Thursday, May 20, 2010

Jane Alexander as Carol Wetherly in TESTAMENT

Jane Alexander

One film and performance that I can never quite shake and that sits as a pillar of how to behave in the most unspeakable moments life has to offer. I don’t speak about this performance anymore, and I should, because the threat of nuclear war seems ridiculous. But it’s way up there in terms of one of the best screen female performances ever. My friend Shane told me that when his brother died his mother did the final scene – just as Shirley MacLaine did in TERMS, line for line, “Somehow I thought when it was over it would be a relief”. I’ve caught myself a couple times when beloved ones have passed doing Jane Alexander from TESTAMENT. That’s when you know it’s hit a key chord, when Carol takes over.

The movie begins with one of those typical families right out of TV commercials. The father (Wiliam Devane, TV's version of Treat Williams) is a physical-fitness nut. The mother, Jane Alexander, is loving, funny and a little harried. The kids include a daughter who practices the piano, a son who races his dad up hills on their 10-speed bikes and a little boy who guards the "treasure" in the bottom drawer of his chest. The movie follows these people long enough for us to know them, to appreciate their personalities, their good and weak points, and then one sunny afternoon the war starts. 

Most of the film is about what happens then. Anarchy does not break out. There is some looting, but it is limited. For the most part, the people in the small northern California town stick together and try to do the best that they can. There are meetings in the church. There are public health measures. A decision is made to go ahead with the grade-school play. The start of the tears that don’t ever end... Life, in the film, goes on ... but death invades it, as radiation poisoning begins to take a toll, first on the babies, then on the children, until finally the cemetery is filled and the bodies have to be burned on a pyre. The movie finds dozens of small details to suggest existence after the bomb. All the kids, for example, take the batteries out of their toys and, computer games, and turn them in for emergency use. Gasoline is rationed, and then runs out. The survivors have no garbage collection, no electricity, and, worst of all, no word from elsewhere. The sky gradually grows darker, and I was reminded of those recent studies suggesting that a real nuclear war would finally kill us all by raising great clouds of dust that would choke the Earth's vegetation. 

In the midst of this devastation, Jane, as the mother, in every scene, beautifully modulated with a surgeons controlled delicacy, tries to preserve love and decency for her children and for her town. She stands by her children, watches as they grow in response to the challenge, cherishes them as she sees all her dreams for them disappear. It is a great performance, the heart of the film. In fact, Alexander's performance makes the film possible to watch without unbearable heartbreak, because she is brave, steadfast, and decent in the face of the horror. And the last scene, in which she expresses such small optimism as is still possible, is one of the most powerful movie scenes I've ever seen. In one particularly heartbreaking scene, Carol listens to Tom's voice on the families answering machine (remember those?) one last time before she removes its batteries for other uses. Tough choices. But the next moment and her families survival depends on how she handles each second.

A moment which I thought was over written, but played perfectly was the scene where Carol is standing in the middle of the multiple dead from her town and screams from her soul “Why!?!?!” stands with the town priest and kisses him passionately. It bothered me then and still does that this moment had to be the small town priest – I thought it was too deliberate and pushy - still do. But to see her plunge forcefully into a last attempt at stirring up desires with a man she wasn’t married too - is hard to witness. Not because he's the priest but it seems out of step with all her other choices. She gives herself the moment to fall into the possibility. She forces the possibility to feel something other than the inevitable. It’s tremendous acting. Private, vulnerable, longing, the flailing escape for just a split second and then back to her normal routine in the most unbelievable, un-normal of circumstances. It undoubtedly strikes a frightening chord. But its emphasis on the ordinary, her performance and the film itself, that make Testament a remarkable achievement.

Later her son Brad is forced into an early adulthood, from helping his mother to taking over radio duty for Henry Abhart, who also sickens and dies from radiation sickness. The family essentially adopts a surviving mentally handicapped boy named Hiroshi when his father, Mike, who runs the local gas station, dies. Before the catastrophe, Tom would take Hiroshi fishing with the other Wetherly kids.

Carol, Brad and Hiroshi attempt suicide, with Carol in the driver's sit, by sitting in the family station wagon, "come on mom" say her son, with the garage door closed, but Carol cannot bring herself to do it. Her signature moment comes at the end with the three sitting by candlelight for a birthday, but the cake is a graham cracker. Hiroshi presents Carol with Scottie's teddy bear, but does not say where he found it. She was unable to take her own life and the life of her neighbor and son. She’s going to see this thing through to the end. When Brad asks his mother what they should wish for, she answers, "that we remember it all ... the good and the awful." She blows out the candle, and the movie cuts to an old silent film of a surprise birthday party for Tom. He blows out the candles on his cake as the movie ends.

Jane Alexander gives perhaps her best performance as Carol Wetherly, wife and mother, who tries to hold what's left of her family together as fallout from faraway San Francisco tightens its silent grip on her town.

Alexander is softly, steely maternal -- if anyone was going to see a family through a crisis, it would be her Carol. Tough yet soft. Stern sweetness. Smart and powerful – it’s no wonder when the National Endowment of Arts needed a leader – Jane took over. If the A-Bomb should occur or I get a late night call saying a loved one is ready to say goodbye – is it any wonder we call upon Jane Alexander – Brava!