Welcome back to The Deuce Notebook, a collaboration between MUBI's Notebook and The Deuce Film Series, our monthly event at Nitehawk Williamsburg that excavates the facts and fantasies of cinema's most infamous block in the world: 42nd Street between 7th and 8th Avenues. For each screening, my co-hosts and I pick a title that we think embodies the era of 24-hour movie grinding, and present the venue at which it premiered…
This month, we welcome our friend and guest writer Madelyn Sutton, whose delicious piece on naughty nuns was featured last September. Madelyn recently spoke with the enigmatic and inimitable actress Brooke Adams—who, in 1978 alone, appeared (at the same time) at both mainstream cinemas and uptown arthouses in Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Malick’s Days of Heaven. This year’s re-release of Michael Roemer’s Vengeance Is Mine gave Madelyn much to ask Brooke about… Enjoy!
—The Deuce Jockeys
Opening a Q&A with actor Brooke Adams that followed a full-house screening of Vengeance Is Mine at New York’s Film Forum earlier this summer, Jake Perlin, founder of the film’s distributor Film Desk, read from a note written by director Michael Roemer:
Brooke didn’t just help us make the film as a gifted and deeply disciplined artist; she kept us from going under with her kindness and her honesty, her fairness and her sense of humor. … Her smile, her laughter, her voice don’t start at the surface, but come from deep down, as you can tell in every moment she’s on screen, and particularly in the scenes that she shares with the extraordinary young actress [Ari Meyer] who plays Jackie. They are both totally genuine and they never strike a false note.
The film is experiencing its first theatrical release and a second life following its 1984 premiere on PBS’s American Playhouse. This bipartite timeline is not unlike that of Roemer’s previous narrative efforts. During its original run in 1964, Nothing But a Man performed poorly at the box office and only received the major critical acclaim and canonization it now enjoys after a successful re-release in 1993. Roemer’s next production, The Plot Against Harry, failed to secure a distributor when it was completed in 1969; it would likely have disappeared completely had Roemer not successfully submitted it to the 1989 New York Film Festival, after which it was released theatrically to a likewise warm critical reception. Now, Vengeance Is Mine is similarly resurrected, acquiring a new and loving audience and a slew of ecstatic reviews. Bilge Ebiri for Vulture described the film as “a genuine discovery,” “completely discarded and ignored in its day, arriving on our screens like pure cinematic oxygen.” In his review for The New York Times, Wesley Morris singles out Adams’s performance for praise, writing, “When you’ve got a great part in a fantastic movie (and this movie’s fantastic, not to mention fantastical), an actor can flesh out ‘sexpot’ so that what she is playing is pure vibrancy.”
“This Vengeance Is Mine thing is just so from left field,” Adams told me in a recent conversation. “I am enjoying it a lot. Acting is just something I don't even consider now—I love to act, but I don't like to look for work, hope I get some audition, any of that. I can't do that anymore. I think writing and painting are my new favorite things.”
In the Q&A mentioned above, Adams reflected on her career with characteristic humility and candor: “At one point I was kind of like a little movie star, and then I wasn’t, and that’s the way it just struck me.” After a number of television-movie roles, her first star turn was in Ken Wiederhorn’s 1977 Nazi zombie (morbidly) slow-burn Shock Waves, a unique contribution to the genre that’s acquired a cult following since its premiere in 1977 at Southern Califonian grindhouses and drive-ins (the movie made its 42nd Street debut three years later at the Times Square Theatre). This was swiftly followed by Adams’s breakout performance in Terrence Malick’s beloved Days of Heaven in 1978. Adams portrays Abby, an itinerant worker in turn-of-the-century America whose romantic partner, played by a similarly un-established Richard Gere, convinces her to marry a wealthy farmer (Sam Shepard, in his first narrative feature) in ailing health: an ill-fated bid to escape the crippling poverty and back-breaking work that’s plagued them thus far.
In a Times interview that same year, Adams described Malick's direction: “‘You are a woman of mystery,’ he told me. ‘The way to get the breath of life into your performance is not by making things clear to the audience.’ The idea is that I'm not in control of myself, that people weren't into psychology in 1916, when Days of Heaven takes place, the way they are now.”
