Sunday, March 29, 2020
Let’s try to calm down for a moment. Pause, take a breath and remember a few good things in life. We all have those people who have meant something to us and whether they’re still part of our lives or not, what they’ve given has helped make our worlds closer to what we want them to be. People like that remind us that something close to decency still exists out there, a feeling which makes us want to strive to become better and make the world we live in just a little more serene. If only all this could be as true as we wish. Forgetting the real world for just a moment, we don’t get that feeling very much in films these days either and for a number of reasons this makes sense. The world is not in the greatest place so films are going to reflect the reality but too often they don’t do anything to fight back against that either. It’s true that kindness can be difficult to make dramatic and drama, which can’t just be nice people doing nice things for other nice people, inherently needs conflict in some form. So roughly 30 years ago in February 1990, the world got what is now the mostly forgotten STANLEY & IRIS, the final film directed by the great Martin Ritt who passed away before the year was done. I actually saw the MGM release at the time since back then I saw almost everything and even remember taking notice of a particular sensitivity to the direction but didn’t really think about it for much more than that. It’s a nice, pleasant movie, about people who struggle to move forward with their conflict coming from within as much as anything and lives in its own sense of quiet, with a craft to the filmmaking that may be subtle but is still undeniable. STANLEY & IRIS is a film about an issue that affects many people but doesn’t get discussed much at all and it could even be argued that the issue itself isn’t inherently dramatic. While it may not be a forgotten classic there’s still nothing wrong with a film that has its own ideas of how to tell a story and in doing so tries to make its world just a little better.
Recently widowed mother of two Iris King (Jane Fonda), who works on the line at a local baking factory, meets Stanley Cox (Robert De Niro), a cook in the factory’s cafeteria. After several chance encounters an attraction clearly develops between the two but after noticing his occasional odd behavior, Iris soon discovers that Stanley’s secret is he can’t read or write. After losing his job and being forced to put his father into a home when he can’t take care of him, Stanley finally asks Iris for help to learn how to read. And she begins to teach him through the various difficulties of the process and the growing awareness of what their relationship is becoming.
Maybe it’s my current state of mind, but films set in Connecticut make me think of the past. To this day, distant memories of sitting in the backseat of the car with my family as we drove through the state still linger somewhere in my head, remembering those trips when we were on the way to visit someone, passing through towns that we rarely ever stopped in. Has much of anything changed there since I lived one state over? That doesn’t really matter. Some of the most famous films that address life in Connecticut seem to focus on the wealthy, that east coast repressed old world of wealth and affluence seen in things like THE ICE STORM or THE SWIMMER, but on the opposite side of the financial chain STANLEY & IRIS is set in the blue collar world of people living paycheck-to-paycheck, if they’re lucky enough to be employed at all. The opening shots of the small city it’s set in bring up those distant memories of passing through which is appropriate for a film that, after all, is about people stuck in a place that the rest of the world just passes through and the setting may not be specified but the establishing shots are clearly Waterbury—interiors along with less recognizable exteriors were largely filmed in Toronto—which I mainly remember for the sight of a giant cross on top of a hill (apparently part of a long closed religious theme park, go figure) that can be briefly spotted here. Looking at the film again now all these years later, STANLEY & IRIS plays as the sort of quiet social drama that might have come out of Hollywood regularly in the early 60s, maybe set somewhere in New England, possibly in black & white CinemaScope with a gentle score in the TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD vein, although the films directed by Martin Ritt during that period usually had more fire than this one does.
