When I began sorting out my thoughts on Christopher N. Rowley’s directorial debut Bonneville, it became clear that I would soon face an internal conflict of the greatest magnitude, a paradox so turbulent that it would shake my very core: how could I, a man who proclaims to be the premiere campaigner for actresses over 40 (and their relevancy in pop culture), criticize an honest attempt by not one, but three of the best such women? How could I reinterpret and disassemble how modern ticket-buying audiences perceive this “women’s film”? How dare I be disappointed in the final result?
Indeed, as someone who prides himself on being the champion of actresses, how could I possibly criticize this film that was at least making an attempt at a) employing actresses who, in general, don’t get a chance to work as much on the big screen as they used to; and b) capturing precisely the kind of non-caricatured middle-aged woman that is disturbingly absent from the big screen altogether?
As feminist film critic Molly Haskell said in her book From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies, “ the problem becomes even stickier in film criticism with a feminist point of view, where the delights of the specialist often collide with the despairs of the ideologue. The critic and the feminist in me join hands to protect their respectability against a romantic, a slobbery, atavistic soul ready to sabotage all their deliberations with a few convulsive sobs”
Ms. Haskell said that she considered herself a film critic first, and a feminist second. “I feel an obligation to the wholeness and complexity of film history. It means that art will always take precedence over sociology, the unique over the general.” I like to keep her words in mind, especially in the tough times where the feminist in me says “Don’t criticize”, but the film enthusiast cries “Foul!”
I first saw, and vacillated over, this film when it had its American premiere at film scholar Dr. Annette Insdorf’s Reel Pieces lecture series back in January, and I was happy to not have to properly review the film because I was so let down by it. Thankfully, there was a live chat with actress-activist-icon Jessica Lange there to buoy my imagination and give me something much more interesting to write about. Listening to her talk for an hour plus was infinitely more interesting than watching the brisk 90-minute film, and her talk helped me dodge the bullet of having to write a negative review, the prospect of which completely mortified me, given that Lange is one of my idols.
As a huge fan of Lange for years, watching her toil chiefly in supporting roles in fringe films, I was understandably excited to see her in a lead role, on the big screen, once again. I have, historically, sought out the films of Lange whenever possible. The problem here was that even though her performance in Bonneville was nicely pieced together, the film, which was slightly written and hastily assembled at best, conspired to undo all of her hard work, at every turn.
This is something I have had to really force myself to consider when evaluating the contemporary films of actresses like Lange or peer Diane Keaton. It is hard to watch the iconic Keaton become adept at essentially branding herself in a way that makes her indispensable to the present-day film industry by making crowd-pleasing movies that almost exclusively waste her brilliance and pretty much dumb her down for a larger audience, distilling her very essence into a product that can be sold and re-sold. This is something that is probably necessary for women of this age bracket to do to keep their careers (and visibility) alive in a climate that would just as soon see them go away forever, but I did not want to see this happen to Lange. I didn’t even think it was possible.
Bonneville was a rare, special case where I decided that I could not let my blind, irrational love for Lange cloud my judgment, nor could I let my devotion to all things Kathy Bates get in the way of me finding the reason why Bonneville just didn’t succeed. When I finally discovered the answer to this riddle, I was relieved to come to the realization that the film’s failure overall was not the fault of Lange, Bates, or their ethereal co-star Joan Allen. It wasn’t primarily the fault of the writer/director, either, though (even though some of the scripted dialogue and cock-eyed scenarios the women are forced into are wincingly bad). So who is to blame for casting some of the greatest actresses of our time in this little failure of a road movie?
Blame Hollywood. Blame society-at-large. Blame ticket buyers. Blame men for preferring to see Angelina Jolie shooting people whilst running about half naked, rather than wanting to see what women of this age group experience in real life. Just don’t criticize these women for at least trying to remain hopeful in a bleak state of employment, or for playing the game for what employment they get. They are forced into an unfair, odd cinematic hibernation most times, forced to make the best of a bad situation, really, because the truth is there just aren’t enough multi-dimensional characters for women of this age bracket to revel in. Especially when they start to become known more for their personalities than for their acting abilities.
