The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds

Let’s aim our tranquillisers squarely at the elephant in the room, first: The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds is a terrible title. It was a bad name for the Pulitzer-winning play by Paul Zindel, on which it is based, and then became a worse one for a movie. This prejudice of mine has nothing to do with its length, or its unwieldy rhythm, poorly disguised by its multi-hyphenate adjective. It has nothing to do with the surface zaniness of both subject and object, or the fact that it clumsily advertises the film’s set-piece symbolism. It has something to do with all of these things combined. Long, zany titles can carry a lot of weight (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) while short, sensible ones are just as likely to fumble (The Room). Call me petty, but I think if you love movies, you love the full meal of a good movie, and there’s nothing like a title that lingers on the tongue to improve one’s cultural palate.

Anyway, this one refers to an experiment quiet, sensitive Matilda Hunsdorfer is conducting for an upcoming school science fair, all the while dealing with a difficult home life with her epileptic class clown sister, Ruth, and her eccentric, neglectful, self-loathing, occasionally abusive mother, Beatrice. Zindel, a former pupil of Edward Albee, had in common with that playwright a complicated relationship with an allegedly distant mother. Marigolds was his first attempt, repeated in many of his novels for young adults, to dramatise his own childhood.

By his own admission, Matilda “Tillie” Hunsdorfer is his ‘life-affirming’ proxy, a Mary Sue sketched innocently at the expense of every girl and woman around her who fails to measure up to her precocious sensitivity and intellect. I haven’t read the play, but I gather that it centers on Tillie and the salvation that her school life represents: hence the symbolism of the titular experiment, in which seeds, thanks to being irradiated by Tillie’s teacher, become flowers of unprecedented strangeness despite being cultivated in the claustrophobic, stifling environment of the Hunsdorfer home. Despite the Pulitzer prize, the play had critics, who reacted to the grotesque, demonised mother character similarly to how Faye Dunaway would later be received for her portrayal of Joan Crawford in the camp cult biopic Mommie Dearest.

The reception of female-centric melodrama, especially when it spotlights inadequate, unsafe or abusive mother figures, has always been caught in a complex web of tangled perceptions. On the one hand, men are often incapable of making art that takes seriously women in extreme emotional states; on the other, male critics are often incapable of appreciating any element of seriousness that shines through such flawed productions. Even Marigolds’ striking pink poster, included on both the box art and in an image gallery on the new Indicator Blu-ray, loudly proclaims that ‘Life’s been a real bitch to Beatrice Hunsdorfer. And vice versa.’ Thankfully, the three people most responsible for adapting Marigolds into a tolerable— and unstagy— film did take Beatrice seriously, in their different ways.

In opening out the play’s single location, dilapidated suburban home, and transplanting it to the declining industrial city of Bridgeport, Connecticut, screenwriter Alvin Sargent and director Paul Newman (yes, that one) make Beatrice the undisputed main character, almost as a side effect. No longer the agoraphobic spectre haunting her children’s home lives, she goes out into the world when her children are at school, and we see who she is when she isn’t trying to be a mother. This meandering causes the original themes and convictions of the story to lose their focus, and makes Beatrice’s effect on her children harder to determine and trace; Tillie, in particular, is so absent as a voice in the film that she never develops beyond being a cipher.

The upside to this lack of a clear frame around the drama, and Newman’s reluctance to provide a sense of momentum in moving towards the film’s conclusion, is a much more interesting approach to Beatrice and a more thoroughly plotted examination of how she has reached this dead-end in her life. At first we get hints that she is something of a cliché: the girl who ‘peaked in high school’, got pregnant, married, and then was left by her husband. But it turns out that Betty was always an outcast due to her eccentricities and lack of social grace, and that her flighty self-loathing is only a symptom of the profound, possibly clinical anxiety that has plagued her all her life; her marriage may not have turned out like she dreamt it, but she was widowed, not abandoned. She inflicts some of her neuroses on her children, but when we see her alone, we understand that there’s a lot she is trying to shelter them from.

Film historian Adrian Martin, in his audio commentary, likens Marigolds to Wanda, A Woman Under the Influence and Housekeeping because of its portrayal of a troubled American mother-figure of uncertain mental health. I’m not sure the direction measures up, but Joanne Woodward’s performance, which won Best Actress at Cannes, does. Newman never wanted to appear in the films he directed, and this is one instance (along with 1968’s Rachel, Rachel) where he was able to focus entirely on providing a platform for his wife’s considerable talents, which Newman’s star status would sometimes unjustly eclipse. Woodward apparently hated the play, found it ‘depressing’, and loathed the character. She ‘almost had a nervous breakdown’ because of the stress of inhabiting the role. This loathing is visible on-screen as self-loathing, but apart from that, Woodward fools me; she seems to understand just how trapped and desperate her character has become, and contributes immensely to the film’s subtext. Her face tells the story of Beatrice’s intense embarrassment— how it reflects the pity and contempt inflicted on her as a lonely, struggling single mother out in the world, and how it is manifested as anger, frustration and the occasional self-sabotaging cry for help.

But beyond all her troubles, Woodward gives Beatrice a wry sense of humour and an ability to size up anyone who belittles her. When she’s not totally overwhelmed, she can be playful, even tender. The moments of the film that risk being too quirky, too camp, or too savage, are balanced out by the much more even portrait that Woodward paints, especially when she is freed from the constraints of the plot. In the film’s most memorable moment, Beatrice takes a breather on a hillside, drawing the attention of a nearby squad car. She recognises the cop from high school, but he takes much longer to place her; he looks at her with a mix of bewilderment and pity, while the entire exchange, for her, is a quiet struggle to reflect this look back at him and claw back some of her self-worth. Next to a well-observed breather of a scene like that, all the histrionics, the monologues, the quirky symbolism, geriatric houseguests and pet rabbits seem like the woeful remnants of the most fatiguing tendencies of the previous decade, and anticipations of the most unfortunate misfires of the next.

The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man in the Moon Marigolds is out now from Indicator

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