Malick has in many ways predicted—or was among the first to recognize—the significance of Adams’s singular visage throughout her career, in varied roles (in varied genres). In our conversation, I asked Adams how she came to this particular métier. “I would summer in Flint for many years because my father [Robert K. Adams, former vice president of CBS] had the Musical Tent there,” she recalled. “As a kid, this was like the greatest camp situation ever. My sister [actor and filmmaker Lynne Adams] and I were in love with theater. We would sit all day long and watch rehearsals—we knew every lyric, every dance step, every line from every show. My parents were always saying, ‘Why don't you go out and do something else?’ And we just didn't want to. It was pretty magical.
“It was just, we were going to be actresses, my sister and I,” she continues. “We never even heard about taking an SAT or applying to college. My parents were theatrical and didn't do a lot of organizing stuff for us anyway… I don't know why, they both went to college. So we didn't go to college, and we just started acting. I got a TV show—it was a guest spot on a show called East Side/West Side—when I was 14. It was the first time I'd ever been on a professional audition and I got it, so that was amazing. And then I got a series [O.K. Crackerby!], which was my second audition ever, and I just thought, ‘Well, this is easy.’ My father got the call that I'd gotten the series and accepted the role. When I got home and he told me, I was furious that he’d said ‘Okay’ without even consulting me. It was just, that's what we did.”
Despite her apparent natural aptitude, acting was not the only artistic discipline Adams gravitated toward as a young New Yorker—nor was it the only artform she’s practiced in response to the unique pressures of being raised within a creative family. “I studied at New York City Ballet—I loved the discipline,” she explains. “I even loved the Russian teachers who would yell at you. I guess I'm kind of a masochist. I loved that kind of order in my life, which was not my family life.
“Then I auditioned for the High School of Performing Arts, in the dance department,” she says. “I got in and did that for three years, until I got this series that my father accepted without asking me. You weren't allowed to work when you went to Performing Arts, so that meant I had to leave school. That was sort of the end of my dancing career. My favorite modern dance teacher also taught a little acting class, very minimal, one day a week for half an hour; he said to me, ‘You're a good actress.’ And I thought, ‘Well, that's the kiss of death for a dancer to hear.’”
Following these early TV roles and before her debut big-screen performances, Adams spent some years away from acting. “I went to Spain at 20 and I lived there until I was 24, and I was not very happy there,” she recalls. “I bought a bunch of watercolors and a pad and I would paint everything I saw—my foot, my bed, everything in the room. Four years later I came back to the States and never even thought about painting again. Then, when my second daughter was born, I was a stay-at-home mom, and I knew that I would go out of my mind if I didn't have a creative outlet.
“I love to endlessly examine the face, the expression,” she adds. On her website, she writes of her portraiture work, “Painting people is very much like acting. You look at the face and body and try to capture them so that the person inside is revealed. In acting you can either find the feelings first and then let those feelings inform the way you move, the way you sound, and your facial expressions; or you can get the voice, body language, and expression first, and if you get them right, the emotion will be exposed. I always feel more connected when I do the latter. That may be why painting portraits feels natural to me.”
In another career-establishing role, Adams played the lead in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, released the same year as Days of Heaven. Though both films revolve around a doomed romance, Invasion leaves behind the period trappings and poetry of Heaven to revisit and re-vision classic science fiction. The film opens with a potent depiction of the uniformity of bubble-like pods as they depart their “dying planet,” with the alien organisms globbing together into a cold sameness as they approach Earth. There’s no real ambiguity to the unfolding story; we are repeatedly given visual evidence of the way in which the aliens transform their human counterparts into dusty husks, and are shown the formation of the pod people themselves within the first hour—we know less than fifteen minutes into the film that one of the main characters’ partners has been transformed. The tension must therefore arise from the potential loss wrought by eliminating the humanity from the bodies these aliens come to inhabit or control; as director Philip Kaufman says, “What makes a pod, and what makes people not-pods? And is that not-poddiness worth preserving?”
Whereas the 1956 version of the archetypal tale offers a powerful allegory for the way in which McCarthyism pulled people—in most cases, artists, leftists, homosexuals, those whose lifestyle or identity supposedly threatened the sanctity of a Western imperialist ideal—into a vile and depraved conformity, Kaufman situates the threat within the late-’70s accidental conformists themselves, former outsiders turning in. On the eve of Reaganism and amidst the burgeoning, so-called “me generation,” an interest in social striving and personal wellness—as opposed to external, revolutionary change—threatened to flatten interesting people into boring, bourgeois yuppies.
