Artless Heiress

Jennifer Jason Leigh in Agnieszka Holland’s Washington Square.

Washington Square
Directed by Agnieszka Holland
Hollywood Pictures

Directed by Oliver Stone
TriStar Pictures

Devil’s Advocate
Directed by Taylor Hackford
Warner Bros.

Integrity can be a drag in an actor, as Jennifer Jason Leigh–who plays Catherine Sloper, the heroine of the new adaptation of Henry James’Washington Square–has so often and so vividly demonstrated. When Leigh plays unpleasant characters, as in Georgia (1995) and Kansas City (1996), she is as unpleasant as all get-out. When she played Dorothy Parker in Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (1994), she faithfully reproduced the writer’s vocal cadences at the expense of such trifles as variety and intelligibility. Her work can be unleavened by imagination. Compare her turn as a government agent in Rush (1991) to Jodie Foster’s the same year in The Silence of the Lambs. Foster revealed her character’s vulnerability by indirection–by how hard the young woman labored to project strength. Leigh chose to telegraph the vulnerability: She was such a radiant mess that no superior in his right mind would have sent her undercover.

I interviewed Leigh for Vogue eight years ago, before her acting went to hell. I liked her as a person and admired her gutsiness–her willingness to work without a net, to throw herself headlong into a part even if it meant falling a great distance onto her face. But a weird, masochistic streak has emerged in her performances. She now makes a fetish of falling on her face. She might even want to be loved for falling on her face.

A s Catherine, James’ plain, artless heiress to whom life has simultaneously dealt a very good and a very bad hand, Leigh is so busy projecting her plainness and artlessness that she neglects, for most of the film, to pull the audience in. Her Catherine has no center of gravity: She doesn’t walk when she can lurch, weave, or collide with objects, her balance shifting precariously. Her responses, meanwhile, are queerly private, as if she were unsure of how to act out her own emotions. All this is by design, of course, and in an era when “You like me! You really like me!” is the mantra of most actors, that design can seem brave and original. What isn’t by design is the mass of neurotic actressy mannerisms, which function like layer upon layer of wax buildup. You can’t see into Catherine’s soul–like water on wax, your gaze beads.

In part this is the fault of the director, Agnieszka Holland. Like her star, Holland has done everything right, on paper. In Washington Square, the early 19th-century American trappings never smack of the sound stage, and each scene is judiciously weighted. Holland has expunged much of the melodrama that marked the war-horse dramatization The Heiress (made into a 1949 film with Olivia de Havilland, directed by William Wyler), and has even corrected a problem that irked James, years after publication, when he reread his early novel and declined to revise it for reprinting: that Morris Townsend, Catherine’s fortune-hunting suitor, was too much of a one-dimensional lout.

B ut The Heiress, for all its un-Jamesian blood and thunder, remains the truer adaptation. Holland’s tone is detached to the point of having no discernible point of view. She seems to have confused James’ irony with distance–when, in truth, few authors in history have achieved such pitiless and devastating intimacy. For the first two-thirds of the film, Holland barely even lingers on her heroine’s features. This remote, objective Washington Square carries little wattage.

Under the novel’s sometimes placid surface is a tug of war, which Wyler made palpable but which Holland must think will dramatize itself. One of James’ trademark innocents, Catherine is acted upon by three titanic forces: her father, Dr. Sloper (Albert Finney), whose express desire to protect a daughter he considers ugly and witless takes the form of ruthless repression; her aunt, (Maggie Smith), who wishes to weave out of her niece’s life a breathlessly melodramatic romance; and Morris Townsend (Ben Chaplin), the playboy who has squandered a modest inheritance and now seeks salvation in the form of this unloved, unlovely, and affluent young woman. Each of these characters comes with the trappings of civilization and high society, but it is the natural, untutored Catherine who proves the superior–if, ultimately, woebegone–force.

