On the short list of films with the greatest all-time titles, these have long been my top three: "The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies!!?," a wonderfully zany horror musical from 1963; "Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key," a tremendous Italian giallo from 1972; and the Paul Newman-directed "The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds," which was first released in December 1972. Of these three, I had not seen that last one...until just last night, that is. "Gamma Rays" is a film that I had long wanted to experience, however, starring as it does one of my favorite actresses, Joanne Woodward, here in her second film directed by her longtime husband, and I had just loved that first one, 1968's "Rachel, Rachel," one of the screen's greatest odes to loneliness. As it turns out, "Gamma Rays" is still another wonderful offering by the great husband-and-wife team; a tremendously affecting film about lost chances, shattered lives and young hopes. Featuring a devastatingly fine performance by its leading lady and sensitive direction by Newman, it is a film that should stay with the viewer long after its initial bombardment and exposure.
The film introduces us to middle-aged widow Beatrice Hunsdorfer (Woodward, 42 here), who lives with her two teenage daughters in a dilapidated house in a lower-middle-class section of what is supposed to be Staten Island, although no mention of a locale is ever mentioned in the film. (The film was actually shot in Bridgeport, CT, and there ARE Connecticut plates on Beatrice's car.) Beatrice has been pretty well beaten up by life since her husband abandoned the family and then dropped dead some years before. Her home is a sty and Beatrice herself is a bit of a mess, a slatternly, chain-smoking, Schlitz-swilling woman who makes a living by doing some kind of telephone soliciting work for a dance studio, and renting out one of the bedrooms in her shabby abode. Her two daughters are interesting characters as well: The oldest, Ruth (Roberta Wallach, the daughter of Eli Wallach and Anne Jackson, here in her first appearance before the cameras), is an epileptic, smart-alecky, wanna-be cheerleader with a budding interest in boys and sex; the younger, Matilda (Nell Potts, the daughter of Newman and Woodward, and who had earlier appeared in "Rachel, Rachel" as well), is a shy, introverted science geek who is currently working on the school project that gives this film its name. She also owns a pet rabbit, whose droppings have been causing her mother all manner of grief. Into their lives comes the incredibly ancient-looking crone Annie (Judith Lowry, 82 here but looking around 50 years older, and who had appeared in the Off-Broadway play on which the film is based), whose daughter has dumped her into the Hunsdorfers' spare bedroom. As the film proceeds, we see Beatrice hatch another of her pipe-dream schemes: opening an elegant tearoom, for which she will need at least $5,000 to get things going. We witness her attempt to wheedle the money out of her ex-brother-in-law, get hit on by a horny antiques dealer, sitting on a hillside while feeling miserably depressed and then meeting a cop who she had gone to high school with, and finally being called upon to give a speech when Matilda's project wins an award at the school fair. Throughout, the relationships between the three women are explored in sensitive fashion by the filmmakers.
"Gamma Rays" was scripted by Alvin Sargent (who would later go on to such projects as "Paper Moon," "Julia" and "Ordinary People") from 1965's Pulitzer Prize-winning stage play by Paul Zindel (who himself had been born on Staten Island). It was Newman's third go as a director, following "Rachel, Rachel" and "Sometimes a Great Notion" (1970), and he evinces here a sure hand at eliciting sensitive performances from his players. The film also features a wonderfully dreary score, largely on cello, by the great composer Maurice Jarre (although nowhere near as memorable as his classic scores for such films as 1962's "Lawrence of Arabia" and 1965's "Doctor Zhivago"). The film itself is fairly small in scope, giving us an unglamorized view of three unhappy lives, but is a major accomplishment despite that. And most of the credit for the film's success can be laid squarely at the feet of Woodward, who, her husband would later proclaim, never gave a finer performance. And indeed, the woman really is a wonder here, in a part that requires so much of her. Beatrice is a miserably unhappy woman who is fairly desperate to get out of her life situation, and Woodward really makes us feel that desperation. And we get to learn even more about the character via the reminiscences of that cop friend of hers, as well as through the recollections of a teacher in the girls' high school, who had been a fellow student of Beatrice's back when. We learn that she had been a happy-go-lucky sort as a teenager (Betty the Loon was her nickname, a name that Ruth will later taunt her with), and that she had once worn feathers to class. How sad to think of all that youthful zest turned so sour later in life! The promotional poster for "Gamma Rays" declared "Life's been a real bitch to Beatrice Hunsdorfer. And vice versa," and yes, Beatrice really does get to lash out on any number of occasions here. Her character runs the gamut from exasperated to maudlin to drunken to crass to tender to brutal. But she is also capable of coming out with some wonderfully amusing lines, such as when she tells the old biddy Annie "If anybody'd ever told me when I was younger I'd wind up feeding honey to a zombie I'd have told them they were crazy. I'd be better off driving a cab...." When Matilda tries to tell her of her school project, of her science teacher, and of the half-life of cobalt-60, Beatrice shoots back with "If he wants to find out about half-life he can come ask me. I'm the original half-life. I've got one daughter with half a mind, the other who's half a test tube, a house half full of rabbit crap, and half a corpse. That's a half-life, alright...." So yes, we DO get some chuckles here from Sargent's script to relieve the drama, and Woodward is given all the memorable lines. Amazingly, she was not nominated for an Oscar for her work here, although this is an Oscar-calibre performance if ever there were one. She was, however, recognized at that year's Cannes Film Festival, at which she was awarded the Best Actress prize. And she deserved it. But kudos must also be given to the two younger performers here, both of whom get to shine on any number of occasions. Wallach, who was 17 here, is utterly credible as the adolescent Ruth (her seizure scene is especially convincing), while the 13-year-old Potts does wonders with her quiet portrayal of the withdrawn Matilda, her interior monologue at the film's end providing a memorable conclusion to the proceedings.
As has been noted by others, there is some not-so-subtle symbolism in the film's title, which becomes more apparent when Matilda tells the school audience, in her acceptance speech, that her experiments have revealed the facts that small doses of radiation produced no effects in her growing plants; mild doses, beautiful mutations; but high doses, decay and death. Matilda herself, it would seem, has been given a mild dose of the "poisonous radiation" that prevails in the Hunsdorfer abode, and has herself mutated into something strange and wonderful. Her future, we feel, will be a bright and happy one. How wonderful it is to see Matilda, who has been so shy and undemonstrative throughout the film, carry out to the garden the rabbit that her mother has just slain in a drunken fit, and place it quietly down to rest. We sense that some change is going on inside her, some new way of looking at her surroundings, and that suspicion is verified in the interior monologue just alluded to. She is going to be alright. Her sister and mother...probably not so much. The viewer sincerely hopes that one day Beatrice will get her act together, perhaps remarry (she's really not too bad looking at all, when she doesn't overdo it with the wig and makeup), perhaps move into a decent place, and that Ruth will hopefully get treated for her illness and find some kind of fulfilling life for herself, but given the Hunsdorfer luck, and the Hunsdorfer radioactive bombardment that all have been exposed to, the odds are really not looking to favorable for them. The bottom line here is that "Gamma Rays" really is a wonderful film: an impeccably acted, sensitively shot, intelligently scripted drama. I am so glad that I finally got to see it, especially since it features one of Joanne Woodward's greatest bits of acting before a camera. And now, there still remains the fourth greatest title in film history for me to take in: 1969's "Can Hieronymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness?" Wish me luck as I endeavor to track this one down....
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