ON THE EDGE
Scene after dark scene after darker, more humid scene—bring along your wiper-attached night specs—you admire the fevered touches Peter Weir brings to his vision of Third World hell in The Year of Living Dangerously. Based on C.J. Koch’s award-winning novel about an Australian journalist’s pursuit for that next front page scoop during the attempted 1965 Communist coup of the Sukarno dictatorship in Indonesia, the movie, filmed in the Philippines and budgeted at around 6 mil, summons up the atmosphere almost too well—you can get mighty depressed as you view the expanses of privation, the polluted waters, the westernized whores waiting for the foreign press at a local cemetery, the random brutalities of insurgency and martial law. Weir doesn’t have a raging explicit agenda; in fact, he intentionally avoids the aftermath of the aborted Communist coup: starting on September 30, 1965, the ensuing blood bath took the lives of between 300,000 and 400,000 Indonesians. But what Weir does is brave enough: he injects the failed revolution into his romantic inferno of sex and competitive journalism. Unlike Under Fire, in which journalists commit the grave sin by becoming involved and taking sides, and unlike The Killing Fields, wherein N.Y.Times reporter Sydney Schanberg suffers a case of the guilts over leaving his beloved Cambodian buddy behind, The Year of Living Dangerously confirms the perils of the naïve who risk lives for newsprint glory.
When Living Dangerously was released in 1983, and Linda Hunt, who plays the male Billy, won a handful of awards, including the Oscar, some of us weren’t unfair but reserved about the performance, prompted by our overdosing of one sex playing another—as in Tootsie, Yentl, Victor/Victoria, The World According to Garp. Those reversals deliberate and comic but in Hunt’s case, there’s no intended caprice; this is serious acting, and Hunt got the part not only because she had unique physical qualifications, but also because there really wasn’t any other male actor available who had the voice for the needed authoritative elocution. Minus all the publicity that surrounded her back then, Hunt’s portrayal now seems far more than a director’s gamble or desperate last choice. Though there’s a slight betrayal to her sex when we hear her reading the wording of an invitation to a swanky affair, Hunt’s Billy is a complex hero as sexual eunuch; with cauliflower ears and a bad hair cut that accentuate the Asian, she has a face that looks like Gale Sondergaard crossed with Leonard Nimoy. Dressed in print shirts with large pockets filled with film stock to downplay the breasts, she’s never ludicrous—not even when dancing with Sigourney Weaver to “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.” And the soundtrack’s classics accompanying her scenes are incongruous-to-the-setting perfect: “September” from Strauss’s Four Last Songs, performed by Kirite Kanawa, and excerpts of “L’Enfant” from Opera Sauvage.
Watching Hunt in a role of a lifetime, she earns the right to steal the picture but doesn’t, or more precisely, she can’t. No one could—not when you’re co-starring with two super sexy numbers like Sigourney Weaver and Mel Gibson, both of whom give great heat. With a youthful, almost petulant handsomeness, wearing skinny, limply knotted ties and L.A. beach shades, Gibson’s the spitting image of our worst fears about journalists—a thoughtless gunga newshound. Yet there’s no denying the power of his looks: his beauty disarms our defenses and at the same time loads our fantasies which no doubt manifested into nocturnal emissions. When Weaver first meets him at pool side, she lowers her sunglasses to get a better view of him in a swim suit; when Hunt asks her opinion, Weaver responds, “Cheeky.” Stopping by Gibson’s office, she checks him out once again—giving him a quick below-the-belt glance that doesn’t go unnoticed. On what is their initial though informal date, Gibson and Weaver share as a first drink something red-colored, during which he’s being boyishly insolent. Suddenly thunder is heard and the rains pour down and the camera moves on their overwhelmingly healthy faces that crack into mile-wide smiles. Jumping into a car to protect themselves from the rain, holding glasses that are now filled with a green concoction, immersed in contagious laughter, the heat between them begins to rise. We have to wait a bit for their first kiss—a nod to the pent-up, erotic sneakiness of Liz & Monty in A Place in the Sun. Defying curfews and roadblocks, they speed past a blaze of automatic weapon fire, so gloriously giddy with passion that they can hardly keep their hands off one another.
After spending the night together at Hunt’s place, all of diplomatic Djakarta knows they’ve consummated the affair and one envious journalist cracks to Gibson, “You’re looking a little pooped, kid.” Their sexiness notwithstanding, Weaver and Gibson are at least quite adequate, despite Weaver’s poor British accent—sounding as if it’s a trial run for a vocal coach to measure its deficiencies—and despite Gibson’s runty movement and gleamy sweats suggesting a trick-as-trophy. Weaver’s like-no-tomorrow chin matches her on-screen bulk—in some scenes her face and body have an Amazonian hugeness—and at times she looks as if she could easily squash little Mel. In hairdos hinting at Mary Tyler Moore, Weaver’s Plane Jane is one of those vagabond career types who has learned to put class in slumminess. And learned to parlay criticism into something constructive: when Gibson smarts at her comment that one of his stories could have been better without the “melodrama,” he returns to the tape of it and realizes she’s on to something: it does sound like Tennessee Williams on a sap-sucking downer.
Backed up by the haunting social conscience of Hunt’s Billy, Maurice Jarre’s Vangelis-in-the-tropics score and with star-making performances, Weir’s The Year of Living Dangerously blends Third World exotic and politics with an Anglo eroticism that remains his most winning movie to date, and antidotal enough to temper our distaste and animus for a loose-lipped bigot.
Text COPYRIGHT © 1984 RALPH BENNER (Revised 6/2017) All Rights Reserved.