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Barbet Schroeder has always been interested in human obsessions and the dynamic of relationships, but when he got the idea to make Maîtresse he added something rather strange: Comedy. If you have never seen his infamous 1975 film, you should be aware of several things prior to watching it. The first of which is that this is essentially a very dark comedy about an unlikely love between a professional Dominatrix and a somewhat dim-witted would-be-thug.  The second is that it is probably the closest a film has come to capturing the true idea of BDSM as something more than a simple desire — for Ariane (Bulle Ogier) and her clients, it is a true obsession. While she might attempt to keep her professional life hidden in the strange world isolated in a cloistered series of rooms beneath her apartment, it becomes clear that this world is more than a way to earn money. Elements of her sadism have already worked their way into her sunny world.

Stylish lady with some secrets... Bulle Ogier Maîtresse Barbet Schroeder, 1975 Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

Stylish lady with some secrets…
Bulle Ogier
Maîtresse
Barbet Schroeder, 1975
Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

Like her clients, this is an obsession meant to be hidden from the rest of the world to see. The third is that Maîtresse is a very graphic film. This is not a movie for the faint of heart. The final and most important general statement about Maîtresse is that it is a highly artistic and well-crafted film. While it does not deserve to be listed or thought of as Shock Cinema, it is a most certainly highly provocative work. Schroeder is an intellectually restrained artist, but he is most certainly putting himself in the role of provocateur when it comes to this unforgettable and odd movie.

When Barbet Schroeder began production of Maîtresse in 1974 he knew he was creating a provocative film, but he had no idea just how difficult it would be to secure distribution in 1975. It would be more than a couple of years before this infamous film would be seen much at all. The film was essentially banned and censored for over six years after the initial debut. The UK would prove the toughest nut to crack. Interestingly it was not so much due to the exploration into the world of a French Dominatrix which included graphic depictions of BDSM activities, nor was it actually due to anything tied up in fetish and kink and it certainly wasn’t the horrific visit to a Paris horse meat slaughterhouse. The bottomline reason Schroeder’s film was refused release into the UK was because it featured the back view of a vulva.

Maîtresse Barbet Schroeder, 1975

Maîtresse
Barbet Schroeder, 1975

To give the British Board of Film Classification their due — they were smart enough to actually state that the film’s refusal was related to the “excessive” degrees of fetishism. The real reason BBFC denied release to the film was not because a person was being whipped, it was because the audience could see her vulva. The board did not mind that the audience could see a penis being severely mistreated. They were upset that the man seemed to enjoy having his genitals mistreated.

Maîtresse was screened and received a limited release in the US. The distributor assigned the film an X-rating on its own. So limited was the release that very few film critics actually reviewed it. The New York Times quite liked it. But the film became notorious with relatively few people having ever actually seen it. That all changed when The Criterion Collection remastered and released it to DVD in 2004.

Maîtresse Barbet Schroeder, 1975 Criterion Collection, 2004

Maîtresse
Barbet Schroeder, 1975
Criterion Collection, 2004

While the uncensored theatrical cut of Maîtresse had been released to the UK via DVD starting in 2003, the transfers were not solid. Under their Flipside Editions, The British Film Institute released it to Blu-ray in 2012. Blu quality enhanced, the BFI release is actually superior to the Criterion Collection pressing. There has been some very loose rumors that Criterion may give the film another image/sound boost to re-issue to Blu-ray, but it is rather unlikely. The film’s graphic scene filmed in an actual horse slaughterhouse is truly horrific to watch. This scene is most likely intended to act as a sort of metaphor for a powerful beast being reduced to a powerless victim ultimately utilized as food. The scene arrives in the story when the leading man is feeling powerless and emasculated.

Even playing "footsie" takes a turn... Gerard Depardieu / Bulle Ogier Maîtresse Barbet Schroeder, 1975 Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

Even playing “footsie” takes a turn…
Gerard Depardieu / Bulle Ogier
Maîtresse
Barbet Schroeder, 1975
Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

Note: Even by 1975 horse meat had already become a taboo form of food in more than a couple of countries. However it should be noted that while it has dramatically shifted away from favor, there are still butcher shops in France specifically reserved for the sale of this meat. All the same this is an alarming scene that will most likely put off a good number of people. As an FYI, Schroeder’s use of the footage is almost tame when compared to Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s use of Goethe recitation as the audience is led through the horrors of a slaughterhouse in 1978’s In a Year of 13 Moons. Fassbinder employed this form of human brutality to create a metaphor for fascism and despair. Unlike Schroeder’s movie,  Fassbinder’s film is not even remotely a comedy. Still both films carry a repugnant reputation for screening graphic screening of animal slaughter. Consider yourself warned.

All the same, it is annoying that the Criterion transfer is inferior to the one released by BFI Flipside Edition.

Wig and make-up perfected as well as an enhanced transfer. Maîtresse Barbet Schroeder, 1975 BFI Flipside, 2012

Wig and make-up perfected as well as an enhanced transfer.
Maîtresse
Barbet Schroeder, 1975
BFI Flipside, 2012

While one might expect a 1975 French film to be dated, it really isn’t. Even the clothing is not particularly 1970’s tacky. Let’s not forget that Karl Lagerfeld was in charge of costume design. …And the line between S&M to Lagerfeld is fairly short in distance.

And speaking of Sadomasochism, Maîtresse is one of the few films to actually craft a realistic depiction of this subculture. While many speak of Sadomasochism, the reality is that a true Sadist is not going to derive much pleasure from role-play. And while one might think of a Masochist as passive or willing victim, the true master of S&M role-play is always the Masochist. In other words, there is a very dark side to the games that many adults play. In Maîtresse the role playing is most definitely in action, but the games are being played with the rules loose and usually hidden. During the first half of the film it would appear that  Ariane takes no particular pleasure in what she does in the lair beneath her bright apartment, but Schroeder slowly begins to reveal aspects of her true nature as the film moves forward.

