch Adams was ill-received by the critics at the time of its release, with such noted, arguably jaded, voices from the balcony seats calling it ‘syrupy, ‘overbearing’ and ‘obnoxious’. Even the real Patch Adams disavowed the picture, suggesting Shadyac and Robin Williams had taken a very socially-conscious life devoted to activism and public service and simply distilled it into 2 hours of slick movie-making with the fictionalized Adams as its ‘funny clown’. While Adams was also critical of Williams’ performance and his failure to donate ‘even $10’ in support of helping to build the real Adams’ dream hospital, after Williams’ unexpected death, Hunter Adams did release a rather about-face eulogy for the man and the picture that, in part, read “…we mourn this tragic loss and continue to treasure his comic genius – a wonderful, kind and generous man… his personality, unassuming—he never acted as if he was powerful or famous. Instead, he was always tender and welcoming, willing to help others with a smile or a joke…Contrary to how many people may view him, he actually seemed to me to be an introvert (valuing) peace and quiet, a chance to breathe—a chance to get away from the fame that his talent has brought him. This world is not kind to people who become famous, and the fame he had garnered was a nightmare. While saddened, we are left with the consequences of his death. I’m enormously grateful for his wonderful performance of my early life, which has allowed the Gesundheit Institute to continue and expand our work.”
Geared as a Christmas release, Patch Adams would gross $25.2 million on its opening weekend alone, more than half its initial outlay of $50 million, ranking #1 at the box office and going on to take in a whopping $202,292,902 worldwide by the end of its theatrical run. It is rather gratifying to see the general public did not feel the need to heed the warnings put forth by these cultural mandarins, sitting in review of the picture.  While I continue to place very little ‘merit’ in box office tallies alone as a barometer of any movie’s greatness, it is, I think more than rewarding to see this picture particularly embraced by a show of dollars, thus, encouraging the bean counters in Hollywood to make more. And Patch Adams proves a maxim inherent in the best of movie-land’s Hollywoodized accounts of real people, laughingly referenced as ‘biopics’. Despite taking some severe artistic liberties to tell its story; chiefly, in presenting Adams as a middle-aged incumbent in medical school (when in reality, he came to the calling at the tender age of most of his then contemporaries – twenty-six), and concocting the wholly fictional character of Carin to support filmdom’s never-waning desire to transform even the most unlikely narrative into something of a conventional ‘love story’ – in this case, bittersweet and tragic (the inspiration for this character actually a male friend of Adams who died under similar circumstances), the reincarnated Patch Adams is very much joyously fictitious, getting the main points right without placing too much – if, in fact, any emphasis – on ascertaining the particulars of Adams’ life. Like so many great bios, it is the ‘first impressions’ that count and continue to linger thereafter; the appearance of truth more important and fulfilling than truth itself.
Patch Adams begins in Fairfax Hospital 1969, an asylum nestled in the hills of Virginia. Having self-medicated his depression for years, of his own volition Hunter ‘Patch’ Adams commits himself into the care of Dr. Prack (Harry Groener) in the hopes to better understand his suicidal thoughts. What he quickly discovers is a hospital administration disinterested in unearthing a cure for any of its clientele; Patch assigned to a cell with the manic, Rudy (Michael Jeter), who suffers from delusions of squirrels coming to attack him. These fantasies even prevent Rudy from venturing across the relatively modest room to use the facilities. Recognizing he will never get well inside Fairfax, Patch also comes to the realization he was born to find the redeemable in others, proving it by entering Rudy’s imaginary fear as the brave warrior, pretending to pick off ‘the squirrels’ using his fingers as loaded pistols. Patch is also introduced to another inmate, Arthur Mendelson (Harold Gould) who, until recently, was renown as one of the mightiest intellects in the scientific field. Art teaches Patch to see beyond the problems directly set in his path, thereby helping Patch see more clearly the road leading to his newfound vocation.