Starting his career in theater and live TV before being blacklisted in 1952, Martin Ritt’s films often place an emphasis on social issues alongside a strong humanist vein, lacking the pulp ferocity of someone like John Frankenheimer but instead finding dramatic power in the simplicity of how people relate to each other when they have no other choice. He’s maybe best remembered now as the director of the masterful HUD but there’s also THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD, the blacklist drama THE FRONT (about as good a film on the subject as has ever been made) starring Woody Allen, the Sally Field Oscar winner NORMA RAE as well as the gentle MURPHY’S ROMANCE, which gave James Garner his one Oscar nomination, among others. Even Ritt’s first film, 1957’s EDGE OF THE CITY starring Sidney Poitier and John Cassavetes, is a dynamite noirish human drama with a hopeful tinge of yearning for the way the world, and the friendships in it, could be if it wasn’t for the hate that always beats it down. Stretching the comparison all the way to his last film, at the core of STANLEY & IRIS is a story about how people help each other to find the best of their humanity and in doing so overcome what are their greatest hurdles deep down, a victory which can matter more than anything when you’re just about ready to give up. The films he made were about how the world around people formed them and what they hopefully can do to move past their troubles to make those lives better.
The portrayal of the working class world seen in STANLEY & IRIS (screenplay by Harriet Frank, Jr. and Irving Ravetch, based on the novel Union Street by Pat Barker; this was the final credit for the screenwriting team who had collaborated with Ritt on multiple projects including HUD, HOMBRE and NORMA RAE) feels admirable looking at it these days but still a little idealized, spring days with clothing all neatly pressed as Iris heads to the factory with her co-workers like they’re off to camp for the day. The words the characters speak in the script make it clear they feel very different about their situation—it doesn’t seem like these are union jobs—with the dialogue underlining more than once how these people are all trapped in their own kind of prisons, accepting shoes that don’t fit because it beats having to pay for new ones and holding on to those dreams of actually owning a car. All this seems to exist in its own gentle reality with Iris getting her purse snatched at the start the only outward indication of real world hostility (which we never hear about again anyway) and the Madonna poster on daughter Martha Plimpton’s wall maybe the one sign of the late 80s in evidence anywhere else in the film. The various minor authority figures all seem a little grouchy but with kids playing ball in the streets and people calmly walking through parks there’s always a sense of tranquility in the air especially when Stanley gives Iris a ride on his bike after work one day as they get to know each other, a sequence which catches just the right tone for the start of this relationship with them both a little wary of trying to connect with someone new. The mood goes just right with such a simple, direct film about people who are lost but still trying to help each other even if the overall softness means that the film becomes a gentle stroll more than anything, the bitterness hanging on the edges in those scenes when someone chooses to simply walk away from the expected confrontation, no anger left in them, no more energy to bring out.
There’s also a feeling of regret that runs through things, with Iris unable to move on from mourning her husband so I’m guessing that’s his oversized Hawaiian shirt Fonda wears in one scene, trying not to let go. The guilt Stanley feels over having to leave his father in a modest, slightly shabby old age home stays with him as well and the sweet sadness of these scenes gets me deep down, especially when he apologizes to his father played by Feodor Chaliapin Jr., maybe best remembered now as the grandfather in MOONSTRUCK, delivered with a surprising vulnerability projected by De Niro and these moments are some of the film’s most affecting, bringing up a few regretful memories of my own father from around this period. The past affects how the characters behave in the present whether Stanley finally asking for help or the way Iris tries to pass along the right lessons to her pregnant daughter, trying to accept certain realities even with the bitterness in her voice as she says, “None of us stay cute,” while dealing with the volatile marriage between her sister played by Swoosie Kurtz and husband Jamey Sheridan. It’s a subplot that feels missing a resolution with the characters pretty much disappearing from the film but what’s left of it shows the danger of simply giving up and accepting how bad it’s going to be.
Ritt’s craft as a director always comes through even when the scenes are just a little too pat, expertly using the widescreen Panavision frame to place people in relation to each other during the teaching scenes as Iris tries to understand what happened to Stanley and the process of his learning as the words begin to come into focus. The film also occasionally pauses for those moments of daily life, showing Iris’s days at the factory, transitions held together by a lovely John Williams score to provide the connective tissue. And yes, maybe there’s not a lot of inherent drama to stretches of it since a scene where one person is teaching another to read may not have much conflict but in Stanley asking about himself, “Do I have a name if I can’t write it? Am I really a person if I can’t read it?” the simple clarity of the question comes through. Maybe the closest thing to a visual setpiece is when he’s given a test to walk to a certain intersection using a map he has to read and the trouble it causes, one overhead shot carefully laying out his silent confusion, the feeling of being completely, truly lost and alone.
