Running Time 99 minutes
Written by Howard Rodman
Directed by Tom Kalin
Starring Julianne Moore, Stephen Dillane, Eddie Redmayne
The tragic consequences of A-list decadence have seldom been more fascinating or disturbing than in Savage Grace, Tom Kalin’s steamy, solemn dramatization of the best seller by Natalie Robins and Steven Aronson about the harrowing murder of New York socialite Barbara Daly Baekeland in a luxury flat in London’s Cadogan Square (the same street where Oscar Wilde was arrested) on November 17, 1972. When the police arrived, they were introduced to the corpse by the man who stabbed her to death with a steak knife—her schizophrenic, 26-year-old son, Tony, who sat vacantly on the kitchen floor next to the body, eating Chinese takeout. The shock waves on both sides of the Atlantic were immediate and lasting.
Savage Grace—elegantly photographed and directed, with a carefully written screenplay by Howard Rodman, and a stupendous performance by Julianne Moore as its centerpiece—catalogs the pathological lives of a rich, dysfunctional family from postwar 1946 to the changing sexual permissiveness of 1972, illuminating their rise and spectacular fall from distinction and privilege to a nightmare of violence and self-destruction. It’s not a pretty story, but it is absolutely, flesh-crawlingly true. Barbara Daly was a beautiful model, failed actress and dilettante artist who married upward to Brooks Baekeland, whose father invented Bakelite plastics. Barbara—restless, promiscuous, out of her league, and slowly driven to madness by ennui, which is nourished by the pretentious jet setters in her husband’s social set—and Brooks (played with stoic cruelty by the brilliant actor Stephen Dillane)—awed by her beauty and outraged by her escapades—were habitués of the Stork Club who always turned heads and landed in Walter Winchell’s column, especially when she would pick up any stranger in a limousine and spend the night with him, leaving her husband on the curb. In 1946, son Tony was born, securing the marriage for all the wrong reasons. Baby is supposed to make three, but little Tony was used to bridge gaps, please two deluded parents and close their abyss. He was doomed from the start.
Lonely and needy for the love she never got from her passive husband, Barbara smothered the child, sowing the seeds for a sordid future in ways that redefined the meaning of “mama’s boy.” As a schoolboy, she forced him to recite the Marquis de Sade for appalled dinner guests. Living in Paris in 1959, she taught him to arrange flowers, appreciate china and French cuisine, and nurse her hangovers by serving her in bed with a perfectly sculptured red rose on her breakfast tray. Barely out of knickers, his fate was already sealed. Torn between his mother’s obsession and narcissism and his father’s disappointment and indifference, Tony knew he had to escape to save himself, but was too weak to run. When he brings home his first girlfriend to their villa in Mallorca, his father seduces her and abandons the family, leaving Tony forlorn and devastated, in the powerful clutches of his mother, who moved him all over Europe seeking new identities. In 1967, on the beach in Cadaques, 21-year-old Tony (played as an adult by critically acclaimed young British stage actor Eddie Redmayne) finally surrenders to his homosexuality, finding passion with a handsome beach bum while his mother watches approvingly. By now Barbara is paying taxi drivers to ravage her sexually and sharing both her son’s pot and his gay lovers. When bisexual New York art promoter Sam Green (Hugh Dancy) houseguests for the summer, he sleeps with Barbara, then Tony, then both of them at the same time, in a jolly, sexually liberated threesome. Back in Paris, she grows dependent on sleeping suppositories and attempts suicide. Tony becomes her sole guardian, applying salve to the stitches in her slashed wrists while she lies naked in the bathtub eating ice cream.
The role Tony is required to play demands the services of a trained psychiatrist; it’s too vast and emotionally punishing for one person to master at such a young age. By the time the mother straddles her son wearing a pink Chanel suit and pearls, then masturbates him to a climax, Tony is sucking his thumb and clinging to the dog collar of a deceased pet like a Linus blanket. A simple thing like the loss of that dog collar is what sends him over the edge. It is clear that a downward descent into mental illness and inevitable violence is building like a pulsing vein in the forehead leading to a stroke. Depravity and self-indulgence at last lead to the ghastly and fatal conclusion on the kitchen floor of 81 Cadogan Square, which will leave you trembling. The narration, culled from desperate letters Tony wrote to his cold, indifferent father, is deeply touching. He was sent first to a prison for the criminally insane on the English moors, then to Rikers Island, where he died by his own hand in 1981.
No spoilers here. The story has already written itself. But director Tom Kalin (Swoon) distills its most sordid ingredients into a heady brew that hits you like a stun gun. Mother-son incest, adultery, full-frontal nudity, murder and suicide may not lure summer ostriches hellbent on burying their brains in entertainments as forgettable as Chinese menus, but what a haunting experience they’ll miss. It’s hard to describe the impact of such harrowing material, but Savage Grace proves that deeply flawed characters can be mesmerizing if their complexities are examined with empathy over a period of time. If nothing else, see this movie for the Oscar-worthy performance by Julianne Moore, which clings to you long after you leave the theater. She has the same red hair and Irish glow; freckles on white skin like crushed Wheaties in milk; and reckless charisma and simmering beneath-the-surface emotions as the real Barbara Baekeland. She takes risks. Above all, the bravery and dramatic range with which she breathes realism into a difficult and unsympathetic role is positively heroic.