Oscar Vault Monday – Rachel, Rachel, 1968 (dir. Paul Newman)

Rachel, Rachel was Paul Newman’s directorial debut, which he also produced, from a novel published two years earlier. The film comes alone right after 1967 – the year cinema changed forever – as well as right in the midst of the sexual revolution. It’s a film that could never have been made under the production code, one that touches on so many taboos, that at the time were rarely discussed in the home, let alone on the big screen. I first saw it on Paul Newman day during TCM’s Summer Under the Stars in 2010.  My mother and I watched it together and we were blown away with how moving it was. The film was nominated for four Academy Awards, though it didn’t win any: Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Supporting Actress Estelle Parsons, Best Actress Joanne Woodward and Best Picture. Though Newman as producer received a nomination, he was not nominated for Best Director – this was a year where two of the Best Director nominee were not for Best Picture nominees: Stanley Kubrick for 2001: A Space Odyssey and Gillo Pontecorvo for The Battle of Algiers. The other films up for Best Picture that year were Funny Girl, The Lion in Winter, Romeo and Juliet and winner Oliver! William Wyler also did not receive a Best Director nomination for his work on Funny Girl, though he still holds the record for most nominations, with a whopping twelve. There be many SPOILERS after the cut.


Obviously, Paul Newman has quite an Oscar record receive seven nomination (six for Best Actor, one for Best Picture) and the Jean Hersholt Award before finally winning on his seventh nomination for The Color of Money – he also went on to receive two more nominations, one for Best Actor and one for Best Supporting Actor before his death in 2008. He only directed six films – all between 1968 and 1987. This is actually the only one of the films he’s directed that I’ve seen. I’m going to discuss a few directorial touches that I really love in this film later one. I also wanted to point on that this film was edited by Dede Allen – same as last week’s film Dog Day Afternoon. She’s fabulous.


The film starts with a montage of shots establishing the small town in which Rachel lives. We also see that she lives above a funeral parlor. When we first meet her, she’s asleep, an alarm goes off and we hear her duel inner monologues. One doesn’t want to wake up, wishes she were ill, or dead; the other is harsh and tells herself to get up and get on with life. We’re introduced briefly to her mother, establishing that she lives with her still. We also see flashes of Rachel as a child, thus we know this is the same home where she’s always lived. She’s even a school teacher so, like a child, she’s dreading going to school.


On her way to work at the school she has the first of several fantasies. At first she fantasizes that everyone is staring at her as she walks down the street. This then turns into a fantasy of her own death. This reveals a lot about the character. She feels like no one pays attention to her, but when they do, she wishes she were dead.


Before entering the school she has a conversation with the principal. During their innocent conversation, Rachel fantasizes about caressing his  hand. Later while in class, she fantasizes that one of her students is actually her child. She’s a grown woman stuck in life that resembles her childhood and the only way she can feel like a grownup is to fantasize about it – which again is like being a child. Joanne Woodward received her second of what would eventually be four nominations (and won win) for Best Actress at the Academy Awards: The Three Faces of Eve (1958, won), Rachel, Rachel (1967), Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams (1973) and Mr. & Mrs. Bridge (1990).


Fellow teacher, and apparently her only friend, Calla, gives her a tree to take care of. I love this shot because it’s such a little thing, yet it looks so majestic and full of hope.


Estelle Parson won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress the previous year for her work in Bonnie and Clyde and follows that performance up with a subtle, heartbreaking turn in this film. Calla is full of wisdom and tries her best to help Rachel come out of her “cage,” but as we later see, Calla herself is stuck in one equally as dangerous and painful. Parson lost the award this year to Ruth Gordon in Rosemary’s Baby.


Kate Harrington is amazing as Rachel’s henpecking mother. It seems she never leaves their home and the only outside people she sees are her bridge club once a week.


This shot speaks volumes about Rachel’s relationship with her mother at this point in her life. She’s dominated by her, though she clearly wishes that weren’t the case. She’s trapped in a life and she doesn’t know how to fix it. Her mother tells her about a “girl in trouble” who’s about to have twins out-of-wedlock and how terrible that must be for the girl’s mother. Rachel replies that twins must be twice as disgraceful. Her mother doesn’t appreciate her sass, but you can see that both women almost wish it were Rachel having a child, though obviously not out-of-wedlock.