The way the film cares about these people and their relationship to the world around them carries that sense of gentleness, the story of a romance which feels like it’s about the tentative nature of that romance, people who spend time feeling around each other while becoming aware of that passage of time and how they need to finally take action before it’s too late. There’s a feeling of warmth to Donald McAlpine’s cinematography that matches up with how the seasons change as the story progresses and at one point when Stanley is walking around a park with Iris’s son played by Harley Cross the scene briefly holds a shot on an odd perspective to show how dwarfed the two are by the nature around them which will be there long after they’ve gone. In another later scene Fonda and De Niro are separated by another tree in the middle of the Panavision frame, the world they share keeping them apart and this sort of lingering does give the feel of an old man’s film but looking at it as the last film directed by Martin Ritt causes every scene to play with a focus on the pure ideas of what he cared about, a way to just watch these people as they move through the world. More than a simple commercial for literacy, so much of it is about the tentative nature of holding back out of fear and what can be done to move past that, a reminder that we all only have so much time. STANLEY & IRIS may not be very much more than a nice movie with an ending that is a little too idealized, Stanley’s hobby as an inventor finally paying off almost as if to say that unless you have credit cards and a new car you’re not really a person. I don’t think that’s what the film is ultimately trying to say but it does feel like it’s an attempt to give the studio not just a happy ending but the happiest, least complicated ending possible. In the end, what sticks out is how this is a film about wanting, yearning to do more than just work and eat and sleep as Iris puts it in one scene, about the dream of making a connection and finding a way to escape from your own prison so maybe these days that message doesn’t seem so wrong.
Jane Fonda and Robert De Niro feel slightly at a remove from each other which makes sense—this isn’t supposed to be a movie about sexual tension anyway, just an easygoing tentativeness which will hopefully blossom into something else. The look in their eyes, Fonda’s yearning as she fights against the bitterness which is always about to overtake her and the look on her face as she realizes he has an interest in her. Seven months before GOODFELLAS opened, this film is a reminder of the charming awkwardness which can turn up in De Niro’s performances when he has to play an uncomplicated guy, in this case someone with a polite inquisitiveness with a lot bubbling up inside him to keep his secret and there’s a sweetness to it all so even when he shows up drunk at her house in one scene it’s never threatening, just sort of clumsy. Martha Plimpton matches up well against Fonda as her daughter, not intimidated at all and it gives an extra charge to a subplot which might otherwise just play as hackneyed. Stephen Root is the head of the nursing home while Iris’s co-workers at the bakery include Loretta Devine, Kathy Kinney, Julie Garfield and Zohra Lampert, practically extras but each giving the feeling that they’re embellishing their bit parts on the edges of the frame although if the film never stays with them for very long, but even those brief moments give the film another touch of humanity.
Where you come from and what happened to you matters. What happens now matters too. But right now my thoughts are drifting to people I’ve known and what they’ve meant to me. I’m not even sure I’d know how to tell them if I got the chance. In some cases, maybe it doesn’t matter. As a side note, STANELY & IRIS co-screenwriter Harriet Frank Jr. whose career dates back to the late 40s passed away at the beginning of 2020 at the age of 96 and not only was it the final film directed by Martin Ritt, after its box office failure it was also Jane Fonda’s last film for the next sixteen years—from this to MONSTER-IN-LAW—and is mostly forgotten now unless you happen to be digging through Amazon Prime. As I write this, our lives are on pause at best. Maybe I’m not even sure what my greater point is beyond that there’s something to be said for a film about people finding each other and using that as a path to a better version of this life. And, by the way, reading is good too. These days I have to try to remember something like that for as long as possible.