Diane Keaton, Crimes of the Heart

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Pauline Kael

“….The three actresses who star in the movie version--Diane Keaton, Jessica Lange, and Sissy Spacek--bring it such overflowing wit and radiance that they waft it up high. The play is thin … , but the actresses put so much faith in their roles that they carry the movie, triumphantly. It's too bad that the director, Bruce Beresford, didn't know how to give it a push and make it spin. With these three actresses sparking off each other, he might have caught something like the whirling magic of Robert Altman's Come Back to the 5 & Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean. But the movie has some elan [accent grand] anyway, because these women working together are something to see. They giggle over the stagey exposition, treating it like choice, well-loved gossip….

“It's no surprise that Keaton and Lange are full-scale funnywomen; the news here is that Spacek, after all the tiresome studied acting she has been doing in recent years . . . can still play on instinct and be terrific . . . . She has real voltage here; she holds her own with big Jess and gurgly, wild-eyed Keaton--and with energy to spare….

“Keaton's Lenny is abashed about everything; she has so many timidities she's in a constant tizzy. Keaton is a master of high-strung unsureness; when she plays comedy, she has a miraculous gift for fumbling in character--for showing you the emotional processes that lead the character to say what she does. What makes Warren Beatty's performance in McCabe & Mrs. Miller stay in the mind in a way his other performances don't (not even his Clyde Barrow) is that he shows you McCabe fighting through his own clumsiness and confusion, trying to express what he doesn't fully understand. That's whay Keaton's Lenny does. Her tangled feelings spill out in all directions, and what makes her a great comic presence is that she always reveals more than she means to. Babe and Meg talk about how she has been turning into Old Grandmama--Lenny wears her grandmama's sun hat and gardening gloves, and she huddles, and hides her body in shapeless pinafores. (In some ways, the play, which was first performed in 1979, is Beth Henley riding the 1977 Annie Hall down South.) Keaton's nervous old-maid Lenny is a much richer character than you could guess from reading the play. She's a wonderful mixture of raw shyness and unconscious, eye-batting flirtatiousness, and her "fumbling" lifts the character right off the page. Even her feeling her way into a Southern accent seems to become part of the character. And Keaton is great at playing a sense of injustice for laughs: Lenny's resentment of Meg for having been granted childhood privileges denied to the two others wells up in her uncontrollably, as if she were still thirteen. She's had so few experiences as a grownup that she keeps their childhool alive all through the movie. She's the responsible sister--a thirty-year-old hopelessly good little girl longing to be naughty.

“…. [I]n [the] moments that the stars don't dominate, you can recognize how much they bring to the material. Without them, the fluidity is gone, and there's nothing but artifice; the movie stops…. [T]hough the moviemakers' efforts to make the play "visual" fail, the actresses give it their vitality. And they avoid the danger in Beth Henley's material--the trap that Nobody's Fool… falls into. At her worst, Henley turns the heartbreak and boringness of small-town life into cute tics…. Crimes of the Heart has some of the same mixture of looniness and lyricism, but the actresses are smart and generous and inspired. So the three women's looniness really is lyric. Lenny's hysteria is lyric. It's as if the three actresses said to the director and the rest of the cast, "Just back off, and let us become sisters." And they became sisters.”

Pauline Kael
New Yorker, December 29, 1986
Hooked, pp. 233-237

James Wolcott

“After a long hike into the cold north of historical drama in Reds and Mrs. Soffel, with a detour into the geopolitical hostilities of The Little Drummer Girl, Diane Keaton has slipped back into her sensible shoes to make a ditsy little gingerbread comedy--and jacked her intensity up another notch. Keaton doesn't coast in Crimes of the Heart … She gets so deep into her character's kooky poignance that she always appears on the verge of tremors. When Keaton embodied the spirit of urban romance in Woody Allen's work, she fidgeted on the neurotic surface, charmingly; now she obsesses on the inside, building up to the boom of small volcano. Keaton has tirades in Crimes of the Heart as boiling-over funny as Carol Burnett going off in a red fury. Playing her sisters, Jessica Lange and Sissy Spacek certainly hold their own--Lange, particularly, has the jaunty, hayfed, high-bred gloss of a bluegrass filly. But it's Keaton as the nearly virginal dumpling with the "shrunken ovary" who gives this movie its most compelling vibration. Without her, Crimes of the Heart might be a mere sitcom….

