The Promise of Recovery: Close-Up on Robert Aldrich’s "Autumn Leaves"

A rare melodrama from macho auteur Robert Aldrich, it tells an unapologetically optimistic romance between an older woman and younger man.
Nathanael Hood

Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Robert Aldrich's Autumn Leaves (1956) is playing October 22 - November 21, 2017 on MUBI in the United Kingdom. Autumn Leaves

Autumn Leaves is the story of what happens to a Robert Aldrich hero after the Robert Aldrich movie ends. Vicious, cynical, and borderline nihilistic, Aldrich’s movies churned idealistic characters through crucibles of violence and disillusionment. He adored stories of marginalized nobodies forced to face impossible odds: murderers-turned-World War Two commandos in The Dirty Dozen (1967); desperate Chiricahua Apache raiders in Ulzana’s Raid (1972); a football team of prison inmates in The Longest Yard (1974); escaped military prisoners in Twilight’s Last Gleaming (1977). For these men—and they were usually men—death was one of the kindest fates possible. Existential meaninglessness, the pointlessness of moral causes, the uselessness of idealism: these were the fates they truly feared. And for Aldrich, these were the just rewards for those who sought to ignore the savagery of the world for hopes and dreams. Survival by any means was the only virtue worth espousing.

But what do you do when the mission is over? Where do you go when your worldview has been shattered? These are the questions we find in Autumn Leaves, a film almost totally unique, both as part of Aldrich’s extensive oeuvre and as a product of the classical Hollywood studio system. For one, it was a straightforward melodrama, an unusual choice for a director known almost exclusively for macho, violent films in macho, violent genres like Westerns, war pictures, and film noir. Second, it focused on the romance between an older woman and a younger man—the leads Joan Crawford and Cliff Robertson were respectively in their 50s and 30s. And third, in an especially unusual twist for an Aldrich film, it was unapologetically optimistic.

The film follows Millicent “Mille” Wetherby (Crawford), a lonely self-employed typist who falls in love with an equally lonely Army veteran named Burt Hanson (Robertson) she serendipitously meets late one night at a diner. Millie is initially wary of Burt’s affections. What could a strapping young man possibly see in an old spinster like her? When she brings the age question up, he matter-of-factly responds, “I just found that young people are too young for me.” Over time, he manages to prove that his feelings are genuine and the two elope in Mexico. 

But soon after they move in together, their shared lives start to fall apart at the seams. Burt wastes money they can’t spare on lavish gifts from the department store where he works as a manager. He starts suffering from manic mood swings and outbursts. Millie discovers he’s a chronic liar—it turns out his cushy department store job is a lie and he’s actually been stealing all his gifts. And yet Millie is willing to forgive all these things. The final blow comes when a young woman appears on their doorstep one morning announcing herself as Burt’s ex-wife Virginia (Vera Miles), an ex-wife he had never mentioned, an ex-wife he had abandoned a mere month before meeting Millie. She reveals he has a long history of compulsive behavior and lying. Fed up, Millie confronts Burt and learns the true depth of his duplicity.

It turns out Burt is a sick, sick man in desperate need of psychological help. There are two reasons why, one that is spelled out, one that is subtle enough one could miss it. First, we learn that Burt developed a severe psychosis after walking in on his deadbeat father sleeping with Virginia. This betrayal shatters his life, plunging him into an Oedipal lunacy he struggles to keep at bay. The second reason takes extrapolative conjecture, but it’s no less potent. Burt tells three big lies to Millie: his birthplace, his job, and his military service. He first introduces himself as being from Racine, Wisconsin while later claiming he’s from Chicago. He first says he has a management position at the department store, then confesses that he works the store floor. Both of these lies follow a pattern: a single fraudulent claim later corrected with the truth. But what of the third lie? Originally, he claims he worked in the war office in Japan during the Korean War. But later Millie overhears him telling someone else that he had actually seen combat in a unit that suffered a horrific 40% casualty rate. If we accept the aforementioned pattern at face value, then it becomes apparent that Burt might and probably suffers from extreme PTSD. And how sane could a man expect to be after coming home from the hell of war to find his wife cheating on him with his dad? What faith in the world could he have left? What faith in himself to make any sense of it? So why not lie and lie and lie until you trick yourself into living in whatever reality the world demands at any given moment?

But don’t make the mistake of assuming Autumn Leaves is a film primarily about Cliff Robertson. It first and foremost focuses on Joan Crawford as she struggles to navigate the realities of loving a broken man. Her casting doomed the film in many circles, especially after the release of Frank Perry’s Mommie Dearest (1981), a film which retroactively reframed Crawford as a camp icon. Aldrich’s own psycho-biddy masterpiece What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) further exacerbated attempts to appreciate Crawford’s films outside a camp context. But there is no camp in Autumn Leaves, just genuine gut-wrenching agony. If the actors chew scenery it’s because their trauma and shock-addled characters would. Crawford particularly stuns as she brilliantly realizes each segment of Millie’s arc, from resigned old maid to nervously hopeful lover to heart-broken spouse to stalwart healer. And it’s this last segment that’s the most important. 

Millie eventually relents and has Burt committed to a mental hospital. In the 1950s, psychological health and treatment were still largely misunderstood by the American public, something made painfully obvious during the didactic scenes where a mental health expert patiently explains them both to a confused Millie. (Even four years later, the public’s awareness of mental health was so shaky that Alfred Hitchcock was forced to kneecap the ending of Psycho with a sequence wherein a doctor explained Norman Bates’ madness for the audience.) Following the end of World War Two, America had understood the necessity of rehabilitating broken veterans. This sympathy bled over into many powerful films like William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) and Fred Zinnemann’s The Men (1950). But these largely dealt with men suffering from physical war injuries. If they had mental issues, they were extensions of castration complexes that made them feel like freaks or somehow less than “real men.” But Burt Hanson had no physical injuries. His rotted away at the inside of his mind and psyche. But it was no less potent, no less life-destroying. 

Yet Autumn Leaves argues that recovery is possible. Perhaps the scenes of Burt’s treatment are sensationalized; at times, it seems like he’s being worked on by mad scientists instead of seasoned doctors. The film also makes the unfortunate and preposterous claim that mental therapy could force patients to forget their past lives and loved ones. But the science works and Burt is healed. Love wins. Hope wins. The idealism of modern medical science wins. For once we see Aldrich look upon a broken world and smile to himself that things could be better. Considering the advancement of medicine since the 1950s, it seems he was right.

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