Paul Newman must have had an interesting experience directing Man-in-the Moon Marigolds. His wife played the lead and their daughter played her daughter, the film’s protagonist. The mother’s awful (Joanne Woodward isn’t awful, the character is awful) and Newman sticks with her. Woodward manages to infuse her with some humanity, but only so much is possible. There isn’t very much tension whether or not things will be all right (they won’t), but the last act is structured with lots of moments of immediate dread, so many I forgot the inevitable and it still came as a surprise at the end.
Watching Man-in-the-Moon is watching an exploration. It’s not a character study, since Woodward’s character isn’t the protagonist, and the differences between the film and a character study make it all the more interesting. We learn all about this woman, who we’ve prejudged–there are a few moments when we might be wrong about her, but there’s really only like three–and the film goes and confirms everything we’ve already decided. It’s a strange formula, since it breaks one of those major tenets of good fiction, never let the reader prejudge the character. The reader engages a work to make that decision. This observation leads me to Man-in-the-Moon’s quality as fiction. I’m not sure it’s particularly good. It comes from a play and Newman does a great job making it not feel like a play, but the film wallows in a stifling helplessness. It’s good, but it’s good because the writing–by Alvin Sargent, who also adapted Ordinary People and knows how to make things work–and the acting and the directing all go together. There’s also the setting, some sad Connecticut town, populated with people who never went anywhere. Idealism is absent from Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds and Newman makes you work for anything positive.
As a director, I’m not sure who Newman learned from. Some actors (George Clooney) have very obvious influences, but Newman’s beyond quiet. He does let composer Maurice Jarre carry some of the weight, but otherwise, the camera isn’t even present. Still, its absence doesn’t make the adapted play feel stagy, Newman just doesn’t let the viewer interact with him. It’s a great approach and probably the one to make this material work.
All of the performances are perfect, not just Woodward and real-life daughter Nell “Potts” (you’ve seen her on the Newman’s Own labels), but also the other sister, played by Roberta Wallach (Eli Wallach’s daughter–love that IMDb). After seeing the film version–and I know Woodward is a big supporter of the theater, so I’m sure this reaction wasn’t at all her intent–I have no interest in seeing a staged version. It couldn’t be as good, which is the greatest compliment an adaptation can get.
Directed and produced by Paul Newman; screenplay by Alvin Sargent, based on the play by Paul Zindel; director of photography, Adam Holender; edited by Evan Lottman; music by Maurice Jarre; production designer, Gene Callahan; released by 20th Century Fox.
Starring Joanne Woodward (Beatrice), Nell Polts (Malilda), Roberta Wallach (Ruth), Judith Lowry (Granny), Richard Venture (Floyd) and Carolyn Coates (Mrs. McKay).