Monday, April 24, 2017
In flipping through the pages of a magazine from 1960 I was startled to see a full page color photo of Lee Remick.
Startled . . . There she was in all her glory, looking at me with her straightforward gaze, lips parted in a hint of a smile. Her body relaxed, arms at her side, emanating a wholesome sensuality.
My feelings were mixed with sadness. For she was alive only in the photograph and in my memories and in her films — at age fifty-five she had left us.
Lee Remick was more than a vibrant presence. As an actress she was capable of remarkable performances. In the three films she made between 1959 and 1962 (when she was in her mid-twenties) she played people who were radically different. Laura in Anatomy of a Murder and Kirsten in Days of Wine and Roses and Carol in Wild River exist at points on an equilateral triangle; they’re as far distant from one another as possible.
The story, the setting, the main characters: The 1930s. An island in rural Tennessee will be inundated by water when a TVA dam is opened. Ella Garth, the old matriarch of the island (played by Jo Van Fleet), refuses to sell to the government. Chuck Glover (Montgomery Clift) is a federal agent sent to convince her to move. Living with her on the island (along with the all-male brood of the Garth family and a good number of Negroes) is Carol Garth, a twenty-two-year-old widow with two small children; her husband had been one of Ella’s son.
The major virtue of Wild River is its authenticity. The scenes are done on location, and local residents were used for the smaller parts. Nothing is prettied up. Though shot in color, the film is almost black and white; the beauty of the land is a dreary, washed out beauty. There’s no glamour in the clothes any character wears; glamour has not yet arrived in this part of Tennessee. The theme music, and the use of old hymns, is unobtrusive but in complete accord with the story.
Most importantly, the authenticity extends to emotions. In the script no word is spoken that would not have been spoken, given who the characters are. Everybody acts from motivations that they own, so nobody is completely right or wrong.
Who gets the credit? Elia Kazan, the director; Paul Osborn, who did the screenplay; Kenyon Hopkins, who composed the music; Ellsworth Hopkins, director of photography. And the actors — all are perfect, and all work in synchronicity with one another.
Though the film has several plot lines (the struggle between Ella and Chuck goes deep into values), I’m going to focus on the love story. What makes it special (in this world of superficiality) is its depth — I could see the development of feelings between two real people.
On his first visit to the island, as Chuck approaches the ramshackle house, Ella get up from her chair on the porch and goes inside; she won’t talk to a TVA agent. Carol also leaves, but before she joins the others, her first words to Chuck are “If I were you, I’d go now.”
After all the adults have left he turns to a little girl who is still sitting on a porch step.
“What’s your name?”
“How old are you?”
“Five years old.”
“Five years old.”
“You’re not five. You’re six if you’re a day.”
“No, honest, I’m only five.”
Carol is observing this stranger from behind the screen door. It mattered to her that he talked to her daughter, that he joked with her (which pleased Barbara Ann no end). On Chuck’s second visit he engages with Ella and the lines of their conflict are made clear. He doesn’t approach the old woman forcefully; he’s a gentle man, and it’s not in his nature to command or bully. He appeals to her with reason. And she counters his reason by presenting — forcefully — how she feels. He listens to her, he doesn’t discount her feelings. Carol is a silent figure who listens and observes. When, on this second visit, Ella shows Chuck where she intends to be buried, Carol follows (still a presence off to the side). But when Ella returns to the house, Carol stays behind, and she and Chuck talk. It starts about the problem he came to solve, but then Chuck asks her about her life; he asks about her husband and she points to a tombstone.
Carol tells Chuck that, when Jim died three years ago, “I just plain gave up.” She’s a defeated person on the verge of apathy. But she responds, cautiously, to Chuck’s questions, to the way he listens, to his concern; there’s a sense of someone long confined in darkness finally seeing a faint light. She speaks of her confusion, her worries about her children. We also see flashes of spirit. When Chuck asks her if she has a fellow, she says that she does. “Well, then,” says Chuck. She answers: “ ‘Well, then.’ What’s that supposed to mean?” She doesn’t love Walter Clark; Chuck says “If you don’t love him, I wouldn’t marry him.” Carol, with a slight appraising smile, says “You wouldn’t? You’re a real romantic, aren’t you?”
She walks him to the barge, which is the only way to get to and from the island. As he pushes off she calls out, impulsively, “Do you mind if I come with you?” She splashes through the water, jumps aboard. “Do you mind? Do you mind? I haven’t talked to anyone in so long.” Chuck answers, “I know.”
