Sunday, May 24, 2009

Whatever happened to…Jill Clayburgh?

I’m Dancing As Fast As I Can
Paramount // 1982 // 107 Minutes // Rated R

“Two In The Morning. Two Before Lunch. Two After Dinner. Two Before Bed. Every Day.” ~ From the promotional poster.

Reviewed by Steve Evans

Hollywood can be cruel to actresses closing in on 40. Jill Clayburgh was a two-time Oscar nominee for Starting Over and the seminal film An Unmarried Woman well before she turned the corner on her fourth decade. But by 1982, at the age of 38, her Hollywood career took a nosedive into melodrama from which she never fully recovered.

Clayburgh and her playwright husband David Rabe decided to tackle the topical issue of drug addiction, resulting in a film that is so transparently Clayburgh’s final bid for an Academy Award that we can practically see the sweat popping out of her forehead from all the exertion. It didn’t work.

Life’s not fair, but then again, neither is this 1982 picture that exploits drug addiction with all the finesse of a Sunday night movie-of-the-week. It reeks.

And so, we present Jill Clayburgh’s last hurrah before the cruel vagaries of fate and the politics of Hollywood would sideline her for the next 25 years to a handful of television roles, a couple of which would garner Emmy nominations.

Opening Shot
Jill Clayburgh acts her fanny off in this failed quest for an Academy Award as a driven career woman addicted to sedatives. An interesting cast, all of whom would graduate to better projects, helps alleviate some of the tedium in this melodramatic message movie.

A Bit of Plot…
Ambitious documentary filmmaker Barbara Gordon (Clayburgh) finds her life spinning out of control when a dependency on Valium threatens to destroy her. A hopeless neurotic, she hides pills in the cellophane wrapping on her cigarettes and stashes them in her jewelry box. She cuts the corners off plastic sandwich bags to hide a dose or two, and keeps an emergency stash in a vial inside a box of tampons. Above all, in classical addict fashion, she denies the pill popping is even a problem.

Her attorney boyfriend Derek (Nicol Williamson, memorable as Merlin in Excalibur) offers little help, as his thirst for alcohol casts a shadow that obscures his judgment.

Gordon’s life unravels when she decides to go cold-turkey, ultimately landing in a mental hospital. Along the way, we are told that Valium withdrawal is on par with quitting heroin. Who knew?

Historical Context
This semi-autobiographical tale by the real Barbara Gordon — a TV producer who was hooked on tranquilizers — reeks of sanctimonious preaching in the Nancy Reagan era of Just Say No. This was a time of cinematic hypocrisy when coked-out movie producers made silly anti-drug films. Even so, much of the blame for the failure of this flick can be laid on a maudlin script that avoids subtlety in favor of sledgehammer rhetorical tactics. This is ironic and maybe just a little bit sad, as Clayburgh’s playwright husband David Rabe (Casualties of War, The Firm) adapted the script specifically for her from Gordon’s memoirs.

I’m thankful that director Jack Hofsiss made only this lone feature, having spent the majority of his career directing for the theater. His other cinematic work has been limited to made-for-television films, including Cat on a Hot Tin Roof with Jessica Lange. Given this pedigree, it’s no surprise that the film before us plays like a stage production. Hofsiss deploys an A-list cast and decent production values on material that is essentially nothing more than a TV movie-of-the-week. The “addiction is bad” message is so obvious and overwrought as to become banal in spite of Clayburgh’s impressive thespian chops. Still, even her nuanced and delicate moments are undone by ridiculous hambone acting as she flails on a beach, twitches spasmodically and, in several amazing scenes, flaps her arms like a histrionic chicken on its way to the chopping block.

The careful viewer watching this picture (or just reading the credits) will notice several actors and crew members who would go on to great things, among them two-time Oscar winner Dianne Wiest (The Birdcage), Daniel Stern (Very Bad Things and the first two Home Alone movies), and director of photography Jan de Bont, who would later shoot Die Hard and Basic Instinct, before graduating to the director’s chair with Speed and Twister, as well as belly flops like Speed 2: Cruise Control and The Haunting.

In the mental hospital, Clayburgh meets a young Joe Pesci, a fellow mental patient who invites her to accompany him to Uranus, for Gawd’s sake, with the promise of a stop for cheeseburgers along the way. Pesci had just made Raging Bull for Martin Scorsese, but his career stalled and he evidently picked up some fast cash for appearing here in a bit part.

Viewers will have to look fast for Dan Hedaya (Blood Simple, The Usual Suspects). Geraldine Page (The Trip to Bountiful) is in there, too, as the cantankerous cancer-patient subject of Barbara Gordon’s documentary.

But this is Clayburgh’s show all the way. She chews it up like a hound masticating a hambone.

What’s on the Disc, Steve?
Not much, I’m tellin’ ya. The transfer and the mono audio are acceptable. The disc is devoid of extras.

At times unintentionally hilarious, I’m Dancing as Fast as I Can presents the tragedy of addiction as screaming, bug-eyed madness, bordering on a parody of the very malaise it ostensibly sets out to condemn. Watch it on a double-bill with Reefer Madness, tonight, with someone you love.

Copyright © 2009 by Cinematic Cteve // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

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