The little boy inside Appellate Judge Tom Becker is demanding junk food...again.
"This is my last ascending summer."
Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward could have been Hollywood's ultimate "golden couple." Instead, they became "golden outsiders," opting to live not in Beverly Hills but in Connecticut, where they were regarded as gracious and good neighbors first and movie stars second.
When Newman decided to try his hand at directing, he went the independent route, raising the money himself to produce Rachel, Rachel, a character study of an unmarried woman nearing middle age. Based on the Margaret Laurence novel A Jest of God, he cast his wife as the lead.
The resulting film was a "small" picture, but a critical and financial success. Woodward had her first great role since her Oscar-winning turn in The Three Faces of Eve, and Newman was praised for his keen eye and sensitivity.
Although it was popular when it was released in 1968, Rachel, Rachel kind of fell off the radar as the years have gone by. Now, Warner Bros. is giving it a belated yet welcome DVD release.
Facts of the Case
Rachel Cameron (Joanne Woodward, Empire Falls) is 35 years old. A schoolteacher in her small town, she still lives with her mother in an apartment above the funeral home, which her father ran for years.
In many ways, Rachel has never grown up, something her mother realizes and capitalizes on. Rachel compensates for the soul deadening routine her life has become by imagining things. She imagines she's sick or dying; she imagines intimacy with a married acquaintance; she imagines standing up to authorities and taking home a neglected child. All this she imagines, but she acts on nothing. Serving sandwiches at her mother's weekly card night is an excuse to hide in her home and avoid the human contact she craves, and the archaic term "spinster" and all its implications apply perfectly to her.
After a disturbing incident with her one friend, Calla (Estelle Parsons, I Never Sang for My Father), Rachel runs into a man she'd known years before, when they were children. Nick (James Olson, The Andromeda Strain) is easygoing and a bit loutish, but he gives Rachel the kind of attention she's never gotten from anyone, particularly from a man.
Slowly, Rachel begins to see possibilities in her life. She's having the great love story she's always dreamed of…but maybe she's still dreaming.
For his directorial debut, the very American Paul Newman made a film with a decidedly European sensibility. With its focus on character, memory, and symbolism, Rachel, Rachel could have easily been a product of Ingmar Bergman or the French New Wave. A deeply felt study of loneliness and resignation, Rachel, Rachel is a quiet, mature masterpiece.
The film is structured as a series of episodes and small observations, moments that don't jump off the screen but resonate and ache—Rachel and Calla trying to capture a bird, a visit to Calla's Evangelical church, card night at the funeral home, a weekend at Nick's farm, a drunken reconciliation. Newman and his cinematographer, Gayne Rescher, make wonderful use of handheld cameras to add a slightly surreal and immediate feeling.
Newman refuses to make this a film about pity, and it is not a forced-uplift tale of "the indomitable human spirit." It's an honest and poignant look at life and how it sometimes gets away from us. The film is frank without being exploitative about sexuality, including then-verboten topics like masturbation, lesbianism, and post-coital birth control.
Joanne Woodward won the Golden Globe and the New York Film Critics Circle awards for Best Actress, and she is exceptional here, acting Rachel from the inside out. Woodward immerses herself in this character, and it is easily her best work. She wears Rachel's desperation like an old coat but resists giving into heavy-handed actorish physicality.
Over the course of the film, Rachel ages emotionally from a child to a woman, and Woodward perfectly captures those transitions. We often see Rachel as a child (played by Nell Potts, Newman and Woodward's daughter), sometimes in parallel to herself as an adult. Calla's nickname for Rachel at the beginning of the film is "child," and the on-screen graphic for the title is one "Rachel" in large letters and the second in a smaller typeface—big Rachel and little Rachel. Later, when she has her affair with Nick, Rachel is like a teenager discovering sex, filled suddenly with hopes and dreams, not looking at the world as cautiously and critically as she had before. We understand Nick's character better than she does, and Woodward's clear-eyed sincerity makes these scenes almost painfully moving.
Olson is very good as the oafish but appealing Nick. He's just "a guy," and while he might not be heroic, he's not demonized here either. As Rachel's selfish mother, Kate Harrington avoids the clichés that have come to be associated with such a role. Even better is Estelle Parsons' colorful and neurotic Calla, who is also desperate to find that magic something that will add meaning to her life.
Newman won the Golden Globe and the New York Film Critics Circle awards for Best Director, and he was nominated by the Directors Guild, but he failed to score an Oscar nomination. This was the big news of the awards for 1968, along with Vanessa Redgrave (Isadora) outpointing Mia Farrow (Rosemary's Baby) for a hotly contested Best Actress nomination. Newman's omission set the stage for an unusual bit of business, wherein the directing Oscar was presented by a quintet of actresses (including Jane Fonda and Ingrid Bergman) complaining that only one of the nominated directors had worked on a film in which a woman had a decent part. That director—expected winner Anthony Harvey for The Lion in Winter—lost to Carol Reed for Oliver! (in which a woman "sang two songs and got choked for her trouble"). Woodward, nominated for Best Actress, lost to Katharine Hepburn (The Lion in Winter) and Barbra Streisand (Funny Girl), the only tie in that category's history. In all, Rachel, Rachel was nominated for four Oscars—Actress, Picture, Screenplay, and Parsons for Supporting Actress—but came home empty handed.
Warner Bros. doesn't seem to have done much work on this disc. The transfer is reasonable, maybe very good considering that the film is 40 years old and low budget. There was no significant damage, and the picture seems pretty clean. Audio is the original mono track, which sounds a bit light; oddly, the French dub track actually sounds richer. For extras, we get the original trailer, which capitalizes on Newman and tells little about the film, and a few minutes of footage without sound that was used as part of the exhibitors' package.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Warner Bros. has been burning off its catalogue titles like mad lately. The good news is we're getting a nice run of lower-profile films like The Yellow Rolls Royce and Waterloo Bridge, movies that aren't really in high demand but are worth checking out.
The bad news is that these films are being tossed out with little or no restoration and pretty much supplement-free. Rachel, Rachel was an important film in its day and it holds up very well 40 years later. It's a shame to see the almost negligible treatment it's given on this disc.
Incidentally, Warner Bros. has been releasing (or re-releasing) a lot of these titles as series of some kind—TCM Greatest Classic Film Collections, for instance. Rachel, Rachel is part of the haphazardly assembled Paul Newman Film Series, which also includes such lesser Newman films as The Silver Chalice, The Outrage, The Helen Morgan Story, and When Time Ran Out. Not exactly what comes to mind when you think of Newman, but everybody's got a gimmick. I guess it beats Sony's "Martini Movie" line and Paramount's odious "I Love the '80s" multi-dips.
Too bad Warner didn't really take the ball and run with it and release a Paul Newman director series. His other five films are not available on DVD (only one—The Shadow Box—even has a release), and while Harry and Son fell a little flat, I'm sure I'm not the only one who'd be happy to pick up Sometimes a Great Notion, The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds, and The Glass Menagerie.
Newman's film has been referred to as a "woman's picture," but that's an unfair simplification of this stark and intelligent character study. Finely observed and beautifully acted, Rachel, Rachel is a must-see. Props to Warner Bros. for finally releasing this gem, even if its treatment leaves something to be desired.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Promo Footage
Review content copyright © 2009 Tom Becker; Site design and review layout copyright © 2016 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.