Albany, New York, Halloween, 1938. Francis Phelan and Helen Archer are bums, back in their birth city. She was a singer on the radio, he a major league pitcher. Death surrounds them: she's sick, a pal has cancer, he digs graves at the cemetery and visits the grave of his infant son whom he dropped; visions of his past haunt him, including ghosts of two men he killed. That night, out drinking, Helen tries to sing at a bar. Next day, Fran visits his wife and children and meets a grandson. He could stay, but decides it's not for him. Helen gets their things out of storage and finds a hotel. Amidst their mistakes and dereliction, the film explores their code of fairness and loyalty. Written by
There are many reasons why this film is a masterpiece, but the most significant element is surely Streep's portrayal of a homeless alcoholic in 1930's Albany. Her appearance, about half an hour into the film, is quite frankly, astonishing. She walks into a soup kitchen and sits down next to Nicholson and your jaw drops at the transformation. Beyond the technical virtuosity, you marvel at the choices that Streep makes that express the character so movingly, from the vocal production which is almost like a groan of pain, to the body language including her constantly averted glance and shuffling walk which express the woman's lost self esteem, to her bursts of rage when we see the glimmer of the spirit she once posessed. There's a scene in a bar in which she sings for the patrons that you will never forget.
Every other element of the film succeeds: the other performances (Nicholson, Tom Waits and Carol Baker stand out), the production design recreating a vanished era flawlessly without resorting to the phony perfection of say a Merchant Ivory film, the sound design which is surprisingly complex for such an intimate film, the screenplay, the cinematography, the direction. How is it that Hector Babenco has only made two films since this one?
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