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The disintegration of a marriage, a life, a dream
on May 11, 2011
He awakens on a park bench in NYC with no memories, only a haunting dread & desperation. A couple of pills, a phone number scribbled on a scrap of paper. Nothing else. He only knows that something terrible has happened, and that he must find out what it is, no matter how much his own mind fights his increasingly frantic urgency to know.
Owing a good deal to European art films & the highly literate screenwriting of American TV anthologies, "Mister Buddwing" is a mystery, a suspense film, a psychological study, and a relentless portrait of a man lost in the crumbling of the American Dream. James Garner has never been more vulnerable & lost than he is here, in a role that's a far cry from his usual persona of the sly, lighthearted & sometimes hapless charmer.
And who is Mr. Buddwing? As he goes from one woman to the next, each time mistaking her for a mysterious Grace (an obviously symbolic name), we discover a young idealist & musician, hoping to create something worthwhile ... only to fall prey to the financial & social blandishments of American culture. We watch him growing up -- and growing old before his time, as his marriage goes from idyllic to troubled to shattered beyond redemption.
The actresses are a special treat. From Angela Lansbury's oddly maternal loose wife who initially takes Buddwing in, to the three actresses who embody Grace at different stages of life, we're treated to a multi-faceted look at the Eternal Female. Katherine Ross portrays the young college student Grace, enraptured & luminous enough to cause Buddwing to pray to whatever gods there may be for a rich & happy life together. Suzanne Pleshette is Grace after a few years of marriage, increasingly lonely, saddened by the compromises her husband has made -- ostensibly for her benefit, even though she never asked for them. And a startlingly brash, blonde Jean Simmons is a brittle, tortured Grace as the marriage approaches the end of its tether.
I'm sure some viewers will be put off by the somewhat stagebound dialog & allegorical structure & content, dismissing it as unrealistic. But this is simply a different style of writing, one that was far more acceptable to audiences some 45 years ago, when elements of the stage were common in film & television. It may require an adjustment on the part of the younger viewer, but I think it's worth the effort. Me? I love those qualities & think they add immeasurably to the film.
And let's not forget the presence of New York City itself! Shot in gorgeous black & white, the film truly captures the magic of the city in those years. Peopled with wonderful character actors with real, lived-in faces, the film is a beautiful portrait of a place where all things seemed possible at the time.
It's not a film for everyone. But for those willing to take a chance, it has intensity, poignancy, powerful performances, and a shattering look at love, loss, and the emptiness of an abandoned dream, a misplaced life. Thank you, Warner Archive, for making it available at last -- most highly recommended!