Thus the very middle-class-ness of the film’s lead pair: Matthew Bennell (Donald Sutherland) and Elizabeth Driscoll (Adams), inspectors for San Francisco’s Department of Health, secretly and very politely in love despite Elizabeth’s rather passionless relationship with Geoffrey (Art Hindle), a dentist of all things. In a rather prescient exchange that reveals the importance that real estate will eventually come to play in the interior lives of urban professionals, Elizabeth responds that she can’t kick Geoffrey out—“It’s his house.” The film ironically asks us to experience a sense of loss in the face of Geoffrey’s transformation, when his only contribution thus far is a barely feigned interest in what Elizabeth has to say and a palpable excitement about watching the playoffs. Is this humanity?
Adams contributes much to this implicit desire for the persistence of “non-poddiness” in all its flaws and inconsistencies: she is an appealingly real presence, despite her boyfriend’s Ken-doll hair and their home’s dismal carpeting. As she describes Geoffrey’s transformation, a close-up reveals a small scar in the middle of her forehead; her resting expression is melancholy, her lips pointedly turned down whenever she isn’t laughing with Bennell. The affectionate friendship between the two, effectively conveyed from their first interactions (likely why they were romantically paired again the following year in Noel Black’s A Man, a Woman, and a Bank), serves as the emotional core of the film, providing a heartbreaking tenderness amidst the paranoia and grotesquerie of the unfolding narrative.
As they share a homemade stir fry in Bennell’s backyard, he asks her to “do that trick” with her eyes so he’ll know she isn’t crazy; it’s a rather goofy moment that according to Kaufman arose from his asking Adams if there were anything she could do that would prove she wasn’t a pod. The thing is, she doesn’t need to do any tricks to be beyond the pods’ scope—her helplessly doleful expressions, her deep and textured voice insist on her reality and emotional complexity.
Invasion affords Adams’s character the first of many gorgeous, boho-styled and plant-filled homes in her career, shared with the first of so many disappointing men. These are the environs of the quintessential Brooke Adams character: a woman both sympathetic and aspirational whose personality resists the meagerness of her income and the failures of the men around her. Men who are disappointing because they watch television when they should be paying attention, and eventually turn into soulless humanoids; or marry her off in a money-grab scheme, then resent the affection that naturally arises (see: Days of Heaven); or dump her just as she’s taking over end-of-life care for her grandmother.
Such is the plight of Adams’s character in 1980’s Tell Me a Riddle, Lee Grant’s first directorial effort after three decades as an actor. The film is a devastating portrait of an aging immigrant couple coping with the ravages of time, conformity to patriarchal society, persistent trauma, and the ultimate unknowability of the other. Eva (a heartrending Lila Kedrova) clings to the remnants of her Russian childhood and the writers whose work provided a rich escape from the challenges of motherhood in a foreign land; her husband David (Melvyn Douglas, in one of his final roles), in his ongoing inability (or refusal) to realize the ways in which he’d contributed to her imprisonment in an exceedingly lonely role, extends this alienation by hiding from her both her terminal cancer diagnosis and the fact that he’s sold their home. The two travel to visit their children as Eva’s health deteriorates, eventually landing in the sunny San Francisco apartment of Adams’s character: granddaughter Jeannie, an at-home hospice nurse whose art-filled loft will serve as Eva’s last home. Jeannie is the still-bohemian instantiation of Adams’s character in Invasion, from her abstract painter-cum-video-artist boyfriend, to her roller skates and cowboy boots, to her comfort and candor with her grandparents and her grandmother’s Russian friends.
The film establishes another motif in Adams’s career: a complicated relationship with motherhood, represented not only by Eva’s struggles as a mother herself (“Seven children during the depression…”), but also by an abortion that highlights the way in which the alienation women experience in romantic relationships has generational as well as gender continuity (“...how could I have another baby I couldn’t feed?”). “It was exactly what was going on in my life,” Adams shared. “Not with my grandparents, but with my parents. My father sold their house without telling her. And my mother was dying during the filming.” Although the film’s multiple tragedies could swiftly have mired it in a melodramatic swamp, Adams’s presence again brings a sense of reality, of comprehensible experience and relatable emotion.
Tell Me a Riddle was the first American feature film to be written, produced, and directed by women; the first film made by women to raise more than $1 million and to receive major studio distribution; and the first film made by women to screen during Cannes’ Directors’ Fortnight. It also touched upon some of the themes that Grant would plumb in her powerful documentary oeuvre. “I love Lee Grant, she continues to be a friend,” says Adams. “And I had read the Tillie Olsen book [the eponymous O. Henry-winning inspiration for the film] before I knew anything about them making a movie, and it killed me then; to get asked to do it—well, to get asked to audition for it, was just great.”
