Betty the Loon’s Revenge on Life in Paul Newman’s The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds
“We know not by what curse this sublime film remains in obscurity at this point.”
[“On ne sait par quelle malediction ce film sublime a pu rester a ce point dans l’oubli.”]
– Cahiers du Cinema
Frumpy, chain-smoking Beatrice Hunsdorfer, the Medea figure of Paul Newman’s The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds, is first introduced to us with a languorous solo-sax waltz courtesy of Maurice Jarre. At a five-and-dime joint, Beatrice tries on an amusingly eclectic selection of wigs. In these opening moments, Jarre's dirge – a far cry from the orchestral spectacle of his scores from Lawrence of Arabia and other epics of its era – becomes a character study in and of itself. His composition could be entitled Theme for Beatrice Hunsdorfer, Age 50 for all we know; it has the distinct whiff of eccentricity for something otherwise so forlorn. Jarre, conscripted as composer when the film was in fully edited form, clearly sees Beatrice for who she is, devising a dreary frolic in three-quarter time.
To others in her small, parochial Connecticut town, Beatrice Hunsdorfer is “Betty the Loon.”
However, after the 20th Century Fox fanfare, the picture’s fade-in occurs over Beatrice's daughter Matilda (our real heroine) as she methodically, scrupulously, delicately, plants the marigold seeds for her school science project. This is a startling counterpoint to Beatrice, whose brusquerie we can behold even as she wordlessly models her discount-priced specimens. Mopped in many of the store’s more absurd selections, she peacocks her nonetheless dowdy, weather-beaten form, and harshly grades her every gesture.
Jarre scores both characters with precisely the same theme, first with a lonely oboe (for daughter), then with a sly, wise-ass saxophone (for mother). He also punctuates the transition to Beatrice with a rum-tum-tum, almost scherzo, rhythm section that stands in direct contrast to the introvert daughter who, in Beatrice’s own distorted context, is freakish, a kind of mutant. (The music, incidentally, is ever-so-slightly reminiscent of Jarre’s mellow solo-horn love theme for George Stevens’s swan song The Only Game in Town just two years prior.)
Need I further explain how Newman’s film begins with a master stroke? He uses music to underscore (a never-more-apropos verb) a key juxtaposition, one so organic as to almost avoid detection. A fear envelops Paul Zindel’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play: that this daughter, despite her inner beauty, delicacy, potential, strength, risks one day becoming her brash, indeed downright hateful, loudmouth mother, a harridan who clearly prides herself in the alacrity with which she insults hidebound locals. With an acid tongue, she offends social convention, and does so with sprezzatura, a word extracted from Castliglione’s The Book of the Courtier and defined as “a certain nonchalance as to conceal all art, to make whatever one does or says appear to be without effort.” For Beatrice, the effort is concerted despite her concealment, but her wit is formidable despite its cruelty.
Later, when Beatrice administers the only motherly love she can muster in her attempts to comfort and calm her older daughter Ruth (Roberta Wallach, daughter of Eli and actress Anne Jackson), who is prone to night terrors, she still risks putting on a show. She can’t help herself. "Apples, pears, cucummm-bers!" she yawps from the top of a dark staircase as she explains the “nice dream” from which her daughter’s screams awakened her – of being at the helm of a palatial produce cart festooned with big bells and driven by two white circus ponies. After giving Ruth a drag of her cigarette, Beatrice prompts her to join in chorus, and reticently she accepts the invitation: "Apples, pears, cucummm-bers!" The scene as a standalone, divorced from the rest of the picture, is incredible. As part of a larger story, it's a magnificent enhancer in a character-study narrative that should, in the best of worlds, subsist of such sequences.
In another sequence, she instructs her daughters on some of the “finer” points in life.
“You’ll soon come to learn that most men only have one testicle!”
“Never pick a man because he’s funny. They never leave you laughing.”
“Of course that’s the end of the story! When people die, it’s the end of the story!”
When Matilda’s science project is selected as a school finalist, and when the mothers of the finalists are to be profiled in the local newspaper, Beatrice sees the honor not as her revenge on life, but rather an inconvenience orchestrated for the express purpose of humiliating her. It is only Matilda’s love of the atom, the smallest particle in life, that can save her from irradiation, which comes with internalizing her mother’s contempt for the world. Newman’s very aware camera watches Matilda in real time, knowing all that is inside; at the heart of the film’s emotional power is the performance of Newman’s and Woodward’s then 12-year-old daughter Nell Potts, whose sad, penetrating ice-blue eyes uncannily remind us of her father’s.
