FROM THE MGM STABLE
STANLEY AND IRIS (1990 )
CAST: JANE FONDA, ROBERT DE NIRO, SWOOSIE KURTZ, MARTHA PLIMPTON, LORETTA DEVINE, JAMEY SHERIDAN.
DIRECTION : MARTIN RITT.
** ORIGINALLY WRITTEN ON 19TH SEPTEMBER, 2014.
I may sound like a broken record but the nineties era, for me at least, upheld simplicity as a true virtue. As I watch more cinematic works from the timeline and the decade before , I am assured of it and hold it in good stead primarily as a filmmaking technique . From the framing of scenes to the characterisation and plots, the diurnal and often unceremonious aspects of the world were brought to us with effective agency. As is the wont then cinema is a mirror reflection of the period in which it operates as an universal medium and I reckon the innocence and positive social traction of our lives back in the day had a large role to play. As a child of the nineties, I yearn for it still. Compare it to the dazzle and unwarranted tales of indiscriminate crime, lust and defiance of today and it seems like a separate entity altogether.
Simplicity is the strong suit of this script too and my views on the film are exactly reproduced here as I had written it in 2014.
Jane Fonda and Robert De Niro have perfect movie star charisma. The hitch that they encounter in this obscure 1990 feature is that they are perhaps false choices to espouse deadbeat mundanity of proletariat lives. Yes, I know proletariat is a big word to use but I am well aware of its specific function, meaning the spectrum of society that pitches labour for earning money and has no control over means of production. It’s an endless grind of work, work and work and a modest renumeration. There’s nothing political to that point here like director Ritt’s most well known work NORMA RAE in which Sally Field was pure dynamite as a factory worker rallying her colleagues for a workers’ union for better enfranchisement. Every person with even a vague knowledge of popular culture has at some point heard or seen her iconic scene where she stands atop a stationery machine and demands fair play by the authorities.
Then there’s the hard working backgrounds of STANLEY AND IRIS. Their personal lives occupy much of the space here and the legendary performers are sincere. I’m sure they took on this script with all their heart. However, they lack the full bodied conviction to pass off as working class representatives of our society. They are celebrity icons disguised as Everyman. I know it’s an irony that the best of actors are found to be too larger than life to sometimes embody other lives and Fonda and De Niro had already reached the pinnacle of their illustrious careers by the time this released. Maybe another viewing may change my perspectives there but my initial reaction remains. I mean it well ; after all, pointing out things for the sake of it has never been my style of writing.
In Stanley and Iris, Fonda owns a home that is definitely not sprawling and is still cushy in its own convenient way. But then we are talking about a pan American housing scheme and loan structure where having a roof of one’s own is a blessing ( modern crises of foreclosures, debt and mortgages cutting across lines have pummeled that index now) I guess I am trying to offset the social structure here with that of my own country where working classes, especially those employed in factory units, have no guarantee of sustained employment, leave alone a decent housing scheme. Poverty and squalid living conditions are corollaries to their thankless commitments. The droopiness is etched in their faces. I’m sure the challenges are commonly pegged anywhere but differences persist of certain kinds between the developed and developing world. The laboring majority is a demographic that is never paid heed to really. This point is another separate one which should not necessarily accompany a movie appraisal but I feel a social ethos is the essence of a script as it is here.
Of course, Fonda as Iris, with her inimitable persona, elegant suburban flair, is the kind of woman who would prompt anyone to know her better within the circle of everyday. Ultimately, she’s a commoner and single woman with her share of issues to scurry through and a large part of it is accommodating her harried sister ( Swoosie Kurtz) and her no good, misogynistic husband ( Jamey Sheridan) who is not above using his hands on her in the presence of kids and repaying Iris’ generosity with a thankless, cold snare. So even if the script on the whole has a very obvious structure, these touches of unraveling within modest means of living are worth applauding.
