Saturday, June 25, 2011
Someone Is Watching
By Josh R
It is now more than 50 years since Jane Fonda’s image first flickered across movie screens in Josh Logan’s Tall Story, though in truth she has been a part of the public consciousness much longer than that. Her childhood — a subject, like so many others, about which she remains conflicted — was well-documented, and provides clues as to the circuitous, unpredictable, occasionally perilous path she has traveled ever since. She was the daughter of an American icon, beloved by the public but emotionally distant at home, and a mother whose suicide remained largely unexplained for years following her death. The disconnect between the reality of those years, as she and her brother experienced them, and the version of their family life that people read about in magazines, was as vast as the divide between Barbarella and Hanoi Jane.
Jane Fonda has bridged those gaps, among many others — if not always comfortably, then with a certain kind of fearlessness. Whether this quality can be characterized as courage or recklessness, enterprise or folly, soul-searching or self-sabotage, remains subject to interpretation. She was never a premeditated chameleon, like Madonna, whose aggressively exhibitionistic persona never really changed no matter how many times her hairstyle and fashion choices did. Fonda’s transformations and reincarnations, which were much more radical and even more difficult to reconcile (even, at times, by the lady herself), seem to have been a product of curiosity, in part triggered by the irresolute feelings brought on by self-examination, and a reflection of the turbulent times through which she has lived. The name itself has different associations for different people. My 24-year-old co-worker knows her only as a spandex-clad fitness guru staring out from the cover of a VHS tape on his mother’s bookcase; a 30-year-old friend remembers her as a celebrity fan, sitting next to Ted Turner during playoff season in Atlanta and cheering enthusiastically each time Chipper Jones parked one deep into left field. Some regard her as an icon; to others, she was and remains a traitor. When I think of Jane Fonda, I think of Klute. If Jane Fonda’s life has been a study in contradictions, there is no more brilliant study of the conflicted nature of the human soul, and the manner in which bracing intelligence can exist at striking odds with naked emotionalism, than her astonishing, revelatory performance in Alan J. Pakula’s 1971 suspense thriller, celebrating its 40th anniversary today. If I judge it to be among the greatest performances ever committed to celluloid, it is in no small part due to the fact that, whenever I am watching it, all other associations I have with Jane Fonda — cultural symbol, cinematic legend, perennial lightning rod for controversy — never enter my mind. When I see her in Klute, I see only Bree Daniels.
Klute is ostensibly the story of a prostitute being stalked by a killer. In reality, it’s a film about role-playing, and the means by which people keep their true nature concealed from others in order to survive. In a way, both the predator and his prey are in the same boat, operating behind a carefully maintained façade as a means of self-protection. When the façade begins to crack, both find themselves at risk. The catalyst for their unmasking is an investigation conducted by John Klute (Donald Sutherland), a small-town policeman who has come to New York to track the whereabouts of a missing friend. His only lead is Bree, a hardened pro who has received threatening anonymous letters from someone believed to be the man he is searching for. Although she initially greets Klute’s inquiries with hostility and resistance, Bree agrees to help with the search; she eventually begins to trust and develop feelings for him. As they get closer to unraveling the mystery, Klute becomes her friend, protector, and lover. While Bree fights her self-destructive need to sabotage their relationship, a killer lurks in the shadows, fearful of exposure and determined to destroy the object of his obsession and the agent of his potential unmasking. Bree knows that she is being watched — what neither she nor Klute realize is that she is at even greater risk than either of them could have possibly imagined.
Pakula’s lean, economical approach to the material showcases the performance of Jane Fonda, but the film does not simply exist in service to her tour-de-force. The director’s methods aren’t flashy, but Klute is nevertheless visually and stylistically interesting, building tension through camerawork, use of music, and carefully devised environmental set pieces that contribute a visceral sense of atmosphere to the proceedings. Most of the action takes place in Bree’s dingy, claustrophobic apartment and on the grimy mean streets of New York City, photographed in a washed-out color palette which emphasizes the impersonal, atrophied nature of the broken-down world denizens of the criminal subculture inhabit. This is no picturesque version of the city as seen through rose-colored glasses; what we see is a grittier, tougher version of the urban jungle as a kind of crumbling Babylon — desiccated, at once both decadent and seedy, and full of hidden dangers. When, in one startling sequence, Klute and Bree go searching for a woman who may be able to shed some light upon the case — a drug-addicted streetwalker named Arlyn Page who’s sunk so low that she’s fallen off the grid — the film becomes a nightmarish tour through the underbelly of the urban sex trade, showing the desperation, waste, and sense of helplessness which characterize sordid lives lived on the margins and conducted in the shadows.
Remarkably, Pakula’s treatment of his subject matter is in no way sensationalistic. The director doesn’t gawk at his subjects or invite the audience to leer at the catalog of perversions on display; John Klute is a stand-in for the viewer, and the images and behaviors both he and the audience encounter are too sad and human to be titillating. Even in the one scene that features nudity — Bree does a striptease for an elderly client in the office of his garment manufactory — the audience doesn’t feel as though they’re witnessing something prurient or being prompted to judge. The old man watches Bree with something strangely resembling gratitude while she rattles off a ludicrous Harlequin-romance fiction about being seduced by a handsome stranger on the beaches of Cannes. It’s a strangely fragile moment, with a disarming kind of courtliness to it; Bree is acting out a fantasy for someone whose life is so far removed from anything resembling gentility and glamour that this brokered charade is as close as he’ll ever get to it. Even moments that should be pathetic or repellent are imbued with a deep sense of empathy for the people involved. When Bree and Klute locate Arlyn and her boyfriend, they are in a state of panic, waiting for their dealer and jonesing for a fix. The dealer finally materializes, only to be frightened away by the presence of strangers — the addicts attempt to secure his return, without success. When they come back to the apartment, Arlyn strokes her boyfriend’s hair and soothes his forehead with a damp cloth; as strung-out as she is, she is assuming the role of maternal caretaker and showing concern for someone she loves. Pakula’s approach is unfailingly humane; even when observing the indignities of human degradation, the film pauses for small moments of grace.