Shortly before flying to San Fran, Eva gives one of her younger grandchildren a note: “The soul selects her own society, then shuts the door,” quoting the Emily Dickinson poem. The singularity of Eva’s life is one that she reveals only to Jeannie, and only in her final days—from the murder of her sister before she emigrated to the States, to the writers whose work sustained her through the difficulties of raising a family that will never truly know her. “It’s such a weird thing to be a mother,'' Adams told The New York Times in a 2004 interview. “Being a mother is more like being wallpaper. It's not being the center of attention. And so I think for a woman who's a mother, it is very hard to be an actress, to get all excited about yourself in the center seat.”
“I had a mother [Rosalind Adams] who was an actress—that says a lot,” Adams explained in our conversation. “She had no confidence, she had no self-esteem. She was very beautiful. And she was a terrible drunk. Not when I was very little, but by the time I knew what was going on, maybe 10 or 11. That was hard. And I think that's definitely imprinted me in a lot of ways, of course.
“Now I'm a mother. I adopted Josie when I was single, then I met Tony [Shalhoub, in 1990] and we got married when [Josie] was three, and we adopted another girl together. I never wanted it to be a choice that was because I was infertile, because I didn't know that I was, and never found out that I was. I decided to adopt and was really happy that I did, and when I married Tony, he was all-in. Now my oldest daughter has had a baby boy who is the most adorable, beautiful human being ever.
“I’ve thought a lot about motherhood,” she added. “I don't have very many smart things to say about it, but I'm certainly glad I was a mother. And it was what really contributed most to my not being able to act anymore. It suddenly seemed like acting was such a self-promotional, self-centered, narcissistic kind of a thing to be doing, that I couldn't imagine doing, once I had the girls. They became more important.”
Based on Stephen King’s 1979 novel, The Dead Zone marked the initiation of a new tonality in director David Cronenberg’s films—and another romantic role for Adams. The body horror of Cronenberg’s earlier successes is stripped to the root fear of mortality through Johnny Smith’s (peak Christopher Walken) accelerated and uniquely intimate engagement with death; though suspenseful and thoroughly horrifying, the film is much more melancholy and approaches the operatic tragedy of later films like The Fly (1986) and Dead Ringers (1988), territory ripe for a disillusioned heroine.
Johnny’s newfound “gift” and his efforts to use it to thwart the terrible fates of his small-town neighbors and, eventually, that of the free world, provide the driving force of the narrative, but the emotional core of the film, like that of Invasion, is the ill-destined romance between Johnny and fellow schoolteacher Sarah (Adams). The heart-wrenching irony of the film is that the car wreck which puts Johnny in a five-year coma and gives him his supernatural abilities (while taking away the possibility of a normal, happy life with Sarah) occurs on his way home from her house, having turned down her offer to “stay the night” and all that that entails. Johnny’s decision to “wait” is likely motivated by his mother’s religiosity—just another incidence of the patriarchal establishment robbing an Adams character of her otherwise God-given right to satisfaction.
Made just three years after Riddle, and set in the gray expanses of Canada where the homes are chilly farmhouses and the outfits buried beneath heavy peacoats, The Dead Zone sees Adams’s character, Sarah, come full-circle in the evolution predicted by Invasion: a wholesome stay-at-home mother whose commitment to family, normalcy, and democracy has inspired a smart haircut and the ever-presence of the pensive depth roiling beneath Adams’s eternally disappointed expression. Just like the leading men that came before him, Johnny has let Sarah down, an experience enriched by the guilt that plagues her very everyday non-poddiness. And yet her presence, as a mother, as the still beautiful woman he’d fallen in love with—but changed, is what bolsters Johnny’s resolve when the final call to action arises.
“I do suffer from depression,” Adams reflects. “I try to overcome it. What I do, for example, when I'm photographed now, is I slap on a smile that I know looks good, and every photograph I have of myself looks exactly the same. Because if I don't do that, I look like I'm gonna burst into tears or something—I mean, my mouth goes down, I kind of scowl. It's not pleasant.” Morris opens his review of 1984’s Vengeance by capturing something of the powerful qualities of Adams’s underutilized beauty: “Brooke Adams has never struck me as a ‘Vengeance Is Mine’ sort of actor. For a title like that, you need viciousness or fury or a ripe sense of victimhood. And by 1984, the movies had never let her near anything close. Ravishment, sure. Kookiness, yeah. But not a character fleshed out enough to do vengeance.”