Going down below to a domestic torture garden... Bulle Ogier Maîtresse Barbet Schroeder, 1975 Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

Going down below to a domestic torture garden…
Bulle Ogier
Maîtresse
Barbet Schroeder, 1975
Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

Ariane seems to take true delight in feeding a collection of venus fly trap plants. Her high-scale bathtub has been crafted to include a bottom chamber that she has filled with water snakes or eels who feed off small fish which she her maid/assistant pours into the mix. And of course as the battle of the sexes ensues we see examples of her need to remain firmly in the position of dominance.

Tighten up the gimp... Bulle Ogier & Client Maîtresse Barbet Schroeder, 1975 Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

Tighten up the gimp…
Bulle Ogier & Client
Maîtresse
Barbet Schroeder, 1975
Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

The film’s perspective belongs to leading man of the story. Gérard Depardieu’s Olivier appears to be a harmless sort of guy, but it only takes a small opportunity and he is ready to take up the grift as burglar. And it only takes another moment or two before we realize that this burly young man is a criminal. The film’s plot begins as Olivier and a pal break into what they think is an empty Parisian apartment. Like voyeurs, we follow these knuckleheads into a creepy dark space. With only a flashlight to provide limited perspective, we understand within a few seconds that this is no ordinary apartment. The small light reveals gimp masks, gas masks, latex & rubber suits, a hanging noose, a sinister looking dental chair, something like a torture rack, loads of odd surgical type equipment, dildos, baby bottles, diapers, a wide variety of torture tools and a terrified naked man shivering in a dog pen.  This might all read a bit funnier than it is. I first saw this movie in Cambridge back in the 1990’s and it was and remains a genuinely creepy opening sequence. Soon these two thugs find themselves handcuffed together and to a radiator as Bulle Ogier’s Ariane tends to her clients.

Sexual attraction, crime, money and a battle for control is about to begin... Gerard Depardieu / Bulle Ogier Maîtresse Barbet Schroeder, 1975 Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

Sexual attraction, crime, money and a battle for control is about to begin…
Gerard Depardieu / Bulle Ogier
Maîtresse
Barbet Schroeder, 1975
Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

This is a filmmaker’s movie. Gerard Depardieu is well cast in the type of role for which he was best known in his youth — a sort of primally sexy gentle giant. It is really through Olivier‘s eyes that the audience sees the film. While this man is far from innocent, he clearly has no understanding of the world to which he has entered. But it is both comical and interesting that he finds himself deeply attracted to Ariane. His desire for her begins as she one-up’s both he and his pal by managing to cuff them together with no hope of escape. His attraction only builds as she offers him a chance to make some money and leads him further into the dark corners of her domestic torture garden. As they approach a man dressed in female bondage gear, she demands that the client get on all fours. She straddles him and positions Olivier directly in front of the masochist’s face. Olivier looks more curious than shocked. She unzips her burglar’s fly, pulls out his penis and demands that he urinate in the client’s face. Olivier‘s eyes never leave those of Ariane. As we hear the urine release he shares a passionate kiss with her. Suddenly this brute of a man is in love.

And now we begin your punishment... A Masochist Client & Bulle Ogier Maîtresse Barbet Schroeder, 1975 Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

And now we begin your punishment…
A Masochist Client & Bulle Ogier
Maîtresse
Barbet Schroeder, 1975
Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

After a night of what appears to be romance funded by Ariane, the two lie in bed. There are no professions of love, but it is clear it is there. Schroeder’s screenplay and Bulle Ogier’s careful performance require no words for the audience to understand that much of her attraction / fondness for Olivier is grounded in his mix of dull intellect, brutish but placid assertions of dominance. Of course the deal-sealer for Ariane is that this man is unabashedly almost worshiping in his adoration. There is also no need for discussion regarding Olivier‘s confusion regarding the downstairs world of his love’s professional life. All Depardieu need to do is offer a glance and we know that he is even more confused than those of us in the audience.

And this must be the naughty girl in need of punishment...

And this must be the naughty girl in need of punishment… Bulls Ogier / Wealthy Clients / Gerard Depardieu Maîtresse Barbet Schroeder, 1975 Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

When Ariane essentially tricks him into visiting a friend in the country, he has no idea that she is leading him into a Dominatrix scenario involving a group of wealthy devotees. Confused, unsure and fearful of being judged as less than a man Olivier agreed to remove his belt and whip the pretty and only female player in the chateau. It is clear that he simply does not understand why a tough whipping would provide pleasure. Eager to demonstrate his abilities to his new lover, he opts to softly tease the masochist’s vulva. Of course this only demonstrates his misunderstanding of this type of desire. The wealthy clients are amused as is Ariane. But Olivier and the audience are confused and worried that he is being used and reduced to some sort of walking joke.

When I saw Maîtresse for the first time back in the 1990’s I had been informed that it was a dark comedy. At this time it was hard for me to accept it as comedy. It seemed to me that the film was aiming far deeper than one anticipates from the genre. Despite my own desire to interpret the movie in a different way there were elements that simply did not seem to fit the action on the screen.

Meet the Whore-Madonna concept personified...

