Sunday, May 01, 2005

DVD review: The Electric Horseman

Jane Fonda and Robert Redford star in Sydney Pollack's The Electric Horseman. It's a light romantic comedy which we'll contrast with the romantic comedies of today half-way into this review. But what you need to know now is that the basic story is this, retired rodeo star Sonny Steele (Redord) now promotes breakfast cereal and does appearences with a horse named Rising Star. When in Las Vegas for a show, Sonny learns that Rising Star's being drugged and decides this ain't the life for a horse.

Riding him off the stage, Sonny heads out of the show room, out of the building and off into the wilderness with Rising Star.

Hallie Martin's interested in the corporation that puts out the breakfast cereal (among other things). When Steele rides off, reporter Hallie's interested in what made him decide to do that. Attempting to dig beneath the spin and get to the truth (which is how you know it's a movie -- Judith Miller has demonstrated that it's the absorbtion of spin that apparently makes the career), Martin goes off in search of what's being covered up.

Also in the cast are Valerie Perrine, Willie Nelson and Wilford Brimley. Brimley's doing the exact same thing he does everywhere. Hopefully, it was still fresh in 1979 when the film was made.

Perrine's never struck us in any performance. She's like Dyan Cannon without the grit or Beverly D'Angelo without the sparkle. Whether it's Lenny or Superman, Perrine's in over her head. In this film, she actually finds moments where she demonstrates real talent and turns in something close to the sort of supporting performance that Melinda Dillon rightly has won praise for. Willie Nelson proves he's a good sport and comfortable on camera. No easy task (ask Lyle Lovett.)

But Fonda and Redford are the show. You wait to see if they'll open up to each other. Reading over reviews from when the film came out, there's a lot made of how Fonda's character starts out strong and then becomes vulnerable (one reviewer compared it to a comedic take on Swept Away -- the original, not the Madonna remake). There's not a lot of remarks on Redford's transformation. It may seem less major, but Hallie epitomizes everything that Sonny stands against. He doesn't even want her around for a good part of the film. If he doesn't open up, there's no romance and probably no audience for this film, so of course he opens up. But there's a good chance he could end up the wise old, lonely road traveler Wilford Brimley plays. Hallie prevents that. Not because they end up together, but because for all his nagging and complaining, he ends up enjoying her being along for the ride.

Maybe he'll get back with his ex-wife (Perrine)? Maybe he'll take up with someone else? (The idea of Hallie & Sonny as a long term couple isn't offered because it's not believable.) But there's a way Redford's looking at her in the last third of the movie that tells you Sonny's not so damn sure he's the go-it-alone-one-for-the-road guy he thought he was.

As for Fonda, she has chemistry with Redford, that was established before this film. But thinking of other actresses he'd appeared with, you realize how reflective (that's not an insult) his acting is. And how he really needs an actress who's physical or you'll just end up watching the scenery in one of his movies and thinking "pretty postcards." (We can think of three such films, but we'll be kind and bite our tongues.) With an actress like Fonda (or Faye Dunaway in Three Days of the Condor or Barbra Streisand in The Way We Were), she's giving so much physically that he has to step up to the plate.

Redford's an underrated actor (his Oscar win was for directing Ordinary People) and that's partly because as a leading man, he's worked at a time when there were very few actual leading women. Confused? Let's stop being kind and mention the film that everyone always trashes. No, not Havana. The other one, Legal Eagles. In that film, Redford's opposite a miscast Debra Winger (who actually did have onscreen sparks with Redford, they should have trashed the script and improvised) and Daryl Hannah. Miscast? Outside of playing a mermaid in Splash, we're hard pressed to think of a film where Hannah wasn't miscast in the lead. (Her strong supporting performance in Steel Magnolias was probably the finest work she's ever done.) Hannah's a sprite, a waif. Not in the Carole Lombard sense, not with any gravity or energy. She's a lovely pin up who seems flattened out and lifeless -- Redford's got nothing to connect with.

Which is why, when you think of him as a leading man, you don't often think of him opposite actresses. If you do, it's usually opposite Streisand, Dunaway and Fonda. When a woman's cast opposite him as "the girl" in the traditional sense and she's nothing more than object of art, Redford has nothing to play off of. You remember his scenes with Newman in their films together, or you remember him on the diamond in The Natural, or in the opening scenes of Brubaker . . .

He needs a strong actor opposite him or he tends to stay in his shell and that's especially the case when he's cast opposite a woman. When that happens, as it does opposite Fonda in The Electric Horseman, his eyes take on a shading and he has a way of absorbing the performer onscreen with him, reaching out. (Though not as strong an actor as Redford, leading man Richard Gere also needs a strong actress opposite him.)

Playing the business-like Hallie, Fonda coils her body with tension. There's no "she just needed a good lay" subtext here because Hallie's not awakened to a new reality via love making. If anything, she's more suspicious and more wary after they've shared that experience. And Fonda's body movements become more tense "the morning after." (The Morning After has some incredible comedic moments by Fonda, who was rightly nominated for an Oscar for that performance, but since it's not a comedy, it's a thriller, we've taken a pass on reviewing it here.)

Sonny's not given up his pursuit for what he believes in at the end of the film. A number of reviewers seemed to think the affair had no impact on him. That's not true. But it's also not true that Hallie has been transformed. The rush she feels at the end, the joy comes from nailing the story. Like Sonny, she's enjoyed their moment together and you think she may find more moments in her life, but unlike some reviewers, we weren't left with the impression that she'd gone from get-the-scoop reporter to hearts-and-flowers pining.