“…. [W]hen [Lange] ambles her tall, easy stems across the screen, you understand immediately why a repressed speciman like Keaton's Lenny would be choked with envy. The greatness of Keaton's performance is that she subsumes her own erotic spark in order to embody the slow, damp mushroom growth of Lenny's sexual awakening. Stunted-virgin roles usually trail off into frilly mannerisms, but Keaton insists on solid cravings. She doesn't trim her desires in coquettish lace. Her Lenny has built around her shrunken ovaries a pleading wall of flesh. She's a soft fortress ready to be stormed.

“…. Laughing or raging … Diane Keaton holds nothing back. She has more inside her than she can possibly contain. At a time when our top Serious Actress is a dagger of ice like Meryl Streep, we need all the warm spills we can get. See Crimes of the Heart quick, before the lava cools.”

James Wolcott
Texas Monthly, date?

David Edelstein

Crimes of the Heart is a wonderful lark, a vacation from stardom for three leading ladies--Spacek, Diane Keaton, and Jessica Lange. It's a vacation for the audience, as well. I don't know of any pleasure in the theater greater than watching good actors pass the ball back and forth among themselves: how happy they look when they forget the burdens of stardom and settle into an ensemble. The three bring a back-to-nature pride to their work, using little makeup, doing nothing to hide their ages. The film has a glowing, Ivory soap quality, but also an aura of weirdness--that .56 per cent that's anything but pure….

“…. Over the course of the play, they think and do things that nice white Southern girls are taught they're not supposed to think and do--sleep with married men or black 15-year-olds, giggle in the face of death, shoot their husbands. Different as these women are, they're Siamese triplets, joined at the criminal heart. Their mother might have killed herself, but she was all alone; the sisters recognize their own madness in one another's eyes, and live to tell.

“….[W]hen the three actresses are together onscreen, anywhere you look there's something going on. I'd guess these sisters embody the three ways Henley sees herself…. Each character is a turn, and made of fairly thin stuff, but in the hands of superstars these sisters are like momentous forces of nature. Each brings the baggage of her life--and stardom--to her role, and we fill out their histories in our heads.

“Spacek's Babe is the showstopping part, but Diane Keaton's Lenny and Jessica Lange's Meg are marvelous, too, in vastly different ways. Keaton, the black sheep, lets herself look heavy and blotchy, and wears shapeless clothing; she peers at the world from under layers and layers. Nothing comes easily to Lenny, or to Keaton, either, whose mature performances are high-wire acts; she feels unsteadily through each line, and leaves herself wide open for ridicule. There are moments in Crimes of the Heart when everything seems wrong--her accent, her flailing gestures, her timing--but she pulls a great performance out of the jowls of a ghastly one. She dares to play a woman who's by no stretch an actress, who struggles just to live in the moment, carry on a conversation, move. And Keaton has bits--snorting with laughter, shrieking in fury over a box of chocolates her sister has mauled and discarded--when the emotions take over her completely….

“In case there's any doubt about the stature of these actresses, director Bruce Beresford…. shoots them from way down below, so that they loom in the frame like giants….

“…. The play is an elixir for actors, the way acting proves an elixir for Henley--it's how you use your craziness and make contact. Crimes of the Heart is the best kind of sentimental theater, where goofy sentimentality is an end in itself--a way of warming up a cold and lonely existence. This Christmas it's the moviegoer's eggnog.”

David Edelstein, Village Voice, date ?

Tom Robbins

This essay by Tom Robbins was originally published in Esquire in June 1987, and was later included in Robbins' collection of short writings, Wild Ducks Flying Backward. He doesn't specifically refer to Crimes of the Heart, but that was the most recently released Keaton film when the essay was first published.

"A female circus clown was appearing at a shopping mall recently when a small child in the audience suddenly climbed onto her lap and gazed at her painted face with rapturous recognition. The child's mother began to weep. 'My little boy is autistic,' she explained. 'This is the first time he has ever let another human touch him.'

"That incident reminded me of the actress Diane Keaton, and not because she sometimes looks as if P. T. Barnum dresses her. In her state of goofy grace, you see, Keaton possess a kind of reality denied to ordinary beings. A kachina, a wondernik, a jill-o'-lantern, she is such an incandescent link to otherness that we introverts emerge blinking from our hiding holes and beg to have those strange hands touch us.

