The Ritt Stuff
When Martin Ritt (1914-1990) died 26 years ago today, it meant that the last of his 26 theatrical features was the one released to poor critical and box-office response just 10 months prior, Stanley & Iris (1990). Like the troubles Ritt himself had being blacklisted between 1952 and 1956 from working in television because of prior loose ties with Communist causes, the movie’s disappointing critical treatment and box-office reception were undeserved. While it diverged sharply from Pat Barker's British source novel Union Street, it was, in the director’s hands as well as those of his long-time collaborators, the screenwriting adaptation team of Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr., clearly a labor of love for this veteran team whose eight-film association spanned 32 years and yielded great performances from such cinematic legends as Paul Newman (The Long Hot Summer and Hud), Sally Field (Norma Rae) and James Garner (Murphy’s Romance). Double Academy Award® winners Jane Fonda and Robert De Niro, playing the two title characters, wanted to work with “actor’s director” Ritt on what became this mature, working-class love story with a stirring social message element. Baked-goods factory worker Iris, a widow with a houseful of family dependents, is attracted to affable cafeteria cook Stanley, but her involvement with him leads to the discovery of his long-kept secret, that because of his unsettled upbringing never learned reading and writing skills in a stable educational environment, and this causes him to lose his job. The solitary Stanley reaches out to Iris to teach him to read, and a faltering, tentative romance develops between two guarded people desperately bogged down by pressing family responsibilities (Stanley by his ailing father, Iris by her rebellious daughter and out-of-work sister and brother-in-law) and needing to open up to new life opportunities. Filming was divided between the scenic byways of Waterbury, Connecticut (where anti-Fonda Vietnam War veterans disrupted the shoot at times), and Toronto, Canada, but the dedication of Ritt and his crew (including the great cinematographer Donald McAlpine and production designer Joel Schiller) kept the bustling workplace and cramped home environments dynamically lived-in and realistic. As Peter Flint wrote in The New York Times obituary that ran just days after Ritt’s death, he was “a director admired for making films that explored moral choices and reflected concern for racially and economically oppressed people. Most of his films were quietly moving studies of human relationships, punctuated by hits that gave the husky, tough-minded director the freedom to deal with social issues and the alienation of others.” Featuring a marvelously understated and moodily engaging score by John Williams and with a strong supporting ensemble populated by Swoosie Kurtz, Martha Plimpton, Harley Cross, Jamey Sheridan, Feodor Chaliapin and Zohra Lampert, Stanley & Iris is wholly, charmingly and movingly in keeping with that assessment. Twilight Time’s hi-def Blu-ray comes with the Williams score on an Isolated Track and an enlightening Audio Commentary by resident and quite literate TT scholars Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman when it arrives January 17. Preorders open January 4. Three other fine examples of Ritt’s work are available at special reduced prices through tomorrow (Friday December 9) only until 4 PM EST/1 PM PST at www.screenarchives.com, where TT discs of Conrack (1974, also a Ritt/Ravetch-Frank/Williams triple threat), The Front (1976) and Hombre (1967, another Ritt/Ravetch-Frank collaboration) are offered at 50% off. Look for another memorable Ritt title later in 2017.