Judge Russell Engebretson never would have imagined Gene Hackman and Ann-Margret as a couple—and it looks as though the actors had some trouble imagining it as well.
They married for better or worse, and after thirty years their union is neither better nor worse.
A simple, straightforward domestic drama succeeds or fails on the strengths of its actors; sadly, the uneven performances in Twice in a Lifetime assign it to the dustbin of noble-but-failed film projects.
Facts of the Case
It is the mid-'80s in a Seattle suburb, and a working-class couple—whose 30-year marriage seems quite comfortable—is about to experience the trauma of divorce. Harry Mackenzie (Gene Hackman, Hoosiers) works at the steel mill, and his wife Kate (Ellen Burstyn, The Last Picture Show) works part-time at a hairdresser's shop. Their children, with the exception of one daughter, are grown and married. That daughter (Amy Madigan, Jurassic Park 3) is living with her parents while her unemployed husband searches for a new job.
The movie begins with shots of Harry's workplace and his walk home down a street lined with small local businesses that leads to the middle-class suburb where he has lived for decades. After a slightly tense birthday party at home with the family, Harry takes off to the local watering hole, where the real party commences as his work buddies throw a blue-collar-style birthday bash. Harry meets the tavern's newest employee, Audrey Minelli (Ann-Margret, Grumpier Old Men), and receives his fateful birthday wish, a kiss from the sexy bartender. It's love at first smooch, and it is not long before a beautician who works with Harry's wife spots them embracing in a car. When Kate confronts her husband with her knowledge of his betrayal, Harry confesses that though he still loves her, the passion is gone from their marriage.
The remainder of the film is a series of encounters with Harry's family and friends as they try to grapple with the dissolution of what they all thought was a rock-solid marriage.
Twice in a Lifetime is an obscure movie that was released on VHS 20 years after its theatrical debut and only this year released on DVD. It may be of interest to Gene Hackman fans looking to complete their collections, but I doubt that many people were clamoring for its release. My somewhat dim view of this film is generated by its two major failings: poor choice of actors (in two cases), and a rather threadbare, cobbled-together script.
First, the script, written by Colin Welland (Chariots of Fire), is disjointed. Harry and Audrey go from a kiss to a torrid affair in what seems a couple of heartbeats. Many scenes are more akin to set pieces, small vignettes that allow the players to interact but do not move the story along. Several of the scenes could be trimmed or cut with no loss to the movie, which at almost two hours runs too long. Second, and more important, is the choice of Ann-Margret as Hackman's lover. There was not one second of her screen time in which I could believe this woman was a working-class gal. From her coordinated outfit, complete with matching purse and high heels, to her expensively coiffed hair and immaculate makeup, she looked like exactly what she is: a glamorous movie star. She has one innocent bedroom scene (fully clothed) with Harry, and it is completely unconvincing. Hackman appears uncomfortable and dispassionate. There is no chemistry at all between them, and the scene completely undermines the picture's believability. The other miscast actress is Amy Madigan, about whom the less said the better. Her usual histrionics are engaged in full-throttle scenery chomping, especially in the bar confrontation scene (much of which was improvised), which has her almost frothing at the mouth as she excoriates Audrey in front of Harry, Ellen, and the bar's patrons.
But there is also some astoundingly fine acting from Ellen Burstyn and Gene Hackman, who almost, though not quite, redeem this picture. Hackman, as always, is the consummate professional. The way he touches his wife, then lets his hand fall away, or his distracted irritation when Audrey tries to make small talk—all tell the audience that the end is achingly near for this couple's life together. And then there is Ellen Burstyn, an astounding actress who has never received the recognition she deserves. Her 1980 role in Resurrection garnered her an Oscar nomination for Best Actress, but she was up against some tough competition and lost to Sissy Spacek (Coal Miner's Daughter). In this movie she plays the middle-aged wife, devastated by the specter of divorce, with genuine anguish and not a whiff of melodrama. There is a stunning scene near the middle of the film with Audrey sitting on their bed while Harry stands at the bedroom door and explains why he can't live with her anymore. It is the most honest, most heartbreaking movie depiction of a marriage breakup I have ever viewed. It was painful to watch, and words don't really do it justice.
The only extra is the commentary. It's an ambling affair helmed by the director and two of the actors, so of course it is full of remarks by the actors about—you guessed it—acting. That is why I usually dislike actor audio commentaries, and this one is no exception. One tidbit we learn from the actors is that many scenes were improvised. Most actors love improvisation, but when overdone it almost always brings the story to a screeching halt while the thespians emote. Director Bud Yorkin delivers the most interesting remarks and discusses the difficulty he had finding a financial backer. He ended up financing the film out of his own pocket, and the actors worked for far below scale, deferring their salaries to get the movie made. Yorkin received no support from the studio when it came time to distribute the film, which probably helped plunge it into obscurity. He also mentions that several of the cast members were involved in real-life divorces. Hackman had just divorced; Burstyn had divorced only a year or two earlier; and Yorkin says he was in the middle of a divorce during the filming. Some of that emotional anguish must have bled onto the screen, and is likely the primary source of the movie's emotional depth.
The director praises the score, but to my ears Pat Metheny's pseudo-jazz only manages to flatten some of the movie's most emotional moments; it sounds dated and just plain inappropriate. Audio is a serviceable but lackluster Dolby Digital 2.0. However, the most egregious fault of this DVD is the butchered film, with sides hacked off the widescreen picture to fit a 4:3 TV screen. The wretched pan-and-scan transfer is further marred by an inferior print full of white specks. At least the colors appear natural and nicely saturated, with no sign of fading. The pan-and-scan transfer accounts for a large portion of the low score on this review.
Twice in a Lifetime does not live up to its potential, but it has some fine moments, thanks mainly to the superb acting skills of Gene Hackman and Ellen Burstyn. It is worth a view for their exquisite performances together.
Warner Brothers is guilty of inflicting a rotten pan-and-scan release onto a film that deserved better.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Commentary by Director Bud Yorkin and Actors Ann-Margret and Amy Madigan
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