Sunday, August 9, 2015

1957: Joanne Woodward for The Three Faces of Eve

Joanne Woodward plays a woman - or should I say, three women - suffering from Multiple Personality Disorder. The film chronicles a psychiatrist's attempts to help her figure out what caused this and how to cure it.

I want to like this movie, but it's hard. I do mostly enjoy Woodward's performance, especially watching her transform between personalities, but the film portrays such an over-simplified explanation of mental illness that it's extremely difficult to take seriously today. One really has to keep in mind that when it was made nearly 60 years ago, it was revolutionary for even broaching the subject of mental illness at all. But now it does seem kind of lame. My biggest objection is that she usually can't control which personality comes out when, but for some reason when the doctor asks to speak to a different one she just says, "Of course," and switches on command. If she could do that all the time, there wouldn't be as much of a problem. I also object to the idea that this disorder was solely caused by one single semi-traumatic incident in her early childhood, and that by recalling this incident she could suddenly make two of the personalities disappear. Basically, this movie did not age well, and if I could transport my brain back to a 1957 way of thinking just long enough to watch it I would, but as far as I know that's not possible. Since my mother was born in 1957, I was certainly not alive then, so my brain has never experienced that way of thinking. Thus I have to watch it through the lens of the time period in which I live, and from that perspective, this movie doesn't really work.

But I'm not here to evaluate the movie as a whole; I'm here to evaluate Joanne Woodward's performance, which is a little easier. While certainly not the most spectacular I've seen, her performance is far and away the best aspect of this movie. She does a good job of switching between personalities and playing three different characters. She's very good at looking and acting confused when she comes back from a blackout, and I especially like the way she uses a different voice for each personality. The personalities could have been more consistent - I mean, I assume it was "Eve Black" who tried to strangle her child, but once we get to know her she seems relatively harmless, so I have no idea where that came from - but I'm pretty sure that's mostly the script's fault. Except at the very beginning, when no one's really sure what's going on, you can always tell which personality she's portraying by looking at her face and listening to her voice, without even paying attention to what she's saying or doing. The script is lacking, the story is rather pitiful, and the description of mental illness sounds terribly naive today, but Woodward does the absolute best that she possibly can with the limited material she has to work with. To summarize: by today's standards, the movie isn't great, but the performance still is, so it was therefore Oscar-worthy.

This was Woodward's first of four Best Actress nominations. She was nominated again for 1968's Rachel, Rachel, 1973's Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams, and 1990's Mr. & Mrs. Bridge, but she didn't win for any of them. At 85 years old, she's the second oldest living Best Actress winner. I guess that means it's theoretically possible for her to win another Oscar, but she hasn't been doing much acting lately apart for some voice work, so that seems unlikely. Besides this performance, she's probably best known for her remarkably long marriage - especially by Hollywood standards - to actor Paul Newman, which lasted from 1958 until his death in 2008, and all the films she made starring opposite him or directed by him. This movie didn't have anything to do with Newman, although I'm pretty sure she was having an affair with him while it was being made, and they got married less than a month before she received the award.

Coming up next: Susan Hayward

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