Oscar and Lucinda: Odd Couple … New York’s Intelligentsia Recollects Dogmas Past and Present

Gillian Armstrong’s Oscar and Lucinda , from a screenplay by Laura Jones and a novel by Peter Carey, turns out to be, to borrow a pungent phrase from Woody Allen, an Australian film with a vengeance. I had heard mostly negative reactions to it before I saw it, and so I was somewhat startled by its sumptuous splendor as spectacle, and by its grown-up irony about life’s choices. Yet, even in retrospect, Oscar and Lucinda brings out the tired businessman in me with its peculiar narrative and its even more peculiar male protagonist, Oscar Hopkins, played by Ralph Fiennes with all the audience-pleasing charm and virility one would associate with a particularly creepy portrayal of Uriah Heep.

Don’t get me wrong. I respect and admire the enormous effort put forth by Ms. Armstrong and her collaborators in bringing Mr. Carey’s monumentally quixotic mid-19th-century fiction to the screen. Cate Blanchett is a real find as Lucinda Leplastrier, Oscar’s soul mate in one of the strangest and least-audience-friendly relationships between a man and woman ever projected on the screen.

I strongly suspect that Oscar and Lucinda is an example of literary material that seems eminently “cinematic,” with its employment of a stunningly picturesque metaphor of glass and steel moving inexorably over the cruel and unyielding Australian continent. The images are great for the coming attractions, but somewhere along the way, a majestic folly dwindles into mere foolishness, and a great love is twisted out of shape like a piece of gnarled glassware.

At times, one thinks the movie was made so that we might hear snippets of the novelist’s whimsically portentous prose, narrated in the mellifluous voice of Geoffrey Rush: “I would have no story to tell you if my great-grandfather had not wagered everything …” and then “Lucinda’s mother knew that she had produced a proud square peg in the full knowledge that from coast to coast there were nothing but round holes.” Ultimately, “In order that I exist, two gamblers, one obsessive, one compulsive, must meet.” But what is it that makes the gambling craze of Mr. Fiennes’ Oscar “obsessive,” and that of Ms. Blanchett’s Lucinda merely “compulsive”? It has something to do with Oscar’s religious calling, and Pascal’s wager on the existence of God and the Sweet Hereafter. This is heady stuff for a screen character and part of the movie’s presumptive appeal, but without any earthy chemistry between Oscar and Lucinda, the idea becomes chillingly abstract.

We are misled by Ms. Armstrong’s magnificently romantic production values into anticipating an erotic explosion from the encounter aboard the Leviathan on its voyage from England to Australia of two eccentrics-Oscar, a tormented English cleric, and Lucinda, a modern woman manufacturer of glass products in Sydney. Despite their mutual passion for gambling, Oscar ruins the meeting by becoming violently seasick. When has this ever happened to a romantic hero before? Forget about Harlequin Romances. For that matter, forget about Harlequin as a clown. Mr. Fiennes’ Oscar is never funny. His pain is too palpable, his guilt too grim, his shame too overpowering. For her part, Ms. Blanchett’s Lucinda is vibrant and assertive in her business dealings, but mysteriously reluctant to acknowledge the desire aroused in men by her clear-eyed sensuality.

Yet she scandalizes Sydney with her platonic friendship and business partnership with a glass-fancier like herself, Ciarán Hinds’ the Rev. Dennis Hasset, who is exiled to a remote backwater without even a proper church for his provincial parish. Then, like the rest of Sydney, Oscar misunderstands the relationship between Lucinda and the priest to such a ridiculous extent that he wagers his life itself on the transport of a glass church through the Australian wilderness to the priest’s post, which becomes an expedition extraordinaire. With this prodigious act, Oscar hopes to demonstrate to the God of his abandoned father, the deities of chance, and Lucinda herself the profound depth of his love for all three.

