Thursday, November 15, 2007
14. The Hotel New Hampshire
Even though he was nearing sixty years old when he shot his adaptation of John Irving's THE HOTEL NEW HAMPSHIRE, Tony Richardson's film feels very much like the work of a young man with all of the energy in the world at his disposal. That Richardson had intended to make two films, instead of just the one, from Irving's material shows even clearer that this was a director truly firing on all cylinders in 1984.
The British born Oscar winning Richardson is unquestionably one of the most important filmmakers who came out of the fifties. His finest work, including the likes of LOOK BACK IN ANGER (1958), THE LONELINESS OF A LONG DISTANCE RUNNER (1962), TOM JONES (1963), THE LOVED ONE (1963), and a brave production of HAMLET (1969) show Richardson as a man of great intelligence and seemingly unending talent.
Starting with NED KELLY in 1970, Richardson's productions seemed to lose their favor with the critical community that had embraced him in the sixties. This says more about the critics than Richardson though as films like A DELICATE BALANCE (1973), JOSEPH ANDREWS (1977) and THE BORDER (1982) are all really fascinating and valuable works. Richardson is often not given enough credit for the performances he is able to bring out of his actors, and yet that is something that is apparent in all of his films. Watch, for example, the subtle and restrained work that Richardson draws out of a post THE SHINING Jack Nicholson in THE BORDER to see this.
After the muted reception granted to THE BORDER, Richardson began planning his double film adaption of one of Irving's most complex works. THE HOTEL NEW HAMPSHIRE, with its complex story lines, large cast of characters and near epic sweep, was thought to be un-adaptable but Irving himself praised Richardson's original scripts as brilliant. Unfortunately the studio finally balked at the two picture concept and forced Richardson to make just one film. Refusing to lose too much of Irving's witty original, Richardson created a final 110 minute film that is simultaneously brilliant, flawed, frustrating and inspiring. Had he been allowed to do what he originally planned, I believe the two part THE HOTEL NEW HAMPSHIRE would have been one of Tony Richardson's great works. As it is, it is one of his most imperfect but still overwhelmingly passionate films.
THE HOTEL NEW HAMPSHIRE, a work centered on the most dysfunctional Berry family, features one of the greatest ensemble casts of the eighties. The core of the film belongs to a really wonderful Jodie Foster as the brilliant but troubled Frannie Berry, a handsome (and I think quite good) Rob Lowe as her brother John, and Beau Bridges as their ambitious dreamer of a father, Win. Also a part of the family are Paul McCrane, Lisa Banes, Jennifer Dundas and a young Seth Green. Throughout the film we meet a large variety of supporting players including most notably Wallace Shawn as a Mr. Freud and as the paralyzingly insecure Susie The Bear, played by Nastassja Kinski.
Working with talented cinematographer David Watkin, Tony Richardson made the huge feeling THE HOTEL NEW HAMPSHIRE on a relatively small budget in Canada in the fall of 1983. Things seemed troubled from the start as Richardson not only had to deal with merging two films into one, but he also was forced into shooting in some locations he didn't want, and he lost the corporation of the band he wanted to score part of the film, namely Queen (Whose KEEP PASSING THE OPEN WINDOWS was to play a key role in the film).
Everything seemed to work against Richardson, his crew and cast but they all persevered on. Many bonds were formed, including a close friendship between Jodie Foster and Nastassja Kinski, and some were broken but Richardson delivered his film on time, and it was set to go in the early part of 1984.
THE HOTEL NEW HAMPSHIRE is a slightly off putting film at first, as such it demands reviewings to truly fall under its spell. Certainly some of the subject matter, from rape to incest, is tricky to handle at best, but Richardson's film by design becomes more and more defined the more you watch it. With this in mind, it is easy to see why so many critics savaged it back in 1984 when it hit theaters.
The film is an absolute beauty to look at. Watkin's lovely photography is consistent throughout, and I can't imagine too many people having problems with that aspect of it. Richardson's direction has been called erratic here, but I think it is more a case of him embracing once again all of the power and invention that so defined much of the sixties when he was at the top of his game. Like a free jazz musician playing with time signatures and bending notes into something near alien, Richardson's direction of THE HOTEL NEW HAMPSHIRE is fresh, inventive, purposely sloppy at times, and never dull. It is the penultimate near great theatrical work by a very talented filmmaker, and it didn't deserve the savaging it got back in
The cast is quite extraordinary. Jodie Foster was at a weird transition point in her career but you can already see her developing into America's best actress. She is saucy, sad, funny, and very human in the part of Frannie. I like Rob Lowe a lot here too. He is forced to play kind of the calm at the center of a very electric storm, and his work is very centered, and very solid. The likes of Beau Bridges, Wallace Shawn, Matthew Modine, and Anita Morris seem incapable of giving weak performances and that is no different here, as they are all splendid..
The casting of Kinski in the role of Susie The Bear was much talked about, and it remains the most controversial of the film. In the book, the character was short, homely, and dirty. It was easy to see why she would be so insecure as to wear a bear suit to disguise her ugliness...but Nastassja Kinski? Why would Tony Richardson cast one of the most beautiful women in cinematic history in this part? That is a question that was asked a lot back in 1984, so I would like to offer up my own humble little answer.
What could be more devastatingly sad and tragic, than an unquestionable beautiful person so wrapped up with inner turmoil, self doubt and insecurities that she literally hides herself from the world behind a mask? Richardson had the idea, and I agree with him, that someone who was completely wrong about themselves would be much more effective than someone who was right. Susie The Bear in Richardson's film doesn't hide herself because she is ugly, she hides herself because she thinks she is ugly. There is a big, and profound, difference there.
I was recently accused of saying every film that Nastassja Kinski made was great, and this is simply not the case if you go back and read my reviews. However I do find her to be almost always exceptional, and her work as Susie The Bear is some of her best to my eyes. She is asked to do the impossible here, namely to make you believe that she thinks she is so hideous that she should hide inside a bear costume. Kinski delivers on this completely, and gives the most fragile but cutting work of her career. THE HOTEL NEW HAMPSHIRE opened up in the spring of 84 and disappeared soon after. John Irving noted it did better in Europe, but it has never found larger than a small cult following here in the States. The film is currently available on a sharp looking Widescreen DVD, with only the trailer as an extra. It is a rewarding, if at times gloriously frustrating, experience that gets better and better with each viewing. The great Tony Richardson would complete just one more theatrical picture in his life, the Jessica Lange film BLUE SKY, before passing away in the early nineties. While THE HOTEL NEW HAMPSHIRE isn't one of his greatest films, it is one of his most heartfelt and inventive. It occupies its own very special place in Richardson's important filmography...needless to say, it deserves another look