Woman Around Town’s Editor Charlene Giannetti and writers for the website talk with the women and men making news in New York, Washington, D.C., and other cities around the world. Thanks to Ian Herman for his wonderful piano introduction.
There are princesses and monsters in The Shape of Water, a sumptuous, scary, and spellbinding new fairy tale film from Guillermo del Toro. It’s “Beauty and the Beast” for a time when happy endings can seem too few and far between, with political underpinnings that are almost uncomfortably relevant. And even though it’s built on a fairy tale frame, it is definitely not for children.
Fairy tales were not meant to be pretty. Women and children were victims in tales often filled with sexual angst and violence as a caution to anyone who might consider stepping out of line. They were populated by malevolent creatures, and the creeping horror could insinuate itself into a listener’s consciousness, revealed as a little voice of warning—or perhaps of conscience. It is no wonder then that del Toro, one of our generation’s most creatively dark storytellers, a crafter of elegant nightmares, could so brilliantly re-imagine a classic for our time.
Octavia Spencer and Sally Hawkins
The Shape of Water takes place in the sleepy emerald-colored world of Elisa Esposito, played with remarkable power and charm by Sally Hawkins. Elisa’s a mute nightshift janitor at a large government laboratory facility. She smiles mildly while her cleaning partner, Zelda (a reliably funny but put-upon Octavia Spencer), chatters at a constant clip about her frustration with her uncommunicative, unappreciative husband. Elisa’s silence is never a weight or a weakness. She says everything she needs with her expressiveness and a few signs. The same is true of her relationship with her neighbor and best friend Giles (Richard Jenkins), a gay man far enough past middle age to see what he has become who longs to return to the days of his youth.
The film is set in 1960s Baltimore—just a short drive from Washington, D.C. during the dark days of the Cold War, the capital of a nation on the eve of great change, from the Civil Rights Movement to the space race to naked hippies on Haight and Ashbury. The Shape of Water exists in a world in flux, the visuals intoxicating in their lushness but the content full of social tensions that we can look at through today’s lens to note how far we’ve come, and how far back we could slide if we’re not careful.
The film’s villain, Strickland, played with tingling menace by Michael Shannon, is the part that makes this movie so uncomfortably relevant. He’s a violent, racist, misogynist white man in the business of getting paid protecting the greedy interests of other rich and powerful white men. He’d be right at home in a certain Cabinet today. He’s confident in his superiority as a master of the universe, so much so that it’s difficult for him to admit when he’s been had.
Del Toro specializes in otherworldliness. He brings to life unique characters and ethereal, dreamlike places like no one else. Doug Jones, who has played a menagerie of del Toro’s incredible inventions, is the nameless being brought to the facility by Strickland and Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), a man with secrets of his own. Like Hawkins, Jones is limited by lack of speaking, using his strong, graceful physicality to communicate.
This isn’t revolutionary cinema in terms of giving us something we’ve never seen before, but it is lovely and hopeful and done so well that it doesn’t even seem that fishy for a woman to fall in love with a creature who bares more than a passing resemblance to the Creature from the Black Lagoon. We’ve seen characters like these before—even played by the same actors—but we can see them in this light, in these. Their familiarity isn’t a curse, but a comfort. It makes it easy to relax and enjoy the story as it ebbs and flows.
The Shape of Water isn’t a film about celebrating outsiders, or even about underdogs triumphant. That’s all consequential. What it is, to a great extent, is an argument that even in this often cold and ugly world, where monsters are all around us, it is still possible to find beauty. We just have to open our hearts to it.
The film, Loving, could not have arrived in movie theaters at a better time in U.S. history. Nor could the subject, the word itself, and the irony of it all be more apropos, especially three weeks after this nation’s contentious elections.
I watched the film in a commercial theater, which provided an interesting backdrop. Usually sitting through 20 minutes of previews drives me nuts. But these trailers were an interesting mix of films; and a definite sign of the times. Three of the five were movies starring, written by, and/or directed by African Americans. That in and of itself seemed like a triumph after last year’s whitewashed Academy Awards. But as half of the country reels at the thought that they may be disenfranchised once again, I’m not so sure.
But back to the film itself. Loving is a beautifully crafted love story that’s set in the South in the late 50’s. It was a time when interracial marriage was still banned in some states, including Virginia, where the action takes place. The film is based on a true story and a simple premise – boy meets girl, they fall in love, girl gets pregnant, and boy marries her. But like all good love stories, the protagonists face many obstacles. The biggest one here is that Richard Loving is white and Mildred Jeter is “colored.” So they go to Washington, D.C. to marry. When they return to Virginia, they are soon arrested, given a year’s suspended sentence, and told they cannot return to Virginia for 25 years, unless they want to live apart. It’s an act that propels the story forward and eventually takes it all the way to the Supreme Court and the overturning of the miscegenation laws in 1967.