Néstor Almendros captures our Mistress in perfect frame to emerge with a halo for the man who will become obsessed. Meet the Whore-Madonna concept personified… Bulls Ogier Maîtresse Barbet Schroeder, 1975 Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

Carlos D’Alessio’s musical score seemed odd. It is a rather charming bit of work that never fits into the world we and Olivier are exploring. In addition some of the darkest moments contained within the movie have no musical accompaniment. Seeing the film again after it had been added to The Criterion Collection, the comedy of Maîtresse hit me. Certainly not a comic experience that generates laughs as much as amusement — this is more a sense of bemusement. This is, of course, a French film. I love French cinema, but no one else presents comedy quite like the French. This level of dark comedy or comédie de l’ cruels has become more familiar outside of French cinema in the past decade. John Magary’s recent brilliant independent American film, The Mend, presents an incisive and rage-filled study of two brothers as the sort of dark comedy one might expect from France. Serious studies of humanity taking a turn toward the comical is not so odd to most of us anymore. Despite all of the transgressions and darker elements of identity, Maîtresse is most certainly a comedy.

Watching love's persona and identity change presents more than a little confusion for the boyfriend.

Watching love’s persona and identity change presents more than a little confusion for the boyfriend. Bulle Ogier / Gerard Depardieu Maîtresse Barbet Schroeder, 1975 Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

A key to understanding Maîtresse is to know that nothing we see is eroticized. This is not an erotic film.

When we are given glimpses into the Maitresse’s world of punishment and humiliation it is either directly related to Olivier‘s sneaking around peaking or listening. Schroeder spent a good deal of time researching the subject matter of the film as he felt no connection to the world of S&M. Much of Bulle Ogier’s character is based on an actual dominatrix. He gained her trust and she agreed to allow she and several of her clients to be used in the film itself. Long before the idea of digital effects existed, Schroeder carefully placed the actual dominatrix in relation to his actress/wife’s positions. The actual members of the 1970’s Parisian BDSM Underground wear masks to protect their identity, but they are willfully accepting their mistresses’ punishments. All is filmed to make it look as if Ogier is the one applying nails, needles and other manipulations. Filmed without typical movie lighting or other stylings, these transgressive acts are presented with only the sounds that were occurring at the time of filming. The result is often jarring and more than a little shocking, but never eroticized.

Nothing is ever explained beyond the most limited of discussion. Like Olivier, we are left with only what we see and might already understand separate from the film. Unlike Olivier, we are hopefully not quite so simple in our thinking and reasoning. And let’s hope we are not male chauvinist pigs. Olivier has a deep-seated need to dominate his woman. Having grown into a world of cruelty and crime, he has no trouble formulating the idea that his girl is a prostitute in need of a strong pimp. He wants the role of her pimp. And he wants to find a way to help her earn even more money. Because it is all about money. Right?!? 

One simple bully who has met his match without even fully realizing it... Gerard Depardieu Maîtresse Barbet Schroeder, 1975 Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

One simple bully who has met his match without even fully realizing it…
Gerard Depardieu Maîtresse Barbet Schroeder, 1975 Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

Tragically for Olivier, he is unable to grasp that Ariane needs no protecting and certainly no pimp. Ariane never states an opinion, but it is clear that she does not identify as a prostitute and would never even consider the idea of pimp in her existence. As Olivier becomes more and more obsessed with understanding what Ariane does and why people pay her to do it — he becomes even more determined to know all of her secrets. The identity of a certain person constantly being mentioned in relation to money either with her maid or on one of her two phones consumes Olivier.

It is at this point of the story that we fully begin to understand the depth of Ariane‘s own perverse sadistic urges. It would not take much for her to simply explain it all to Olivier, but she has far too much fun watching him struggle for his grounding and fret over the details of her life.

Even when Olivier’s tendencies toward domestic abuse begin to flare up, she maintains her sense of control.

He's just royally screwed a lot up, but there is simply too much joy to be found in his desperate need for her love and forgiveness. Who has the power now?

He’s just royally screwed a lot up, but there is simply too much joy to be found in his desperate need for her love and forgiveness. Who has the power now? Bulle Ogier / Gerard Depardieu Maîtresse Barbet Schroeder, 1975 Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

When he puts his huge hands around her slender throat she plays it off as if a game. Poor Olivier doesn’t even pick up that he has failed to scare her. Later when he finally pushes things too far and our Maîtresse has had enough, she head-butts Olivier so hard blood begins to pour from his nose. Clearly shocked by her strength, his reaction is to attempt to warn Ariane that she too has been harmed. He is concerned. Ariane is unbothered by the self-damage inflicted by her head-butting. She is seething with anger.

It is the dim-witted Olivier who is emotionally crushed. This is not the first time we have seen this rough and huge man fall to pieces over his girl.  Control and cruelty are needs and that refuse to stay in that dark cave of torture secretly adjoined to her private home. These needs are not being fully satisfied by respecting most of her clients’ wishes and safe words. A Sadist wants real control and a victim. She is happy to play along with Olivier‘s limited view of women for the pleasure his pain provides.

She may look the part of angel, but this aspect is in appearance only.

Another key scene involves some personal and rather rough role-play between Ariane and Olivier. Schroeder wisely shoots this scene in a particularly ambiguous way. It looks like a violent public fight between the two characters as reality with the looming threat of rape. When the two end up in a garden shed of an elderly woman we hear Ariane‘s screams. As the poor old woman rushes to come to the aide of the petit blond woman, Olivier emerges with a switchblade pointed to kill. When Ariane walks out of the shed she is still pulling up her skirt. We might expect that she would feel empathy for the elder woman, but instead she merely leans into Olivier and mockingly suggests he leave the poor “old dear” alone. She skips away without even waiting to see what Olivier might do.

We never actually  know if this was a bit of role-playing or a real scenario that Ariane has manifested / navigated for some sadistic fun.

