Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Women of a Certain Age

Film: Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams
Format: Turner Classic Movies on rockin’ flatscreen.

This is going to be tough. Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams is a short movie about a woman’s mid-life crisis. That’s not an immediate deal breaker for me, although I admit that it’s hardly a step in the correct direction. More specifically, this is about the mid-life crisis of the sort of woman whose life appears to be entirely about herself. Her children are grown, her husband is kind of a stranger, and she is suddenly emotionally adrift.

The mid-life crisis genre isn’t necessarily one that I dislike. In fact, there have been movies like Educating Rita and Shirley Valentine that come from almost the same place as Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams that I have liked quite a bit. No, the issue here isn’t the story, but the character. Rita Walden (Joanne Woodward) is an awful, self-absorbed woman who clearly isn’t worth the 87-minute running time of the film.

So let’s get the skinny on Rita here. As mentioned in the previous paragraph, Rita doesn’t really do much. She complains about her daughter (Dori Brenner) and isn’t entirely sure why she married her husband (Martin Balsam). She is estranged from her son mainly because her son has come out as gay and is living in Amsterdam with a man. That wouldn’t be shocking now, but remember this film is from 1973, so having a gay son would be an issue for a lot of people. Rita only seems to be happy when she is reminiscing about her childhood at the family farm. A part of these memories is a farm boy on whom she had a crush. That boy, who was killed in World War II, is a big part of the reason Rita feels like she settled when she married her husband.

The tipping event of the film is the sudden death of Rita’s mother (Sylvia Sidney, who was nominated in a supporting role). The funeral brings out all of the family resentments, including the fate of the family farm, which is still held by Rita and her sister Betty (Tressa Hughes). Betty wants to sell the farm—the money would be useful for everyone. Rita wants to keep the farm, specifically because she wants to give it to her son, even though he wants nothing to do with the family. In an effort to help her through her grief, her husband decides to take her on a trip to Europe. For him, this will be the first time he has been to Europe since his own service in World War II.

It’s here that the film lost me completely. I was mildly invested to this point. I didn’t like Rita much at all, but I was willing to see where this all went by the time the film wrapped up. Rita and her husband Harry battle each other over nothing. And two things happen that made me dislike Rita as much as I have ever disliked any movie character. First, Harry attempts to pay her a compliment. While she is being angry, telling him that he should probably go have an affair, he tells her about seeing a woman around the city who he thought was incredibly beautiful—and it was her. She reacts to this essentially by insulting him. Yeah, it was a corny moment, but it was sweet and an attempt at romance, and Rita immediately kicks him in the crotch.

Second, Rita and Harry go to Bastogne where Harry spent time during the war. For him, this is a return to a place where he saw friends killed and where he fought against a true and terrible evil. Harry relives certain parts of his experience—reliving having killed three German soldiers and spending days in a location where he was forced to look at the bodies of two men that he killed, for instance. This is terrible and traumatic and awful. Rita’s reaction to this is that if her husband is going to be upset about things, maybe they should just leave. She could not be less caring, less sympathetic, or less supportive of anyone.

So let’s talk about the three performances that actually mean something here. I’m not going to take anything away from Joanne Woodward. I didn’t like the character at all, but I can’t take anything away from Woodward’s portrayal. It’s good, even if it’s in service of a character and ultimately a movie I didn’t like. Sylvia Sidney is like more here. She’s not in the film for long but she casts a long shadow over much of it. I like Sylvia Sidney in general, and I’m a little staggered that this was her only Oscar nomination in her long career. The world could use more Sylvia Sidney.

The missed nomination here for me was Martin Balsam. He was nominated for a Golden Globe in a supporting role, and I cannot understand why he wasn’t nominated for an Oscar. He sells the entire performance in the last half hour of the film where he is probably as good as he’s ever been, and that’s saying quite a bit for someone whose career was as generally good as his.

So I’m disappointed with this. I don’t see a need to see it again, and I don’t see a reason why anyone should care about Rita Walden.

Why to watch Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams: A few nice performances, and Sylvia Sidney's only nomination.
Why not to watch: It's kind of hateful.


  1. Penny Johnson played Sherry Palmer, the lovely-but-evil wife of President David Palmer, on "24." She spent around three seasons portraying an especially hateful version of Lady Macbeth, trying to undermine her husband's good work at every turn. I couldn't stand her, and at the risk of appearing both racist and anti-feminist, I practically cheered when Palmer ended up gutshot in Season 3.

    As much as I hated the character, though, I had to applaud Johnson's near-magical ability to transform into this creature. It's a weird feeling—loving the actress but hating her role. In the end, that mixture of emotion made me like "24" even more. (Yeah, yeah: it was a goofy, utterly unrealistic, and ultimately formulaic comic book of a series. But it was also a guilty pleasure for me.) Hats off to Penny Johnson. She kept me emotionally engaged.

    1. I get that. This is a case, though, where I'm not sure that there's a great deal of transformation happening. Joanne Woodward was a fine actress and had a number of excellent performances, but I don't see any of that here. She's playing a spoiled, middle-aged woman who is used to getting her own way and suddenly isn't in several different places at the same time.

      Now, compare that to, say, Linda Fiorentino in The Last Seduction or even Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity. Both of these women were playing terrible characters, but both of them were absolutely mesmerizing.

      That's just not the case with Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams.

  2. I went out of my way to see this, and it took years to find, because of my love for the three lead performers, the nominations, plus I loved the rather forlorn and wistful feeling the title evoked but I had similar problems to yours.

    The 70's were a time when leading female characters were often much thornier than they had been in previous decades and still considered sympathetic but Rita is mostly a sour bitch who makes it impossible to care much for her story. Joanne Woodward does the best she can with her but I don't know if even someone with the immense natural warmth of Diane Keaton could have made the character accessible.

    Balsam is fantastic but Sylvia Sidney was the one I remembered after the picture was over. For the brief time she was on screen she was a burst of much needed energy and lightness in this turgid drama.

    I completely agree that the world could use more Sylvia Sidney. How distinct her two film phases are-the first as the gentle delicate flower who was "paid by the tear" as she said but always with a flinty undercurrent, then after an almost 20 year break and her return in this a gravelly voiced straightforward dame who brooked no nonsense. I love her both ways but what a stark difference.

    1. There was definitely something about this movie that felt like biting on tinfoil to me. I found Rita absolutely impossible to sympathize with, and that was really necessary for this film. It might have actually worked better to go with an actress who was completely unsympathetic--Bette Davis at her height might have made this work. Maybe.

      I don't mind flinty. I don't even really mind a main character I don't like, as with the ones I mentioned in the comment above.

      I know Sylvia Sidney's later period much more than her early period. I remember her as one of my favorite parts of Beetlejuice.

    2. Sylvia's stock in trade when she was younger was the downtrodden girl up against it for one reason or another, it gave the films a chance to take advantage of her expertise at anguish with those big expressive eyes.

      Her early films are a variable lot but she had quite a run in the mid-30's making Fury, Sabotage (she and Hitchcock didn't get along but it's a good film and she's wonderful in it), You Only Live Once and Dead End one right after the other. She even did a version of Madame Butterfly with a very young Cary Grant but it's best avoided.

    3. I've seen a couple of those. I guess I just remember her gravel-throated period a lot better.