"If she's some kind of phospohrescent flake, some kooky angel circling the ethers in deep left field; whether she won the eccentricity competition in the Miss California pageant or was actually in Istanbul at the time, none of that matters to those of us who love her. Give us half a chance and we'd lick hot fudge from her fingers, spank her with a ballet slipper, read aloud to her the sacred moon poems of Kalahari bushmen. What's more, we like the way she dresses.

"Fantasies of compatibility aside, however, the fact is, is sex appeal was two grains of rice, Diane Keaton could feed the Chinese army. (No? When was the last time you watched Looking for Mr. Goodbar?)

"Her allure is partly due to the manner in which she combines a saucy bohemian brilliance with an almost disabling vulnerability, partly due to the hormonal aura of baby fat (tender and juicy) that surrounds her even when she is mature and svelte. Mainly, though, it's because of her smile--a smile that could paint Liberace's ceiling, butter a blind man's waffles, and slush the accumulated frosts of Finland Station.

"The bonus of this beauteous and beatific bozo is that the older she gets, the sexier she gets. By the time she's fifty, she may have to wear a squid mask for self-protection."

Tom Robbins
Esquire, June 1987
Wild Ducks Flying Backward, the short writings of Tom Robbins, 2005

posted June 27, 2008

Stephen Schiff

“It's like a light-footed country dance in which three superb actresses show off their own versions of a single delicate step--the tight-rope jig between sanity and madness…. Beresford gives this milm a magnetic center--the radiance of three Mississippi sisters un-selfconsciously romping together … Sissy Spacek makes her majorette-gone-round-the-bend role at once cuddly and disturbing, and Jessica Lange--with … a vibrant air of Valkyrie authority--is even better . . . Best of all, though, is Diane Keaton, playing the ingrown family spinster. At first you think she'll never sustain it--the southern accent, the pinched homeliness, the lank hair and teetering walk, the layers and layers of oversize sweaters. But her performance builds into something terribly poignant--she's like a younger, subtler Geraldine Page, her seams unraveling, her voice escaping crazily into the ozone.”

Stephen Schiff
Vanity Fair, January 1987
[I’m not sure “subtler” is the word…]

Andrew Sarris

Andrew Sarris concluded his list of actresses he admired in 1986 with Keaton, Spacek, and Lange, "in that order"; but also see his partisanship of Kathleen Turner for the New York Film Critics Best Actress award, in which he says something about “the Wicked Witch of the East” practically nominating Keaton, Lange, and Spacek for a Nobel Prize. (Pauline Kael reportedly urged that the three actresses share the Best Actress award.)

Village Voice, need dates

David Ansen

“…. In the hard-driven, sitcomish Broadway production, these colorful disasters too often seemed willed and self-conscious. The difference here, under Bruce Beresford's direction, is the unalloyed pleasure of watching Spacek, Lange, and Keaton deveour these juicy parts with lip-smacking relish. Spacek, playing a woman who never says no to her instincts… is at the very peak of her form. Lange, lusciously blowsy, gives a sharp, wonderfully sexy comic performance. Keaton, taking daring chances, takes nervous tics to delcious, sneaky new highs. They're having a ball up there, and the spirit is downright infectious.”

David Ansen
Newsweek, December 12, 1986

Molly Haskell

“…. Diane Keaton, Sissy Spacek, and Jessica Lange as the three wacky MaGrath "girls" are the brightest screen family since Hannah and Her Sisters.

“Actually, the lives of these three Mississippi sisters may be closest to the prose of the National Enquirer. Lenny (Keaton) is the plain sister with the "shrunken ovary" and the withered ego….

“….[T]he film's most infectious moments hover on the quicksilver border between tears and giggles…. [When Lenny and Babe tell Meg about Grandaddy's going into a coma:] Suddenly and intutitively they all shift gears: Spacek and Keaton collapse in hysterical laughter; Lange is dumbfounded. One feels the mysterious rhythms and alternating alliances of three-way sisterhood, the on-again-off-again love and rivalry of relationships that are difficult because every moment is a recapitulation of the past.

“Of the three actresses, Spacek is closet to being a great one. . . . Keaton is a surprise. Paradoxically, even as she plays a hysterical, insecure woman, she hasn't been this modulated and sure of herself since her Woody Allen films.

“Beresford's heroines are often vigorous non-conformists in exotic subcultures….”

Molly Haskell
Vogue, date ?