Punishing a key client, this is not a woman who needs or wants the protection of a man. Bulle Ogier  Maîtresse  Barbet Schroeder, 1975  Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

Punishing a key client, this is not a woman who needs or wants the protection of a man.
Bulle Ogier
Maîtresse
Barbet Schroeder, 1975
Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

Despite the dark elements of the on-screen actions, this is a story about the battle of the sexes. It is also an odd 1970’s twist on Feminisim. The key word here is “odd.” In many ways it almost seems a mistake that Barbet Schroeder opted to sculpt a very twisted romantic comedy from the BDSM clay of his story. There are so many aspects of Bulle Ogier’s Ariane it seems a bit of a waste of a great actress that she is unable to explore them. As I’ve stated several times, not much is ever explained about the title character.

Forever lingering with mystery...

Forever lingering with mystery… Bulle Ogier Maîtresse Barbet Schroeder, 1975 Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

The subplot of Ariane‘s situation is only mentioned in passing. I’m not sure I even fully noticed it upon my first viewing some 20 years ago, but it is wrought with dramatic potential. La Maîtresse is the mother of an elementary school age child.  An older gentleman (who may or may not be the child’s father) appears to have taken custody of the child. We may not know the full story here, but it would appear that Ariane is fine with this arrangement and most likely has intended it to be this way. When we see her with her child she clearly feels a stronger bond to her Doberman Pinscher. A beloved pet she has named Texas and claims to have trained to kill upon demand. We do not know if this is true, but it seems likely to be an accurate claim. Her young son appears to attempt to gain his mother’s attention, but Ariane is far more interested with Texas. When the boy walks off with his guardian/father, Ariane appears bored, but fixated on the dog. We never learn the name of her son, but she is more than happy to sneak away and join Olivier on a very strange drive in which the battle for power takes a surprising turn.

Orgasm without brakes! Hey, who is really driving this car anyway?!?!

Orgasm without brakes! Hey, who is really driving this car anyway?!?! Gerard Depardieu / Bulle Ogier Maîtresse Barbet Schroeder, 1975 Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

Barbet Schroeder’s Maîtresse is an uncomplicated film about some very complicated people. The choice to keep it unexplained and unexplored is intentional. And as it turns out this was a very clever and wise decision. Maîtresse pulls us in just deep enough to make us squirm but never so far out that we need to grasp for air. It also prevents the film from slipping into a psychological realm that would ultimately prove disappointing.

Why?

Well sometimes life’s complications and the obsessions to which it leads are too murky to actually articulate.

Matty Stanfield, 1.28.2016

 

 

 

 

 

 

There will ever only be one Sandy Dennis.

When Broadway still mattered. Sandy Dennis, the star in the $7 dress.  TIME Magazine, 1967 Illustration | Boris Chaliapin

When Broadway still mattered. Sandy Dennis, the star in the $7 dress.
TIME Magazine, 1967
Illustration | Boris Chaliapin

A truly unique visionary of an actor graced with an undeniable charisma and presence that was solely her own, once you’ve seen her in action — you will not be able to forget her. At times her instinctively odd take on realism and her characters could be grating. A good example of this for me would be her odd turn in Alan Alda’s The Four Seasons or Mark Rydell’s The Fox. Other times her work was truly transformative as in Mike Nichol’s cinematic masterpiece, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? or Robert Altman’s slow-burn human psyche horror show, That Cold Day in the Park or his off-beat film of Ed Graczyk’s Come Back to the Five & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean.

"Yes, but I chose to rise above the attitudes of this small town, while you chose to lay spread over a gravestone and take them inside you." Sandy Dennis Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean  Robert Altman, 1982 Cinematography | Pierre Mignot

“Yes, but I chose to rise above the attitudes of this small town, while you chose to lay spread over a gravestone and take them inside you.”
Sandy Dennis
Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean
Robert Altman, 1982
Cinematography | Pierre Mignot

Owen Sound has a great MUBI list site regarding the late American Actress.

https://mubi.com/lists/let-me-tell-you-about-sandy-dennis-there-should-be-one-in-every-home

It is from his list I pull the following quotes:

“Sandy was a marvelous actress. She was so gifted she made every part look easy…and she didn’t choose easy parts. It was a great pleasure to work with her.” – Gena Rowlands

“Sandy Dennis is so special, so unique – an incredible woman and artist.” – Elliott Gould

“Sandy was the most amazing actress: spellbinding. The audience would hang on her every pause. And as we all acknowledge, her characterizations were miraculous; no one can say then nor now from where her profound inspirations came. But there they were, for herself and for all of the world, forever.” – Karen Black

Sandy Dennis Head Shot NYC, 1964 Photographer unknown to me.

Sandy Dennis
Head Shot
NYC, 1964
Photographer unknown to me.

While her actual first big screen role was in the iconic Elia Kazan’s 1961 Splendor in the Grass, it would be several years later before she would be given a real role. Opposite the truly iconic Taylor & Burton as the mousy housewife for which she would win the coveted Academy Award.

Introducing to the Big Screen: Miss Sandy Dennis "I peel labels!" George Segal, Sandy Dennis, Elizabeth Taylor Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  Mike Nichols, 1966 Cinematography | Haskell Wexler

Introducing to the Big Screen: Miss Sandy Dennis
“I peel labels!”
George Segal, Sandy Dennis, Elizabeth Taylor
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Mike Nichols, 1966
Cinematography | Haskell Wexler

Film and Stage critics adored her as much as they often scorned her. Often their darling, Roger Ebert famously summed up his respect for Sandy Dennis when he reviewed her performance in  1967’s Up The Down Staircase:

“We need more films that might be concerned, even remotely, with real experiences that might once have happened to real people. And we need more actresses like Sandy Dennis.” 

