Joanne Woodward and James Garner, two of our most ingratiating performers, aren’t enough to save the Hallmark Hall of Fame version of Anne Tyler’s Breathing Lessons. Something about her novels—this Pulitzer prize winner and The Accidental Tourist—transfers inadequately to the screen, and, I think, it has to do with her temperament as a writer: she loves the quirkiness of ordinary lives, and labors gallantly to bring to her characters’ fits, foibles and idiosyncrasies an enriching emotional humanity; she is the Little People’s champion. Part of the joy in reading Tyler is the supreme confidence in dialogue—like when in The Accidental Tourist Sarah drops the neutrons on Macon, exploding with “You’re ossified. You’re encased. You’re like something in a capsule.” But it’s also this kind of scolding which makes many of us fight extra-hard to get into her books: she can be a very chilly experience, a strange mix of Ann Beattie, Gail Sheehy’s Passages and a whole lot of William Inge—without the Freudian sexology. Tyler said the movie version of Tourist couldn’t be anything more than what it is because there isn’t anything more to her characters. She’s right; the characters aren’t fleshed out, they’re Word Perfect stuffocated, oozing with add-ons as filler. What’s surprising is the literary set hasn’t discovered what they praise her for—the gentle touch, the compassion and the “inexhaustible observations”—conceal worrisome, perhaps subconscious dislike: the treatment of her female creations as mind-numbing chatterboxes. While steering clear of the monsters Tennessee Williams knew how to breathe fire into—because it would be unthinkable of her to ever allow her ladies to knowingly inflict psychic damage—she revives William Inge to a rather uncomfortable degree: her monsters are wired to be The Lights at the Top of the Stairs. We’re supposed to see them as life forces beyond their everyday ordinariness—when they touch other lives, they touch us. Unlike Tyler’s legion of fans and the Pulitzer Prize committee, I’m not moved, I’m annoyed. How could so many lovers of Tourist not see Muriel, the angel-catalyst to Macon’s renewal, as most likely responsible for her son’s psychosomatic illnesses? (Probably because the author’s automated doodles get in the way.) In Breathing Lessons, we get genteel, interfering Maggie trying to get her daughter-in-law and granddaughter back into the fold, but not before a myriad of flashbacks (cut for the TV version), not before attending a funeral, not before a few rather stupid car accidents (the second of which is blessedly altered for the film) and not before a few embarrassing “little people” roadshow numbers. Exceptions limited, Tyler doesn’t seem to show affection for modern women; she’s trapped in a time warp. And no actress these days is more likewise trapped and more regularly miscast than Woodward. She’s obviously the first choice among women authors to play educated scatterbrains and nincompoops—her Maggie here coming a short time after her Vinnie Miner in the TNT production of Alison Lurie’s Pulitzer prize-winning Foreign Affairs. Pulitzer prize winning male authors get her too: she did the smell-of-rot movie version of Paul Zindel’s The Effects of the Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds and the highly theatrical TV version of Michael Cristofer’s The Shadow Box, both directed by Woodward’s husband Paul Newman. She got stuck in the boo-hoo goo of Inge’s Come Back, Little Sheba, co-starring an equally miscast Laurence Olivier. Newman directed her in yet another unnecessary remake of Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, which hadn’t a prayer with that thing called Karen Allen as Laura. (I’m trying hard to remember Woodward in a performance in which she isn’t pre-“encased”—her doctor in Sybil, her braless sass in Shadow Box, perhaps parts of Do You Remember Love? and A New Kind of Love. Have to go back fifty years to recall a screen performance really causing sparks to fly—The Long Hot Summer, and a year before in her memorable The Three Faces of Eve. A long time to be a wet match.) Even more than in the remake of Inge’s Little Sheba, Woodward in Breathing Lessons is Estelle Parsons as Shirley Booth; all the fussy, busy tricks and ticks are prefabbed Hazel, and the harder she works at pulling off what are unactable scenes, the more unwatchable she becomes. Tyler’s men seem never to be excessive verbalizers; they’re the quiet good men who tolerate the super-exasperating nonsense of their women. In Breathing Lessons, Garner is a chronic user of Ann Landersisms—“Wake up and smell the coffee.” More in the TV version than the novel, there’s a touch of Andy Rooney in Garner; with a bad dye job yet looking quite fit, he’s less picture framer than retired commentator, and he makes it seem absolutely natural to bring out a deck of cards to play Solitaire in a church. In thinking it over, Breathing Lessons is rather like an elongated Andy Rooney essay without the humor. Rooney, however, would never have stood for the filmmakers changing Maggie’s psychological need for ice cream to yogurt. He would drop an acid Landers—“Wake up and taste the fudge ripple.”
Text COPYRIGHT © 2007 RALPH BENNER All Rights Reserved.