What is this film and how have I never heard of it.
Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams is somewhat indescribable in terms of plot. I mean, it obviously isn’t indescribable–I could list the scenes (there are about fifteen in the film, which means it averages a scene every six minutes and that calculation sounds about right) and there’s a narrative, but the film feels like an adaptation of a play. There’s a lot of conversation, a lot of dialogue, but at times, there’s also a lot of movement. So it couldn’t really be a play–the use of Johnny Mandel’s score, absolutely essential, wouldn’t have been done on stage and the film–the story–wouldn’t work without it.
During the last scene, it occurred to me Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams is the end of a long novel. It’s maybe the third part, where the two characters who each got their own earlier section, finally commingle.
Most of the film–it only runs ninety minutes, so most only means fifty minutes to an hour–belongs to Joanne Woodward. She starts it, her relationship with her family kicks off the second half, she gets to do voiceovers, she gets to have dream sequences. It’s her film for a while. But in the last twenty minutes–and here’s where Summer Wishes becomes something entirely singular and spectacular in any American cinema I’ve seen–the film ceases to be about her and becomes about her husband, played by Martin Balsam. Specifically, it’s about him returning–a World War II veteran–to a battlefield. These scenes are of astounding power. American cinema–good and bad–visibly devastates. Starting with the silents, through the Golden Age, into the seventies, now (especially now), it visibly devastates. It’s not good, it’s not bad, it’s just a feature of the way Americans tell stories. Summer Wishes doesn’t visibly devastate. A friend of mine’s coming to visit and wanted to watch a great film he’d never heard of from the 1970s and here I found it without looking.
The film’s obviously not out on DVD–it apparently never even had a laserdisc release–so I got stuck with the pan and scanned VHS. Gilbert Cates, who I’ve never heard of, does an excellent job directing the film. The pan and scan can’t impair it. He makes each line of dialogue, each exchange, spellbinding. There’s an early scene with Woodward and Sylvia Sidney bickering about bickering with each other–the conversation ought to be drawing attention to the artifice, but it doesn’t. It does the opposite. The next scene, with the pair walking down the street, is marvelous (probably the first scene in the film where it occurred to me Summer Wishes was going to be quite good).
Stewart Stern’s script–for a while–uses both dream sequences and voiceover narrations. The narrations seem like a progression from the dreams (the dreams stop once the narration starts), but then the narration goes too. Instead of replacing it with another device, Stern tells the rest of the story without adornment. I kept waiting for the dreams to come back or for another narration, but not only did none ever come, I couldn’t figure out how Stern used them. While watching the film, the thought was brief as not to distract, but as I’m thinking about it now… I don’t understand how Stern’s script works. It shouldn’t, but it excels.
Woodward and Balsam both give great performances. I think Balsam’s a little more impressive, only because Woodward’s frequently excellent. Balsam’s a solid actor, but this performance is just spectacular.
The supporting cast–Sidney, Dori Brenner–is good.
During the last twenty minutes, after it becomes clear how good Summer Wishes is going to turn out, I kept getting excited. Each minute was, I predicted, going to be another great minute of film. And they are.
Directed by Gilbert Cates; written by Stewart Stern; director of photography, Gerald Hirschfeld; edited by Sidney Katz; music by Johnny Mandel; production designer, Peter Dohanos; produced by Jack Brodsky; released by Columbia Pictures.
Starring Joanne Woodward (Rita Walden), Martin Balsam (Harry Walden), Sylvia Sidney (Mrs. Pritchett), Tresa Hughes (Betty Goody), Dori Brenner (Anna), Ron Richards (Bobby Walden), Win Forman (Fred Goody), Peter Marklin (Joel) and Nancy Andrews (Mrs. Hungerford).