Waiting for the Moon is director Jill Godmilow’s 1987 portrait of the lives of writer Gertrude Stein and her lover Alice B. Toklas. For those unfamiliar with Stein’s work and her life in France in the ’30s, Waiting for the Moon will both illuminate and confound Stein’s legacy. Godmilow and writer Mark Magill assert that Waiting for the Moon is a work of fiction—the only true fact of the film being that On the Trail of the Lonesome Pine was in fact Stein’s favorite song.
Time is non-linear in Waiting for the Moon, and this quickly gets confusing. In the DVD’s sole special feature, in which Godmilow interviews herself, she explains that she wanted to “play with time”. The film jumps back and forth between an afternoon editing session in the back garden of Alice and Gertrude’s summer home in rural France, and their rollicking earlier days during their “melodramatic” period, as Godmilow calls it.
Linda Bassett and Linda Hunt portray Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, respectively. Viewers may recognize Hunt from her Oscar-winning performance as Billy Kwan in The Year of Living Dangerously. Bassett has since made a career of playing sassy middle-aged British ladies, most notably as the maid Nelly in The Hours and one of the senior citizen pin-ups in Calendar Girls.
Hunt undoubtedly outshines Bassett in Waiting for the Moon, perhaps because popular culture—and 20th century literature classes—have paid far less attention to Toklas than to Stein. Hunt is playful yet sure-footed as Alice, whereas Bassett’s erudition of Tender Buttons is tiresome, to say the least. (I must mention; I’ve never liked Stein’s writing to begin with.)
Bassett’s Stein is condescending in her dealings with Alice—she talks to her in a mocking, singsong tone, as though speaking to a child. Her sentiments are meant to be affectionate, but instead are downright creepy. Much of this is the fault of the writing, but Bassett’s delivery doesn’t help. The scenes between Alice and Gertrude in their country garden or apartment can sound like dialogue for a stage play—very well written, but unnatural, the monologues in particular. This is not how people actually talk, not even 80 years ago.
In addition, Alice is forever asking Gertrude for a break from typing, to water the roses or walk around the garden. Gertrude usually kindly, firmly refuses, like an admonishing parent, leaving the viewer to wonder why she can’t type her own damn poems and leave poor Alice alone.
The melodramatic period comes about because Gertrude is dying and refuses to discuss the matter or even tell Alice about her illness. Alice simmers with barely contained rage, and the two of them cavort about the countryside and Paris with their famous friends: Picasso, Hemingway, and Apollinaire. Though Godmilow and Magill make sure to remind us (in the interview and a booklet of essays included with the DVD) that Waiting for the Moon is an imagined narrative, the adventures they create for Stein and Toklas can be so improbable as to be irritating.
Particularly grating is a certain scene in which Alice and Gertrude have to fetch a drunk and belligerent Hemingway from a brothel where he’s misbehaved. Magill defends his perspective by throwing in lines for Alice like “ideas are more interesting than facts”. This may be true in some cases, but the situations Alice and Gertrude find themselves in ask us to suspend our disbelief too often. (Supremely distracting example number two: ’80s heartthrob Andrew McCarthy as a hitchhiking American soldier to whom Alice and Gertrude become weirdly attached.)
Waiting for the Moon is commendable in its portrayal of a lesbian relationship — at least, this particular relationship — particularly one that is often glossed over in more mainstream representations. (Many biographies of Stein refer to Toklas as her secretary, cook, and good friend, but neglect to state outright that the women were lovers for more than 30 years.) Godmilow is a progressive feminist director and it shows. Gertrude and Alice’s relationship isn’t qualified or explained for the viewer, even as the two of them fall into traditional male/female roles: Stein always drives, drinks before supper, and dresses like a man while Toklas cooks, keeps house, and is diminutive with a truly weird but undeniably girly-girl perm in her hair.
Hunt’s performance and a couple of the non-Stein monologues make the film worth watching. There’s a lovely scene in the woods at night during which French art critic Guillaume Apollinaire (Jacques Boudet) tells a story about eating poisonous mushrooms. Waiting for the Moon’s occasional absurdity might be charming if one is willing to overlook the caricatured performances of real famous people—Bruce McGill’s awful Hemingway especially. For the literally minded (myself included) there’s a useful fact vs. fiction chart in the DVD booklet, along with a few essays on narrativity the nature of biography, and filmmaking.