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 an 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. What Weir does is brave enough: he injects the boiling revolution into his romantic inferno of sex and competitive journalism. Unlike Under Fire, in which journalists commit the gravest sin by becoming involved and taking sides, and unlike The Killing Fields, wherein N.Y.Times reporter Sydney Schanberg suffers a case of the weepy guilts over leaving his beloved Cambodian buddy behind to endure the Khmer Rouge, The Year of Living Dangerously confirms the dangers of the naïve risking lives for newsprint glory. While the objective is clear, Weir sets up the compelling obstacle that is the triangle of Mel Gibson, Sigourney Weaver and Linda Hunt. When Living Dangerously was released in 1983 and Hunt won accolades, including the Oscar, for playing male Billy, some of us weren’t unfair but, well, reserved about the performance because we were overdosing with 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 capriccio; this is sober acting, and she got the part not only because she had unique physical limitations, but also because there really wasn’t any other male actor available who had the voice as gift for the needed authoritative elocution. Minus all the publicity back then, her portrayal now seems far more than a director’s gamble. Though there’s a slight betrayal to gender when we hear her reading the wording of an invitation to a swanky soirée, Hunt’s Billy is a complex hero as eunuch; with cauliflower ears and a bad hair cut that accentuate the Asian, she has the face of Gale Sondergaard cross-pollinated with Leonard Nimoy. Dressed in print shirts with large pockets filled with camera 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 she doesn’t, or more precisely, she can’t. No one could—not when you’re co-starring with Gibson and Weaver as two sexy numbers, both of whom give great heat. With a youthful, almost petulant handsomeness, wearing skinny, limply knotted ties and Aussie beach shades, Gibson’s the image of our worst fears about journalists—thoughtless gunga newshounds. Yet there’s no denying the power of his looks: the beauty disarms our defenses and at the same time loads our fantasies which no doubt manifest into nocturnal emissions. Meeting him for the first time at pool side, Weaver lowers her sunglasses to get a better view of him in a swim suit; when Hunt asks her opinion, she responds, “Cheeky.” Stopping by Gibson’s office, she checks him out once again—giving him a below-the-belt glance that doesn’t go unnoticed. On what is their initial though unintended date, Gibson and Weaver share as a drink something red-colored, during which he’s being boyishly insolent. Suddenly thunder is heard and the rains start pouring down and the camera moves to 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 initial smooch—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’t keep their hands off one another. Diplomatic Djakarta stops betting when the duo will merge, confirmed by one envious journalist who cracks to Gibson, “You’re looking a little pooped, kid.” Their sexiness notwithstanding, Weaver and Gibson are at least passable as actors, 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 movements, gleamy sweats as a trophy trick and inadequate reporter expertise. 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 and Goodall, her Plane Jane is one of those vagabond career types who’s learned to put class in attaché slumminess and 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 recording of it and realizes he does sound like Tennessee Williams on a sap-sucking downer. Bolstered by the haunting social conscience of Hunt’s Billy, the approaching genocide and Maurice Jarre’s Vangelis-in-the-tropics score, The Year of Living Dangerously mixes third world exotic with an Anglo eroticism that remains Weir’s most fervid accomplishment to date.
Text COPYRIGHT © 1984 RALPH BENNER (Revised 7/2019) All Rights Reserved.