Sunday, December 25, 2011

The Morning After the Night Before

Jane Fonda has always been something of an enigma for me.

For example, she has been an often passionate advocate and defender of women yet she has not hesitated to lend her name (if not more) to projects like "Barbarella" that brazenly exploited women — when she wasn't exploiting, for personal profit, the desire that most of them have to be young and beautiful even after they have ceased to be either.

Most of the time, I guess, I just never thought she was terribly original — unlike her father. Even when she made what were said to be groundbreaking films, I always seemed to have the sensation that I had seen it done before — and better — by someone else.

When I first saw "The Morning After" — which premiered 25 years ago today — my first thought was that I must have walked into the wrong viewing room, that I was seeing some sort of parody of "The Godfather."

Do you remember the scene in "The Godfather" in which the movie director woke up in bed with the head of his beloved horse — and in a pool of the animal's blood? That's how "The Morning After" began — with Fonda (playing an alcoholic actress) waking up in bed with a man — and no memory of how she got there or what had happened when she did.

Then, when she withdrew one of her hands from beneath the sheets, she found it was covered in blood. She then discovered that her bedmate was dead with a knife sticking in his back.

She couldn't be sure whether she was responsible for the death or not, but she set about to thoroughly clean the apartment and rid it of any trace that she had been there — quite a task considering that she could not remember what she may have touched the night before.

(It occurred to me many years later that the story would require a drastic rewriting after the development of DNA evidence gathering and analysis. It was a nascent technology in the mid–1980s, but its forensic application changed things.)

In spite of her best (and rather frenzied) efforts, the evidence incriminating her began to pile up. But she was determined to prove that she was not guilty, and she enlisted the help of Jeff Bridges (a bigoted ex–cop).

As I observed when Lumet died earlier this year, he wasn't given to relying on splashy special effects — and "The Morning After" was a good example. His style was more psychological than that — reminiscent of Hitchcock in the way that the camera sort of nonchalantly nudged the viewer's attention in the direction of things that the characters in the film didn't see.

But eventually everything — like the pieces in a jigsaw puzzle — came together for all to see, even the characters in the movie.

It was clear that the characters of both Fonda and Bridges were deeply flawed. At times, Fonda reminded me of Ingrid Bergman in "Gaslight," uncertain of what was true and what was fantasy, not sure if she could trust her own memories and observations.

Bridges' character was harder for me to pin down. In spite of his bigotry, he had a clear sense of right and wrong — and he would stand on the side he had concluded was right, even if that meant standing alone.

He wasn't so different from other characters I had admired in Lumet's movies — Henry Fonda in "12 Angry Men," Dan O'Herlihy in "Fail–Safe," Bill Holden in "Network." All were flawed in their own ways.

Bridges' tenacity contributed to a somewhat surprising conclusion — and less surprising (as far as I was concerned) complications with Fonda's character. And, to be fair, the movie did generate more suspense than I expected.

In the realm of her suspense thriller flicks, I prefer Fonda's Oscar–winning turn in "Klute" — but "The Morning After" came close to matching that. Fonda was nominated for an Oscar, but she lost to Marlee Matlin.