As the barge drifts to the other shore Chuck asks her what the Negroes are singing. “Just an old hymn,” she says, and sings, softly:
“And he walks with me
And he tells me I am his own.
And the joy we share as we tarry there
None other has ever known.”
They go into the little white house where she had lived with Jim; it’s the first time she has returned since his death. Windows have been broken, varmints have gotten in; the place is a mess. She walks about, despairing at what she sees. Chuck tries to cover a window with a piece of cardboard. Carol goes into the bedroom, sits on the bed, bows her head; then she rises and rips off the bedspread; litter falls to the floor. When she emerges from the room she looks disheveled, almost wild. She begins to pace and talk again: her fears for her future and that of her fatherless children. About Walter Clark, she says, “Well, maybe I’d get to love him after I was married to him for a while. Do you think it ever happens that way?” Chuck pauses, then says, “No.”
Despite the wrenching experience of revisiting a place where she had lived with and loved Jim, she begins to feel that, maybe, somehow, things will work out.
She stands looking out the window. “Getting dark out . . .” She turns to Chuck: “Please don’t go. . . . Don’t go.”
In the next scene it’s morning, and Carol is pushing the barge off from the shore; fog lies low on the river. Chuck is standing by his car. They wave to one another. Chuck smiles at her distant figure, raises a hand tentatively to his lips.
They’ve spent the night together. That we see none of what happens is proper. What mattered in the scenes that precede her request (“Don’t go”) is that a landscape of feelings has been laid out for us. Carol has gone through an upheaval in a short period of time. Strong emotions have been generated: her need and his caring. She’s not casual about sex (or anything else important); we know that because we’ve come to know a lot about her. We’ll learn more about her, and about Chuck.
It’s not my purpose to relate in words what this film offers so eloquently. In the scenes I’ve sketched you don’t see the faces, hear the voices. But what I’ve presented is enough to justify my point about this love story, which I will repeat: What makes it special (in this world of superficiality) is its depth — one can see the development of feelings between two real people. Carol and Chuck matter.
The dilemma lying ahead for them is simple: Chuck was sent there to do a job, and when it’s completed he will leave.
As their relationship deepens, her point-of-view is clear. She loves Chuck; she’s all in, no half measures for her. She believes she can be good for him, offer him things he needs. And he can take her away from this backward world she wants desperately to leave. Her children love him; they can be educated. She wants a commitment from him — but this he won’t give.
As for Chuck’s point of view, he never intended to get drawn into a relationship; Carol initiated intimacy. He cares for and about her and her children, and he’s strongly attracted to her physically. But he will return to his life back in Washington; though we never know what that life is composed of, it’s surely radically different from the life Carol is familiar with. Is he to be accompanied by a bride half his age and two children? So, in the face of her openness he keeps something in reserve. A few times, in speaking to her, he uses the word “dear.”
This is a struggle. It manifests subtly itself throughout the film. Carol is trying to extract from Chuck his feelings for her — feelings he may refuse to acknowledge to himself.
Things finally come to a head. In the kitchen of the little white house Chuck kisses Barbara Ann: “Good night, honey.” The little girl goes off to bed.
Carol: “You’re getting awfully human, aren’t you, Chuck?”
Chuck: “I was always human. Wasn’t I?”
They move to the front room. Chuck lies back on the sofa, Carol paces, then turns to him. Chuck sits up, uneasily.
There’s misery and determination in her voice: “I hate to say this. . . . I’m gonna say something I hate to say. . . . When you go, take me with you.”
What follows is a scene that Lee Remick owns. No longer will Carol skirt around the situation. She goes into an all-out assault on the barrier of Chuck’s resistance. Carol comes at him in any way, shape and form she can muster. What she gives is herself: she must expose herself, completely and shamelessly. It isn’t easy for this proud woman, but it’s a part of her nature; she’s brave, she’s strong, she will fight for what she wants. It’s a remarkable scene — daring even. Could another actress have pulled it off? Maybe. But Lee Remick does it.The young woman in the photograph I happened to come across staked out her corner of immortality in this film. Or I wish it were so, but I know it isn’t. My goal in writing this essay — for you to see and experience Wild River — is a futile one; such work is no longer valued. It was only at Martin Scorcese’s urging that MGM reissued the film, but I foresee it again being taken out of circulation. It will die and will be buried in an unmarked grave. The only certainty I can have is that the vibrant presence of Lee Remick will live on as long as I’m here to remember her.