Just ask fellow Oscar winners and nominees Bette Midler, Jane Fonda, Sally Field, Kathleen Turner, Debra Winger, Sissy Spacek, Cher, Sigourney Weaver, Gena Rowlands, Glenn Close, and probably about 100 other women who have all turned to alternative mediums such as the stage or television to seek success. It’s either that or self-parody, it seems.
The regal Lange had been relegated to supporting roles in flat-out garbage like Masked and Anonymous or Neverwas, rather than inhabiting the damaged sirens and full-throttle dames she once played in indies like Blue Sky, which won her a second Oscar in 1995 (the first was in 1982 for Best Actress in a Supporting Role
in Tootsie). According to the actress, her decision to stay home and be with her family sorely limited the kinds of roles she could accept, thus limiting her employability. Why do we expect women to be the ultimate nurturers and mothers, but then punish them for doing it well by taking away their personal triumphs? If Lange was rewarded for performing the tasks that women are expected to perform (taking care of a family, successfully managing a relationship, taking care of elderly parents), than she should, technically, be enjoying a mid-career renaissance a la Katharine Hepburn. Instead, she is routinely criticized for stepping away from Hollywood, for her looks (she’s not compelled to starve herself for a Hollywood-approved figure), and for not playing by the rules.
Bates has turned into the wise-cracking, sassy character actress who seems to never turn down a supporting role payday, and nor should she, even when it’s something like the dreadfully tedious Failure to Launch — a film that mocks the viewer by flaunting Bates in a limited, clichéd role that isn’t deserving of her power and gravitas. This year she has some seriously delicious fare on her plate: Stephen Frears’ Cheri, opposite Michelle Pfeiffer. Executive Producing is Lange, whose dream project this was, and who was informed when production began that she was too “old” to play the lead.
This December she will be a part of American Beauty director Sam Mendes’ Revolutionary Road, sharing the screen with Titanic co-stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. Bates has fostered a career against the odds in an age where the public demands young, blond, tiny starlets play every role. Don’t forget, she won the Oscar for Misery while in her early 40s, and has just gotten better and better since, despite not getting the leading lady roles she deserves.
Allen, probably the most commercially successful of the bunch (thanks to the Bourne films), and likely the most recognizable of the three women to modern film-goers, is still not working with the frequency she once did (and if there’s any doubt about how hot her career was, check out the years 1995 through 19 98, where she churned out the back-to-back triumphs Nixon, The Crucible, The Ice Storm, and Pleasantville). Allen has not been Oscar-nominated since 2000 (for her turn as the first female VP in The Contender), despite such career highlights as 2005’s The Upside of Anger, a tour de force which should have, in a fair world, won her an Oscar.
So it is hard to find fault in the choice of these powerful ladies to band together in the refuge of collaboration, something powerful and talented women of this generation rarely have the chance to do anymore because no one actually turns out to buy tickets. There’s safety in numbers, right? Wrong.
Despite an innovative marketing concept and a fun, user-friendly website that pushed the film directly to women of Lange, Bates, and Allen’s age group who could best empathize with the film’s subject matter (The Red Hat Society was among the film’s sponsors), and despite the sturdy, open presence of all of these actresses in various forms of promotion, from the Today Show to The View, Bonneville still couldn’t manage to find its audience.
Why are our finest actresses forced into such compromising positions? Why are they all not looked at as American acting doyennes, or treated as respectfully as the precious Meryl Streep would be? Why do we only allow one American actress (Streep) to be cast in all of the high-profile roles for women her age and be both critically and financially successful?
These kinds of questions about the treatment of women over 50 in film can be overwhelming, and when a novice like Rowley even attempts to employ an alternative to the usual grind, even when the film isn’t necessarily perfect, they must be commended. Bonneville is not terrible, but it isn’t befitting of the American acting royalty that acquiesced to star in it, either, though the three women do their best with what they are given, smiling gamely through it all, and in the process deconstructing ageism in a subtle, necessary way.