The history is both dark and powerful. But the film doesn’t play it for histrionics. Instead, in director Jeff Nichol’s steady hand, the story unfolds in a “just the facts” manner. There is no ranting, or raving, or sudden outbursts. There are just quiet moments, subtle looks, and equally seamless camera movements. Even the case itself, which eventually made it to the Supreme Court, is not overdramatized. In real life, the Lovings were reluctant heroes.
Their movie counterparts, Joel Edgerton as Richard and Ruth Negga as Mildred, are wonderfully cast. We suffer with them as they experience almost a decade of silent torture and humiliation. Mildred stoically maintains her composure throughout, her eyes the only outward sign of her hurt, courage, and hope. In Edgerton’s Richard, we see an uneducated man unable to articulate his emotions, but whose body language says it all – he visibly begins to bend under the weight of the responsibility and his job as a laborer. The sheriff, a wonderfully arrogant Marton Csokas, uses “God’s laws” to justify his disdain of, and the laws against, interracial marriage. And Michael Shannon, in a small role as the Life photographer who captures some beautiful moments with the couple, is spot on. In fact, the only role that didn’t ring true was that of Nick Kroll’s Bernard S. Cohen, one of the attorneys who went to the Supreme Court to fight for the Lovings … and make history. He seemed to smirk through the role, lending the character an almost cartoonish appearance and attitude.
This is not the first time that the subject has been covered. In 1996, a TV movie called, Mr. and Mrs. Loving, first explored the story. And in 2012, the HBO documentary, The Loving Story,dug deeper into the political and social ramifications using a rich collection of 16-millimeter film, old news clips and still photographs. Today, the emotions, the legal wrangling, and the story itself still resonate. As Ruth Negga so eloquently noted, “I think a film like Loving generates compassion and empathy. I really do think we need a lot of that in the world.”
When the Loving case finally went to the Supreme Court in 1967, Richard Loving refused to attend, despite the pleas of his attorney, Bernard Cohen. So Cohen asked him, “Is there anything you want them to know?” Richard replied simply, “Tell the judge, I love my wife.” It’s still a chilling line.
There’s a Fellini-esque beginning to Tom Ford’s new film, Nocturnal Animals. As the opening credits roll, plus-sized women, nearly naked, dance, grimace, and perform, mimicking beauty contest winners and majorettes. When the camera pulls back, we’re in a gallery owned by Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), who sits on the sidelines looking unimpressed and bored by her latest art installation. (The women are now lying facedown on platforms.)
The new exhibition is declared a success, but Susan is not in a celebratory mood. Her husband, Hutton (Armie Hammer), didn’t show up for her opening, the couple’s relationship as cold as their steel and glass home. Susan suggests they try to reconnect by spending a weekend at the beach, but Hutton announces he must fly to New York to rescue a deal. Despite their opulent surroundings, they’re going broke. And, he’s having an affair.
Michael Shannon and Jake Gyllenhaal
Susan’s ex-husband, Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), a writer, has sent her his novel, which he dedicated to her and titled Nocturnal Animals, a nod to her inability to sleep. Since she hasn’t spoken to him in 19 years, she’s both pleased and perplexed by his gesture. When she begins reading the book, however, the violent story that unfolds in the pages is unsettling and pushes her to revisit their relationship and how it ended.
Susan and Edward grew up together in West Texas and reconnect after they bump into each other in New York. Over lunch at a posh restaurant, Susan’s mother, Anne (a delicious Real Housewife turn by Laura Linney), discourages her from marrying Edward, a “weak” man who will never make enough money. Susan balks at her mother’s assessment but comes to the harsh realization that she’s more like her mother than she wants to admit. An artist, Susan shunned the struggling lifestyle of a creative for the lucrative business side of running a gallery. When Edward won’t give up trying to become a novelist, she leaves him. But marriage to Hutton proves to be even less satisfying.
The novel’s protagonist, Tony (played by Gyllenhaal), is driving to West Texas with his wife, Laura (Isla Fisher), and daughter, India (Ellie Bamber). They are chased by some local ya-hoos and forced off the road. This is Deliverance on a lonely highway and Ford draws out the scene until it’s almost unbearable. Laura and India lash out against the men, while Tony tries to reason with them, a strategy that is ineffective and merely makes him look, yes, weak. Two of the men drive off with Tony’s family and he’s dumped in a deserted area. He finally finds his way to civilization and reports his missing wife and daughter. The local cop, Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon), who takes on the case, bonds with Tony and the two work for two years to bring the men to justice.
Tom Ford’s first film, 2009’s A Single Man, starring Colin Firth as a gay man in the 1960s who was unable to openly mourn his lover, received very positive reviews. Nocturnal Animals proves he’s no one shot wonder. He’s both a talented writer and director. And, of course, his fashion genius is evident in the film’s styling, from the outfits worn not only by Adams, but by one of the gallery workers played by Jena Malone, to sets, including the gallery and the Hutton home. Even the table decor, in several of the scenes, is eye-catching.