The New York Times’ Bosley Crowther would write:

“Sandy Dennis is engagingly natural, sensitive, literate, and thoroughly moving vivid performance…” 

It is rare to run across many negative reviews of her stage craft. Having studied under Uta Hagen and a strict Method Actor, Sandy Dennis’ stage work is a thing of legend. She received two Tony Awards. While she had many on Broadway and off-Broadway roles, the one for which she is most known is the lead in Any Wednesday. It is of note that actors still speak of this apparently amazing performance.

Sandy Dennis received the second of two Tony Awards for her infamous Broadway performance.   Any Wednesday , 1964

Sandy Dennis received the second of two Tony Awards for her infamous Broadway performance.
Any Wednesday , 1964

However, in the world of film acting her often odd take on character and line readings could illicit the most cruel of critical commentary. The New York Times‘ controversial Vincent Canby was seldom kind to female actors who failed to fit into his limited idea of female beauty. He once said the following:

“Miss Dennis, mugging outrageously and badly, gives the kind of performance that, 40 years ago, would have sent her to bed without her supper. It’s rude, show-offy and, worse, it’s incompetent. Watching her do a double-take is like watching a small tug trying to work the QE2 into her Hudson River berth in a gale. It’s long and boring.”

Interestingly, this particularly nasty review was alone as other film critics rallied her performance in the film to which his acid comic critique was offered. Actually her comic delivery in Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s surprisingly subversive and funny satire of the Nixon Administration within the walls of Catholicism and a convent remains second only to Glenda Jackson’s leading role.

Sadly forgotten satire of Nixon and the Watergate Scandal. They won't have Sister Agnes to kick around anymore! Nasty Habits Michael Lindsay-Hogg, 1977

Sadly forgotten satire of Nixon and the Watergate Scandal. They won’t have Sister Agnes to kick around anymore!
Nasty Habits
Michael Lindsay-Hogg, 1977

Perhaps the most respected American Film Critic of her day, Pauline Kael, was seldom a fan of Dennis. She famously wrote, that Dennis had “made an acting style of postnasal drip.”

This criticism was labeled as “valid” when Sandy Dennis herself stated that she agreed and that she needed to find a way to move in a different direction. As her career continued many of her biggest Film Theory supporters would complain of her consistently nervous interpretation of character.

Sandy Dennis was never able to completely abandon her ticks, mannerisms and phrasing. For her this was an element of humanity that seemed to draw her like a moth to flame. A self-admitted loner, she would say and write that she really didn’t enjoy people. She preferred her cats. However the psychology of the human condition fascinated her deeply. In most women she saw a culturally-infused sort of insecurity. The fragileness of the human condition was something key in her interpretation of character. She was often thought of as a seemingly fragile person, but this seems to be more a reaction to her work than herself.

Not too many people seemed to get into her private life. She preferred a bit of distance. Her love was found in animals. There almost seems to have been a thought forming in her head that we should be in the cages at the zoo. Humans were the ones to be studied and watched. Non-human animals were more open to love. This is just my read on what I’ve read and heard about this great artist. I also must point out that this does not hold entirely true. To those whom she did let in, she was much loved. And that love was returned.

Poor Miss. Frances Austen. She tries not to look, but she seems to live in a house of mirrors. And they are no longer reflecting "reality" That Cold Day in the Park Sandy Dennis / Michael Burns Robert Altman, 1969 Cinematography | László Kovács

Poor Miss. Frances Austen. She tries not to look, but she seems to live in a house of mirrors. And they are no longer reflecting “reality”
That Cold Day in the Park
Sandy Dennis / Michael Burns
Robert Altman, 1969
Cinematography | László Kovács

Those who knew and loved her, felt she was a strong and often staunchly independent person. In the very early 1980’s when Robert Altman convinced her to take to the Broadway stage for Ed Graczyk’s unusually quirky Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean she found herself working with an untrained pop superstar, Cher. Cher did not encounter a fragile person. Cher has stated that Dennis was quick to point out her “bad reading” of her role. Cher, no fragile person herself, pushed harder until she earned Dennis’ respect.

Despair, rage, delusion and regret. Sandy Dennis brings it forward with Karen Black and Cher Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean Robert Altman, 1982

Despair, rage, delusion and regret. Sandy Dennis brings it forward with Karen Black and Cher
Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean
Robert Altman, 1982

At that time a supporting player, Kathy Bates, was more than eager to work with both Altman and Dennis. After Sandy Dennis died she commented:

“Sandy was the great peacemaker of the group when we were doing Come Back to the Five and Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean. She was the solid one with her feet on the ground, which was interesting to me at the time, because she had such an ethereal quality as an actress. I also remember her wonderful sense of humor and her gorgeous hair. I think she was still seeing Eric Roberts at the time and we were all very jealous.”

Also at the time of Ms. Dennis’ death, Sean Penn’s full commentary offers a great deal:

“Sandy Dennis never met an unpredictable instinct she didn’t like. She was an actress and woman with beautiful idio-syncrasies and gentleness. There’s never been anyone like her. And me and movies miss her a lot. I directed the movie that turned out to be her last, The Indian Runner, which we shot in and around Omaha, Nebraska. I was honored to work with her and I’m pleased to know that she’s being honored by her own.”