Holland’s one innovation is in her handling of Townsend. The scene in which Dr. Sloper pays a visit to the young suitor’s sister–to pry from her a confirmation of his suspicions about her brother’s character–no longer climaxes with the woman’s expulsive warning to keep Catherine from marrying him. There are still plenty of reasons to think Townsend would be a less-than-exemplary husband, but fewer to think he’d be a monstrous one. Indeed, Chaplin never signals the man’s duplicity, and one wonders if his Townsend has even fully admitted to himself that his motives are impure. He might love Catherine for her money, but at least he could love her, whereas her father, clearly, could not. The performance is complex, shaded, irreducible–Jamesian. And Chaplin makes a marvelous partner for Smith’s vivaciously silly Mrs. Penniman, all shiny-eyed with vicarious pleasure and perfumed by her own cheap romanticism. (“You’ll have to excuse me, Mr. Townsend,” she tells the lovers she’s supposed to be chaperoning, as she flits to the door. “I have the most fortuitous headache.”)

Finney plays Dr. Sloper as a sour and grave man in whom all feeling has been deadened since his wife died giving birth to Catherine. He is clearly the villain of the piece, a man who deprives his daughter of happiness not simply because he believes Townsend intends to, but because he feels that unhappiness is her due. It might be, however, that his contempt is too much on the surface, so that his bitterly conclusive outburst to his daughter on a mountaintop in Switzerland feels less than earthshaking. There is so little intimacy between father and daughter that Catherine’s life-changing realization that Sloper despises her is old news.

Leigh does keep something up her sleeve, however. Upon hearing the contents of her father’s sadistic will, she lets out a musical laugh that is probably the purest note she has sounded on-screen. It was reported that Leigh’s own father, Vic Morrow, inexplicably slighted her in his will, and you can’t hear that sound in Washington Square without knowing in your bones where it came from. It’s the sound of genuine catharsis, of poison being expelled into the air, of bottomless anguish and joyous liberation.

I f Washington Square is underripe, U-Turn and Devil’s Advocate are rotting. The former is noir camp, another acid- and amphetamine-soaked foray into Oliver Stone’s America, full of pixilated brutality and meaningless montage (fractured zooms, black-and-white scudding clouds, close-ups of carrion and stuffed mountain lions). Like Nicolas Cage in the more sedate Red Rock West, Sean Penn stumbles into a town of desert predators, where women lull men leggily into the fires of hell, not so much out of guile as instinct. Stone doesn’t have a political ax to grind this time out, and he lets the actors make whoopie. I don’t know whom I adored more: Billy Bob Thornton as a greasy hick with a whiff of Tales From the Crypt-style demonism; Nick Nolte, as a skeletal, gravel-voiced albino who could be John Huston after a decade of being eaten by worms; or Jon Voight, as a blind half-Indian whose portentous utterances are both full of crap and eerily abstruse. I do know that I could see every plot turn dragging its limp, maggoty carcass across the desert from miles away. The only surprise about U-Turn is the good reviews it got from people who should know better. It is not a surprise, either, that Al Pacino chews the scenery in Devil’s Advocate. And the idea that if the devil showed up on Earth he’d be running a New York corporate-law firm is also, to say the least, pre-chewed. But there are scenery chewers and there are Michelin-gourmet scenery chewers, and Pacino has a three-star feast. Waxy, lean, and lupine in his black Zegna suits, he sports what appear to be false front choppers, and masticates his dumb, satanic monologues with Shavian relish.

“It seems you’ve already departed.” Dr. Sloper (Finney) and Catherine Sloper (Leigh) in Washington Square (63 seconds):
Sound08 - movie-WaSquare.avi or Sound09 -; download time, 3.25 minutes at 56K Sound01 - movie-WashingtonSquare.asf for sound only

“Are you insulting me?” Darrell (Thornton) and Bobby Cooper (Penn) in U-Turn (75 seconds):
Sound06 - movie-UTurn02.avi or Sound07 -; download time, 5 minutes at 56K Sound02 - movie-UTurn2.asf for sound only