Reading reviews for this film (which was a hit in 1979) or Nine to Five (a hit in 1980), you start to realize how much was being dealt with. Not onscreen, but within the nation as people debated and explored the nature the of roles in society. As one of the few established female box office stars (others included Streisand and Goldie Hawn), there seemed to be a great deal of emphasis and examing Fonda's role not only within the film but within society.

We love those conversations and think films, at their best, helps further that kind of debate. But we're not seeing Fonda's Hallie as a backlash character but reviewers who, for instance, compared the film to Swept Away apparently did. (Not all reviewers saw it that way.)

This is a light, escapist, romantic film that manages to say something about individuals, ecology and corporations. Hallie's a working woman who's not about to ditch her career to ride off into the sunset with a man who, played by Redford or not, still has a lot of searching to do on his own. But some of the commentary in the reviews echo the kind of criticism that has dogged An Unmarried Woman since it's release. (Funniest commentary would be in the film Private Benjamin where Goldie Hawn does a riff on whether Jill Clayburgh should have become "Mrs. Alan Bates.") We're not knocking the reviewers. And again, we think films should lead to these type of discussions.

And in 1979, they did. We're wondering where those discussions went? Weightier and lighter films today rarely lead to that kind of debate. (When they do, it tends to result from films where the woman plays a prostitute or is bought and sold in some other way.) In Backlash, Susan Faludi offered strong criticism (postive and negative) of various films, from a feminist perspective. That's no longer examined in most of the reviews today.

Two people who are interested in only their own paths connect briefly and you're left with the feeling that it was a step for both of them and one that they'll be taking again (with other partners).

Don't miss the scene where Hallie's pressed to reveal her source. Fonda plays it perfectly. Hallie realizes where it's going and she's not backing down. Think about Judith Miller's various public pleas, The Charlie Rose Show for one, where she tries to manage the grit and sweetness combo that Sally Field can toss off without breaking a sweat. If Miller didn't veer between that extreme and her infamous bravado ("I was proved fucking right!"), if she showed some of the spirit Fonda's Hallie does, she might make you give a damn about her plight.

Hallie's not playing it modest, but her argument is for a free press. With Miller's public announcements, it never veers from the personal, the I-Judith! (And no matter how she strives for gamine, the fact is Miller's not very likeable and she has her own reporting to blame for that.)

We tried to picture how a remake of this film might play out today. (Fonda's Fun With Dick and Jane is being remade.) Brad Pitt would artfully put a straw in his mouth and attempt to look grave while being shot as though Bruce Weber was the cinematographer. Julia Roberts (she's still the only true female star/ leading lady Hollywood's produced in the last two decades -- shh!, don't tell Reese Witherspoon!) would scrunch her brow and try to look serious before breaking out into the smile she's famous for. (Or maybe she'd go the "character route" she went for when she did team with Pitt in The Mexican -- and come off as a dull nag.)

We couldn't see anyone standing in line for that. Buying a ticket or buying Pitt as someone deeply concerned (there's too much lightness onscreen) or Roberts as an impassioned reporter.
(Remember the box office for I Love Trouble?) There was a lot of talk in the negative reviews that both Fonda and Redford came off like they were playing paragons of virtue (see especially the Newsweek review). But they were playing something (and we didn't see them as paragons of virture, Hallie's too consumed with her job, Sonny with his cause -- nothing wrong with either consumption, but not exactly adding up to a paragon on either side). Today, it's just ticket buyers that get played.

Maybe that's why films don't inspire the kind of debate that The Electric Horseman did in 1979?

Both Pitt and Roberts are capable (and have proven that) of more than flash-card acting. But they're the closest thing today to Redford & Fonda in 1979. Today's film problems have nothing to do with salaries (Fonda and Redford cleaned up on this film). It has nothing to do with trying to make a hit (this was intended to be a hit and huge amounts were spent -- including for filming the love scene). We think it has something to do with the need to be "pretty." Pretty faces, pretty characters. Rounded off edges, filtered out facial lines.

Or maybe it's just the obvious fact that we're stuck in a time when films are being made by people who's point of reference is something other than life? Quentin Tarantion can carry off the movie frame of reference. He has the ego and the ambition for that. But when you look at the films of, say, Kate Hudson, you're struck by how (with the exception of Almost Famous), she's so much more interesting in any interview than playing the half-baked, sitcom derived characters she keeps getting type cast as. Hudson's got the goods to go beyond the I-hate-him-no-I-love-him-and-look-how-cute-I-look-right-now thing that passes for characterization these days. Why no one will let her play such a character goes to the problems with the state of films today.

In a way, Bird On a Wire should have had a similar feel to The Electric Horseman but instead of allowing Goldie Hawn to play her character as she saw it, the director kept cautioning her to come off "sweet." There's far too much "sweetnees" in films today.

Which is why it's surprising to read the reviews (again, see Newsweek for a perfect example) that dismissed The Electric Horseman as pure confection and nothing more. These days, it would probably be a fall picture, released in late October with hopes of Oscar nods.

That's not what the film is. But it is an enjoyable journey with two strong actors sparking off each other and concerned with something more than a missing palm pilot. Recommended.
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