Adams’ character is multi-facted and the actress brilliantly transforms herself, depending upon where Susan is in her life story. Small touches make a difference. With bright red lipstick, her hair sleek and worn to the side, she’s the ice queen, tamping down her emotions. The younger Susan who fell in love with Edward, wears no makeup and is open and vulnerable. It’s telling that when she agrees to meet her ex-husband, she wipes off her red lipstick, ready to bring back the old Susan before she became too much like her mother.
Gyllenhaal delivers one of the best performances of his career. As Edward, he nails the sensitive, sincere small town boy who marries his first crush and can’t believe his good fortune. But when things go south, his efforts to make her stay come off as desperate. When we finally learn at the end of the film how Susan delivered the final blow that ended their marriage, we understand that perhaps the novel was not so much dedicated to her as aimed at her.
Nocturnal Animals opens nationwide November 18, 2016.
Long Day’s Journey is an exhausting theatrical experience. Not just for its length (three and three-quarter hours which, in this incarnation, represent the single, eruptive day), but because we’re inextricably drawn into the Tyrone’s almost unremittingly angry, guilt ridden, depressive, wounding, alcohol and morphine riddled world. That O’Neill manages to portray an undercurrent of deep love and inject unexpected humor is a testament to his mastery of the medium; literary quotes are immensely apt. The show is a glass mountain for both actors and the director, its scaling always something of a miracle.
James and Mary O’Neill, Eugene’s parents
Semi-autobiographical, the play must have be an exorcism for its author. Though completed in the early 1940s, he sealed the work in a Random House vault with stipulation it not be opened till 25 years after his death. Third wife Carlotta Monterey disinterred the play and offered its publication to benefit Yale University.
John Gallagher, Jr. and Jessica Lange
Parallels to O’Neill’s life include the summer cottage, its location, and the Irish American family it concerns. Characters are the ages they would have been in 1912. The playwright’s father, James O’Neill, was, in fact, an actor who played with Edwin Booth and was criticized for riding the wave of commercial success repeating his role as The Count of Mont Cristo for years. His mother, Mary, did attend a Midwest Catholic school. Eugene, like Edmund here, spent time at sea, wrote for a newspaper, stayed in a sanatorium for tuberculosis and suffered from depression and alcoholism his entire life. Jamie, who keeps his brother’s name in the play, died of alcoholism before it was written.
John Gallagher, Jr. and Michael Shannon
Tom Pye’s spare, evocative Set (emphasis on the stairs and the porch are particularly effective), Natasha Katz’s haunting Lighting Design, and Clive Goodwin’s evocative Sound Design create a ghostly, expectant atmosphere before we hear a word. Cosymes by Jane Greenwood fit each character like a glove.
Gabriel Bryne manifests James Tyrone’s volatility, stubbornness, ego, and monstrous love with grave and surety. That which is kingly makes it easy to imagine James on stage. Bryne’s natural accent and Irish roots add color and, one can’t help but conjecture, pith.
Michael Shannon (Jamie) solidly delivers, but could use a touch of familial poetry in inflection and gesture to feel more a Tyrone. His drunk scene, however, is a gorgeous model of plastered restraint and darkly comic physical acting.
John Gallagher Jr. (Edmund) sustains less truth than his fellows. The actor does bring painful impatience and vulnerability to the role.
Let us now praise Jessica Lange who has here written the dictionary on various forms of nuanced, nervous laughter, fluttering hands, darting eyes, and erratic vocal change. The actress embodies power, desperation, and fragility with equal conviction as mother, wife, and tender young woman. Perhaps not since her role as Frances Farmer in the 1982 biopic has Lange has the opportunity to theatrically go mad.
Because Mary has begun shooting up again the night before we meet, Lange must come on stage as if she was high. This robs us of watching her “get there,” a journey which might make the character’s tensile presence more acceptable. (We are privy to further sinking and, finally, drowning.)
It’s palpably stressful to spend so much time with a woman who’s rarely clearheaded and often mentally elsewhere. There’s a colossal amount of technique on this stage. The line between it and inhabiting Mary Tyrone is fine and sometimes crossed. How much is a matter of opinion. A muscular portrayal.
As Irish maid, Kathleen, Colby Minifie is utterly charming and credible.
Jessica Lange and Gabriel Byrne
Director Jonathan Kent does a superb job of organically utilizing the space. That which is glimpsed through windows works wonderfully, especially a moment Jamie comes up the front steps to stage level. (We don’t see the steps.) Another jewel-like moment is James’s turning away to reach into his pocket and give Edmund money so his son doesn’t see what he has.
Despite its characters’ pontificating, inebriated/high states, much of this play has the Tyrone family staring at each other or brooding in a corner. There’s also a great deal of anxious, aimless walking and hapless gesturing. Kent successfully holds tension and guides focus during these evocative parentheses.
Plan to drink directly after curtain.
Photos by Joan Marcus Opening: Gabriel Byrne, Jessica Lange
Roundabout Theatre Company presents Long Day’s Journey Into Night by Eugene O’Neill Directed by Jonathan Kent American Airlines Theater 227 West 42nd Street Through June 26, 2016