Paltrow Mines a Poet’s Pain: A Surefire Oscar Nod for Sylvia

Christine Jeffs’ Sylvia , from a screenplay by John Brownlow, has been criticized for not being completely faithful to the known facts of the ill-fated love and marriage of Sylvia Plath (1932-1963) and Ted Hughes (1930-1998). But what there is onscreen, faithful or not, offers a wondrously illuminating artistic experience for its ideal audience-people like me who know a little but not much about the explosive Plath-Hughes fusion of unbridled poetic temperaments in a tauntingly prosaic world. Excluded from an appreciation of Sylvia are the proverbial philistines who read with their lips and have a taste only for movies that open on thousands of screens every weekend after a monstrously prolonged media blitz. So for you few, you happy few, the haunting landscapes and seascapes serve as the metaphorical equivalent of the otherwise largely unexplored literary output of two outstanding talents.

In some respects, Sylvia follows last year’s The Hours in its theme of suicide with a literary pedigree, and in the break-out performances of two of current cinema’s leading ladies, both of whom had been taken a bit for granted before they seized on these gutsy roles. To put a point to it, Sylvia provides Gwyneth Paltrow with the opportunity to electrify the audience anew, much as The Hours enabled Nicole Kidman to soar to the Oscar heavens in the unglamorous role of Virginia Woolf. Not that Plath or Ms. Paltrow can qualify as unglamorous, but in portraying Plath’s chameleon-like restlessness in dress, manner and behavior, Ms. Paltrow conveys the poet’s mental and spiritual instability, which leaves her helpless to withstand the whiplash of marital betrayal without cracking up completely. Ms. Jeffs and her scenarist, Mr. Brownlow, have fashioned several scenes in which Ms. Paltrow’s Plath is rude almost to the point of obnoxiousness, and yet she convinces us at the same time that her constant pain and anguish are deeply felt.

Daniel Craig’s Ted Hughes is a smaller and more peripheral role than Ms. Paltrow’s, but the Hughes character has more connections to the outside world than the comparatively hermit-like Plath. In a beautifully written, directed and played scene, Sylvia’s mother, Aurelia (played by Ms. Paltrow’s own mother, Blythe Danner), virtually warns Ted not to hurt Sylvia ever. Aurelia sees in Ted someone who has struggled to get where he is, and is therefore very dangerous in his enforced neglect of other people’s feelings. And Aurelia, like Sylvia, has not failed to notice that Ted is devilishly attractive to other women, and this always spells trouble in the long run for any woman married to such a charmer. The real-life proof of this is that the real Ted Hughes had not one, but two mothers of his children who committed suicide. Assia Wevill, for whom Ted left Sylvia, not only killed herself but also their 4-year-old daughter, Shura. The affair with Assia (Amira Casar) is in the movie, but her subsequent suicide (along with her daughter’s murder) is not.

In any event, it’s amazing that Sylvia succeeds as well as it does in bringing Plath and Hughes to life so vividly. Writers, and especially poets, usually make unconvincing movie characters. The sheer hell of writing is difficult to convey to an audience of non-writers, and the mystery of what makes a good writer remains virtually unsolvable. As a case in point, many reviewers complained that the “happy” ending of Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend (1945), from the Charles Jackson novel, was inadequately motivated. This was because the film’s protagonist, Don Birnam (played by Ray Millard), wasn’t allowed to suggest his literary counterpart’s fear of his own gay tendencies as the cause of his writer’s block and alcoholism. When I recently looked at the movie again, I found the ending sappy for a different reason: Birnam and Helen, his girlfriend (Jane Wyman), blithely assume that once Birnam has licked his alcohol problem, he’ll be magically unblocked as a writer-and become a good one at that. In life, too many well-functioning writers have been raging drunks, and too many more have been afflicted with a profound depression.

Ms. Jeffs and Mr. Brownlow have not made the mistake of moralizing on the subject. And though they don’t spend much time on the process of writing, they convince us that the Plath and Hughes of Ms. Paltrow and Mr. Craig are genuine poets, simply by demonstrating that Plath and Hughes are great readers and teachers of poetry as well. After all, great writers do not emerge on mountaintops accompanied by bolts of lightning or from inside a virtual vacuum. They are instead part of a long chain of predecessors who have shown them the way. In the film, W.B. Yeats and Robert Lowell are pointedly cited as prior influences on Hughes and Plath.

When Plath first swoops down on Hughes with her talons extended, she employs the same tactics of gushing flattery that, when later employed by other Hughes groupies, will help destroy the Plath-Hughes marriage. The soft-soaping of artists as a method of seduction has seldom been shown sympathetically in movies; offhand, I can only think of Woody Allen’s shrewd praise of Diane Wiest’s writing in Hannah and Her Sisters (1986). On the other side of the coin, I felt a distinct twinge of guilt as a critic when I looked at the shattered expression on the face of Ms. Paltrow’s Plath after she read an unfavorable review of her poetry.