The well-shot film opens in present-day Idaho with Arvilla (Lange) returning from Barbados, where her husband Joe (an anthropologist who was much older than her) has suddenly died. They shared a blissful 20-year marriage, which Arvilla says exposed her to new worlds and ideas. The pair collaborated on work, on love, and on happiness. She is devastated by this loss and Lange wisely underplays all of the bristling emotions that one faces in the aftermath of losing a loved one.
To see Lange, who has been regularly criticized for her looks from the beginning of her career to the present, play such an every day, real woman is almost startling. This is a necessary performance for her as she transitions from the former days of sex bomb roles, mothers, and farm wives into uncharted terrain. Film critic Mimi Swartz cannily remarked that “Middle-Aged Chick Flicks”, in fact, offer middle-aged, baby-boomer women, perhaps for the first time, some realistic images of what ‘coming of middle age’ feels like”. She points to examples from older films featuring sad predators like Sunset Boulevard’s Norma Desmond and The Graduate’s Mrs. Robinson as being more geared towards a fantasy view of women in their middle age, rather than their reality, and states that she believes the newest trends in cinema aim for “realism”.
Luckily, Arvilla’s two trusty pals, Margene and Carol (Bates and Allen) are there to help her keep her keep it “real” and keep her head up every step of the way, even when her wretch of a stepdaughter Francine (a one-note, shrill Christine Baranski) tells the bereft woman that she plans on taking her father’s ashes to California, for a private family burial to which Arvilla is not invited. Arvilla’s choice is to let Francine have her way, or lose the home she built with her husband. Joe, it seems, didn’t have an updated Will that would take care of his widow, and his daughter is left holding the purse strings and the power. The next morning, making good on her threat, Francine sends a realtor out to appraise the house.
With the help of her friends, Arvilla decides to personally chauffeur Joe’s ashes out to his awful daughter’s memorial service in a cherry colored, 1965 Bonneville, hitting all of the pair’s sentimental spots on the way, making for a beautiful series of filmic snapshots in a few choice locations (the website actually offers a triptych of the various stops). Margene and Carol reticently agree to go along for the ride and Bonneville becomes an amalgam of road movie, female buddy picture, comedy and drama. While the actors hit the right notes, the tone of the film overall is very uneven.
The question begs, though, Is watching a subtle character study about three Mormon ladies from Idaho, and their intimate adventures enough to satisfy the kind of cinematic appetite of today’s movie-goers? Or is this small-town bunch too relentlessly unappealing, in cinematic terms, to cull an audience? It’s as though this project was predestined to fail, and that shouldn’t be loaded onto the shoulders of the game actresses who were trying to find something special in this thankless position. They’re not, after all, the Sex and the City juggernaut, or paired with younger, bankable co-stars.
It makes me wonder if the film would have been more successful had it been released in an alternative market like on Lifetime Television or on HBO, where these niche markets are more openly and successfully courted, and there is a budget geared for advertising smaller projects like this. Then, you have to also consider the “TV” stigma and applaud the filmmakers for even attempting to release this theatrically, with all of the odds against them. That is ballsy, and that is why this film isn’t a complete failure.
Bonneville is firmly committed to the “Female Gaze” in an industry where everything is geared towards what men, old and young, want to see; almost defiantly so. So, in that sense, it is successful in not giving a flip about pandering to the traditional ticket-buying audience, which is refreshing. This is a movie that was made for a particular audience of women who are not, in general, catered to.
So why wasn’t it successful? Perhaps members of the audience for whom the film was made felt insulted by its treatment of such national treasures, and is refusing to throw their support behind something that doesn’t fully utilize these amazing women, who really merit more complex, rich characters. I mean, come on! This is Jessica Lange, Kathy Bates, and Joan Allen! They deserve better.