By Polly Frost and Ray Sawhill
Ray Sawhill: Most people probably take “The Age of Innocence” as a more-visually-inventive-than-usual Merchant-Ivory film. And most of them seem to enjoy it as such.
Polly Frost and Ray Sawhill: Middlebrow alert!
Polly Frost: It’s set in upper-crust 19th century New York City, among old money but just as the robber barons are emerging. Daniel Day-Lewis plays Newland Archer. He has a private income, he dabbles in the law, he’s a member of one of the respectable families, and he’s engaged to the flawless, brainless offspring of another “good” family (Winona Ryder). But he has a hankering for culture. He caresses his books, and he knows one or two painters.
RS: Into his world walks Michelle Pfeiffer as the Countess Olenska, woman of mystery and scandal. She’s fleeing a marriage to a philandering Polish count. She’s exotic, a teeny bit bohemian. Newland falls for her bigtime. So: will the countess, who needs money, return to the count or not? And what will Newland do about his passion for her?
PF: He’s such an honor-bound square that the way he expresses his passion for her is by helping her. There’s nothing more irritating than a man who gives you a lecture rather than making a pass at you. I’ve known a few of those.
RS: It’s a film in the tradition of “Brief Encounter.” And the missed-opportunity tragi-comedy is not my favorite genre. What do you make of the fact that some people have an appetite for genteel entertainments on this theme?
PF: They make a viewer feel civilized. They’re soap operas with all the good parts taken out.
RS: Newland Archer is a rotten central character. He’s a prig. You never understand why the countess looks at him passionately. Another problem is that Scorsese externalizes everything. Crimson, gold and chandeliers are everywhere. Since it’s already a Visconti world, the Countess doesn’t stand out. The film winds up being narrated and illustrated rather than dramatized.
PF: Some of the actors in the minor roles do seem to exist fully in the world of codified behavior and language. And Winona Ryder has a puppy-like helplessness, even when she’s being lethal and enslaving, that’s very effective.
RS: But Day-Lewis can’t do much with his role but mourn the way his balls are shriveling up. He’s so meticulous about playing a yearning American that he seems super-British. Pfeiffer works hard to generate some Garbo-like luster, but her nerves and her voice seem pure California.
PF: I liked her better than you did. She’s trying to come up with a reason why the countess is attracted to Newland. Maybe her interpretation is: the countess is out of her mind. She’s having a nervous breakdown.
RS: There’s another problem, which is the material itself. Over to you, honey.
PF: It’s a shallow and arch book, and it scores too easily off its characters. It exists mainly in its narration. Although when Wharton lets the two women really play with Newland, the book almost becomes malicious fun.
RS: I hate the snug, mocking social commentary about what “old New York” was like.
PF: And I hated Joanne Woodward’s reading of the narration. She had the tone of voice of someone who isn’t fun to gossip with. Julia Child would have been a better choice for the narrator.
RS: Scorsese makes old New York look like Vatican City, and his idea of psychology seems to be that WASPs are repressed Italians. What do you think he’s up to?
PF: He sets up an intricate perceiver/perceived thing, with binoculars and theater and paintings on the walls. What he does with it — and with the unbroken camera moves, and the dissolves, and the splintery editing — is try to show how your identity is formed by the tribe you’re in. And how people try to outwit it and like to think they can exist outside it, but are always getting trapped. It’s a web. The problem is that Scorsese thinks in purely cinematic terms. He knows what it is to be formed by movies and the media, but he doesn’t seem able to imagine his way inside someone who wasn’t formed by the media and the movies. Renoir and Ophuls used circling techniques to show characters caught up in a web, but they were so worldly you don’t feel it’s anything but cinematic technique.
RS: Scorsese really believes, or believed, that cinema is the apotheosis of the arts. He was one of those kids who was all revolutionary fervor. And his generation’s revolution has just led to corporate take-overs.
PF: It’s a generation that’s stuck with nostalgia. But I know you’re on a roll.
RS: Thanks. The generation before them — of Altman and Peckinpah — mastered traditional craft before they blew it apart. Scorsese’s generation bypassed traditional craft and headed for personal values. Now Scorsese’s left turning everything he touches into “personal cinema,” which in this case means he’s taken on Edith Wharton and produced a dignified variation of “Mean Streets” and “GoodFellas.” He makes the same movie over and move, no matter what the subject. The characters have no free will. There’s only Scorsese’s vision.
PF: In a scene set in the opera house balcony during intermission, the camera and the audio iris in on Newland and the countess, and she talks about the yellow roses he once sent her anonymously. He’s entranced: how does she know he sent them? She finishes talking to him, and she’s backlit for a minute by the stage lights as the curtain rises for the second act — she’s what connects him to the world of grand emotions, and to the arts. Art is viewed as transcendence, as it was in “Raging Bull.” But in “Raging Bull,” Jake LaMotta hurls himself directly at transcendence. Here, Newland holds back.
RS: Newland is like a virgin playing hard-to-get without even knowing it.
PF: I’ve known a few of those too.
- Here’s Part One of an HBO doc about the making of “The Age of Innocence.”
- Roger Ebert makes a case for the film as one of Scorsese’s best.
© 1993 by Polly Frost and Ray Sawhill. First appeared in
The Modern Review.