A Star is Born…in Boston: Vanessa Redgrave in THE BOSTONIANS
1 July 2012
James Ivory’s The Bostonians (1984), adapted from the novel by Henry James, captures the love triangle between Olive Chancellor (Vanessa Redgrave), Verena Tarrant Madeleine Potter), and Basil Ransom (Christopher Reeve). Set in 19th century America, Verena is a young, attractive activist in the women’s liberation movement. Upon hearing one of Verena’s speeches, Olive, an older woman also involved in the women’s liberation movement, begins falling in love with Verena. Basil, Olive’s cousin who is visiting from Mississippi, also hears Verena speak, and he, too, begins to fall for the young woman. In an effort to stay close to Verena, Olive convinces Verena’s parents that the two women should live together, so Verena can become Olive’s protégée. As Olive and Verena grow close, Verena and Basil also begin spending a considerable amount of time together. Eventually Verena must decide between the two, and Verena’s choice inadvertently pushes Olive to take a bold stand in the women’s liberation movement.
While Ivory’s adaptation of James’ novel is aesthetically exquisite, the narrative is slow-moving, even in literary form, and even less climactic as a film. Therefore, in addition to a visually stunning production design, the film depends on strong performances from its actors to grab the audience’s attention, getting viewers to invest in The Bostonians’ characters. Several of the performances are sufficient; however one is truly remarkable. From start to finish, Vanessa Redgrave’s performance as Olive Chancellor is cinematic perfection. As the saying goes, the devil is in the details, and what distinguishes Redgrave’s performance from her fellow actors in The Bostonians is the precision of her delivery.
One scene that clearly demonstrates Redgrave’s prowess takes place when Mrs. Burrage (Nancy Marchand) discusses Verena’s future with Olive. The scene is actually broken into a few parts (through cross-cutting), and in the first part Olive sits, in her typical statuesque pose, with an understated hat atop her head, tied tightly with a dark ribbon underneath her chin. Mrs. Burrage proposes to Olive that her son, Henry, be matched with Verena because he, too, supports women’s liberation and their family has the financial means to better the movement. Ivory films this scene in alternating static, mid-shots. Thus, there is no complex camerawork; primarily, the actors’ performances create the scene’s intensity.
Redgrave slowly and methodically pushes crumbs around on the plate in front of her, keeping her eyes down and refusing to make eye contact with the Marchand’s rambling Mrs. Burrage, except, of course, for those few dramatic seconds when her piercing stare darts aggressively upon Marchand’s unsuspecting face. Olive has little to say during this “conversation,” and Redgrave uses the opportunity to take a small, slow bite of the food she has managed to push on her fork. The gesture is as courteous as it is insulting to Mrs. Burrage; Olive is polite in eating the tea-time treat she was given, and is demonstrating some degree of reverence for her hostess by allowing Mrs. Burrage to discuss her proposal uninterrupted, yet Redgrave’s gesture reveals a stubbornness and secrecy in Olive. Redgrave pushes the food around on her plate, and then nibbles lethargically at a minuscule bite, just as Olive listens disinterestedly to Mrs. Burrages’s proposal, but knows full-well she will not seriously consider the offer.
In a later part of this scene—after cross cutting reveals a date between Verena and Basil—the tables turn on Olive and, instead of discussing Verena’s possible future as Henry’s wife, Mrs. Burrage indirectly probes Olive about the curiously close relationship between she and Verena. This change of topic makes Olive uncomfortable, and Redgrave immediately stops playing with the food on the plate in front of her. The camera positioning switches and Ivory captures both Redgrave and Marchand in one wide, static shot. Still seated at the table, Redgrave draws her right arm behind her back and seems to put all her upper body weight on that arm for support. This positioning is the physicalization of Olive’s insecurity; Olive is terrified of outside gossip and intrusion into her love affair with Verena.
After a moment, Olive attempts to regain her composure and grabs her teacup, another significant gesture. Because she was uncomfortable with the words coming out of Mrs. Burrage’s mouth, Olive, instinctively, drowns her own words with an overzealous sip of tea, which causes her to choke. Redgrave cleverly and subtly uses gestures to fill the audience in on Olive’s thought process and emotional state. The audience reads Redgrave’s Olive, getting to know her better and better with every move; therefore investing in her situation more and more with each passing moment.
A later scene, one that has no dialogue but captures an intimate moment between Verena and Olive, also highlights Redgrave’s skillful performance. After Verena returns home late from a date with Basil, Olive, who has been out searching for Verena, finds the young woman seated on a couch. Up until this point in the film, Redgrave’s Olive stands tall, stoic and straight-laced, only ever relenting on her physical rigidness for Verena, however this is the moment when Olive’s valiant demeanor breaks. Having finally found Verena, Olive falls on the couch beside her and lies across Verena’s lap, her back arched and her arms and head hang. When interrupted by a housemaid, Olive abruptly swings her arms wildly at the girl to shoo her away. This is an unrefined, overcome, unpretentious Olive Chancellor, and although no words are spoken Redgrave signals everything viewers need to know about Olive’s mindset and emotional state through clever, contrasting body language and gesturing.
Lastly, even in the final scene of the film, Olive’s entrance onto the stage continues to reveal Redgrave’s remarkable work in The Bostonians. Ivory captures Olive’s entrance with a long shot, allowing the audience to see the chaos in the theatre during Olive’s entrance, as all the patron are disappointedly exiting the crowded venue. Because Olive was not prepared to speak at the event, and she just lost the person she loves, Olive is dazed and upset when walking on the stage. Redgrave once again takes advantage of a small moment to communicate Olive’s nerves to the audience by having Olive stumble as she crosses center stage. Olive’s trip is minor, but easily noticeable, and immediately draws the audience’s attention to Redgrave’s character. Even the slightest gesture, like this stumble, demonstrates Redgrave’s ability to discreetly communicate to the audience, as well as command a scene.
Of course these are only small moments in The Bostonians, and by no means the only moments Redgrave’s skills are displayed. Throughout the entire film, Redgrave delivers a resolutely strong performance, which significantly improves the overall quality of the film. The details she contributes, frequently through gestures, create a dynamic character audience members invest in. And, while this is certainly not her first or last astounding performance, The Bostonians is an impressive performance on Redgrave’s impressive filmography.