I would be less than candid, however, if I didn’t confess a certain uneasiness about the ennobling of suicide as a heroic statement on the malaise of our time. One can speculate that if Woolf and Plath had had access to the latest anti-depressants around today, they might have decided not to leave this vale of tears, Plath at 30 and Woolf near 60. Of late, I have been even more disturbed by the recent reported suicide of Carolyn G. Heilbrun (1926-2003). Her son was quoted in The Times obituary saying, “She wanted to control her destiny, and she felt her life was a journey that had been concluded.” Heilbrun, a former professor of English at Columbia University and a noted writer of mystery novels and nonfiction books, was reportedly not ill, which makes the words attributed to her mysterious indeed in their rejection of Hamlet’s fear of entering “the undiscover’d country, from whose bourn / No traveller returns.”

Consequently, I wanted to cheer Jared Harris’ lucid portrayal of Al Alvarez, one of Plath’s few literary champions, in the scene in which he vainly tries to convince Plath that all the mumbo-jumbo about death was so much hogwash disguising the enormity of a suicide’s effect in erasing the ego, and leaving nothing but the blank blackness in it wake.

Still, Sylvia remains one of the most graceful and beautiful films of the year, which is not entirely a surprise for an admirer of Ms. Jeff’s Rain (2001), with its vagrant images of aimless dancers in the surf still haunting me.

Screwball Without the Screw

Joel and Ethan Coen’s Intolerable Cruelty , from a screenplay by Robert Ramsey, Matthew Stone and the Coen Brothers, has been misleadingly labeled as a screwball comedy in the “classic” tradition of Leo McCarey’s The Awful Truth (1937), Howard Hawks’ Bringing Up Baby (1938) and William Wellman’s Nothing Sacred (1937). Add the six Preston Sturges comedy bonanzas in the 40’s and you have at most a dozen successful screwball comedies, as opposed to the scores of mediocre to exasperating failed screwball ventures in that same period.

The point is that it’s never been easy to make movies that make grown-up people really laugh. And it’s much harder now, when moviemakers can get easy giggles with a fart or a four-letter word, the use of which was denied to their censor-ridden predecessors. Anyway, Intolerable Cruelty is more a typical Coen Brothers grotesquerie than the traditional romantic screwball comedy, with or without its screws loose.

For one thing, the love interest is introduced too cynically and satirically to make the inevitable final clinch credible or emotionally sustainable. George Clooney’s ultra-narcissistic Miles Massey begins trying our patience with his total preoccupation with the whiteness of his teeth to provide a winning smile in a courtroom, where he practices a sleazy brand of divorce law. Unfortunately, this represents a strenuously maladroit misuse of Mr. Clooney’s greatest asset: his unforced charm and charisma in a straight context. After all, Cary Grant, to whom Mr. Clooney has been compared, never fretted about his teeth, and at his peak he was never engaged in anything sleazy.

On the distaff side, Catherine Zeta-Jones’ Marylin Rexroth is introduced as a grimly cool-headed gold-digger. She has little respect for the rich jerks she bags in her relentless hunt for a divorce settlement that will put her on Easy Street for the rest of her life. Hence, Marylin is more the stuff of homicidal melodrama than of romantic comedy. She looks fabulous, but sounds too refined to engage in the farcical shenanigans that made otherwise-serene beauties like Carole Lombard, Irene Dunne and Jean Arthur so memorable.

As it happens, most of the great screwball comedies were set in Hollywood’s version of a dream-like magical metropolis, recognizable as Manhattan from the cardboard sets and background process shots. Intolerable Cruelty is set in Los Angeles and Las Vegas, two locations lacking gravitas and the element of fantasy that once was required for the screen’s gods and goddesses.

So Intolerable Cruelty is not a screwball comedy. Then what is it? Most of it, it seems, is a Coen Brothers concoction of unpredictably goofball absurdism. It’s usually hit or miss with these sibling auteurs; every invention is either a home run or a strikeout. Among the strikeouts are the unfunny spectacle of the hero’s legal sidekick, Wrigley (Paul Adelstein), sobbing uncontrollably at weddings, and the asthmatic assassin named Wheezy Joe (Irwin Keyes) who is shoehorned into the proceedings when Miles and Marylin take turns trying to have each other killed for the most venal reasons. Ha, ha.

The one home run in the film is when Mr. Clooney renounces his marriage-slaying profession for the sake of his newfound love in a speech at a Las Vegas convention for divorce lawyers. When the initially dumbfounded audience unexpectedly cheers him, it is a classic Frank Capra moment, and Mr. Clooney handles it well enough to suggest that the seemingly effortless charm he displayed in his game of love with Jennifer Lopez, of all people, in Steven Soderbergh’s Out of Sight (1998), can be summoned at a moment’s notice. Though there aren’t enough such moments in Intolerable Cruelty , the Coen Brothers do provide enough of a diversion with bits and pieces of wacko casting, and with the deranged details of dress and makeup of their fleeting gargoyles, to make the proceedings at least moderately amusing.

Film Notes

Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar (1966) is being shown at Film Forum (209 West Houston Street, 212-727-8110) from Oct. 17 through Oct. 30. The travails of a donkey’s existence are transformed into a sublime testament to the sheer power and persuasiveness of a genuinely religious sensibility in the cinema.