The Victorian house featured prominently in Mike Mills’ new film, 20th Century Women, might serve as a metaphor for its inhabitants, a rumpled mis-matched group with great potential but still works in progress. Mills, who previously gave us Beginners, a film based on his father coming out gay at age 75 (Read the review), now tells us about his mother, played by a radiant Annette Bening.
Like Mills’ mother, Janet, Bening’s Dorothea Fields works as a draftsperson, but the film centers around the ramshackled home where she lives with her son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), and her tenants, Abbie (Greta Gerwig), and William (Billy Crudup), a handyman who earns his rent by working on the house. A frequent visitor is Julie (Elle Fanning), Jamie’s best friend who, dodging her therapist-mom, often comes over to sleep in his bedroom, but insists on keeping their relationship platonic.
Lucas Jade Zumann and Annette Bening
Set in Santa Barbara, California, in 1979, the film looks back on the hippie-era 70s. There’s great attention to details, from the cars, including the Ford Galaxy that catches fire at the beginning of the film, and the aging VW defaced with graffiti, to the clothing, the Birkenstocks worn by Dorothea, and the hot pants worn by Abbie. Drives along California’s winding highways are lit up in psychedelic colors.
Dorothea is a free spirit, but where her son is concerned, she’s a control freak. When he participates in a crazy stunt which renders him unconscious for 30 minutes, she’s distraught and draws the net even tighter. Jamie responds by taking off with friends for a night in Los Angeles. Dorothea waits up, her black and white cat curled by her side, until he comes home safely.
While Dorothea purports to be a hands-on parent, she worries that Jamie, being raised without a father, needs other influences in his life. Yet she makes the bizarre move to enlist, not William, but the team of Abbie and Julie to help raise her son. Both women are handling their own problems. Abbie, recovering from cervical cancer, is told she probably won’t be able to have children. Julie has unprotected sex in the back of a car and worries she might be pregnant. Still, each woman takes on her assignment with a seriousness that will engage Jamie while alarming Dorothea. Abbie gives Jamie copies of Our Bodies, Ourselves with in depth discussions about a woman’s anatomy. Julie takes Jamie on an overnight trip up the coast, but he leaves their hotel room when she refuses to have sex with him.
Annette Bening, Elle Fanning, and Greta Gerwig
Dorothea has a way of rationalizing her actions. When Jamie attacks her chain-smoking, she says that she began smoking when it was romantic. When she’s challenged about not being happy, she responds: “Wondering if you’re happy is just a shortcut to being depressed.” Dorothea’s belongings are flashed on the screen, while Jamie in voice overs says that his mother was born in 1924, as if being a Depression era baby explains her behavior.
This is a brave, fascinating performance by Bening. She captures the contradictions in Dorothea’s personality without ever turning her into a cliché. Gerwig, her hair dyed fuchsia, literally throws herself into the role, dancing up a storm with Jamie when she takes him drinking at a club. Fanning’s Julie is a girl on the brink of womanhood who recognizes her appeal to men, but fails to see how she is torturing Jamie by keeping herself at arm’s length. As Jamie, Zumann is so natural as a 14 year old straining for more freedom, it seems like he’s not acting. Crudup, looking less buff than in previous films, seems to float in and out of the women’s lives, sleeping with Abbie, then kissing Dorothea. Although he’s the most obvious person to mentor Jamie, Dorothea rejects that idea, something that has less to do with William and everything to do with Dorothea’s views on men. She volunteers few details about her ex-husband who no longer calls her son. While she accepts a date with a co-worker, we never witness them going out.
Now that Mills has given us portraits of his father and mother, might stories of other family members follow?
Photos courtesy of A24
For those who remember Jacqueline Kennedy as First Lady, Natalie Portman’s performance in Pablo Larraín’s Jackie, will be mesmerizing. During that famous White House tour, recreated for the film in black and white, Portman nails Jackie’s breathy voice and her straight-back posture. That was the Jackie we watched and knew. What the film shows is the Jackie we didn’t see – the one who chain-smoked, who descended into grief as she mourned her husband, and who fought to preserve his legacy, as well as her own.
This is Chilean director Larraín’s first English-speaking film and he has delivered a riveting portrait of a complex woman. The supporting cast is strong, featuring Peter Sarsgaard as Bobby Kennedy, Greta Gerwig, as Jackie’s loyal aide Nancy Tuckerman, John Carroll Lynch as Lyndon B. Johnson, Max Casella as Jack Valenti, and as JFK, Caspar Phillipson, who bears a striking resemblance to the late president.
Natalie Portman and Billy Crudup
When the film opens, it’s a mere week after the assassination and Jackie has retreated to Hyannis Port, the Kennedy compound on Cape Cod. She’s agreed to an interview with a reporter played by Billy Crudup. (The reporter, while unnamed, is Theodore H. White, author of The Making of a President series, including one about Kennedy, whose interview with Jackie appeared in Life magazine.) Jackie is determined to control the narrative. Several times after sharing her intimate thoughts, she tells the reporter, “Don’t think for a second that I’m going to let you publish that.”
America, in fact, the world, had never seen a First Lady like Jackie. Besides restoring and redecorating the White House, she showcased the arts and fashion. In one scene, Jackie, elegantly dressed in a mint green sheath, along with the president and honored guests, listens to an intimate concert by the Spanish cellist Pablo Cassals. She influenced style with her colorful dresses and pillbox hats.
Peter Sarsgaard and Natalie Portman
No outfit, however, is more embedded in people’s minds than the Chanel-like bright pink suit she wore that fateful day in Dallas. In the film, Jackie is in front of a mirror on Air Force One, practicing a speech she plans to give in Spanish. Stepping off the plane, she’s greeted by Texas Governor John Connally (Craig Sechler) and his wife, Nellie (Rebecca Compton). Soon after, there’s the motorcade, the shots, and the Secret Service agents descending on the limousine, while the car rushes the gravely injured president to the hospital.
On the plane, Jackie resists efforts to change her suit, staying in the blood-stained garments. When she finally is back at the White House, the scene where she undresses, pulling off her ruined stockings, then showering the blood out of her hair, is painful to watch. But it’s when she enters the bedroom that the full impact of the president’s death hits. She’s alone faced with the overwhelming tasks that confront her, explaining Jack’s death to their children, arranging the funeral, and moving out of the White House.
The Funeral Procession
Barbara Leaming, in her 2014 biography, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis: The Untold Story, claimed that Jackie suffered from post traumatic stress after witnessing the death of her husband. Publicly, she appeared to be holding everything together during that time. What Larraín purports to show in the film is what she suffered behind the scene, crying, drinking, popping pills, as she wanders through the many rooms in the White House. In one scene, she tries on dress after dress, looking at herself in the mirror, then tossing them aside. All the while, we hear Richard Burton singing the title song to the Lerner and Loewe Broadway musical, Camelot. That was what Jackie wanted people to remember about their time in the White House that “once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot.”
She may have been grieving, but she was determined that her husband have the proper funeral and burial. While Johnson’s people, particularly his special assistant, Valenti, argued that it wasn’t safe to have Jackie, Johnson, and world leaders walk behind Kennedy’s casket from the Capitol building to the church, she insisted. She also fought Rose Kennedy’s desire to have Jack buried in the family plot in Brookline, Massachusetts, instead picking out his final resting place, in Arlington National Cemetery.
Many actresses have played Jackie, but Portman’s portrayal is the one that will be remembered. She’s simply phenomenal.