Flash ahead two years: Patch enrolls to become a doctor, attending classes at the prestigious Medical College of Virginia. His ambition will need all the help it can get, however. His roommate, Mitch Drummond (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is both arrogant and condescending, even having the audacity to accuse Patch of cheating on his exams because his grades seemingly have come too easily and are in line with his own hard-won grade point average. Carin Fisher, a partner in their study group, finds Patch’s frequent – if harmless – attempts to get to know her better annoying and idiotic, and, tells him so to his face. Could the world really be this cruel? Ostensibly, yes: Patch is the outcast. His theories as to how best humanize the craft of practicing real medicine fly in the face of Dean Wolcott’s austere and systematic quest to remove the essence – the very soul – from those aspiring to don the white coat; a trend Patch repeatedly bucks and outright refuses to ascribe any merit. Patch is not without his empathizers; Truman Schiff (Daniel London), a fellow student who believes in the sanctity of preserving life while treating the patient instead of focusing on the illness. To prove his point about human beings’ desire to connect on a personal level, Patch and Truman crash a meat packer’s convention; Patch adopting a Texas accent and partaking of the conference’s silly parlor games, in the process becoming the life of the party. Thereafter, Patch carries his social experiment one step further; mildly accosting an elderly woman with a toothy ‘hello’ in the street; the woman responding in kind, though clearly thinking Patch a nut, until she momentarily pauses to return his smile with a polite nod. Patch also has a silent champion in Dr. Eaton, who thinks Wolcott’s views on medicine are downright archaic; a perspective more circumspectly shared by the Head Dean Anderson (Harve Presnell).
Patch wants to treat patients as people, and begins his one-man ambitious campaign to overhaul the campus’ mentality, first, by visiting sick and dying children in the cancer ward (real patients of the real Hunter Adams); making light of their disease by offering amusing sight gags, such as transforming a rubber ball into a shiny red clown’s nose. It’s shameless, but effective; the children stirred from their relative depression into giddy fits of joyful laughter. Dean Wolcott is incensed. After all, this is a hospital, not a sideshow carnival. The children need rest to recuperate. But Patch disagrees, inquiring the purpose of staving off death (i.e. prolonging life) if life itself is confined to an interminable reflection upon the inevitable. What patients need is a diversion from their medical woes; also, a friend to empathize with their circumstances. But Patch quickly realizes he and Wolcott will never see eye-to-eye on this bone of contention.  Wolcott makes several thwarted attempts to have Patch expelled from the program, particularly after Patch, having been put in charge of the arrangements for an obstetrics convention, leads these esteemed and rather Teutonic colleagues into an auditorium by way of a gigantic pair of paper mache legs hoisted in stir-ups. Wolcott is enraged and tries to kick Patch out for what he deems his ‘excessive happiness’. Instead, Patch goes to the top – to Dean Anderson, who vetoes Wolcott’s decision. Nevertheless, Anderson encourages Patch to steer clear of Wolcott until graduation.
In the meantime, Patch has made considerable progress establishing a personal connection with Carin. She confides her abject hatred of all men stemming from an implied rape and family incest; true confessions to form a bond that gradually blossoms into real love. At the same time, Patch gets the inspired notion to establish the Gesundheit! Institute; a place in the country far removed from all the institutionalized rhetoric of hospital policy and procedure, where doctors can care for their patients on a personal level. Carin and Truman are inspired by Patch’s example and elect to spend their free time helping Patch establish the basis for this respite inside a rickety cabin situated on land owned – and freely donated by Arthur Mendelson.  The personal toll their commitment requires has yet to be fully tested but begins in evidence on all of their grade point averages. Still, Patch insists they are contributing to a very promising future of which they can continue to be a part of after graduation. Alas, Patch’s dream for a safe haven for all is not to be. Only a few weeks before graduation Patch, Truman and Carin are introduced to the sincerely disturbed, Lawrence ‘Larry’ Silver (Douglas Roberts); a wealthy heir suffering from ominous visions he is unable to control and frequently is prone to act upon. As the needs of Patch’s free clinic clientele mushroom, the institute runs out of badly needed supplies to see the project through. Patch has an idea, disguising Truman as a corpse and loading his stretcher full of supplies stolen from the hospital’s supply room. The pair narrowly escapes detection from Wolcott, but are amusedly observed by head nurse, Joletta.
