Sure. She's shocking. Outspoken. Explosive. Defiant. But is she "nuts"?
A dream project of Barbra Streisand's, Nuts is an intelligent, uncommonly good courtroom drama that runs deeper than one would expect.
Long out of print, Warner Bros. issues Nuts on DVD for the very first time.
Facts of the Case
Claudia Draper (Barbra Streisand), a prostitute arrested for murdering one of her clients, is the focus of a hearing. Is she mentally competent to stand trial for her crime?
Her parents (Karl Malden and Maureen Stapleton) say no and enlist the aid of a psychiatrist (Eli Wallach) to have her committed. Draper's attorney, Aaron Levinsky, says that she is competent and sets out to prove it.
It is not an easy task, as Claudia is not only very opinionated but she is distrustful and disruptive.
I remember one critic saying "Barbra Streisand didn't deserve any awards." That critic couldn't possibly be more wrong. Barbra Streisand absolutely deserved the Oscar for Best Actress in 1987; she wasn't even nominated. Considering the weak field of nominees that year, it's one of the major injustices Oscar is so famous for. It's a risky performance. She has to be plausible as both a woman of sound mind and a woman capable of being crazy. I realize what I said doesn't make sense, but when you see the film, you'll understand what I mean. Few actresses would be willing to take such chances, but Streisand succeeds by doing so.
Actually, the performances are all superb. In her commentary, Streisand
mentioned casting actors that the audience would be comfortable watching on
screen. Sometimes this strategy can backfire (as in
Richard Dreyfuss is excellent as Levinsky, the lawyer who has a daunting task ahead of him. Dreyfuss has always been one of our best and most underappreciated actors, and this is career best work here. He has to adhere to the expected protocol a lawyer must have, but he also feels for this woman and her situation. It's a tricky performance not every actor can pull off. Karl Malden and Maureen Stapleton exude warmth and seem like the typical dream parents. It's a good acting choice, considering the major revelation towards the finale. James Whitmore is the judge who must make sense of all this conflicting testimony. He keeps an even keel and resists overacting. Leslie Nielsen is the murder victim, and it may come as a surprise that the beloved comic actor of The Naked Gun is actually a good dramatic actor.
The film is based on a play by Tom Topor, which in turn was based on a true story. The screenplay by Topor, Alvin Sargent, and Darryl Ponicsan emphasizes emotions over plot, and that is a problem some critics had with the movie. I think they missed the point. Topor's play emphasized character, not the plot, and the movie accomplishes the same.
Is Claudia "nuts"? Or is she perfectly sane? Those are very good questions and a case can be made for both. I don't feel right giving it away, but I think the message of this film is a simple one: Who are we to judge who is crazy or not? It's not important if she's sane or insane. Basic human rights are at stake, and that forms the heart of the story. Critics who have dismissed the film have missed this very point.
The original director was Mark Rydell (On Golden Pond); he left the production after disagreements with producer/star Streisand. His replacement was Martin Ritt (Hud, Norma Rae, The Great White Hope). Ritt was a much better fit for this material, as his specialty was focusing on great acting rather than the plot or flashy visuals. For this reason, he was often overlooked by the Academy when nominations were discussed. I prefer Ritt's style to the McGs of today, that much I know for sure. His direction is flawless, as he elicits great performances from the entire cast that transcend the material and remain in the mind long after the final frame.
Warner has issued the film on DVD as part of their "Barbra Streisand Collection." The 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer could be so much better. Andrzej Bartkowiak's soft focus photography creates quite an amount of grain in the picture and required extra care for the transfer to DVD. After the good work done on Up the Sandbox and The Main Event, it was disappointing to see this film get the short end of the stick, especially since it is the more important film of the trio.
The sound is much better. Presented in a Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround sound mix, it sounds excellent with great clarity. This is crucial considering this is a picture in which the dialogue is extremely important to understand clearly. There is very little music in the film, which shows great restraint and care for the material on the part of Streisand.
The gem of this disc is a feature-length commentary track by Barbra Streisand. Everyone should listen to this excellent commentary track at least once. Ms. Streisand discusses everything from casting to performances to the actual production. Loaded with great information, it's two hours well spent. I can't wait for her commentary for Yentl.
A theatrical trailer in anamorphic widescreen features some spoilers. Watch this after you have seen the film. Entering into it fresh like I did will make it a better experience.
A stills gallery featuring behind the scenes photos contains the same problems as the gallery on The Main Event. For completists only.
A rental just won't do Nuts justice. Repeat viewings will be longed for long after the final frame. With a $19.99 retail price, this is a worthwhile blind purchase.
I find the defendant competent to stand trial on the video shelves. Case dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Commentary by Barbra Streisand
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