Archive for jane fonda

Cat Ballou (1965)

Posted in Dailies with tags , , , on June 17, 2010 by leclisse

In a performance that nails down her reputation as a girl worth singing about, actress Fonda does every preposterous thing demanded of her with a giddy sincerity that is at once beguiling, poignant and hilarious.  Wearing widow’s weeds over her six-guns, she romps through one of the zaniest train robberies ever filmed, a throwback to Pearl White’s perilous heyday.  Putting the final touches on a virginal white frock to wear at her own hanging, she somehow suggests that Alice in Wonderland has fallen among blackguards and rather enjoys it.  Happily, Cat Ballou makes the enjoyment epidemic. (Review from Time magazine.)

I’m not by any means a fan of Westerns.  I can appreciate a good one just as I can appreciate a film from any genre that is well-done or remarkable in any number of ways.  My neutrality as far as Westerns are concerned is probably due to the fact that they often lack any real female character development, more often than not strictly studies in masculinity.  Once Jane Fonda is thrown into the mix, however, it is almost impossible to come away without some substantial feminine influence.  My respect for Jane’s skills as an actress is irrevocably grounded in her performances in Klute (1971) and They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969), but is still manages to grow with each film of hers that I see (yes, even after the spectacle of 1968’s Barbarella).

In Cat Ballou, Jane plays Catherine Ballou, a newly minted school teacher who is on her way back home to her father, a significant landowner who has run afoul of some encroaching business interests.  The film actually opens with Catherine in jail, fidgeting with a virginal white dress as she awaits her sentence of hanging for murder.  Nat ‘King’ Cole and Stubby Kaye provide a musical narration, meant to be reminiscent of the chorus in Greek tragedy, and bring the audience back several months from this scene in the jail to explain just how fair Catherine has found herself to be in such a mess.  Homeward bound, Catherine is deposited into the care of a masquerading priest, who also happens to be on board in order to spring an outlaw passenger in police custody.  Catherine is something of a victim of circumstances, but reluctantly assists in the getaway of the two.  Up to this point, Fonda’s Catherine is a skillful embodiment of old-fashioned femininity and virginal naivety, but all the while managing to convey the inner steel that will sustain her after the murder of her father.

Catherine is not home long before her father dies at the hands (or gun, rather) of Tim Strawn (Lee Marvin, who also plays Kid Shelleen), a terrifying steel-nosed gunslinger hired by the businessmen who have now stopped at nothing to wrestle away her father’s water rights.  This, despite her having hired gunmen (Lee Marvin as Kid Shelleen, and the escaped outlaws from the train, Michael Callan and Dwayne Hickman) to protect her father from these same businessmen.  Devastated and heartbroken, Catherine vows revenge for here father’s death, seeking refuge with Kid Shelleen, Sioux farmhand Jackson Two-Bears, and Callan and Hickman.  They flee to a protected community of outlaws, immediately setting to work at Catherine’s insistence in plotting a train robbery.  Unfortunately, the payroll they heist from the train is actually meant to provide much-needed jobs to the townspeople as well as pay for the protection of the outlaw community in which they’re currently seeking refuge.  After this, they haven’t a friend in the world.

Cat Ballou was a major financial success at the time of its release, and significantly elevated Jane’s star power.  Personally, she was engaged to be married to director Roger Vadim (who would go on to direct her in Barbarella) and the overflow of this joy can clearly be seen in the vivacity and fire of her performance.  The film’s satirical treatment of the Western genre makes use of a variety of common cliches, yet is able to turn these elements on their heads in order to move the film beyond a simple self-conscious look at the Old West.  Jane’s Catherine is the vulnerable schoolteacher, yet uses this position as a springboard to secure the help of the men around her who also want to protect her.  Ever practical, she wears slacks for much of her screen time but never falls from this initial virginal femininity.  Catherine is self-assured and self-reliant, open to the charms of lovemaking yet is able to unalterably remain unobsessed with love and courtship.  It’s a pleasant and exciting release, but she knows she need not depend on it in order to secure her well-being.  Even up to the very end, Catherine’s rescue from the noose is a team effort, not merely another instance of a man having to intervene to save a helpless female.  Fonda’s Catherine has already proven that she can take care of herself, but is not averse to the idea of a gallant rescue at the capable hands of Callan, Hickman, and Marvin.