Returning home to discover a message from Larry on her answering service, and unable to make immediate make contact with Patch, Carin elects to go to Larry’s estate and provide him with exactly the sort of compassion Patch would admire. It is a miscalculation from which she is never to return. For no sooner is Carin admitted into Larry’s study than he begins to behave erratically. A short while later Patch is summoned to Dean Anderson’s office. Believing someone has tipped off the hospital administrator about their earlier theft of supplies, Patch is emotionally wounded to learn from Anderson, Carin has been murdered by Larry. In a fitful rage, Larry assaulted her with a shotgun before turning the loaded weapon on himself. Unable to bring himself to accept the loss, even going so far as to assume full blame and responsibility, Patch decides to leave school. Perhaps Wolcott was right: he is not suited to the profession of doctoring after all. Truman tries to talk some sense into Patch but to no avail. Returning to that picturesque spot on the hillside, where he earlier explained to Carin his future plans for the Gesundheit! Institute, Patch angrily addresses God directly, adding “…you rested on the seventh day. Maybe you should have used it for compassion.” Miraculously, Patch’s sorrow is intruded upon by a single monarch butterfly. It playfully lands on his medical bag and suitcase, before migrating over to his shirt, landing near his heart. Earlier, Carin confided in Patch, as a child she often wished to be reincarnated as a butterfly. Now, Patch takes this as a sign.
Reinvigorated, Patch learns from Mitch one of their mutual patients, the elderly and infirmed Mrs. Kennedy (Ellen Albertini Dow) has seemingly lost the will to go on. Remembering a childhood wish the old woman earlier expressed, Patch fills an inflatable pool with buckets of freshly cooked pasta noodles; Mitch and Truman accompanying Mrs. Kennedy in her wheelchair to the edge and Patch hoisting her into this sticky tub of goo where they frolic and play as the hospital’s nursing staff look on in utter amazement. Patch has finally crossed the line. Accused of practicing medicine without a license, he is ordered by Wolcott to vacate the premises immediately. Instead, Patch consults Mitch who urges him to fight the decision by appearing before the school’s Board of Directors for a final decision. It could go either way for Patch. And indeed, at the outset, the odds are decidedly not in Patch’s favor as the presiding head, Dr. Titan (Richard Kiley) demands he explain himself to a packed room of his peers during the board’s inquest. Patch freely confesses to administering to the poor, the underrepresented and the outcast; all of whom have been denied medical help through ‘legitimate’ channels at their hospital. Patch further insists to the Board he is the victim of Wolcott’s insidious need to destroy any hope for anyone wanting to become a doctor unless the incumbent completely submits to his will and thereafter surrenders any and all compassion for humanity at the front door.
“You treat an illness, you win, you lose,” Patch insists, “You treat a patient, I guarantee you win every time!”  The Board is impressed with Patch’s verve; his eloquence, and ultimately, moved to reconsider their decision after a contingent of the terminally ill children arrives, placing red clown noses over their own in a show of support. The Board elects to allow Patch Adams to graduate with full honors, Adams arriving to accept his diploma butt naked and defiantly parading past Wolcott for the last time. A freeze-frame of Patch’s ebullient satisfaction is married to an epilogue, explaining how, during the next twelve years, he opened a privately funded home-based family practice, administering to more than 12,000 patients without payment, malpractice insurance or formal facilities. We learn Patch also purchased 105 acres outside of Hillsboro, in Pocahontas County, West Virginia where construction on the Gesundheit! Institute was later begun; an organization that continues to thrive to this day and is viewed by the real Hunter Adams as not mere socialism, but a reformation of how and why health care gets practiced. As the epilogue further acknowledges; a waiting list of more than 1,000 physicians are ready to leave their current practices and partake of Patch’s revisionist approach to modern medicine. What the movie could not acknowledge is what came next – a campaign of international philanthropy and goodwill; Adams and his cohorts travelling around the world to raise public awareness while continuing to administer Patch’s particular brand of homespun treatment; also, to raise a million dollars to build a fully functional facility on that same track of land acquired back in 1971. Ground was broken in 2011. Fundraising continues to this day. Patch Adams is 71 years young. Long live ‘the clown’!
In retrospect, Patch Adams remains a movie of extraordinary kindnesses bestowed upon the movie-going public. It isn’t often any movie comes along to question our hearts, furthermore, to coax us into looking outward from the inside in order to find our inner happiness, and, tug at its strings, while pursuing the one-time honored ‘golden rule’ all movies used to ascribe to, but so few do today, merely to entertain without some liberalized diatribe and/or indoctrination. The life and legacy of Hunter Adams has clearly proven an inspiration to the picture’s director, Tom Shadyac who readily explained, “Patch Adams challenges all of us to do more…to do better, in a society that’s all about me-me-me. As such he’s a threat to all of us because his radical thinking is all about giving, not getting. On one hand, it’s extraordinarily threatening, but it’s also liberating. It’s just a better way to live.” “I didn’t want just some goofy doctor movie,” the real Patch Adams would later admit, “But the world needs some positive images in the media about following your dreams. Some stimulation to help and bring hope to our society.”