Frail, tired and dying Sandy Dennis gave her all in what would be her final performance. The Indian Runner Sean Penn, 1991

Frail, tired and dying Sandy Dennis gave her all in what would be her final performance.
The Indian Runner
Sean Penn, 1991

But looking back when Sandy Dennis fully entered the world’s pop culture chart as Edward Albee’s “Honey” in Mike Nichol’s brilliant film adaptation — Dennis’ portrayal goes far deeper than what “we” were used to seeing in 1966 cinema. This is not a surface performance. It is naturalistic and brutally real. And yet, there is something deeply odd about it. The oddness is what Dennis’ is able to sneak in with awkward pauses, drunken lapses of self-restraint and intoxicated epiphanies.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  Mike Nichols, 1966

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Mike Nichols, 1966

There is a strange new sort of presence on the screen. Both Burton and Taylor are pitch-perfect in their perverse roles. When the door is opened to reveal their after-party guests appear to be exact opposite of who they are. George Segal is also brilliant and bland as the good-looking former jock now tied in what is most likely a loveless marriage. Sandy Dennis’ “Honey” appears to be a reserved, polite and friendly middle class wife. Before long this mouse takes on a level of dark sorrow and fear that is both tragic and scary. In a strange way, thanks to Dennis’ delivery, “Honey” surprisingly game participant in her hosts’ sick game.

"I peel labels!" George Segal, Sandy Dennis, Elizabeth Taylor Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  Mike Nichols, 1966 Cinematography | Haskell Wexler

“I peel labels!”
George Segal, Sandy Dennis, Elizabeth Taylor
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Mike Nichols, 1966
Cinematography | Haskell Wexler

As she confusingly takes her place in this twisted domestic game, “Honey” reveals something that only seems like a memory in the faces and actions of the other three characters: she is human and she is breaking under the weight of her life and this demented game.

There is something almost inexplicably raw and powerful in Sandy Dennis’ fragmented and almost stuttering method of speaking. Her lines come out like twitches and spastic after thoughts. While the other actors deliver with venom, gusto, pain and grief — Sandy Dennis subverts Albee’s words to the introspection of human psychology.

While the other actors seem to be absorbing the characters into their very pores, Dennis seems to be doing the opposite. She is absorbing into the pores of her fictional character. A sort of distorted version of self into fiction. Or at least this is how it feels. Dennis took a supporting role and amped it into the heretofore unbreakable personas of two of the biggest movie stars of all time. A supporting performance is seldom this transformative. 

Never mix. Never worry. Sandy Dennis Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  Mike Nichols, 1966 Cinematography | Haskell Wexler

Never mix. Never worry.
Sandy Dennis
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Mike Nichols, 1966
Cinematography | Haskell Wexler

No one would ever dare argue that there was any other choice to receive that Oscar but Sandy Dennis. No one had ever seen a woman do this. Marlon Brando had done it, but here Sandy Dennis is free of censorship. It would be a couple of more years before Marlon Brando would turn it all upside down in Last Tango in Paris.

With an Oscar under her arm, Sandy Dennis was primed for movie stardom. Or was she?

Warner Brothers recognized the talent and everyone was aware of the acclaim she had achieved on Broadway in Any Wednesday, but they simply could not imagine “Honey” managing to play the “kept girl” of that play. I mean, aside from Streisand’s turn in Funny Girl, this was the most talked about stage performance of the day. No. Jane Fonda would be cast in the film version. At the time more than a few actors were upset.

Warner Brothers' consolation prize to Sandy Dennis for not casting her in the film of "Any Wednesday."  Sandy Dennis and Anthony Newley in Sweet November Robert Ellis Miller, 1968

Warner Brothers’ consolation prize to Sandy Dennis for not casting her in the film of “Any Wednesday.”
Sandy Dennis and Anthony Newley in
Sweet November
Robert Ellis Miller, 1968

However Warners had a plan. They loved the play, Sweet November, but didn’t feel that Barbara Harris had “movie star potential” so the same film director, Robert Ellis Miller, who would direct Fonda in Dennis’ original role would also direct Denis in Harris’ role.

Both casting decisions were ill-advised.

Jane Fonda gave it her best, but she wasn't yet able to achieve what the part required.  Any Wednesday Robert Ellis Miller, 1966 Cinematography | Harold Lipstein

Jane Fonda gave it her best, but she wasn’t yet able to achieve what the part required.
Any Wednesday
Robert Ellis Miller, 1966
Cinematography | Harold Lipstein

Jane Fonda had not yet fully gained access to her voice. And the director was in way over his head trying to “tame” Dennis’ style of acting to blend in with Anthony Newley’s “hammy” approach. Any Wednesday is only worth watching for the fashions. But despite all of the flaws, Sweet November, does offer a good deal of uneven entertainment. And while it all gets far too corny to believe, Sand Dennis does manage to retain some of the plays bittersweet charm. In the end the film almost works.

She would also secure the lead role in Robert Mulligan’s acclaimed 1967 film, Up The Down Staircase. Her performance is solid here as the teacher who wants to effect change for her students but doesn’t know how. This was a bit of ideal casting.

"When I finally get the chance, the first few precious minutes to talk to them about something I want them to understand, and I find that I am some kind of enemy. The butt of some enormous joke." Sandy Dennis Up The Down Staircase Robert Mulligan, 1967 Cinematography | Joseph F. Coffey

“When I finally get the chance, the first few precious minutes to talk to them about something I want them to understand, and I find that I am some kind of enemy. The butt of some enormous joke.”
Sandy Dennis
Up The Down Staircase
Robert Mulligan, 1967
Cinematography | Joseph F. Coffey

This success was met with controversial failure when Mark Rydell cast her opposite both Anne Heywood and Keir Dullea in a modern take on DH Lawrence’s The Fox. A soft focus haze of timid eroticism with Anne Heywood in full-on glam, Keir Dullea aiming for full-on handsome male lead — Sandy Dennis’ realistic spin as Heywood’s long time lesbian lover is far too-grounded to make sense as Heywood and Dullea seem to be dancing on air and Dennis walks about suspecting both.

