Stanley & Iris
1990 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 104 min. / Street Date January 17, 2017 / Available from the Twilight Time Movies Store 29.95
Starring: Jane Fonda, Robert De Niro, Swoosie Kurtz, Martha Plimpton, Harley Cross, Jamey Sheridan, Feodor Chaliapin.
Cinematography: Donald McAlpine
Original Music: John Williams
Written by: Irving Ravetch, Harriet Frank, Jr. based on a novel Union Street by Pat Barker
Produced by: Arlene Sellers, Alex Winitsky
Directed by Martin Ritt
There ought to be a place on a screen for every kind of film story. True, old movies fronted a mostly false consensus picture of the world, claiming that there was a ‘normal’ baseline for our lives. The reality of most social issues was ignored in favor of pleasant fairy tales where all conflicts could be solved on a personal level. After all, movies were considered entertainment first, and carriers of vital social truths maybe about 97th. But then and now, there has been an occasional push for small movies to show ordinary people without going to dramatic extremes, in outsized conflicts. Personal problems dog us every day, and thoughtful moviegoers appreciate stories with heart and sensitivity.
Director Martin Ritt and the writing team of Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank, Jr. had worked together for decades. Ritt’s last film forms something of a bookend with the 1958 The Long, Hot Summer (1958), which was also adapted by Ravetch and Frank. Ritt seems to have been drawn to quieter, more personal stories in the last decade of his career. Murphy’s Romance carried on his association with Sally Field. Stanley & Iris also sees Martin Ritt trying ‘something completely different’ with actors Jane Fonda and Robert De Niro. To our surprise, we accept both of these big stars as ‘little people’ without too many options, working folk more or less living from paycheck to paycheck, hoping to keep moving forward in as decent a way as possible. Just achieving that isn’t as easy as it used to be. The writers give us a good look at ordinary people clipping coupons, arguing with shopkeepers and dealing with difficult family members. De Niro has no trouble at all with his character. Jane Fonda is the bigger surprise; she succeeds in convincing us that her character knows what a discount coupon might be.
A look at this year’s Moonlight and Manchester by the Sea show us that nobody’s life is ‘normal,’ and that all kinds of forces make maintaining relationships difficult. Watching Stanley & Iris, we keep waiting for the axe to fall, for a health disaster, senseless accident or outside catastrophe to occur. That’s because we’re accustomed to drama where dramatic crises arrive on schedule. To its credit, the film doesn’t clobber its characters with extraordinary events. With one exception, what happens ould happen to most anyone. A movie like this has to be very lucky to catch fire with the public. Stanley & Iris didn’t, but it has a sincerity and directness that is now very easy to appreciate. Quick — name three movies in the last ten years that made us feel good about people.
A large commercial bakery town dominates outside of Boston, and employs quite a few locals in low-level factory jobs. Bakery line worker Iris King (Jane Fonda) was widowed eight months ago and is trying to hold a shaky household together with her meager paycheck. Her brother and sister-in-law (Jamey Sheridan & Swoosie Kurtz) have moved in because of employment difficulties, and Iris’ teenage daughter Kelly (Martha Plimpton of Shy People) is about to surprise her with an unwelcome announcement. Meanwhile, factory cafeteria worker Stanley Cox (Robert De Niro) seems a real puzzle. He’s an intelligent bachelor who takes good care of his elderly father Leonides (Feodor Chaliapin of Moonstruck) and minds his own business. Iris and Stanley meet on the bus and he nurses the connection through several more bump-into occurrences, whereupon it becomes obvious that they could form a friendship or more. Iris finds out why such a personable man lives so humbly when she discovers that Stanley can’t read or write. This severely cripples his employability, because when employers find out, they worry that he might be an insurance risk. Dropped from the factory, Stanley can only find menial jobs and when he can’t pay the rent is forced to turn his father over to the state. Swallowing his pride, he allows Iris to try to teach him to read. It’s a rocky, somewhat humiliating process, one that he quits after a ‘test’ navigating a map. Lost in an unfamiliar part of town, he finds himself unable to read simple street signs.
Stanley & Iris may now remind viewers of a flip-side take on the situation in Manchester by the Sea, where another able man, for different reasons, must take menial work as a janitor to make a living. Robert De Niro does what he can to make Stanley Cox believable. It’s of course a novelty for us to consider the situation of someone who just happens to be illiterate in an environment where you’d think one could learn to read through TV and comic books. I don’t know how credible that is (without the presence of other handicaps) but the process of Stanley’s education is beautifully presented. This isn’t the kind of movie where success as a hot musician or athlete arrives via a three-minute montage set to upbeat music by Bill Conti. Nor is it a demeaning joke, like various ‘send an adult to Kindergarten’ scenes in old John Ford movies. Stanley puts his trust in Iris, and she takes on the responsibility of pushing him through the drudgery. Stanley fears that it will be revealed that he’s naturally stupid. We feel that things will work out. After all, this is a movie, and they’re not curing cancer.
The smooth direction, natural performances and beautiful locations — apparently Toronto stands in for Massachusetts — help us accept the day-to-day reality of Stanley & Iris. And it’s nice that Iris must deal with a whole raft of nagging family problems, the kind that wishful thinking can’t solve. Her relatives argue, her purse is stolen, and she has difficulty dealing with the absence of her recently deceased husband. As for Stanley, he’s in his forties and is still living a secret life trying to keep his illiteracy a secret. The limitations on one’s life are pretty steep, when one can’t sign one’s name or read simple instructions.