Vengeance Is Mine opens with Adams seated on an airplane, holding a drink. Her face is captured in close-up, the camera still, as her expression veers from content, to melancholy, to rueful, to truly despairing, to wistful, to bitter, and back again, painting a portrait of a woman on the edge—of what we don’t know, in which tenor she’ll land, unclear. She quickly rises, presumably to use the toilet, but is officiously sent back to her seat by the flight attendant; Jo, as we’ll learn is her character’s name, is a master of the inopportune, appearing in places she isn’t wanted, saying what oughtn’t be said, changing her mind when it’s thoroughly inconvenient. Her presence is both a catalyst and a non-event, and her emotions change swiftly—constantly unbounded and thoroughly exposed.
The solid, middle-class motherhood of The Dead Zone withers into a bitter, brittle trap of failure and remonstrance in Vengeance. The humans are so thoroughly human it’s as though they are constantly asserting a distinct non-poddiness, and Catholicism and the art world have made every interaction between women too personal to inspire a political connection. A quick summary of the character beats in Vengeance would suggest it’s a melodrama—typical of the TV movie, the woman’s picture post-New Hollywood. Each location she visits in the earliest scenes of the film is a landmark on a wildly emotional map: the curtained-off room in her ailing adoptive mother’s house where she was hidden away as soon as she “started to show”; the pit stop where she encounters the man who “I got to get me pregnant,” as she tells her sister Franny; the hospital room, where she informs her mother that she’s located her biological mother, and that “the hate” is neither of their faults—“some adoptions just don’t work out”; the motel room where she almost sleeps with her husband Steven, who she’s run away from to avoid his abuse; the front seat of his sports car, where he assaults her before throwing her out and speeding away into the night; the dimly-lit kitchen where she tells Tom, having just met him, that she wants to spend time with his daughter Jackie, because “When I was 16, I had a child—a girl. I never saw her. When I woke up she was gone, adopted.”
In part, what roots Vengeance in a world beyond that of its TV-movie trappings is the manner in which we learn these particularly melodramatic details: almost all are revealed in offhand comments from Jo, dropped like a plastic wine glass on a wine-colored tablecloth to disappear and be nearly forgotten in the face of the reality unfolding around the table. That reality, which reverberates with frustrating echoes and hums with barely contained violence, resists the unlikeliness of the narrative. The film slows as Jo begins a high-stakes tango with Donna, Tom’s wife, who he’s leaving for good this time—the divorce will be finalized now that she’s recovered from a previous breakdown, but another threatens—and so does Donna, who Jo refuses to leave alone with Jackie after witnessing violent outbursts and midday seductions.
Such is the structure of the remainder of the film, with the characters alternately wrestling with the weight of family morass in rambling Victorian homes and the weightlessness of the island and its romantically shabby bar where Donna prefers to escape. The desperate quartet ferry back and forth, the waves seemingly pulling the characters into pure drama wrested free from terrestrial reality. The film premiered with the title Haunted, a fitting descriptor for Jo, whose past seems to cling like an apparition as she moves through this cursed, very long weekend, and who encounters her nemeses as though they were barely more than liminal. Death is always in the atmosphere—the danger of her mother’s surgery; the threat to Jackie’s safety posed by Donna, and by Jackie’s own desire to escape the turmoil and whirlpool of her home life; the way in which Donna appears semi-visible through a rainy window, or around a corner, or running after Jo before relinquishing to the institution.
What motivates Jo to visit her dying mother, to dredge up so many painful memories, to befriend Donna before rather casually stabbing her in the back, to connect so beautifully with Jackie? It’s irrelevant. Her face, captured by Roemer’s documentary-inflected perspective, displays a humanity that partakes of emotion like a viscous, all-encompassing lake, unbounded by relations with others—cleft from humanity, all too human. Like a painted portrait, its persistence is sufficient, all while remaining impervious to the prying eyes of the other characters, each as much a mystery. As Roemer describes in a recent interview with A.S. Hamrah, “That is why I cast Brooke Adams. There is something sad in her, a sadness is always in Brooke’s face, though she doesn't come across that way in life. I think this is in the human condition, what Brooke’s and Gloria’s [Foster, from Nothing But a Man] faces express. It's in a great many of us, you know, at all times. And we learn to disguise it.”
Adams’s response? “That's very sweet of Michael to say.”
—Text by Madelyn Sutton