It’s those small touches — the details, really — that lend the material a deeper sense of relevance beyond the standard-issue polemical observations about the dangers of prostitution, drug use, or even the unchecked permissiveness of a society that has lost its moral compass. Klute is not a feminist film per se, but the director and screenwriter pay particular attention to the reductive attitudes society assumes not just toward women on the margins of society (prostitutes and addicts) but women in general. The first woman we encounter in the film is not Bree, but the wife of the missing man; she’s a meek, helpless figure being grilled by detectives about her husband’s sexual proclivities, and powerless to either defend him or take any action on her own in terms of tracking him down. Regardless of what she says or does, the detectives have already made up their minds that the husband is living some kind of secret life based in deviant behavior; they choose to believe this, in part because they find the wife so unexciting — who wouldn’t stray from the reservation in search of something else? Bree is introduced in a very unorthodox manner; not in a star’s lingering close-up, but in a long line of women the camera pans across as a two disembodied voices — casting directors, looking for a model for an ad campaign — mercilessly critique each candidate based on her physical attributes. After Bree has been cursorily examined and summarily dismissed, the camera pans to the next woman in line. Pakula is showing us Bree as she’s viewed by the world — not as an individual, but as a disposable commodity, the value of which is determined by external appearances. In one of many sequences in which Bree is observed in session with her analyst, she notes how men “want me…well, not me…but they want a woman....” The johns who pay for Bree don’t care any more about her than she does about them — she’s something to be used, and she feels that she’s using them in turn.
As well-enacted as the analysis scenes are — valuable not because they serve to advance the plot, but because of what they reveal about Bree’s mindset — their presence is not essential; Fonda brings such emotional honestly to the performance that the internal life of the character is made explicit — she communicates everything Bree is thinking and feeling without even having to verbalize it. When she’s with her johns, she’s in complete control — she doesn’t have to experience anything on an emotional level, because it’s all part of the act. It’s only when she’s alone, curled up in bed and scared to pick up the phone, that her vulnerability comes into clear focus; the tough-cookie exterior and you-can-all-go-to-hell attitude mask the fragile soul of a wounded, frightened child. The relationship with Klute brings out feelings Bree didn’t even know she was capable of; feeling something genuine for another person is a new experience for her, and since she isn’t pulling the strings, she can’t adjust to what’s happening. So terrified by the prospect of relinquishing control that she can’t allow herself to be happy, Bree is trying to make sense of her willfully self-destructive impulses while at the same time holding painful realizations at bay for fear of what she might find. It’s a brave, unflinching performance that reveals something new upon each additional viewing, astonishing for both its complexity and the emotional transparency with which it is achieved. Among those “non-verbal” moments that have always stood out for me: the rueful turn of the head, as though she’s just been slapped in the face, when Bree learns that a sadistic, abusive john was deliberately sent to her by a jealous friend; the wistful, almost bewildered look she gives to a child perched on his father’s shoulders, as if she’s imagining for the first time what it might feel like to be a mother; the amazing sequence when, heavily stoned, she wanders through a club, registering all the conflicting emotions she’s feeling — defiance, vulnerability, excitement, dread, relief, self-loathing — as she makes her way through the crowd to her former pimp, curling up catlike against him as Klute looks on dumbstruck. Above all, there is the amazing moment where, cornered by the sociopath who has been stalking her, she is forced to listen to a recording of another call girl being savagely murdered. Fonda has written that she was surprised by her own reaction when the scene was actually being filmed; instead of experiencing a sense of terror, she was overcome with grief for her friend — and indeed, for all the women who do what they have to in order to survive, and have the life crushed out of them by a world that doesn’t really care whether they live or how they die.
Anyone who follows this blog with any regularity is doubtless bored to tears with my constant bemoaning of the popular wisdom by which greatness in acting is measured. For those who prefer flashy pyrotechnics to emotional honesty — and the unadorned simplicity that usually accompanies it — there will never be any dearth of strenuous physical and vocal transformations to fill out Oscar categories for years to come (any day now, I’m sure Cate Blanchett will strap on a hump to play Richard III; I’ll probably be home watching TCM when that happens). The rewards for working from the outside in are greater than working from the inside out, and I’m sure there are some who look at Jane Fonda’s work in Klute and say “So what? She looks and sounds like Jane Fonda.” Of course, Bree Daniels is not Jane Fonda any more than On the Waterfront’s Terry Malloy is Marlon Brando — they are independent creations, possessed of their own unique qualities, drives, and desires, and they have been brought to life with such raw intensity that they transcend the conventional definition of acting. Call it channeling, sorcery, whatever you will — it amounts to a pretty rare feat. When I saw the actress last, on Broadway, in a play called 33 Variations, it was very apparent that Jane Fonda is still possessed of the talent, energy, and skill to breathe life into a role in a way that others seldom can. It may not be easy for her to find roles that are commensurate with her abilities, but when she does, she still knows how to make them count. At the end of Klute, Bree Daniel’s fate is left open-ended; but for the purposes of the film, at least, her story has come to a close. Thankfully — for all of us — Jane Fonda’s is still being written.