Rachel Rachel (1968): Paul Newman’s Oscar Nominated Directing Debut, Starring Joanne Woodward and Estelle Parsons

In 1968, Paul Newman, at the prime of his popularity as actor, switched roles and moved behind the cameras to direct his wife, Joanne Woodward, in the drama Rachel, Rachel. Thematically and ideologically, this film belonged to the l950s: A sensitive study of repressed life, it bears resemblance to Summer and Smoke. But it boasts a more modern cinematic sensibility and more accomplished production values; an old story told in a new way.

In Stewart Stern’s adaptation of Margaret Laurence’s novel, A Jest of God, Rachel Cameron is a thirty five year old schoolteacher, living with her invalid mother above a funeral home. The narrative spans one crucial summer in Rachel’s life, during which she comes to terms with her repressed sexuality and unformed identity. As other screen spinsters, Rachel is trapped between awareness that life is passing her by and, at the same time, lack of courage to break away and make changes.

Rachel experiences her first sexual encounter with Nick (James Olson), a farmer-turned-teacher and a former high school friend. She falls in love with him, but only to be disillusioned. “I want to say something which I never said before,” she tells him, “I am happy. I love you. I want a child.” She shows her desperation when she asks: “Don’t forget to call before the eggs get rotten.” Nick lets her believe he is married and deserts her. Later, believing she is pregnant, she tells her friend Calla (Estelle Parsons), “I never thought anything alive could grow in me.” “It could be the first decision you have made that you have respect for yourself,” Calla tells her. At the hospital, under the fake name of Mrs. James, it turns out to be a false alarm; the symptoms were caused by a cist.

The film’s most interesting sequence is a revivalist meeting, to which she goes with Calla, another middle-aged and lonely teacher, who finds solace to her problems in religious fanaticism. At the meeting, presided by the town’s evangelist (Geraldine Fitzgerald), a glib phony preacher (Terry Kiser) tells his followers: “You’re suffering because you can’t say what you want.” Holding hands, he forces them to express the word love and experience the feeling of it. It proves to be an emotionally shattering experience for Rachel: first, the orgiastic behavior, and then a mild seduction by Calla, a latent lesbian.

The film uses many flashbacks–which Rachel narrates–to shed light on her life as a small girl. Rachel is a product of a selfish, demanding, and nagging mother; she’s practically her maid, tending to her needs.

Rachel, Rachel celebrates the ordinariness and unsung life of a woman highly aware of her loneliness and alienation. In the last scene, Rachel leaves town for Oregon, taking her reluctant mother with her. What is awaiting her there In first-person narration, Rachel says: “Where I’m going anything may happen. Nothing may happen…Maybe I’ll marry a widowed man and have children…I may be lonely always. What will happen What will happen” The film has an open-ended, ambiguous quality about Rachel’s future. Unlike other small-town spinsters, she is neither doomed nor “reformed,” an individual lacking any meaningful ties to a larger community.

Paul Newman won the New York Film Critics Award for 1968 as Best Director for Rachel, Rachel, and Joanne Woodward won the Best Actress kudo for the same film.

Cast

Joanne Woodward James Olson Kate Harrington Estelle Parsons Geraldine Fitzgerald Donald Moffatt Terry Kiser Frank Corsaro Bernard Barrow Nell Potts Shawn Campbell Violet Dunn Izzy Singer Tod Engle Bruno Engl Beatrice Pons Dorothea Duckworth Connie Robinson Sylvia Shipman Larry Fredericks Wendell MacNeal

Credits

A Paul Newman Production for Warner Bros. Produced and directed by Paul Newman. Screenplay by Stewart Stern. Based on the novel A Jest of God, by Margaret Laurence. Photographed by Gayne Rescher. Music composed and conducted by Jerome Moross. Song lyrics by Stewart Stern. Performed by The Phaetons. Film Editor, Dede Allen. Art Direction, Robert Gundlach. Set Decorations, Richard Merrell. Sound, Jack Jacobsen and Dick Vorisek. Costumes by Domingo Rodriguez. Associate Producers, Arthur Newman and Harrison Starr. Production Consultant, Larry Sturhahn. Production Manager, Flo Nerlinger. Assistant Director, Alan Hopkins. Filmed entirely in Connecticut, at Bethel, Georgetown and Danbury. Technicolor. Running time, 101 minutes.

 

 

 

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