sidney lumet's THE MORNING AFTER
(continued from page 1)
Fonda scrambling around aimlessly is the best the movie has to offer: her tiny desperate frame set against the hard primal colors of dark orange warehouses and apartment buildings under bright blue skies suggests she woke up to find herself in some glossy surreal version of downtown Los Angeles. It's incredible that a director so famous for eschewing fancy aesthetic would approve of this outlandish exterior production design (by Alfred Brenner), but Lumet explained at the time that he wanted to see Los Angeles as "a foreigner," using "great blocks of color in the film to depict the feel of the city." DP Andrzej Bartkowiak (Prince of the City, The Verdict, later director of Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li) is most effective outdoors (his interior lighting in this one is mid-80s chintzy.) The extreme long shots distancing Fonda and her escape from the camera further isolate her confusion and helplessness as she flees the murder scene into this bright, bizarre jungle seeking some sort of refuge.
She finds it in a dive bar, and the dank brown interior is familiar again and she's safe once more in this alcoholic's haven. She orders a drink from the bartender played by...Bruce Vilanch??
At this point it seems like Lumet might be going for a daytime After Hours (The Morning After Hours?) and that we'll be following Fonda from one weird, creepy encounter to another. Not a bad idea - maybe Lumet and LA is a quirky match made in movie heaven after all! But Vilanch's two-shot appearance (I don't even know if it can be considered a cameo – Lumet doesn’t point it out on the commentary whereas he does mention Kathy Bates in a small role later on) is a brief deviation: for the rest of the film Fonda interacts almost exclusively with love interest Jeff Bridges and hairdresser ex-husband Raul Julia. The only strange character she encounters - in fact the only other character she talks to unless we're counting empty Vodka bottles – is a hungover drag queen she borrows clothes from (it's set up that her actress has "a gay following," but why would she be friends with one of her fans??) In other words, the story sticks to the standard mystery arc but does so without the least bit of originality.
For example: Fonda returns to the scene of the crime to do some good old "woman's work," aka scrubbing the walls, cleaning the bathroom. It's a funny idea that she's most likely covering up somebody else's crime just in case she did it, but the scene leads to a goofy Hitchcockian moment where she realizes somebody's in the closet watching her – oh shit! The moment is even followed by a Hitchcockian follow-up "relief" shot where Bridges shows up at the front door and she quickly runs off with him. The tight suspense the first scene suggested is lost after twenty minutes of Fonda and Bridges making cute eyes at each other, during which her character – supposedly in danger from Closet Observer – gets drunk and forgets all about it until the dead body falls on top of her when she opens the shower door the next day (the morning after the morning after.)
It's during these scenes that the story's intentions become hopelessly mixed: is this a mystery/thriller or a sad reflection on alcoholism? I feel like if it went for the latter, and became a surreal journey where a "maybe she did it, maybe she's responsible, maybe there was no murder after all" sort of scenario could play out and lead to some interesting places. The movie might even pull a L'Avventura and drop the emphasis on the murder subplot forty minutes into the film. But the script isn't really that interested in this sort of thing and quickly leans toward the "thriller"/"melodrama" aspect where it becomes clear that one of the two people in Fonda's life has it in for her (the new guy or the society-climbing former husband...hmmm) and a dead body might just turn up somewhere everybody but Jane Fonda expects it to. The screenplay is credited to "James Hicks," pseudonym of former producer James Cresson – this is his only filmed script – with uncredited touch-ups by David Rayfiel, Maureen Stapleton's ex-husband who also worked on six Sydney Pollack movies (four uncredited.) It may or may not have gotten a polish from Jay Presson Allen, a screenwriter of the female persuasion who worked with Lumet on Prince of the City and Deathtrap. For all the hands in the mix, the script fails to successfully execute the most rudimentary of mystery-thriller exposition (don’t worry: the actual murderer is introduced ten minutes before the end of the movie.)
Whether it’s a murder mystery or a melodrama or an addiction rom-com-anti-Nam, its shaggy dog script doesn’t get any help from the performances. In a rare case of Lumet miscasting, Jeff Bridges is awkward as the redneck former cop who drops casual racist comments – he says "beaner" for example – as a form of indelible charm. This character quirk never pays off the way it does for, say, Walter Matthau in The Taking of Pelham 123. His chemistry with Fonda, which is the one thing both defenders and detractors of the film seem to agree is solid, is hampered by red herrings meant to point to him as the murderer. These make absolutely no sense considering the way they meet: she goes from the bar to the airport hoping to book it out of town and stumbles into a car he's fixing (...at the airport?) That would be one hell of a coincidence if he was the guy who stabbed Fonda’s one night stand, but the film sets it up like it’s possible he’s involved, the strangest example being where he leaves Fonda at her house in a Vodka coma wearing a sinister scowl. He keeps taking his shirt off and putting it back on (which, if you think of it, is a very Jeff Bridges type thing to do.)
But his presence is nowhere near as problematic as Fonda’s overplayed, one-note approach to her obnoxious character. When placed against the nuance of any noted lead performance in any other Sidney Lumet film, her flagrant scene chewing sets the level of artistry well below the standard. Her character is never sympathetic, only grating. She’s crude and sleazy but not in a damaged, Bree Daniels kind of way – just in an annoying kind of way. Her drunk scenes are as subtle as if she were starring in a silent movie. In a post-coital, tanked-up encounter with Bridges, Fonda employs every trait of bad actor-playing-inebriated-character syndrome: she flails her arms languidly, throws a glass at a wall, laughs as her co-star loudly chastises her and bangs her around, and screams in his face "YOU DON'T KNOW WHAT IT'S LIKE!" Amazingly, Lumet claims on the commentary that Fonda was actually drunk in this scene: as good an argument against going to work drunk as any I’ve heard.
Lumet previously dealt with a cynical has-been alcoholic in The Verdict. Fonda, like Newman, managed to snag an Oscar nomination. Neither of them won: it wasn't until Nicolas Cage was willing to spend an entire film staggering around vomiting and slurring his speech that the Academy finally decided to recognize Bad Drunk Acting among such lauded methods as Bad Aged Movie Star Acting and Bad Retarded Acting. But the point is, alcoholism was one aspect of Newman's Frank Galvin. For Fonda, it's as much a cheap crutch as a bottle of Smirnoff and although the performance netted Oscar approval, it's low quality by Lumet standards.
(continued on page 3 of Frustrating Filmographies #1: Sidney Lumet's The Morning After)
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