It’s no secret: I am probably the world’s biggest fan of Joanne Woodward. Though she sadly doesn’t really make films anymore (with the notable exception of her Emmy-nominated turn last year in HBO’s Empire Falls, co-starring husband Paul Newman), her work between the late 1950s and early 1990s showcases an ever-evolving talent: a woman as fearless, rebellious and experimental as they come. Awkward in the old Hollywood studio system, Woodward really began to blossom as a performer as she aged, the medium becoming more relaxed right along with her.
Woodward has been directed by her spouse on five separate occasions. Three of these outings featured her delivering some of the most assured, interesting, and memorable work of her career: 1968’s Rachel, Rachel saw her tackle an emotionally tricky role as a repressed school marm living in a small town, wishing she had another, more exciting, life, and as legendary Tennessee Williams’ matriarch Amanda Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie (1987), the actress put a fragile stamp on a traditionally steely character. A professional triumph came with the adaptation of Paul Zindel’s Pulitzer prize-winning play The Effects of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds in 1972, where Woodward tackled a doozy of a role that would win the actress her first and only Best Actress accolades at the Cannes Film Festival: a funny bad mother.
Playing Beatrice, a slatternly, crude protector of two teenage daughters who could use a little help with cleaning and parenting, Woodward has some amazingly selfish moments: embarrassing her children with vulgar, abrasive behavior whenever possible (like screaming “Matilda, go fetch your sister before she gets pregnant” at her young daughter while her horrified oldest is chatting up a boy). She apparently doesn’t care about the consequences of her actions on her kid’s awkward adolescent minds, and her boisterous, inappropriate actions runs wild. She has moments of quiet grace while reminiscing of lost loves mere seconds away from erupting into hysterical fits of babbling about killing rabbits. Woodward, in full-on “bravura performance” mode, goes to places she hadn’t yet experimented with at this point in her career: accent, posture, costumes and all of the usual physical trappings play a big part in her transformation. The performance evoked, for me, the great female lead films of the 1950s: pure character studies that didn’t need any leading men. Beatrice is an innately theatrical and outlandish character that Woodward makes into an emotional, funny and believable woman who just happens to obsessively seek her family’s fortune through the classified ads.
While Woodward was directed by her husband in Gamma Rays, she wasn’t the only Ms. Newman on the set: co-star Nell Potts (real name: Eleanor Newman, the couple’s daughter) proves that talent is genetic. Potts is a marvel as the quiet, sensitive Matilda; her chemistry with her real-life mother is tremendous during some of the film’s complicated emotionally-charged scenes (in particular when Beatrice rudely snaps “Jesus, don’t you hate the world, Matilda?” Potts’ manages a shell-shocked, whispered response that is heart-breaking). It is clear she created an actual character. This is the furthest thing from a Newman family documentary, though each member of this esteemed clan gets to really strut their stuff.
These instances where Woodward is guided by the watchful blue eyes of Newman represent some of the most fruitful filmed artistic experiments that a married couple has produced. While she wasn’t directed by him in one of her most esteemed performances, Merchant-Ivory’s elegant Mr. and Mrs. Bridge, Woodward still had Newman to rely on as her co-star, much like she did back in 1958 when the newlyweds made the dangerously sexy The Long, Hot Summer. These inspired pairings almost make you forget she made other great films without her husband.