"Maybe you need a man around the place." D.H. Lawrence comes to the screen... The Fox Sandy Dennis, Anne Heywood and Keir Dullea Mark Rydell, 1967

“Maybe you need a man around the place.”
D.H. Lawrence comes to the screen…
The Fox
Sandy Dennis, Anne Heywood and Keir Dullea
Mark Rydell, 1967

It does not work. Only Dennis is credible here, but mismatched to both of the other more Hollywood-aligned actors.

It was shortly after the mistake of Sweet November that Sandy Dennis would once again receive a great film role. This time it was an Independent Canadian film by Robert Altman. Director and actor were equally interested in each other and Altman seemed to have an interesting short-hand with Dennis. His way of communicating worked perfectly in reigning in Sandy Dennis’ often eccentric take on her characters.

Neurosis morphs into sociopathic horror with Sandy Dennis as Miss. Frances Austen in That Cold Day in the Park Robert Altman, 1969

Neurosis morphs into sociopathic horror with Sandy Dennis as Miss. Frances Austen in
That Cold Day in the Park
Robert Altman, 1969

In the case of Altman’s That Cold Day in the Park, she didn’t need to bring any more eccentricity as the role of Miss. Frances Austen could easily be blown off the charts and into camp. This is not what Altman was after and it was certainly never be the intention of Sandy Dennis. However her’s was an often untethered sort of talent. Altman managed to assist her in containing it.

Sandy Dennis plays her character like only Sandy Dennis can, but with an elite and elegant level of restraint. She is a wealthy but lonely virgin spinster. She lives a seemingly mundane life among older people. It is never clearly articulated, but thanks to Dennis’ performance we receive several clues that something is wrong with “Miss. Frances Austen.” Actually, we are almost certain something is very much wrong.

Poor Miss. Frances Austen. She tries not to look, but she seems to live in a house of mirrors. And they are no longer reflecting "reality" That Cold Day in the Park Sandy Dennis / Michael Burns Robert Altman, 1969 Cinematography | László Kovács

Poor Miss. Frances Austen. She tries not to look, but she seems to live in a house of mirrors. And they are no longer reflecting “reality”
That Cold Day in the Park
Sandy Dennis / Michael Burns
Robert Altman, 1969
Cinematography | László Kovács

When she notices an apparently homeless, mute and handsome man sitting alone on a park bench in the park, Miss. Frances Austen breaks convention and insists the “helpless” boy come to her swank home to warm up and have some food. She sends her cook and butler away. Why does she even have a cook and a butler in such a small but nice condo? It is never clear.

This film was mis-judged by film critics at the time of its release. It is an appropriate bookend to Altman’s interest in the psycho-sexual thriller. A few laters, Altman would pursue this genre again in Images — a film which received more acclaim than I think it deserved. Here, in TCDITP Altman more precisely and effortlessly slips into a woman’s damaged psyche.

Much of the credit is deserved to Sandy Dennis. The film is short and fast-paced. Yet it is filled with fairly uncomfortable and realistic scenes between Dennis and Michael Burns as the handsome young man. As Miss. Frances Austen begins to open-up to the mute mostly nude young man who is unable to speak either with/to her — things start to take an oddly warped vibe. Clearly, Miss. Frances Austen (and her name bears repeating) is a virgin and dealing with a whole lot more than sexual repression.

“I’m not going to get under the covers or anything. I’ll just lay on top. I have to tell you something. If you feel that you want to make love to me, it’s all right. I want you to make love to me. Please.” Sandy Dennis on the verge of something… That Cold Day in the Park Robert Altman, 1969 Cinematography | László Kovács

“I’m not going to get under the covers or anything. I’ll just lay on top. I have to tell you something. If you feel that you want to make love to me, it’s all right. I want you to make love to me. Please.”
Sandy Dennis on the verge of something…
That Cold Day in the Park
Robert Altman, 1969
Cinematography | László Kovács

The “twist” does not come as a “surprise” or even a device in a very smart move by Robert Altman. We know what is coming. This handsome mute boy is “playing” Miss. Frances Austen. He is using her for his own twisted fun and grift. The actually unexpected “twist” comes shortly after the “expected” one.

Just because it says “Exit” doesn’t mean it is a way out. Sandy Dennis That Cold Day in the Park Robert Atman, 1969 Cinematography | László Kovács

Just because it says “Exit” doesn’t mean it is a way out.
Sandy Dennis
That Cold Day in the Park
Robert Atman, 1969
Cinematography | László Kovács

After this twist is delivered, the viewer is likely to chuckle and feel reasonably entertained by this strange little movie. The thing is — Robert Altman and Sandy Dennis had just pulled-off a great cinematic trick. The final turn of the movie isn’t going to leave your mind. What seems comical gradually takes on the sinister and disturbing. There are  no jokes, camp or “bad” moments. Altman’s That Cold Day in the Park is near perfect and horrifying.

Sadly, this film was probably a little too “out there” at the time it was released. Appreciation for this film has really only taken hold in the last decade. Much credit should be given to Bruce LaBruce and his very Independent and very Queer-Core re-working of Altman’s film in his 1991 experimental and controversial cult film,  No Skin Off My Ass. This movie helped bring Altman’s forgotten film back into discussion. A discussion and re-evaluation which finally led to Olive Films doing a 2K restoration for blu-ray release. That Cold Day in the Park continues to claim its rightful place in cinematic history.

"Oh My Goooood!" Sandy Dennis & Jack Lemmon  The Out of Towners Arthur Hiller, 1970

“Oh My Goooood!”
Sandy Dennis & Jack Lemmon
The Out of Towners
Arthur Hiller, 1970

Oddly enough, Sandy Dennis would soon be cast in her most mainstream success opposite Jack Lemmon in Arthur Hiller’s 1970 adaptation of Neil Simon’s The Out of Towners. Filmed on location in a decaying 1969 NYC, Hiller’s film is as silly as it is insightful as a glimpse into what appears to be a truly dying city. Lemmon and Dennis play off of each other brilliantly. The film is blessed with some genuinely comic moments. Sandy Dennis’ “read” of “Oh my God” is hysterically funny. The film was a box office hit.

