Curse of the Starving Class (1994): Poor Adatation of Sam Sheard Play, Starring James Woods and Kathy Bates

Toronto Film Festival 1994 (Premiere)–A stellar cast of eccentric character actors bring class but no emotional resonance to Curse of the Starving Class, a peculiarly ineffective rendition of Sam Shepard’s 1977 award-winning play. An ironic dissection of the American Dream, as it affects and destroys one white farming family, pic signals curse at the box-office, though video prospects may be better due to Shepard’s celebrity status and recognition name of James Woods and Kathy Bates.

If Curse of the Starving Class seems outdated and familiar, it is not because the drama’s issues are no longer relevant, but rather a result of Shepard’s obsessive exploration of the same myths and conflicts over and over again in such plays and/or movies as Buried Child, True West, Fool for Love, and most recently Silent Tongues. The usual Shepard’s themes of commitment to the land, disintegration of the nuclear family, intergenerational strife between father and son are all here–along with the typical iconography of dilapidated houses, shabby motels, sleazy bars.

James Woods plays Weston, the alcoholic, irresponsible patriarch of a down-on-its-luck family, whose members keep reminding themselves they do not belong to the starving class. Weston’s wife Ella (Kathy Bates), a feisty if disenchanted woman, can barely manage the run-down farm to feed her two children, Wesley (Henry Thomas) and Emma (Kristin Fiorella).

Each member of this dysfunctional family engages in daydreams and fantasies to escape their gloomy, hopeless fate. Desperate to visit Paris before it’s too late, Ella tries to sell the shabby farm to Taylor (Randy Quaid), a greedy land developer, even if it means going to bed with him. Running away from his collectors, Weston has his own plan for the land. Still haunted by nightmares from his combat days in Vietnam, he now aspires for a brighter future in Mexico.

With no guidance from their parents, Wesley and Emma are lost souls, unable to make the necessary transition to adulthood. In what is possibly Shepard’s most consistent concern, the two youngsters are forced to realize that they are doomed inheritors of their family’s curse, which passes down from one generation to the next.

Scripter Beresford, better-known as a sensitive director, has gone out of his way to open up the play, but at a heavy price: Shepard’s off-beat, ironic humor, so integral to the magic of the stage production, is missing from the writing–and direction. Beresford is also unsuccessful in conveying the poetic quality of Shepard’s monologueson screen, actors appear bizarre when talking to an empty refrigerator, their sheep, or themselves.

First-time director McClary doesn’t trust his material and subsequently his style hysterically vacillates between outdoor and indoor scenes, though with all his effort the narrative remains theatrical in its structure and well-timed exits and entrances. Helmer uses too many cuts and intercuts, motivated by his erroneous belief that they will make the movie “more cinematic.” Under his (mis)direction, the actors have no opportunity to build coherent characters or to sustain any emotion beyond the few seconds they are given in brief scenes that are erratically paced and edited.

Under these circumstances, it’s hardly a surprise that none of the actors renders a truly effective performance. As the wild, ill-tempered father, the vastly talented Woods gives one of his weaker performances, particularly in the first half when he’s over-the-top. Woods’ big purification scene, in which he takes off his clothes in the midst of a rainstorm and grabs a sick lamb in his arms, rings false and is borderline embarrassing.

Bates, another reliable pro who here reprises her acclaimed Off-Broadway role, is no more than O.K. Unfortunately, the director inflicts on her close-ups (wearing lipstick, removing a ring) that are not only unflattering, but don’t do much to register the inner feelings of her complex character as both a victim and survivor. Thomas and Fiorella have a few good moments, but Quaid and Gossett (as the local bar owner) are defeated by one-dimensional roles.

Curse of the Starving Class is a miss on several levels, again demonstrating that what works on stage doesn’t necessarily translate well onscreen, especially in the case of Shepard’s highly stylized, often poetic writing.

Credits

A Trimark release and production. Produced by William S. Gilmore and Harel Goldstein. Executive producers, Bruce Beresford, David Goldstein. Directed by Michael McClary. Screenplay, Beresford, based on Sam Shepard’s play. Camera (color), Dick Quinlan; editor, Dean Goodhill; production design, Ladislav Wilheim; set decoration, Grey Smith; costume design, Kathryn Morrison; sound (Ultra Stereo), Robert Wald; associate producer, Fran Roy; assistant director, Tom Herod; casting, Shari Rodes, Joseph Middleton.

MPAA Rating: R.
Running time: 101 minutes

Cast

Weston……James Woods
Ella……..Kathy Bates
Wesley…..Henry Thomas
Emma…Kristin Fiorella
Ellis…Lous Gossett Jr.
Taylor……Randy Quaid