ON DVD & BLU-RAY
The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds (1972) Blu Ray (Indicator)
A broken family
Joanne Woodward plays Beatrice Hunsdorfer, an eccentric, alcoholic single mother who lives with her two daughters, Matilda (Nell Potts) and Ruth (Roberta Wallach). The former, the younger of the two daughters, has a passion for science. Her latest project involves testing the effects of radiation on the growth of a breed of flowers known as “man-in-the-moon marigolds”. Her closest companion is a white rabbit which sheds droppings everywhere, much to Beatrice’s dismay. The latter daughter, being an adolescent, is more interested in both flirting with boys and practicing her majorette dances in the garden.
Being short of cash, they rely on taking in lodgers, the latest being Nanny Annie - the senile and immobile mother of one of the teachers. Beatrice, however, has dreams of starting up a coffee shop, despite the fact that neither the bank nor her estranged husband Floyd (Richard Venture) are willing to finance it. The name of the establishment? The Man-in-the-Moon Cafe.
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A rewarding film but not a cheerful one
While Paul Newman was best known as a movie star, he also directed six films during his lengthy career. The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds (a true tongue-twister of a name if ever there was one) was his third. It’s a rather surprising project for an A-lister like Newman to take on - a downbeat, slice-of-life drama featuring his real-life wife Joanne Woodward in a role which, while powerful, is anything but glamorous. It also features their real-life daughter Nell Newman (credited by her performing name Nell Potts) as one of her on-screen daughters. The other is played by Roberta Wallach, the real-life daughter of another well-known actor, Eli Wallach.
A cheerful film this is not. Beatrice Hunsdorfer is a middle-aged woman who tries her damnedest to get her house in order but - as we can see from the grungy state of it - is quite clearly unable to. While clearly not an irredeemably horrible or unsympathetic person, she is one who is quite seriously flawed. She has some rather bizarre ideas around attempting to regain her youthful looks, as seen from the parade of painfully artificial and ill-fitting wigs that she purchases from the local thrift store. However, despite how pathetic this character clearly is, Joanne Woodward plays her with such a complete lack of self-awareness that the result veers into a strange kind of plucky, motherly dignity that’s evident even while she’s putting beer in the ancient Annie’s water in lieu of the recommended additive (honey).
While much of the film is Woodward’s show, the two younger and less well-known actresses who play her daughters also give great performances. Matilda (played by Potts) is perhaps the only one of the family members who has a true shot of success thanks to her evident passion for science. She’s a rather mousey character who isn’t given due appreciation by her two closest family members - or almost anyone else for that matter, with the exception of (naturally) her science teacher. Ruth (Wallach), on the other hand, is a typically obnoxious adolescent who doesn’t understand the impact that her unpleasant behaviour has. The mother, her two children and the highly dependent old Nanny Annie are four people who are forced together by the bond of necessity, and yet clearly haven’t been made with each other’s respective needs in mind. Needless to say, it all leads to a conclusion that’s as drenched in sadness as it is in alcohol.
While this all sounds unbearably miserable, there is a surprising amount of humour here. Indeed, if it weren’t for the serious themes of alcoholism, small-town hopelessness and the inherent psychological abuse within a dysfunctional family, you might be fooled into thinking you were watching a comedy. Of course, a lot of the humour (much of it centred around Beatrice’s vices) has a certain discomfort about it that is shared with John Huston’s equally pathos-ridden Fat City from the same year.
The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds may not be the delirious B-movie you might expect from a quick glance at its bizarre title; it’s something that’s ultimately far more rewarding and infinitely more likely to leave a deep impact on your psyche for a long time after the end credits roll.
Runtime: 100 mins
Dir: Paul Newman
Script: Alvin Sargent, from a play by Paul Zindel
Starring: Joanne Woodward, Nell Potts, Roberta Wallach, Judith Lowry, David Spielberg, Richard Venture
Blu Ray Audio-Visual
The darker shots have rather low contrast levels. However, this appears to have been a deliberate attempt on the cinematographer’s part to emphasise how dismal the Hunsdorfer’s home environment really is. Meanwhile, the brighter ones are rich with vivid colours. A close-up of the sapphire blue of Nell Potts’ eyes during the climactic high school sequence is especially striking. The image is a little soft at times but the overall look is very pleasing and works well for the film.
Highlights amongst the extras
The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds is an essay by Johnny Mains. He looks at the film’s themes and production background, as well as one or two snippets from archive interviews with Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. The latter confessed that her role as Beatrice Hunsdorfer had such an effect on her that it left her feeling suicidally depressed. The character was actually based on playwright Paul Zindel’s mother!
Atom. Atom. What a Beautiful Word by Bethan Roberts takes a look at the concept of atomic gardening and the 1950s “Atoms for Peace” campaign which was the inspiration behind the film’s character Matilda.
Paul Zindel is an essay about the author of the original play, featuring snippets from various archive interviews. He admits that he disliked the movie adaptation of his play The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds when he initially saw it but liked it much more when it was shown on TV. He even thought that the commercial breaks added to the film’s rhythm!
Critical Response takes a look at the rather mixed reviews that the film got on release.
The film’s commentary is provided by Adrian Martin. He focuses less on the usual trivia surrounding individual scenes and more on a dissection of Newman’s own directorial style. He notes a kind of stasis in its approach which reinforces the feel of an abusive familial cocoon. He also mentions that Zindel, being a school teacher, meant the play as a love letter to the educational system’s ability to empower children with the hope to escape from such negative family settings. An intelligent and literate, if slightly dry, commentary.
1973 Cannes Film Festival Press Conference
A brief snippet of a press interview with Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. When Paul Newman is asked whether his daughter Nell is allowed to spend her salary at her young age, he replies that he has given her some of it to put towards “pigeon food, skunk food, dog food, ferret food, cat food and to build a pigeon shelter.”
There are also two feature-length audio interviews. The first is a John Player Lecture interview with Paul Newman. The second is a Guardian interview with Joanne Woodward. An isolated music and effects track, trailers and an image gallery round out the extras.
A great, if rather sad, movie that comes close to being an American equivalent of the British “social realism” movement. A neglected gem, presented here with plentiful extras.