When they take you for an out-of-towner, they really take you. Sandy Dennis & Jack Lemmon The Out of Towners Arthur Hiller, 1970

When they take you for an out-of-towner, they really take you.
Sandy Dennis & Jack Lemmon
The Out of Towners
Arthur Hiller, 1970

While the money made was probably a great thing, Sandy Dennis never seemed to be particularly comfortable with success. She quickly retreated to the theatre and teaching at The Actor’s Studio. She would continue to take roles in movies but these were more often more “off the grid” type of films. An exception was 1977’s smart satire from Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s Nasty Habits. 

This clever film featured an incredible cast with Glenda Jackson (think Richard Nixon as a Mother Superior) in the lead. The supporting players as corrupt nuns (all the equal to someone involved in the Watergate Scandal) included Sandy Dennis (in a truly goofy turn as the nun equal to Nixon’s John Dean), Melina Mercouri, Geraldine Page, Anne Jackson, the great Anne Meara, Jerry Stiller, Eli Wallach and Rip Torn. Sadly the film failed to find an audience. There is hope that someone will resurrect this film soon. It is almost impossible to even find stills from this film.

A seemingly lost classic... The Watergate Scandal for Nuns. Geraldine Page, Sandy Dennis, Glenda Jackson and   Melina Mercouri Nasty Habits Michael Lindsay-Hogg, 1977

A seemingly lost classic…
The Watergate Scandal for Nuns.
Geraldine Page, Sandy Dennis, Glenda Jackson and Melina Mercouri
Nasty Habits
Michael Lindsay-Hogg, 1977

When Robert Altman called again, Sandy Dennis agreed to come aboard for his return to the Broadway Stage. This would eventually be filmed into a strange but potent film, 1982’s Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean. The film failed to register at the time of it’s release, but it appreciation for this film has grown into a solid following.

Karen Black and Cher look through the mirror of time at Sandy Dennis' "Mona"  Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean Robert Altman, 1982 Cinematography | Pierre Mignot

Karen Black and Cher look through the mirror of time at Sandy Dennis’ “Mona”
Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean
Robert Altman, 1982
Cinematography | Pierre Mignot

After this it seems the roles she chose were largely based on requests from fellow-artists she respected (Alan Alda, Woody Allen, Larry Cohen, Bob Balaban and Sean Penn) or ones that provided a quick and easy paycheck (976-EVIL, the 80’s reboot of  Alfred Hitchcock Presents and an odd appearance on The Love Boat)

Her supporting role as Millie Dew in Bob Balaban’s odd and very demented 1989 satire, Parents, is a stand-out. Sicker than sick, often disturbing but always darkly comic — Sandy Dennis is clearly having some fun and adds a great deal to an already impressive cast. Miss. Dew stands out. For more than a few reasons. If you’ve seen it, you will know to what I refer. This is a brilliant little movie that deserves to be revisited. 

"This will be delicious!" Randy Quaid and Mary Beth Hurt have very different plans for their son's guidance counselor, Miss Millie Dew played to the hilt by Sandy Dennis. Parents Bob Balaban, 1989 Cinematography | Ernest Day / Robin Vidgeon

“This will be delicious!”
Randy Quaid and Mary Beth Hurt have very different plans for their son’s guidance counselor, Miss Millie Dew played to the hilt by Sandy Dennis.
Parents
Bob Balaban, 1989
Cinematography | Ernest Day / Robin Vidgeon

Her final performance was for Sean Penn and his directorial debut, The Indian Runner. Even though she was unable to complete the film, she made a memorable impression. It is a sigh of relief to know that she exited the stage with such a great role in a great film.

Sandy Dennis was a fairly private person. Perhaps more so, she simply did not enjoy the company of people. She had been in a decade long term relationship with Gerry Mulligan, an essential American Jazz artist. And she had a four year relationship with actor, Eric Roberts. While this was clearly far more than just a romance, Dennis opted to end it. There was no scandal, they remained friends. She was never bothered with rumors of her bi-sexuality. Eric Roberts had publicly discussed that she had shared her sexual experiences with other women to him and close friends. Even though she wrote her memoirs, there is much about her that is largely unknowable.

Aside from her work and esteemed professional reputation, the strongest testament of who Sandy Dennis was remains in the clearly beloved memories of her close friends, students and colleagues. Perhaps her two closest friends were Brenda Vaccaro and Jessica Walter. Equally respected and well-liked, it speaks volumes that these two women were her dearest friends.

She had been battling cancer for sometime. She passed away in her home surrounded by her life’s true joy: her cats. She was only 54 years old.

I really like something that fellow actor and a friend, Ian McKellen, wrote in 2004:

“Had she lived, by now she would have been a veteran actor of formidable powers or perhaps, eschewing work, she would simply be an animal-lover at home, smiling indulgently at the craziness of the world around her.”

Sandy Dennis with one of her beloved cats. Sandy Dennis 1937 - 1992 RIP Photograph | © Michael Tighe, 1991

Sandy Dennis with one of her beloved cats.
Sandy Dennis
1937 – 1992
RIP
Photograph | © Michael Tighe, 1991

A foundation was started in 2012 in her hometown of Hastings, Nebraska. There is a great deal of information to be found here about the legendary actress. The goal of the foundation has never been clear to me, but contact information can be found there should you want to pursue.

The Sandy Dennis Foundation

Matty Stanfield, 9.18.2015