After serving sandwiches to her mother’s bridge group, Rachel goes to bed, but she is fitful. These are all women who have had families and are now in the “twilight of their lives.” Rachel, so it would seem, has never know carnal pleasures and has more than likely been raised to feel shameful of her desires. She contemplates masturbating, but that voice inside her head tells her she shouldn’t. That voice that seems to always be keeping her down.


When the school lets out for the summer, Newman lingers on this silent shot of Rachel looking at a sea of empty chairs. These are her “children” and they’re gone for the summer. They were never really hers, but now they’re really not hers. It’s sad, sad moment.


Rachel then goes down to the drugstore to pick up a few things. The shot starts by panning over a ton of teenagers, all hip, all amorous. We then get this great shot of Rachel looking at a girl with her hands in a boy’s pockets. Rachel’s both delighted and saddened by the sight. It makes her happy to see expressions of love, but also deeply envious. She’s probably not just envious of the connection between the two, but also their youth and the promise of a future. Rachel feels as though she is in the middle of her life. She says this is her last summer of ascension, then everything is down hill til the grave.


This is when Rachel meets Nick – someone she hadn’t seen since high school. He’s also a teacher – high school in “the city” – he’s just visiting his parents for a few weeks. He almost immediately hits on Rachel, which catches her off guard. He then asks her about her sister (we only hear about her occasionally and we never see her), which leads him to utter the above line.  It’s the truth, but boy does it sting. I don’t know how he thought he would score with her after saying something like that!


Rachel then goes to a religious revival meeting with Calla. At first she is reserved and a little judgmental of the proceedings, but when one of the preachers (Terry Kiser) singles her out, she loses her self-control.


As all of the congregation begins to shout about love, Rachel herself reveals her biggest desire: the be loved. To feel loved. To be shown love. It seems this was probably something she was denied often as a child, and definitely something lacking in her present life.


Afterwards, she is overwhelmed, feeling as though she made a fool of herself. Calla tries to tell her that everyone is a fool in someone’s eyes.


We then get the big reveal about Calla. What first seems like average companionship, is revealed to be deeper feels of love for Rachel. Calla is a closeted lesbian. This is her cage and she’s finally freed herself of it; at least to her friend and the object of her desire. Freaked out more than she already was, Rachel flees and then agrees to go on a date with Nick. The tragedy her is, Rachel flees Calla based solely on the shame attached to homosexuality – or at least that’s what it seems, rather than a lack of feeling for her. She runs right into a heterosexual, “normal”, romantic situation with a guy who is clearly a creep. But this is what she’s been taught. A man and a woman. Not a woman and a woman. If she’s been raised in a society that didn’t shun homosexuality, she might have been able to explore her relationship with Calla – even if in the end she still didn’t have feelings for her. But instead, she flings herself into what should have been obviously a foolish and dangerous situation.


The next scene after the incident with Calla, we see Rachel picking wildflowers. These she takes her her father’s grave (he’s been dead about fourteen years at this point). On the tombstone, engraved is his name, her mother’s name and her own name. Missing once again is her sister – who one would think would be buried with her own husband and kids. But Rachel, she’s stuck with her dead father and her hermit mother. Her name’s already on the gravestone, as she were the living dead. And she kind of is.


So they go on their date and even more red flags are raised. They’re at the movies and Nick gets them kicked out for bringing beer. They go to a bar and Nick says truly awful things about his parents (although, there seems to be some issues with a dead brother that explain a bit about Nick’s behavior, though that doesn’t really excuse it). Rachel’s not stupid enough to go away with Nick right away. She even has him take her home, but when they get there, her desire for human contact and dread of her dreary home life, overwhelms her good sense and she goes off with him again.


Nick takes Rachel to the same cemetery that she was at earlier. He complete strips, then begins to seduce a fully clothed Rachel. She confesses that she’s a virgin – but he thinks she’s “playing at it” and assures her he won’t say she’s a whore. That’s a whole hell of a lot to discuss. She’s being honest with him, he thinks she’s “playing” at something like she’s a kid. Bu, really, she is like a kid, wholly unexperienced in these matters. But she’s in his thirties, so of course he doesn’t think she’s serious. He also brings up the age old virgin/whore dichotomy. This fits in with the discussions earlier about the unwed woman with her twins. Is she a whore? She had sex before marriage, so in the eyes of the older women, yup. Rachel somehow never managed to meet a man (this, I’m sure, is partially because of her living arrangements and partially because of her strange relationship with her father, which is shown to us in flashbacks peppered throughout the film.)


