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 Tyler’s works—this Pulitzer prize winner and The Accidental Tourist—that translate 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 works 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 of her 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 revelatory scolding that 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 once said about the movie version of Tourist that there wasn’t anything more to get out of it because there wasn’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 that the literary set hasn’t discovered that what they praise Tyler for—her gentle touch, her compassion, and her “inexhaustible observations”—conceal what I think is worrisome, perhaps subconscious dislike: her treatment of her female creations. Almost always the central women characters are 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, that 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 that Muriel, the angel-catalyst to Macon’s renewal, is most likely responsible for her son’s psychosomatic illnesses? (Probably because the author’s automated doodles got 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 roadshow “little people” numbers. With some exceptions, 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 Joanne Woodward. She’s obviously the first choice among women authors to play educated scatterbrains and nincompoops—her Maggie in “Breathing Lessons” 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” in a TV adaptation, co-starring a very badly 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 recent or fairly recent performance that wasn’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 that really caused sparks to fly—The Long Hot Summer, and a year before that, in her memorable The Three Faces of Eve. That’s 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.” The harder Woodward works at pulling off what are essentially unactable scenes, the more she becomes watchable in the worst way—disbelievingly. Tyler’s men seem never to be excessive verbalizers; instead, they’re the quiet good men who tolerate the super-exasperating nonsense of their women. In “Breathing Lessons,” James 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 but looking quite fit, he’s less picture framer than retired newscaster, and he makes it seem absolutely natural to bring out a deck of cards in a church and play Solitaire. In thinking it over, “Breathing Lessons” is rather like an Andy Rooney essay—but elongated and without the humor. Rooney, however, would never have stood for the fact that, at the end, the filmmakers change Maggie’s psychological need for ice cream to yogurt. Rooney would drop an acid Landers—“Wake up and taste the fudge ripple.”
Text COPYRIGHT © 2007 RALPH BENNER All Rights Reserved.