Monday, March 18, 2013

Movie – Rachel, Rachel (1968)

The movie Rachel, Rachel was Paul Newman’s directorial debut.  It starred Joanne Woodward, who had been his wife for ten years at that point.  (They ultimately were married for 50 years until his death in 2008.)  Not only did Newman direct his wife to an Oscar nomination for Best Actress (her second of four), the film itself was also nominated for Best Picture.  It received two other Oscar nominations for Estelle Parsons as Best Supporting Actress and for Stewart Stern’s adapted screenplay.  Newman did not receive a Best Director nod, though.

The story is based on the 1966 novel A Jest of God by Margaret Laurence.  It is about a woman who has never lived her own life.  Rachel Cameron (Woodward) is a 35 year old unmarried schoolteacher who lives in the same small New England town she grew up in.  Her deceased father was an undertaker and they lived over his practice.  She and her widowed mother (Kate Harrington) still live there, although they sold the building to another undertaker and are now only renting that space.  Rachel’s mother is very demanding and keeps Rachel on a very short leash with all the things she says she can’t do without Rachel’s help.  Because of her mother’s control Rachel has never even had a relationship with a man, let alone any kind of sexual encounter.  She is very repressed.  Think Black Swan without the mental breakdown imagery.

About the only friend that Rachel has is Calla Mackie (Parsons), a fellow teacher at the elementary school.  The summer break is coming and Rachel figures it will be a boring few months with not much happening.  Calla manages to convince her to go to a revival show.  While there, the young preacher (Terry Kiser) stirs up some strong feelings in Rachel.  Religious fervor was often an outlet for repressed sexual feelings and Rachel is definitely a candidate.  Afterwards she is disturbed by her own reaction to the preacher and she withdraws back into her shell.  Contributing to this is that Calla has had her own emotions stirred up and this also throws Rachel for a loop.

She will have another, much more inviting distraction soon, though.  A schoolboy friend from many years ago, Nick Kazlik (James Olson), comes back to town.  He is going to be spending the summer there with his parents.  He tries to woo Rachel and after some hesitation she succumbs.  Even though she is a 35 year old woman, she feels she absolutely must keep it a secret from her mother, though.  Unfortunately, she has to retrieve her mother’s old douching equipment from a closet to clean herself afterwards in an attempt to avoid pregnancy, which increases the chances her mother will find out.

Another problem is Rachel’s reaction to this sudden change in her life.  Imagine you reached age 35 with not even a single date, sexual encounter, or relationship.  All of your emotional energy has been repressed, or directed toward caring for your mother.  All of your sexual desires have been completely repressed.  Now a charming, sexy person enters your life and you embark on a whirlwind, secret romance and sexual relationship with them.  How would you react?  It’s only natural that a woman like Rachel would immediately have very strong feelings for Nick – far stronger than he has for her.

For a movie made in 1968 it had several things that would have been at least somewhat shocking for the time.  I believe this is the oldest mainstream movie I have seen that had a lesbian character in it that kissed another woman.  I already mentioned that douching equipment was shown, although discreetly.  There’s the whole subject of sex outside of marriage, as well as the possibility of pregnancy in an unwed woman.  I also liked a naughty reply from none other than Rachel.  She’s drinking with the new undertaker and he mentions that he just bought a very large organ that stands upright.  Rachel’s response is “You can buy those now?  That will make wives very happy.”

Apart from that joke, the film is mostly a drama.  I did have an unintended laugh at the preacher.  When he appeared he looked familiar with me.  I knew I had seen the actor, Terry Kiser, somewhere before.  After several seconds I suddenly said to myself, “Bernie!”  Kiser played the very mobile corpse in the Weekend at Bernie’s movies.  Rachel, Rachel was his film debut.

From my description of Rachel above you might think this is a depressing movie, but I didn’t find it so.  Yes, Rachel is going to learn some hard lessons about life, but they are ones that have been long delayed.  I actually took from this film a positive note about a woman finally breaking out of the imposed prison that her life has been.  If this sounds interesting then I recommend you give it a try.

Chip’s Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

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