Reviewed by David Spencer
By the sheerest coincidence, I became familiar with Clifford Odetts' The Country Girl only about a month ago, when TCM ran the film version. For a 1955 film of a 1951 play that rarely sees mainstream revival, I thought it was a remarkably sturdy vehicle—and given the era, an unusually sober and sophisticated exploration of how love can deteriorate into co-dependency, and how a clever addict can fool all but his handler. Here's the synopsis from the press release of the current Broadway revival, slightly tweaked by me:
"The archly dubbed Country Girl, Georgie (Frances McDormand), is married to a once great theater star, Frank Elgin (Morgan Freeman). Now down on his luck, Frank is offered the chance to make a major comeback by young, hotshot director Bernie Dodd (Peter Gallagher). The pressures created by a high stakes out-of-town tryout bring into dramatic focus the complicated relationship between husband and wife. Life backstage becomes an emotional and psychological battleground for all three characters."
Here's what bothers me: the film, in its time-capsule purity that includes a certain degree of the era's naivete and penchant for exploring these themes with more shameless strokes of melodrama than would pass muster today, seems a good deal hipper than the revival. (The film, by the way, stars Grace Kelly—who won an Oscar—as the wife, Bing Crosby as her actor-husband and William Holden as the director. I'll get back to them in a bit, because they're important to this review.) I liked the revival well enough, I suppose—it was an eye-opener—as any similar occasion would be—to see three such powerful roles played so differently; and to see them played live in addition. And I liked clocking the audience response—there's a plot turn that shouldn't even be that surprising, yet still makes the audience gasp.
But I found myself missing a sense of transition. You see, in this configuration, there's a trade-off of power, an uncertainty as to who's in the dominant position, who needs who most, who uses who and when, and it's revealed in layers. Ideally, we shouldn't be certain until Odetts spells it out, late in the play.
And I realized—in retrospect—that I was never in doubt. I never felt the shift. When the director begins to think that maybe the wife is deliberately manipulating the husband toward failure, so that she can retain control, we need to feel that perhaps he's right. And that means the feeling has to come from somewhere, be motivated by a dynamic we've seen in play. In Mike Nichols' production, the director's accusation seems a semi-hysterical rant from a man who ought to know better; certainly we do.
I wondered long and hard about why this crucial frisson should be missing—and then I free-associated to a phrase acting teachers sometimes use to flag something to beware of: playing the ending, or playing the result. Which is to say telegraphing the end of the story or sequence with some behavioral giveaway that indicates that you—as the character—know where you're headed. Then I also free-associated to something William Goldman wrote about Nichols way back in 1969, in The Season, his book analyzing a year on Broadway. It was in fact a chapter about Nichols, called "Culture Hero." And in the chapter, Goldman flat-out characterizes Nichols as brilliantly talented (which of course he is); but also prone to take refuge in triviality rather than real humanist exploration, when dealing with serious material. One can debate this vigorously project to project—certainly I don't think Goldman's assessment holds true across the board, throughout Nichols' intervening career—but I think, alas, that it nails what's going on here.
In the film, Holden, Kelly and Crosby are playing variations of their natural personae. Holden is a no-nonsense, straight-shooting idealist; Kelly is the ice queen, a wall of beauty hiding a well of heartbreak; and Crosby is what we now know him to have been in real life, despite his onstage confidence: haunted and emotionally disfigured. One can argue whether or not or to what degree they were "playing themselves" but there's no mask on any of them, no artifice.
Ah, but look what's happening onstage at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre: There's Peter Gallagher, playing Dobbs like a New York streetwise tough guy; it's a deliberate choice of archetype—and it robs the character of his capacity to be naive. And there's Frances McDormand, playing her role with weariness informing her tough broad spirit—another stylistic comment; and if we see the weariness she carries too early on, how can we ever doubt the authenticity of her burden, the iron grip of the actor's hold on her? What is there to discover? As for Morgan Freeman—well, he seems to be playing his persona sans affectation, but ironically, his brand of easy confidence and quiet dignity is precisely the opposite of haunted. Oh, he looks sad, gets peeved, allathat...but he doesn't bring to bear the secret, claustrophobic neediness of a crafty alcoholic has-been.
The performances are lovely, in their way, but the self-conscious wink at the playing style of a bygone era divests them of any resonant truth. And that's the kind of thing it's the director's job to safeguard. I'm not sure about Mr. Freeman, but Gallagher and McDormand both have it in their wheelhouse to have delivered their roles in a more genuine way. But in favoring style, however subtly, over substance, Mr. Nichols has transformed a sincere drama into a cultural artifact, which is a sign of not fully trusting the material to carry its own weight.
That said, Nichols is nobody's fool, he hasn't pushed the stylization toward parody, and the difference between sincerity and "artifaction" is a subtle one.
But that subtle difference...is all the difference...