Magazine article The Spectator

Mismatched Couples

Magazine article The Spectator

Mismatched Couples

Article excerpt

Seventy years ago, a Broadway actress called Ann Preston Bridgers went to the great George Abbott with a wacky comedy she'd cooked up about a flapper whose father won't let her marry a shiftless man she's already slept with. Abbott liked the material but decided to play it as a tragedy: same characters, same plot, same dialogue, but, instead of a happy ending, he wrote a new finale in which the father shoots the man, and the flapper commits suicide. Coquette was the hit of the 1927 New York season. 'You've never heard so much weeping in a theatre in your life,' Abbott told me.

The Abbott approach works with a surprising number of plays. Comedy, tragedy, farce, melodrama are all fairly arbitrary designations - and limitations: life itself rarely conforms to one genre. That's the best thing about Alan Rudolph's Afterglow: unusually -- perversely even - the film never settles down to the one mood most pictures fall into. Sometimes it's romantic comedy, sometimes French farce, sometimes a British trouser-dropper, a Schnitzer roundelay, a Pinter disconnection drama, and sometimes it just wants to sit back and bask in the glow of Julie Christie (in an Oscar-nominated performance).

Afterglow is set in Montreal, which is the perfect location for a film that can never quite decide what it wants to be. Filtered through Rudolph's camera, the city looks alternately tacky, sultry, drab and just plain ridiculous -- which is, on balance, the most accurate screen rendering it's had in years. Miss Christie is married to Nick Nolte, who plays a small-time Mister Fix-It called Lucky Mann - a name which conjures Robin Nedwell or some such in Confessions of a Handyman, circa 1972. Behind the wheel of his distinctive red truck, Lucky tools around Montreal in every sense, laying pipe in the apartments of neglected housewives across the island.

Meanwhile, Miss Christie whiles away the hours sprawled on her couch in a haze of smoke, watching her younger moviestarlet self in crummy sub-Hammer horror films. This is a droll jest on Rudolph's part: after all, in rational terms, there is very little reason why any of us should still know Julie Christie. In John Schlesinger's Billy Liar (1963), where she was a lantern-jawed clump, she somehow got hailed as the defining image of the breezy, liberated gaiety of modern youth. In all her big films since - Darling, Dr Zhivago, Don't Look Now - she's been increasingly out of her depth. Yet somehow her very artlessness the nervous flashed grins, as random as the nutter on the bus - sees her through: instead of the usual cookie-cutter motionpicture vulnerability, she projects a kind of plaintive bewilderment. …

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