Samantha Mathis, Colin Hanks, Jane Fonda in 33 VARIATIONS
33 VARIATIONS is Moises Kaufman’s bad medicine show of a play, in which exhortations to appreciate our mothers and daughters, as well as Beethoven, are doled out to us all for our own Goddamned good. Jane Fonda appears as a musicologist obsessed with the composer, and also dying, for all-too-convenient dramatic effect, groomed faultlessly and wearing pristine Armani-looking ensembles to root about in musty Viennese archives. Beethoven is impersonated by Zach Grenier in that same obnoxiously expectorating way he played Thomas Cromwell in the recent A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS, the kind of hammy Paul Muni-esque stage hogging as a “Great Man” that the gullible are quick to call great acting. As Fonda’s career-uncertain daughter, Samantha Mathis, for years the dullest ingenue in film (it was inconceivable that delightful little Kirsten Dunst could grow up to be her in LITTLE WOMEN), proves that age hasn’t deepend her talent. As a caring nurse, Colin Hanks has an excruciating, unconvincingly written first date scene with her (these are supposed to be sophisticated urbanites?), in which he has a Jimmy Stewart/aw-shucks quality, similar to that of his father, Tom, in his younger days, but do we really need any more of that particular quality in this day and age?
Fonda, after a stage absence of 46 years, has an admirably commanding stage presence, with that incredible ramrod posture. But she is mostly called upon to, as the Brits say, park and bark out her expositional lines directly to the audience, while most of her interaction with the other actors has a particularly rote feel. Her acting career has always struck me as one very singular conundrum. In her youth, in the early 1960s, on film, she was an appealingly perky, sexy comedienne (BARBARELLA, PERIOD OF ADJUSTMENT, BAREFOOT IN THE PARK, ANY WEDNESDAY, CAT BALLOU) who later gave two profoundly strong, truly classic performances: her bitter, self-destructive, ultimate loser Gloria in THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON’T THEY? and her infinitely shaded portrait of a call girl, Bree Daniels, in KLUTE. I’ll never forget the thrill of seeing her on the televised 1968 Academy Awards, wearing Gloria’s marcelled ’30s coiffure and looking completely transformed into a new kind of serious actress, after all the blondined sexpot years. After winning her first Oscar for KLUTE, all the juice, sensuality and fun seemed to be drained out of her, as she essayed a series of political tracts (COMING HOME, THE CHINA SYNDROME), Hollywood grande dame trash (OLD GRINGO, STANLEY AND IRIS, ROLLOVER) and just plain dreary worthiness (THE DOLLMAKER, AGNES OF GOD), which made her films events to be dreaded rather than anticipated. Her trajectory was akin to that of Ginger Rogers, such a source of pleasure throughout the 1930s and early 1940s, with her sassy, savvy, sexy comedy, who won the Academy Award for the soapy KITTY FOYLE, and thereafter took herself so seriously she became near-unrecognizable in her posing pretentiousness.
THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON’T THEY?
THE CHINA SYNDROME
Incidentally, while watching Fonda in 33 VARIATIONS, one question kept plaguing me:
IS THERE JUST ONE PLASTIC SURGEON FOR ALL THE DIVAS?
Mary Tyler Moore
and then there’s Joan Allen in IMPRESSIONISM
STOP THE MADNESS!
I’ll never forget Liv Ulman once telling me, “I would never have anyone else touch my face. I’m far too vain. I’m so interested in what God or nature has planned for me to look like.”