Originally, Fonda seemed detached from her character’s earnest center to me but today I realize it is the right approach as the daily weariness of her sorroundings get to her, with no incentive for real change. If anything, the lightweight direction, sincere as it is, is to be held accountable for some of the points. I was always wrong to feel that an actress like Meryl Streep would have been more suitable to embody physical characteristics and imbue them with greater gravitas ; perhaps because she had played a factory worker in SILKWOOD not too long ago before this one in mention. I have better understanding of the fact that comparisons are foolhardy and each performer has her own experience to bring.
Robert De Niro is more on the side of authenticity – avoiding the weaknesses of this script. As an illiterate cook and genuine gentleman who works at the front desk of the bakery where Iris discharges her duties behind the scenes, he goes the extra mile to make his dilemmas seem urgent. By urgency, I mean his tryst to overcome his educational impediment, which has cost him his job, and comes with one quick fix solution : that Iris tutor him to pick up pieces of speech, language and expression for everyday existence. I would be unfair if I didn’t say that this was mildly inspiring as there is no better alternative to ignorance than educational uplift and those who aid us to realize our dreams. It also illuminates the fact that it’s not necessary that literacy is all encompassing in an English speaking world. Literacy is so much more than just the spoken word.
The langour present here in the parts where both commiserate on deeply human grounds works well when its formulaic star crossed yarn of love taking its course plays out parallel with Stanley’s progress. In the bargain, the widowed Iris, picketed by her humdrum livelihood and the crack of her teenage daughter’s ( Martha Plimpton) pregnancy, gets a shot at companionship which elevates her sense of self worth. She’s all sighs and mute sublimity. Particularly arresting is the expression of helpless resignation she displays as she looks at her daughter wind down the same path as several of her class. The looks of disdain that visit the teenager as she joins her mother’s unit is also strongly conveyed. Hypocrisy and lack of tolerance is everywhere.
I also loved the little glint in Stanley’s eyes and visage as he equated his reading of a basic elementary sentence ‘ this is a woman’ with his growing fondness for the lovely lady who’s equipped him with an indispensable life skill. There’s genuine empathy, gratitude in his overall being.
In many ways, STANLEY AND IRIS shrugs off its potential owing to the core team’s casual approach of scripting. A slow burning passion occasioned by a strong lead cast doesn’t necessarily translate into a grand romantic surprise, quite like FALLING IN LOVE ( starring De Niro and Streep) which got derailed early after starting off with promise on its journey of charting an extra marital bond’s pros and cons.
STANLEY AND IRIS moves to a by the numbers climax. There’s an obvious charm still in knowing that Stanley transcends his period of ambivalence and Iris, in turn, overcomes her spell of static resignation at the hands of fate. Together they realign the fault in their stars. They meet, fall in love, contribute constructively to the spirit of mutual good will and plan to spend their lives together. We watch and grasp their journey from a distance and no sparks really fly when they realize they are made for each other.
For all of my original thoughts, I have added few points from my current lens as its simplicity is a strength and companionship is sought on these levels in real life as we all know . You can never predict about one moment when that occurs. The goodness of individuals brings them together and life is meant to grant ourselves and each other second chances. The more my mind goes back to it, the more I find the film admirable for its honest intentions and thrust of learning lessons of individuality even as middle age beckons with all its unique complications. It’s not the most novel screenplay and the two stars’ haloed appearances perhaps made me feel they were not fitting the parts of their given personalities here. The truth is they bring a soulful skill of punctuating their scenes with silences.
The cast besides the leads is full of veterans who have put their flags at high mast in the current times. SWOOSIE KURTZ has regaled us as Melissa Mccarthy’s mother in MIKE AND MOLLY and in a recent guest arc on GRACE AND FRANKIE toplining FONDA while LORETTA DEVINE has endeared as Chief Webber’s wife Adele in a memorable multi season presence on classic staple Grey’s Anatomy as also on THE CARMICHAEL SHOW, WAITING TO EXHALE, INTRODUCING DOROTHY DANDRIDGE and even the recent Netflix comedy NAKED encompassing cinema, television and the web.
As for Martha Plimpton, she is now popular as the mother on RAISING HOPE .
This was the final directorial work of celebrated director Martin Ritt before he passed away and one of the last offerings of Fonda prior to her decade long sabbatical till 2005. Watch it, its sense of compassion is much sought after.