When Rachel comes home she fantasizes that Nick said nice, sweet things to her. But then the voice of reason reminds her of the harsh thing he actually said.  Rachel then locates her mother’s old douche, her description of which will more than likely make you shudder. Then, despite this awful thing he said, she mopes around the house waiting for him to call. She wishes he’d call, even though she thinks she was terrible in bed, just so she can make it up to him. Here we see what little she knows about sexuality, and also that sentiment that the woman should please the man, without a thought of what the act means to her.


The next time the two have sex, instead of showing us flashes of the moment like the previous time, Newman holds on this shot of Rachel’s dress and slip. It’s an arresting image.


Post-coital, Rachel opens up to Nick in a way she’s never opened up to anyone. She confesses her desires for marriage and children, only to discover that Nick is already married with children. Newman then cuts to Rachel being dropped off at home, crestfallen.


Once home, she discovers that her mother has had an incident with her heart after discovering the douche. She yells at Rachel, asking her why she couldn’t have just gotten married like a normal person. Even though Rachel is in her thirties, she’s supposed to remain untouched and virginal until marriage, but who marries people on their thirties? It’s a catch-22 of the harshest kind.


The young Rachel, who appears in flashbacks throughout the film, is played by Newman and Woodward’s daughter Nell (under the name Nell Potts). We get a few flashbacks of young Rachel happy and full of joy, but most of the shots are haunting and full of despair, much like grownup Rachel’s present life.


Rachel then finds she has another friend in Hector Jonas (Frank Corsaro), than man who bought the funeral parlor from her father when he died. Hector sees a distraught Rachel and offers her a drink. She accepts and comes into the parlor for what she says is only the second time in her whole life (we see why this in a heart-wrenching flashback.) She asks Hector some disturbing questions, which leads him to realize she thinks she’s pregnant. He tells her he can’t give her any advice because he doesn’t know anything and what happens if he gives tells her to do the wrong thing? It’s a touching scene. Afterwards she goes to Calla, saying she’s “drunk, pregnant and needs a friend.” When she asks Calla what would happen if she kept the baby (something she clearly wants to do), Calla tells her if she did, it would be the first time she showed respect for herself.


When Rachel then goes to the hospital to confirm that she is pregnant she calls herself Mrs. James. Not only is this a false name, she must say she is married. Again we see society’s shaming of unmarried women. It turns out that Rachel is not a pregnant, but rather has a benign cyst. Obviously, this is not what Rachel wanted to hear and she breaks down.


When she awakens from the surgery, the nurse tells her she’s out of danger and everything is going to be alright. This scene is framed similar to the first scene with Rachel, and again she wishes she were dead. Only this time, it’s not an inner monologue. She states this out loud to the nurse. We then cut to a visit from her mother, who is at this point overly cheery. Rachel, presumably when she thought she was pregnant, had applied and been accepted to a teacher position in Oregon – the other side of the country. This is the mouse over the hawk type scene, where she tells her mother she’s leaving and her mother can join her if she wants. By the end of the scene you begin to pity her mother and the life she, too, has found herself stuck in.


The goodbye scene between Rachel and Calla is one of the most beautiful farewells in all cinema. Clearly, the two women have patched things up. Rachel has even come to terms with Calla’s sexuality and realizes the potential that could have been, stating she wishes she could have been someone else for her. Instead of rejecting Calla solely for her sexuality, she simply realizes she doesn’t feel that kind of love for her, though she almost wishes she could. Rachel has been freed from her cage and in a away, so has Calla.


Rachel and her mother head off to Oregon and we get one last monologue, wherein she states that she might me someone, she might not. The odds aren’t completely in her favor, but she’s finally realized it’s better to try at life and be disappointed, than to play it safe and be disappointed.

About Marya E. Gates

Cinephile to the max.

Posted on August 26, 2013, in Oscar Vault Monday and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. This movie is brilliant, and both Woodward and Parsons deserved to win that year! Excellent write up!

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