The triumphant return of Patricia Neal to the screen gives us one of the best performances of her career.
Synopsis: A young man returning home from World War II finds himself caught up in his parents’ turbulent relationship. (IMDB)
Starring: Patricia Neal, Jack Albertson, and Martin Sheen
Writer: Frank D. Gilroy
Director: Ulu Grosbard
Rating: G (United States)
Running Time: 107mins
A son returning home from World War II to find that his parent’s marriage is falling apart is the starting point of The Subject Was Roses, a movie based on Pulitzer Prize-winning play.
Nettie (Neal) and Jack (Albertson) have been married since forever and they can’t hide their disdain for each other anymore. They decide to try when their son Timmy (Sheen) comes home from war, but pretty fast the young man sees the cracks in their act and realize his family is not what it used to be anymore.
Nettie became distant from her husband. Jack drinks a lot and cheats his wife. One fuels the other’s disdain and resentments, creating an ever-growing ebullition of aggression. Timmy left one war to find himself in the middle of another, but in the war at home, he is being used as a weapon for both his parents to attack one another. Soon he realizes he needs to leave home and distance himself for something good to survive.
This is a simple family movie, in the tradition of great ones like Ordinary People, Terms of Endearment or Kramer vs. Kramer. But there is something clearly missing here; the conflict is there, but it doesn’t engage us as the other ones do so effectively.
Maybe is the fact that the adaptation is so faithful to the play it makes us feel we are actually inside the theater. It’s too contrived inside the family’s apartment and even the staging of it can’t shake the feeling you are just watching a play being filmed. The way the characters and the camera move are too calculated, you can sense there are just hitting their marks and doing it as rehearsed. And that is the worst possible aspect of a film that tries to recreate a sense of simplicity or reality; that the characters are not acting voluntarily, but like robots doing exactly as they are supposed to do. The film fails completely in trying to make us feel like we are witnessing real life. Think of what John Cassavetes would have done with this material. Or maybe the balance between the material and the power of the performances are not working properly.
If you get great movies faithful to its theatrical version like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? or Long Day’s Journey Into Night you can sense that some of the performances are so strong and hypnotic they make you forget you are watching a movie based on a play. Think of Elizabeth Taylor or Katherine Hepburn in those two examples; they are so strong and commanding they pull everything else inside their force fields. These are both larger than life characters, but what makes them hypnotic is the way their eyes show us much, much more of what’s happening inside. And the scripts helped those actors, having stronger and more powerful themes than The Subject Was Roses has.
Here the simplicity of the story and the conflicts clash directly with the theatricality of Albertson and Sheen’s performances, both coming directly from the play. It is totally understandable that they needed to be theatrical on the stage; the themes here are indeed simple and introspective, and they needed to project that to the audience. But when you turn the camera on close to the actors’ faces and you don’t adapt to the medium, it just becomes weird. It’s too over the top and the material asks for subtlety and restraint, which makes Albertson winning the Academy Award as best supporting actor really strange.
But there is one performer here who knows subtlety and uses it to great display: Patricia Neal. She is the standout and not just becomes we can’t take our eyes from her. This is her first performance after having a series of strokes 3 years before that left her in a coma for 3 weeks and with memory problems and physical limitations. But one can hardly notice them here because her eyes invite us to go into her soul and look for deeper and hidden meanings to the things that are not being said. If you are looking for a reason to give The Subject Was Roses a chance, it’s her.
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