In courting a myriad of offers suddenly lobbed at him upon publication of his book, Adams was circumspect and genuinely disheartened, describing his first encounter with typical ‘Hollywood types’ – all gold chains, their eyes greedily glazed over with dollar signs, ready to exploit the prospect of turning another man’s life into their glossy garage sale. “I could see there wasn’t a real human being in the room,” Adams later confided, “I wasn’t human. I was a product. Like a candy bar.” But then Adams turned to his old pal, Mike Farrell; formerly an actor, then a producer. Farrell would begin by taking up the cause to find a home for the project, but finish by agreeing to raise the necessary capital to make the movie himself; the new focus on the dehumanization of the medical profession and Adams’ lifelong crusade to restore its fundamental ‘do no harm’ precept by giving everything to the journey for the betterment of all. In hindsight, Patch Adams is a transitional piece in Tom Shadyac’s career; then, primarily known for deliciously featherweight screwball comedies veering far away from any sort of reality-based intelligence. Patch Adams is decidedly different than say Shadyac’s raw remake of The Nutty Professor (1996) or Liar, Liar (1997). In a career spanning only ten feature films, Patch Adams now appears to mark Shadyac’s apex as a landmark, unassumingly imbued with extreme positivism as a testament to the man who inspired its story in the first place.  Yet, in spite of all the passion Shadyac has poured into the picture, at its core it remains a Robin Williams movie – perhaps, his finest. In closing out this review, I find myself again welling with a few tears, bittersweet and heartfelt, for the very great loss of Williams’ – and not simply for his legendary off-the-cuff sense of humor. So, if I may, I would like to address these parting comments to the late Robin Williams’ spirit, as it continues to emanate deep and penetrating warmth as a flannel mackinaw or nourishing hot bowl of good soup might.
Dear Robin:
Today I laughed and cried in tandem again as I have not for a very long while at the movies. And from this catharsis I awoke several hours later with the unhappy startle to recall that while you are no longer with us you are never farther from our hearts desire today than our movie screens; perfectly preserved as that vibrant artifact of life: ensconced as a delicate piece of the great American movie-land folklore. I trust the road ahead has once again made you strong. But the path you left behind will continue to illuminate, inform, and best of all, enrich and entertain our lives for many centuries to follow. Your free and breezy sense of humor, your effervescent passion for life, has spread the sunshine along many a graying field. God may bless those who have done half as much to light the way. But He surely has saved a special place at his table for you today. Thoughts and prayers renewed to the family of Robin Williams, on the anniversary of his loss to us all – though, undeniably, more directly felt by them. 
Sincerely, NZ
Universal Home Video has done Williams, Shadyac and Patch Adams proud with this long overdue Blu-ray release. It is gratifying to observe the penny-pinchers have taken a backseat; the coffers opening wide for this brand new 1080p hi-def scan that shows no untoward digital manipulations and gives evidence of having been the beneficiary of some modest and more recent clean-up to ready the original film elements. Colors are a sublime feast, the screen bathed in cinematographer, Phedon Papamichael’s gorgeous copper-tinted hues. Flesh tones have been superbly rendered. The lushness of the green outdoors comes bursting through as though with a freshness of instant Spring to leap off the screen. Both contrast and fine detail have been expertly rendered. Prepare to be royally entertained by the visuals of this engrossing tragi-comedy. The wait is over. Patch Adams is back! The 5.1 DTS audio is as much a revelation, with dialogue and effects subtly directionalized and Marc Shaiman’s memorable score breaking forth from the sonic floodgates to augment the poignancy of the performances throughout. Universal has also ported over virtually all of the extra features that were a part of their lavishly produced DVD; albeit, left in their original (and uninspired 720i) format. While image quality on these extras is highly suspect and more than a little disappointing, it is good to see Universal simply did not elect to lop them off altogether for a quick n’ dirty Blu-ray release. No, this one gets all the bells and whistles; a comprehensive ‘making of’ with interviews from Shadyac, the real Patch Adams and other cast and crew; also, deleted scenes and outtakes, an audio commentary and the movie’s original theatrical trailer. Bravo and kudos to Universal Home Video: back from the brink of mediocre hi-def releases with this disc. Patch Adams is required viewing. But make sure you have a full box of Kleenex on standby. There are moments within where you will definitely need it. Bottom line: very highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)