Klute (1971)

Posted in Dailies with tags , , on May 26, 2010 by leclisse

I must have seen Alan J. Pakula‘s Klute about a half-dozen times in that last couple of years.  After the first screening or two, I tirelessly searched the depths of eBay for original stills, posters, and lobby cards from the film’s original release, coming away with a rather attractive one-sheet and a trimmed 7×9″ publicity still of Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland.  The cycle of my film obsessions follow much the same pattern; once I have materially sated the initial excitement over an outstanding film, I move on to something else.  In the case of Klute, however, I find that I keep coming back for more.

Like big, beautiful epics, another one of my cinematic weakenesses is for strong female characters.  Jane Fonda’s Oscar-winning turn as Bree Daniels is all at once violently assertive, stealthily manipulative, tirelessly self-confident and a string of other related adjectives.  Bree, an experienced New York City escort has known the heights of Park Avenue but cannot remain content in a life of turning tricks and paying up to Roy Scheider’s mercilessly brutal pimp Frank Lagourin.  Pakula narrates Bree’s ongoing struggle to break out of “the life” through a series of sessions with her psychoanalyst (Vivian Nathan), where she presents the audience with a powerful picture of a woman who knows herself incredibly well.  Bree is in a sense addicted to the power she is able to exercise over each john, confident that for a moment she is the “greatest actress in the world and the greatest fuck in the world.”  That sense of control over life is the key to Bree’s inability to let go of prostitution.  She has no control over her failure as a stage actress, a profession she sees as a tangible escape from prostitution, especially since she is able to utilize the theatrical skills that made her such a success in that life.

Donald Sutherland’s title character, John Klute, meets Bree in the course of investigating a missing persons case, the details of which are systematically revealed throughout the course of the film but at the same time seem almost peripheral to the relationship that develops between these two.  Unlike so many films in which romantic relationships seem anywhere from trite to childish to bizarre, Pakula takes the time to believably introduce these two polar opposites, ceaselessly wearing down their prejudices and defenses over the course of the film.  The interplay that unfolds between Bree and Klute is riveting and the chemistry between Fonda and Sutherland is a perfect synthesis of vulnerability and genuine trust.  Watching Bree advance and retreat, trying to entice Klute to give up his “square” morality and give in and become one of the group of faceless johns that she scorns is one of the most revealing character studies ever committed to film.  Bree admits her fright as experiencing genuine emotions toward Klute, which flies in the face of her hardened sentiment that men are all the same.  Her instinct is to destroy those emotions and retreat to the safety of being “numb.”

Klute presents an interesting social commentary on the ageless question of “square” morality and its attitudes towards prostitution.  The truth of Tom Gruneman’s disappearance and the revelation that family friend and coworker, Peter Cable (Charles Cioffi), is a murderous sexual deviant masquerading under the pretense of being a normal family man turns socially acceptable prejudices on their heads.  The film’s climax is shattering in its brutality, with Cable reassuring himself of his normalcy by venomously casting the blame on Bree and other women like her who have exploited his sexual predilections and threaten to ruin the idyllic work and home life that he has so meticulously built and fought to maintain.  So desperate is he to salvage this illusion, perhaps more for his own sake than for that of his family, Cable sees murder as the only way to silence those with the knowledge of his secrets.  The way Pakula ends this film gives the audience just enough closure to feel nominally satisfied, but at the same time leaves enough open to doubt the direction of any of the character’s lives.  It is a perfect balance between the surety of the Guneman case’s solution and the immediate directionlessness of the lives of Bree and Klute.