Robert Altman has spent the past five years or so trying to make films outside of the Hollywood studio system, for some very good reasons, mostly having to do with Hollywood's lack of sympathy for any film which doesn't fit into the current stereotypes of "popular". Of course, in Altman's case, Hollywood may have a point, if you consider popularity to be the measure of a film's success (which, good businessmen all, Hollywood studio heads do). Consider such flops as Three Women, California Split, Quintet, Health, Images, A Wedding, and A Perfect Couple. Stack up against them one commercial hit (M*A*S*H) some medium performers (like The Long Goodbye and Popeye), and a few critical successes (some in the list above, plus McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Nashville, and Thieves Like Us), and Altman doesn't look like a good bet. Moreover, Altman performs, regularly, the unforgivable sin of making films that studio executives don't understand. Altman, understandably, prefers to work outside the studio system.
If one is a well-known director to begin with, and has a reputation for working within a budget, ways exist, provided one is willing to deal with a certain kind of film. The budget must be small, and, for preference, prestige must come along with the project. Altman's solution has been to film modern plays. Most modern plays (the naturalistic ones, at least) have small casts and a single set. Add in the fact that a major portion of your screenplay is already written, and that a certain amount of publicity comes along with the play, and the property may look quite attractive.
Altman has taken to this method in a big way. An early experiment with Arthur Kopit's Indians was a disaster, but subsequently Altman has had small successes with Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, Secret Honor, and Streamers. All were cheap, all made a little money, and all brought in good reviews. Altman now moves on to a play by one of America's finest active playwrights, Sam Shepard. Fool for Love is one of Shepard's better known efforts. It features only four characters, and takes place in a Western motel room. Moreover, Shepard wanted to have the play filmed, and wanted to play the male lead, guaranteeing one bankable star. No wonder that Cannon Films, perhaps stung by their reputation for making nothing but trash, was willing to give Altman a free rein.
The play and film concern Eddie and May, who were once in love, and perhaps still are. May has left Eddie (or is it the other way around?), but now Eddie has returned to reclaim her. But their love was a violent and destructive one, and May doesn't want to return. Gradually, through the medium of May's new boyfriend and a mysterious old man, the pain behind their relationship is revealed. The play is immensely powerful. The film, less so.
Unlike his last three adaptations, Altman has chosen to open up the play here. This means that, instead of sticking to a single set, as the play did, Altman strives to move scenes elsewhere. Unfortunately, the decision proves a poor one, in the end. Part of the power of the play came from cooping up all the emotions in one small room, to the point where it seemed that any moment they would burst down the walls. Allowing his characters to flee to other locations dissipates the power of the confrontations. Particularly unfortunate is Altman's choice to show us several flashback scenes, instead of merely playing them as monologs. For reasons obscure to me, Altman further undermines himself by intentionally making sure that the flashbacks don't quite match the monologs. We see scenes before we hear about them, minor details conflict, sometimes the entire sense of the monolog is contradicted by the images. I suspect that Altman was harping on how all memory is, in some sense, a lie, which is a very secondary theme of the play.
Altman also falls prey to a couple of the play's weaknesses. May is a very tough part, as a lot of important things aren't written. The actress must supply them, to a much greater degree than any of the other parts. Kim Bassinger, who plays May, isn't able to make the character go far beyond what Shepard wrote for her, so May is too little known. Also, Martin, the boyfriend, has a somewhat underwritten part. His major task is reactive. Altman's choice to show flashbacks rather than focussing on the speaker and listener undermines the role. Randy Quaid, perfectly cast, makes something of the part, but can't break through the barrier of insufficient material.
The other two performers are superb, however. Sam Shepard plays Eddie, and brings to every line the full meaning, which can only be guessed at when read and would not be fully realized by any other actor. The playwright who can act is a powerful performer, indeed, because he really understands his role. Shepard, who has given solid, charismatic performances before, here delivers a great performance, heartfelt and true. Harry Dean Stanton, playing the old man, is also first rate. Stanton is one of the two or three best American character actors working, and he gives one of his better performances here. Stanton is an actor who, while provided by nature with a perfect character face, is also talented enough to play difficult leading roles. It will be a criminal waste if the American film industry cannot find parts which display his full talents.
Shepard also wrote the screenplay for Fool for Love, relying very heavily on his play. That's fine, as the dialog is excellent. Shepard has a knack for creating lines that sound real. He also writes very well constructed monologs. I cannot tell the extent to which his screenplay was responsible for the unsuccessful attempts to open the play up, but, as long as people keep talking and Altman keeps his camera on them, the script works.
Fool for Love is powerful entertainment for audiences who don't demand constant action, but prefer to hear people talking about some of the problems of the real world: love, commitment, confusion, and regret. The film pales beside the play, but is a good substitute for those who can't or won't see it on stage. Some of the performances are Oscar-quality, and none of them are bad. Altman could have done better, but did well enough.
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