Two things make the movie work. The pleasant performances soon win us over. I tend to narrow my eyes at Ms. Fonda’s acting. She can be abhorrent in things like On Golden Pond, a phony sentimental piece not redeemed by the real sentiment between the acting father and daughter — Fonda seems to be using the show to promote her exercise videos (which were incredibly popular at the time). Keep acting for thirty years and even Fonda will arrive at a point where she can seem unlike herself, and I really enjoy her here. Iris manages the various family crises the way we all must. She refrains from blowing up or quitting on people. She’s not afraid to give the bratty Kelly a piece of her mind, but she’s also supportive. And she has patience with people. It’s rare to see that expressed in a movie.
De Niro’s Stanley seems genuinely attracted to Iris, so the chemistry works well. He’s also a decent guy acutely aware of his limitations. Stanley suffers as he puts his dad in a home. He finds out only after the fact that the state home, while humane and clean, is a place where many old folks ‘go downhill quickly.’ It’s obvious that Stanley is a solid guy. Overcoming his literacy issues is a scary thing. If he doesn’t run and hide because he can’t read, he has a chance.
With no common consensus on what a life problem is, viewers often reject movies that don’t reflect their own experience. As a kid, I rejected and resented an old movie called Made for Each Other, because its ‘troubled’ young couple are so damned rich. David O. Selznick’s idea of unemployment misery didn’t deprive the couple of their servants, or a New Year’s Eve outing on the town in New York. But everything is relative. Neither Stanley nor Iris can afford a car, but here in California homeless people and penniless illegals often drive cars. A new immigrant may share almost the same predicament as Stanley, language-wise; although life in the working world can be a grind, Stanley and Iris are lucky to live in a country that isn’t a war zone. Most of us can relate on some level to Iris when she says that she’d just like to see somebody escape the worker’s grind of work, eat, sleep and work again. Vacations to Bermuda aren’t mandatory, but some kind of hope is.
I think viewers will be pleased that Stanley & Iris doesn’t bring in some third-act crisis to catalyze major character changes or decisions. No, the story is generous to the characters as well. Considering that so many ‘important’ movies feel it necessary to conclude without particularly hopeful endings, I think this show is actually courageous.
Spoiler…. Stanley & Iris ain’t perfect, Magee, and I wince at one story development. I predicted it when Stanley tells Iris that he’s a closeted inventor, and that he likes to tinker. The worst happens, credibility-wise: Stanley is a actually a brilliant natural engineer & mechanical problem solver. Learning to read removes the barrier to his advancement, and over the span of perhaps nine months he’s well on his way to success, few details given. Things like that surely happen all the time here in America, but Stanley’s conversion is rather extreme, as if he had come out of a coma.
I suppose my BS antenna went up because back in old movies, it was a real cliché to have an otherwise no-account boyfriend or romantic hopeful be described as a budding inventor. More often than not we’d just hear that his formula for motor oil or baby powder was a big success, to explain the sudden appearance of a big house and servants. Preston Sturges made fun of the convention in his The Palm Beach Story, where Joel McCrea has a cockamamie idea of a giant steel net between skyscrapers, to be a ‘city airport.’ This development doesn’t harm Stanley & Iris all that much… but it is an extraordinary twist in a movie that avoids extraordinary things… individual people are sufficiently extraordinary in themselves.
The only comparable puzzler on Iris’ side of the fence is that, while fretting that she has no business getting back into the dating scene, she calls herself plain and unattractive. We, of course, are looking at the very pretty Jane Fonda saying this. I guess plenty of beautiful women feel that way about themselves, but it’s a surprise that Swoozie Kurtz doesn’t laugh in Fonda’s face, or throw something at her in bitter envy.
The Twilight Time Blu-ray of Stanley & Iris is a handsome encoding of this quality MGM production, made at lean times for the studio… I was at that company just a year later, but will have to ask a friend when exactly Cannon, Pathé and MGM merged, and exactly how they split up again. Oh, right, and United Artists’ fate was in there too.
Colors are warm and pretty in Donald McAlpine’s Panavision cinematography, a welcome respite from movies choked with ersatz tension, that take place in a fantasy world where violence bursts forth every five minutes.
John Williams’ refreshing music can be heard on an isolated music track — TT is no longer calling them score tracks. We also get a nice commentary from TT’s cinematic camp counselors Nick and Nora Nick Redman and Julie Kirgo. There’s much to discuss here and their personal takes on the show are interesting as well.
Ms. Kirgo’s liner notes bring us closer to director Martin Ritt, an anti-auteur who honored the collaborative nature of his pictures. She leads us through a discussion of his better movies, especially The Front, which perhaps is still the best show about the blacklist. Julie writes about changes made to the source novel, something I hadn’t considered. She also briefly addresses the subject of illiteracy in America — and how many high school grads are so poorly educated that they might as well be illiterate? We like Stanley & Iris because it says good things about people improving themselves and helping others. Kirgo states it plainly: Education… is the key to individual human dignity. I feel the rightness of this… I married an educator, and to some degree feel that her commitment to helping others has partly redeemed my fantasy-centric life. Ms. Kirgo also reports that the 1990 critical reaction to Stanley & Iris rejected Fonda and De Niro playing ‘ordinary people.’ She’s right, that’s a nonsensical, fickle reason to dismiss any movie.
The original trailer is included as well.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Stanley & Iris
Movie: Very Good ++
Supplements: Isolated Music Track, Audio Commentary with Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman, Trailer, Julie Kirgo liner notes.
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: January 10, 2017
Text © Copyright 2017 Glenn Erickson