David Denby

“Watching Crimes of the Heart … , we wait for the moods to settle in and deepen, and for the camera to find something startling in the faces of the three extraordinary actresses dominating the action. But either Henley doesn't go far enough in her characteristic mode of grotesque nostalgia or Beresford is too impersonal and fussy to make the performances pay off, for nothing onscreen has much emotional weight…. [I]t's a comedy of moral negligence and inconsequence in which people do extraordinarily cruel things to themselves and to others without meaning any harm. Diane Keaton, in the stock role of the fearful spinster, Lenny, wears a limp cardigan and rushes around the set hugging her elbows to her sides… I wish these three had reacted to one another like the barbarously unstable chemicals in TNT; instead, the movie achieves something like a mild fizz that never reaches the top of the glass.”

David Denby
New York, December 15, 1986

David Thomson

“…. This isn't Mississippi, it isn't anywhere; it's a home for retired actresses, in the sense that they've given up proper work. You can hardly hear yourself think for the lament of accented speechifying and the twang of lost hopes--not to mention the chewing on chocolates, banana splits and other Southern edibles. If the director had thought of gingerbread they could have eaten the house.

“… Lenny (Diane Keaton) actually lives in the house, tends the garden, does a fidgety twist with her Annie-Hall-goes-Faulkner clothes, hovers over her shrunken ovary and waits for people to forget her birthday….

“…. [W]hen Meg comes home … contrite about having fibbed to her grand-daddy, Lenny and Babe split their sides with too late, girl, he's in a coma. Somehow, you know the actresses called it the laughing scene….

“The trouble with Crimes of the Heart is that there's no life to be found. This isn't a house to which people belong; they have no family history, only jokes and spoofs. The house is a perpetual and pliant stage for their scenes and their plaintive attempts at Southern accent. And the accent if more Vivien Leigh than Mississippi. In neither the writing nor the playing can we believe in the travail of the years or the growth of laughter as an earned response to experience. We do not see lives unfold, as we do in Chekhov's Three Sisters. There is nothing but the indulgent exercises of actresses filling the moment.

“"Sisterhood" here has nothing to do with the state of sisters who have lived long enough to learn immovable antipathies and inescapable fondness. These biddies have all the vibrant, look-at-me vitality of infant show-offs whose only pact is that each gets her solo turn. It's hollow claptrap, dressed up in passable talk and three fluttery, fluffy, overdressed performances as ingratiating that they're like auditions. The women may profess to worry over their sanity, their future and each other. But really they are implacable eccentrics polishing their tricks. What brings their house down--in artisitic ruins--is the ghastly artifice of their minds and the lack of anything outside.

“It's pointless to praise Spacek, Lange or Keaton, or to adjudicate the contest they are so feverishly and discreetly engaged in. But one should say that Beresford, at best a weak, anonymous director… has given up and left the screen to the ladies. This has a further disadvantage: There are not enough group shots in which we can see physical and emotional interaction. When Lenny and Babe have their hysterics, they have them in self-contained close-ups from which they cannot reach out. [I recall hysterics in group shot.]

“Crimes of the Heart may do well. It is so smug and pie-eyed about survival, yet it poses so few real threats. But let's kill one fallacy--that a movie like this is good for American actresses, full of the opportunity that is normally denied them. In the last decade, Hollywood has responded to feminism with several films in which women rule: The Turning Point, 9 to 5, Agnes of God, 'night, Mother and now this. They don't help, for they show us little fresh or of value about women or anything else. Instead, they propose a claustrophobic emotional domain for women: a reservation. What might stimulate actresses, and enlighten us, are films in which women meet the regular problems and joys, many of which are made by or with men. Beware of great actresses in films where the few men in sight are stooges for their lines. And beware of the fatuous exaltation that closes Crimes of the Heart--the sisters joined together in a freeze-frame, as if they were rehearsing how they'd accept their Oscars.”

David Thomson
California Magazine, Feb. 1987

Stanley Kauffmann

“…. By far the best performance of the three comes from Sissy Spacek as Babe. Admittedly it's the best part: not the longest but the one of widest range, with subtler transitions and with more zooming-plummeting emotions, but Spacek makes the most of every chance…. Diane Keaton, as Lenny, works energetically, but she seems to be pounding at the outside of the woman, trying to get in, thump after thump.”

Stanley Kauffmann
The New Republic, Feb. 2, 1987