As Roger Ebert observed, “The performance by Nell Potts is extraordinary. She glows.” Ebert, however, also remarks, “Paul Newman’s direction is unobtrusive; he directs as we expect an actor might, looking for dramatic content of a scene rather than visual style.” The French critics, in a coup of defiance toward a wave of cynical American reviews, begged to differ. Le Monde raved, “The great American actor is also a great cineaste. Cassavetes is not far away, nor is De Palma.” Cahiers du Cinema’s accolades were equal in thrust and deservingly grand pronouncements. Woodward won the Best Actress prize at the Cannes Film Festival for her fearless turn as Beatrice Hunsdorfer, but whereas the French toasted the film, American critics like Vincent Canby of The New York Times likened Beatrice’s barbed dialogue to that of a “quick-witted drag queen” and branded Beatrice herself “less a character than a theatrical cliché.”
Indeed, audiences have grown accustomed to “mommie-dearest” reprobates like Shelley Winters in A Patch of Blue (1965), Angela Lansbury in The Manchurian Candidate (1962), and of course, Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest (1981). More recently, we have seen Mo’Nique in Precious (2009), Allison Janney in I, Tonya (2017), and to some extent, Laurie Metcalf in Lady Bird (2017). What distinguishes Woodward’s depiction of Betty the Loon is the sprezzatura factor: there is indeed a studiedness, a deliberation, to both Woodward’s performance and the character itself. But ironically, it is Beatrice who most vies for a tour-de-force. This is a difficult balance to achieve for Woodward as an actor. As a natural defense, the character must affect a nonchalance and a self-perceived lightning wit to keep up appearances – and it takes precious little to destroy the illusion. Beatrice lives a constant struggle for control; life is her pageant of misanthropy, in which her daughters are mere accessories.
Newman’s screenwriter, Alvin Sargent, proved throughout a lengthy career an adeptness for lovingly rendering the most broken, misunderstood, rejected, forgotten and vulnerable characters, in deft screenplays for films like Alan J. Pakula’s The Sterile Cuckoo (1969) and Love and Pain and the Whole Damn Thing (1973), Ulu Grosbard’s Straight Time (1978) and Robert Redford’s Ordinary People (1980) for which he won his second Oscar®. The characters into which Sargent helped breathe life comprise a formidable crew (possibly motley) of outcasts: Conrad Jarrett (Timothy Hutton), Pookie Adams (Liza Minnelli), Max Dembo (Dustin Hoffman), and last but not least, Beatrice Hunsdorfer and her two daughters.
The film’s character insight owes as much to Newman’s directorial skill as it does to Sargent’s virtuosity with words. Newman’s trio of behind-the-camera efforts in sixties and seventies are every bit as potent today as Jerry Schatzberg’s early 1-2-3 punch of Puzzle of a Downfall Child (1970), The Panic in Needle Park (1971, a Twilight Time title) and Scarecrow (1973). (Incidentally, Newman jumpstarted Schatzberg’s career by backing Schatzberg’s debut picture Puzzle of a Downfall Child, another startling female character study likewise shot by Gamma Rays’s cinematographer Adam Holender.)
Newman made his filmmaking debut with the quiet, reflective Rachel Rachel (1968), also starring Woodward as a repressed schoolteacher looking to escape the small-town rhythms that lull locals into an emotional complacency and a spiritual death. Rachel Cameron takes baby-steps towards her own liberation, but at a certain cost. Set in the similarly parochial Japonica, Connecticut (a fictional hamlet constructed out of Redding, Bethel, Danbury and Georgetown, CT), Rachel Rachel echoes The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds (shot in and around Bridgeport, CT) in that they probe degrees of rebellion through the eyes of two very different women, brilliantly portrayed by the same performer.
Sandwiched between Rachel Rachel and Gamma Rays is the brawny Sometimes a Great Notion (1971), another film about an insurgent within a tragic anti-establishment family. Like Matilda, who refuses to align with her mother’s revenge on life, so does Michael Sarrazin’s character in Sometimes a Great Notion doubt a similar, stubborn familial campaign. How does one defy a family (or family member) that lives to defy? Appropriately, years later, Newman would direct a screen adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie (1987), again starring Woodward. It is not difficult in the least to establish a thematic consistency in the work of Newman the filmmaker.
The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds has long been kept off the American home video market. Though the film has been released on video overseas, notably in France, this TT Blu-Ray release marks its U.S. video debut. We should celebrate that missing-in-action status is over; we can begin to catch up with the French critics who saw the wonderful things that most American critics missed. I, for one, am thrilled at this opportunity to champion a favorite film of mine on the eve of such an important release.
Daniel Kremer is a filmmaker, film historian, biographer and professional film archivist living in San Francisco. He has written for Filmmaker, Keyframe and CineSource. He is the author of the book Sidney J. Furie: Life and Films (available through Patrick McGilligan's Screen Classics Series), and is currently editing a book he wrote on Joan Micklin Silver, due in late 2018. He has started researching a biography of Henry Jaglom. The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds blooms on Twilight Time hi-def Blu-Ray February 20. Preorders open February 7.