If you haven’t read the book, you’ll never guess what happens next. I didn’t, and I am still a bit dumbfounded by my curiously childlike disappointment. I try to tell myself that I wasn’t wishing for an ending in which Oscar and Lucinda fall into each other’s arms. Still, I was so emotionally starved that I found myself grieving for the unexpectedly violent death of the expedition leader, Richard Roxburgh’s Mr. Jeffris. What a handsome devil! He seemed like an Errol Flynn who could act. Suddenly, he was dead, and we were stuck with Mr. Fiennes’ Oscar, more depressingly sick to his stomach than ever. Never have I felt so transparently juvenile in my tastes, but, strangely, I remain hugely impressed by Oscar and Lucinda as a work of art.

New York’s Intelligentsia Recollects Dogmas Past, Present

Joseph Dornan’s Arguing the World consists of a thoughtful assemblage of observations and recollections-rather than conversations and confrontations-over the political and cultural ferment from the 30’s and 40’s between Trotskyites and Stalinists, through the 60’s and 70’s between the Old Left and the New Left, and concludes with a heartfelt funeral service for Irving Howe (1920-1993), the unwavering conscience of American Socialism, an oxymoron if ever there was one.

Daniel Bell, born in 1919, Irving Kristol, born in 1920, and Nathan Glazer, born in 1924, round out a quartet of “New York intellectuals” who started out together as City College campus radicals, and eventually found themselves far apart on the political spectrum. Howe, alone of the four, kept the faith in a Marxism with a human face. Mr. Kristol swung far to the right, with hitherto unheard-of conservative think tanks providing the ideological ballast for the electoral successes of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. Mr. Bell moved less dramatically and less dialectically to the liberal center, while Mr. Glazer promoted a policy of “See America First” in his prescriptions for piecemeal solutions laced with healthy doses of skepticism about an omnipotent and benevolent Federal Government as the solution to all our ills.

Arguing the World is not, however, merely a string quartet of four talking heads, but a jangly symphony of many of the most articulate voices from the various factions that constituted the New York intelligentsia. Anyone who has ever read The Partisan Review, Commentary, Dissent, Politics, The Nation, The New Republic, The New York Review of Books, Encounter, etc. should find Arguing the World remarkably balanced as an argument, though at one extreme the Stalinists are given short shrift, and at the other, Mr. Kristol tends to be outnumbered at least 3 to 1 in the recollections of dogmas past and present. Even so, Mr. Kristol more than holds his own as a genial and jovial raconteur.

Mr. Dornman wisely lets us know most of the time who is talking. A double perspective is provided from the outside by insightful observers such as Morris Dickstein, William F. Buckley Jr. and the late Diana Trilling. Since there is nothing really comparable to Arguing With the World in today’s largely tongue-tied movie environment, there seems little point in complaining that this literate phenomenon is simply preaching to the converted, or at least the conversant. And we smart, overeducated, underfunded kvetchers know who we are-from Morningside Heights to Washington Square, from the Union Square and Columbus Circle that once were, to the Upper West Side, Greenwich Village and East Village, SoHo and TriBeCa that still are.

My only major complaint about Arguing the World , and it is a kind of left-handed compliment, is that more would not have been less. What there was I enjoyed thoroughly, but I wish at least a mention was made of Israel as a cause of dissension within the New York intellectual community, and of a post-Holocaust rise in anti-Semitism via anti-Zionism on the left. On the other side is the unexplored questioning of Mr. Kristol for his possible involvement in the Republican racist demonization of “liberals” in the once solidly Democratic South that gave Franklin Delano Roosevelt his huge pluralities in the Electoral College. But then New York intellectuals as a tribe generally preferred to send smoke signals to each other via their pet publications, rather than grapple with the vulgar herds of American voters, most of whom, as in the famous Saul Steinberg New Yorker cartoon, lived west of the Hudson River.

The Last Word on 1997

In my year-end column, I inadvertently neglected to mention the following noteworthy performers: Gia Carides, Paperback Hero ; Cate Blanchett, Josephine Byrnes, Oscar and Lucinda ; Leonardo DiCaprio, Billy Zane, David Warner, Victor Garber, Bernard Hill, Bill Paxton, Titanic ; Ralph Fiennes, Ciarán Hinds, Tom Wilkinson, Richard Roxburgh, Clive Russell, Bille Brown, Barnaby Kay, Oscar and Lucinda . Oscar and Lucinda: Odd Couple … New York’s Intelligentsia Recollects Dogmas Past and Present