Thursday, October 17, 2013

The Short, Unhappy Life of Sylvia Plath

I was speaking with a friend about the movie "Sylvia," which made its debut on this day in 2003. My friend said he thought it was a good movie but depressing.

Well, of course, it was depressing. It was about Sylvia Plath, a writer of poems and short stories who suffered from depression and reportedly attempted to kill herself a few times before she finally succeeded in 1963.

The movie account could not help but be depressing. To tell the story of her life without being depressing would be like trying to tell the story of Richard Nixon without mentioning Watergate.

It was a knowledgeable and reverent movie. It just wasn't much fun, and it didn't have any wisdom to share about Plath's death.

Like many creative types, Plath was a disturbed person. In the movie about Plath's life, Gwyneth Paltrow, in the title role, spoke of how her life changed radically when, long before she turned 10, she lost her father.

While it is tragic for a young girl to lose a parent, it couldn't have been too much of a surprise. Otto Plath was in his 50s (and suffering from undiagnosed diabetes), a fact that wasn't mentioned in the movie.

Anyway, whether she did actually try to kill herself before she finally did in February 1963, it is pretty clear that she was unstable throughout her adult life.

All of which made for a challenging part for Paltrow to play. She never really had the chance to show any warmth — or, for that matter, humor. Nothing that would have made her seem more human.

Nevertheless, I felt Paltrow rose to the occasion, giving a suitably haunting performance. She even resembled Plath — well, sorta.

There were similarities in their lives as well as their faces. Paltrow lost her own father around the time she was making "Sylvia." She was much older than Plath when she lost her father, but she was the same age when she made the film that Plath was when she killed herself.

Like Plath, Paltrow has two children. And her mother, Blythe Danner, played her mother in the movie. That was a nice touch.

Daniel Craig probably would not have been my first choice to play Plath's husband, Ted Hughes. But his performance did manage to restore credibility to Plath's charges when they were running low on the empathy meter.

For those who are unfamiliar with the story, Hughes' role in Plath's death remains murky at best. It is known that he was unfaithful in the year leading up to Plath's suicide, and the couple had separated months before Plath succeeded in killing herself. To my knowledge, it has never been established how much of a part those events played.

Feminists who survived Plath tended to believe Hughes was involved in or contributed to her death in some way. There were even attempts to alter Plath's grave marker by eliminating the Hughes surname.

(For his part, Hughes was said to be devastated by Plath's death. Reportedly, he wrote to a friend that Plath's death meant the end of his own life — yet he outlived her by more than 35 years.)

Most women who must confront infidelity in their marriage manage to survive it; some even thrive. With Plath's history, though, it is not inconceivable that her husband's affair would be the thing to push her over the edge.

I thought Paltrow was effective with what she was given — which was a character who was always unhappy.

Now, back to the resemblance of Paltrow to Plath.

As I have mentioned here before, I am a big fan of historical movies, but I am kind of picky. If I know what the subject of the movie looked like in life, I expect the actor or actress portraying that person to be close to matching my mental image.

I have long thought that Paltrow was one of the most beautiful actresses of her generation; earlier this year, PEOPLE magazine apparently agreed with me when it named her the most beautiful woman of 2013.

Plath was, by no means, an ugly woman, but I don't think she was quite the beauty that Paltrow is.

The pictures I've seen of Plath are not unpleasant. I simply find her a bit plain, especially when compared to Paltrow.

(Reminds me of conversations I used to have with a co–worker. She told me that she had been told by others that she looked like Julia Roberts. I always smiled and said nothing when she said that to me. I never saw the resemblance.)

Yet Paltrow managed to look quite a bit like Plath (whose actual picture you can see to the left). Some folks have said there was a strong resemblance to begin with, and maybe there was, but I never really saw it, at least until I saw the movie. Then I did.

I don't know what Plath sounded like when she spoke, though. When I saw Oliver Stone's "Nixon," I was a bit put off at first by the fact that Anthony Hopkins neither looked nor sounded like Richard Nixon. I was young when Nixon was president, but I do have a vivid memory of how he looked and sounded.

Even so Hopkins managed to capture Nixon's personality, and I think that may be what Paltrow did with Plath. She may have looked a bit like Plath, she may even have sounded like her, too, although Plath, like many writers, seems to have shunned the spotlight, preferring to let her writing speak for itself.