The Vulnerability Of Joanne Woodward: ‘Rachel, Rachel’ Reviewed

Warner Archive provided me with a free copy of the Blu-Ray I reviewed in this article. The opinions I share are my own.

Plenty of films have been made about that summer that changed everything. Usually they feature kids or teenagers who are off from school. The song “Summer Night” from Grease comes to mind.

Rachel (Joanne Woodward) in Paul Newman’s Rachel, Rachel isn’t a kid. To use her own words, she’s in the exact “middle of [her] life,” closer to death than to birth, and yet there’s a reason her summer of change is happening now. In fact, that’s the point.

Rachel did leave her hometown once. She went away to college, but since returning to help her mother (Kate Harrington) in the wake of her father’s death, Rachel’s life has fallen into a rut.

It’s not that the film is saying there’s anything inherently wrong with teaching at the school you used to go to, but for Rachel it’s like she can’t move forward. She’s stuck – an adult, in the sense that she has a job, but socially isolated in a small town where everything stays the same and Rachel never gets to meet new people. Sure enough, when Rachel does meet a guy (James Olson’s Nick), he’s someone she knew in high school and while he shows an interest in Rachel, his long-term intentions are suspect.

[Side Note: Kudos to the wardrobe department for adding significance to Rachel’s ring by showing Nick wearing the same one – the implication being that they’re class rings]

Actresses don’t come more natural than Woodward. It’s the difference between walking and taking a moment to pull at your slip. It’s the unconscious gestures that make a part feel lived-in and Woodward is a master at them. Another prime example is when Woodward is singing to her students during naptime, except she’s also cutting out construction paper flowers at the same time. It’s the multitasking that makes the moment feel real.

There’s no vanity to Woodward’s performance either. Newman and Woodward may have been married in real life, but Rachel isn’t a glamorous part. From an uncovered zit to a sweaty face, Newman and Woodward care more about the truth, than flattery.

Newman’s direction also does a phenomenal job at capturing Rachel’s interior world. It’s certainly the closest a film has ever come to mirroring a novel, in terms of providing access to a character’s thoughts. From memories, to voiceover, to those snippet thoughts you have but never share with anyone else, because they’re morbid, or a weird association to make, Newman captures them all, for an intimate film experience.

Rachel, Rachel can be uncomfortable, too. Screenwriter, Stewart Stern’s, dialogue aches sometimes, like when Rachel says to her crush: “Don’t forget to call before the eggs get rotten.” It’s such a vulnerable moment – the kind of line you might kick yourself for saying aloud but it’s too late. There are also hints at a traumatic childhood. Rachel’s father (Donald Moffat) ran a funeral home and death is definitely a theme in this movie.

It’s Rachel’s response to needing contraception that might be the most upsetting. Unable to ask her mother for help and afraid of the town’s judgement if she sees a doctor, Rachel has no one to turn to (or no one she feels safe asking) and it’s heartbreaking.

Rachel, Rachel isn’t always fun to watch but it is a character study of the first order. Rachel, Rachel is available on Blu-Ray starting September 6th from Warner Archive.

Warner Archive provided me with a free copy of the Blu-Ray I reviewed in this article. The opinions I shareCOMICONRead More

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