Clint Eastwood and the ‘women’s picture’
I bring up budgets and grosses not because I believe they reflect quality, but because they do determine what Hollywood will be willing to finance next. Changeling, despite the considerable draw of Jolie and Clint Eastwood as producer and director, is a kind of poison, grim emotional stuff generally avoided by the masses looking for laughs and thrills. ‘Opening weekend,’ that all-important barometer of what flies and what doesn’t in Tinsel Town, hasn’t been charitable to human drama of late, often forcing projects like Changeling to the indies.
But money is a vital necessity in this production, as we’re treated to a credible recreation of late-1920’s Los Angeles. It’s a richly textured landscape of sleepy suburban neighborhoods and busy city streets with their crisscrossing trolleys. And Eastwood, being the laconic figure that he is, never bombards us with any of it. Under that steely exterior, I think he’s a deeply sentimental man respectful of time, place and personality. Beyond its location and period, Changeling is what used to be called, not a chick flick, but a ‘women’s picture’ — it’s easy to imagine Joan Crawford playing the lead — and I find it both bittersweet and ironic that Dirty Harry should be among America’s leading practitioners of this virtually extinct genre.
Jolie joins the filmmaker’s small but arresting gallery of women searching for personal fulfillment: Kay Lenz’s starry-eyed lover in Breezy (1973), Meryl Streep aching to break from the mundane in The Bridges of Madison County (1995), Hillary Swank reaching for purpose in Million Dollar Baby (2004). They’re complicated individuals quietly suffocating from male aggression, or from the rules and regulations imposed in a male-dominated society. With Jolie’s Christine Collins, her odyssey begins as a search for her lost son but ends as a tumultuous pursuit for justice.
The screenplay by J. Michael Straczynski is based partly on a true incident known as The Wineville Chicken Coop Murders, a spree which helped to expose corruption within the Los Angeles Police Department. When they attempted to use her missing boy Walter in a bizarre scheme to boost public support, Christine Collins was subject to the LAPD’s bullying tactics (they committed her to an insane asylum to shut her up) while the Wineville killer — Walter’s likely abductor — roamed free, hacking up young boys with an axe.
Collins was cajoled into a fraud concocted by the police. After several months they reportedly found her son, but it wasn’t the right boy. With the Great Depression in its second year, and pressure mounting for positive changes within the Department, she was asked, and agreed, to play along with the ruse and care for this boy as her own. But the illusion soon crumbled and she resumed her search, now aided by a high profile minister and radio personality, Rev. Gustav A. Briegleb, whose legal connections enabled Collins to get her day in court. In the end, and for the rest of her life, she never did find Walter.
Given the unusual nature of the true story, Straczynski’s screenplay is not without its flaws. The discrepancies between the real and movie Christine’s ‘acceptance’ of the fake Walter detours the film to implausibility. Rigged to appear crazy by the LAPD, the movie character need only to have brought forth Walter’s friends or even a photograph to prove the new boy a hoax. As it stands, we’re gently prodded to disregard the faux pas, Eastwood glossing over things with Jolie and all that sumptuous set and costume design.
He also falters with male characters who’ve been whittled down to stereotype. The villainy of Jeffrey Donovan’s police captain and Denis O’Hare’s psychiatrist is underlined to the point of moustache-twirling, and Jason Butler Harner’s child molester is a throwback to the giggling, greasy — and ultimately ridiculous — serial killer of Dirty Harry. John Malkovich’s Gustav Briegleb is inches away from barnstorming. Only Michael Kelly’s detective is really afforded any prolonged sense of humanity.
In painting them as caricatures, Eastwood loads most of the weight of Changeling on Jolie, but she’s obviously up for it. Indeed, is there a tougher woman working in Hollywood today? Possessing the right balance of, say, Hillary Swank’s sturdiness with Julianne Moore’s softness, Jolie’s is a subtle understanding of feeling and emotion. Watching her in Changeling, I thought back to the actresses of the era it takes place: Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Katherine Hepburn…realizing how tied they were to scripted dialog rife with explanation, allowing them so little room to act. Jolie’s performance is never obvious, never arch. She works with the inconsistencies of the scenario and her male co-stars, creating a dimensional character assimilating in a world gone out of control. Watching her in Changeling reminded me of why I love the movies.