Sunday, November 8, 2009
The Hotel New Hampshire Revisited
Even though he was nearing sixty years old when he shot his adaptation of John Irving's The Hotel New Hampshire in the fall of 1983, Tony Richardson was still artistically at the top of his game with seemingly 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 the last period of his remarkable career.
The British born Oscar winning Richardson is unquestionably one of the most important filmmakers who came out of the fifties. His finest works, including the likes of Look Back in Anger (1958), The Loneliness of the 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. Often cited for his visual style, Richardson is 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 feel, was thought to be un-adaptable but Irving himself praised Richardson's original scripts as brilliant. Irving spoke in an interview about his admiration for Richardson and his excitement about the film with, "I've never felt as flattered as when Tony Richardson told me he wanted to make a movie of The Hotel New Hampshire, my fifth novel. I loved Tony Richardson's films. He had a range like no one else-- violent or austere one minute, wildly comic the next. The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and The Loved One, Tom Jones and The Border. I had no doubt what Tony Richardson would do with The Hotel New Hampshire--a macabre comedy and a fairy tale, not half as realistic as The World According to Garp. Tony didn't even pretend to be disappointed when I told him I didn't want to write the screenplay; he wanted to write it himself, which he did."
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 work 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 very 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 as 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 Nastassja Kinski as the paralyzingly insecure Susie The Bear.
Working with talented cinematographer David Watkin, Tony Richardson made the epic feeling The Hotel New Hampshire on a relatively small budget in Canada in that chilly fall of 1983. Things seemed troubled from the start as Richardson not only had to deal with merging two films into one, but he was also forced into shooting in some locations he didn't intend to use. On top of those setbacks, 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 reviewing 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. The much missed Kent born cinematographer David Watkin is among the most important directors of photography in British Cinema history. He has lensed an astonishing number of wildly diverse and legendary films such as Help, The Knack...and How to Get It, The Devils and Out of Africa. Born in 1925, the Oscar winning Watkin initially got his start working as a cameraman in many British documentaries and commercials. A fateful meeting with director Richard Lester would change everything for him and he was hired for Lester's wonderful The Knack...and How to Get It.
Noted for his innovative work with lighting, Watkin always demonstrated that he can shoot any kind of film in seemingly any kind of condition. Chief among my his finest films that he shot are Ken Russell's The Devils and The Boy Friend. The Boy Friend stands as one of the great examples of how well Watkin can use color while The Devils is perhaps one of the ultimate examples of how light should be used in a film.
The Hotel New Hampshire marked the second time that Watkin had shot Nasatassja Kinski, with the first being 1976's To The Devil a Daughter. Watkin's work on To the Devil a Daughter is quite striking and among its most obvious highlights. Much like Robby Muller he seems to have an inherent understanding of how much power Kinski's face could project, and he photographs her wonderfully in both To the Devil a Daughter and The Hotel New Hampshire.
Watkin's work on Tony Richardson's The Hotel New Hampshire features some of the lushest and purest photography of his life. Speaking from a total layman's point of view when it comes to the art of photography, there is just something really warm about his work with Richardson. Kinski's Susie The Bear is one of her great roles and she is photographed wonderfully in the film, with Watkin's understated style helping to bring out all of the vulnerability, doubt and finally emerging self confidence that Kinski projects.
Watkin would go onto to shoot many films throughout the late eighties and nineties but unfortunately he never worked with Kinski or Richardson again. He shot some lovely underrated films in the nineties including Jane Eyre but he will undoubtedly be most remembered for his work in the sixties and seventies with directors like Lester and Russell. His last film according to IMDB was the little seen Kirsten Dunst feature, All Forgotten. Ironic title for his final film considering the term 'forgotten' will never be used in describing the incredible career of David Watkin.
Back to The Hotel New Hampshire, 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 his greatest years in the sixties. Like a free-form 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 1984.
The cast of The Hotel New Hampshire is indeed 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?
What could be more devastatingly sad and tragic, than an unquestionably 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 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. Kinski 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 role had a big impact on Kinski and she would tell The Washington Post that, "...it touched something deep...What is reality and what Susie sees about herself are two different things. Something melts inside Susie so she can take off the bear suit. This happened to me. There is a beauty about myself that I never saw, or I rejected, until recently."
The film had few supporters at the studio but John Irving admitted that, "I liked the movie nonetheless. Tony's interpretation of the novel as sexual cancan is a much more suitable translation of my sense of humor than Steve Tesich's dialogue in The World According to Garp. But, to most audiences, The Hotel New Hampshire was not nearly as successful a film as Garp. Only in some countries in Europe was it more popular, which may have been the result of Hotel being more popular in parts of Europe as a book, too--I mean more popular than Garp."
Many critics had there knives sharpened and out for Richardson and his young cast. Frankly the little respect I had left for critics like Vincent Canby and Rex Reed has vanished completely after reading their incredible rude and sexist comments concerning Jodie Foster's appearance in The Hotel New Hampshire. Canby wrote, "she had better watch those malteds between classes at Yale" while Rex Reed added, "Foster is pasty, pudgy and too asexual to attract gnats". Way to review the film at hand you self absorbed twits.
The film's mixed reception saw mild praise coming from the likes of Shelia Benson, Richard Combs and John Coleman and absolute hatred from the likes of David Denby and Andrew Sarris, who wrote in The Village Voice: ""A funny thing happened on my way to reviewing The Hotel New Hampshire, I encountered some people who actually liked it! Why would, how could, anyone enjoy this botched mess, this shambles of a movie? Kinski, for once pleasantly at home in a wildly disorganized circus in which she does not have to labor in vain to make sense as a character...I would have had serious problems with The Hotel New Hampshire even if it had been a better movie...the wrong reasons for liking it (are) cultural snobbery, generational complacency, moral flabbiness, and the nihilism of convenience."
The Hotel New Hampshire opened up in the spring of 84 and disappeared soon after. 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.