Haunting Good Looks
THE SET-UP: It’s 1972 in Keith Gordon’s Waking the Dead, and the most gorgeous character actor of our age, Billy Crudup, plays Fielding Pierce, an ambitious, working-class, Irish boy. Crisp and confident in his Coast Guard uniform, he strides into his hippie brother’s publishing company one day and confronts the stark, staring beauty of Sarah Williams (Jennifer Connelly). He’s conservative; she’s radical, rallying for the Chilean Sanctuary movement. Just as they’re figuring out what they have in common namely, an overwhelming mutual attraction Sarah will be murdered for her beliefs and Fielding will have only memories of this great passion to sustain him the rest of his days. But then, years later, he thinks he sees her on a snowy street . . .
RAY: I think the Bible’s got it down on the theme of this one: Love does not come to an end, thus sayeth the Lord.
KAREN: But thank the Lord this film did. I know it’s based on a Scott (Endless and I mean endless Love) Spencer novel, but what we get on-screen is more like a peculiar amalgam of Ghost (although Jennifer can act rings around Demi), The Sixth Sense (is Sarah really dead?) and The Candidate (hey, I’d vote for Robert Redford’s cheekbones every time).
RAY: The charm of youthful idealism is always enhanced by good upbringing and fine bone structure.
KAREN: Crudup’s cheekbones are indelible, I concede, but because director Gordon can’t seem to make up his mind if he’s telling a ghost story or a love story, the pacing is somber and really drags. Which is a shame, because either way, the story has some pretty compelling elements.
RAY: Especially the obsessive nature of their relationship. I was in love with them being in love. The rest didn’t matter.
KAREN: You’re starting to get at one of the great mysteries of romantic movies: You love the film, or you don’t. You love the lovers, or you don’t.
RAY: I’m a sucker when movies get away from plot and into pure imagery, sensation or, in this case, romantic undertow.
KAREN: And there is an unusual, simultaneous orgasm scene between Fielding and Sarah that is so intimate and raw that it’s almost painful to look at. It transcends eroticism. They simply have to be meld together. It’s not torrid coupling or snazzy camera angles or Hollywood hard bodies, it’s about two people who are so passionately connected they forget how to breathe on their own.
RAY: You got it. So many times what we see in sexual scenes in American movies is cynical and jaded and rote, a kind of airbrushed version of sensuality. It’s Hollywood’s version of the poses and postures that you see in soft porn magazines. But this open, needy exchange between the lovers feels right.
KAREN: And he gets the period details right too, from the center part of Jennifer’s shiny tresses to the rest of her hideous early seventies wardrobe. The carpet shagged as much as they did. And did you notice how their hair is exactly the same color?
RAY: Save your creepy twins thing for your next novel, Karen. At the very least, the movie’s a performance vehicle. The director told me his gay friends got it, particularly the themes of early loss. Women got it. Middle-aged white guys in other words, most film reviewers didn’t.
KAREN: Cruddup’s sense of pain was too palpable to be palatable for most. Still, when Fielding asks, “Was she real, or just a figment of my broken heart?” the way he massages the line is truly heartbreaking. So few films dare to take an unflinching look at the enduring pain of loss, that I was even more peeved that Waking the Dead didn’t coalesce into something passionately memorable.
RAY: There you go with those “P” words again.
KAREN: Piss off, pal.
RAY: My attention didn’t wander until after the movie. I kept my eyes on the pretty people, the way I do, for better or for worse, in my daily ramblings around the neighborhood. But thinking about the movie, I realized that although there’s a lot to say for the twenty-four-year-old gamines I flirt with, it’s the thirty-five-year-old-and-up painters and writers who’ve been hurt and who’ve hurt and grown without being broken who really pull me in.
KAREN: People who have the ability to grow up and grow old with someone, you mean. Otherwise, it’s live fast, die young, leave a great-looking corpse. Without Sarah, who will forever be young and beautiful and full of vitality and idealism, Fielding has to deal with this void for the rest of his life.
RAY: Will he go crazy or become an ardent, single-minded idealist, as Sarah had been? He seems ready to take that step after the final scenes of the movie, when he comes to grips with his memories of her and his hopes for his own future.
KAREN: God, I wish I had seen your version of this movie, Reading Into the Dead. When my attention was wandering, I did get a few mean chuckles at the period furniture, and, of course, I appreciated the fucking. Oh, for the good old ’70s days when a guy and a girl went on a date and clicked and then had sex without feeling all weird and “Rules”-y about it afterward.
RAY: With clothes like those, I’d want to get naked as quickly as possible, too.