Harvard Film Archive sheds light on Brooke Adams’ resilient vulnerability
Film retrospectives tend to defend the theory of the author. A slice of a director’s filmography is released publicly, framed by an evolving or at least related suggested thread. Sometimes a cinematographer gets such attention. The actors, less.
So, it’s worth noting when a series focuses on an actor, especially an actor with such a varied, dynamic, and arguably underrated career as Brooke Adams. She started acting at age 6, appearing on television in the 1960s, then blossoming on the big screen in the late 70s. Since then, she has moved between stage, screen and other creative activities, such as painting and writing.
In 2020, she told Martha’s Vineyard Arts and Ideas about deciding she was “no longer an actress.” “I love to paint and I sell my paintings, so it’s all good,” she said. She and her husband, actor Tony Shalhoub (“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” “Monk”), live part-time on Martha’s Vineyard and have been interviewed together. Adams acknowledged that as her star grew and hers waned, she needed to find “new head space, to not feel like a has-been.”
This kind of candor is evident in decades of media coverage with Adams and often overlaps with her screen presence. Both in character and as herself, she speaks of frustrations with concrete vulnerability. Raw but not too harsh. Yielding but never weak. And often funny. The next series of films, “Brooke Adams: Radiance in Plain Sight,” reveals similar relativity in five roles between 1978 and 1992. All will screen at the Harvard Film Archive November 12-20, with Adams present for two events.
Chronologically first, but series closing is Adams’ best-known role in the rambling, agrarian “Days of Heaven” (1978). Writer-director Terrence Malick set the pre-Depression-era love triangle in a sea of Texas wheat. Adams plays Abby, torn between Bill (Richard Gere), a rebellious and insane laborer, and the wealthy farmer (Sam Shepard, angular and serious in his screen debut).
Part documentary, part romance, melodramatic, and futuristic (Gere’s haircut and smug persona lay the groundwork for leading men of the 80s-90s, himself the leader among them), “Days” is known for turning the curious movie into the movie obsessed. It has a lot of questionable backstories, like the script Malick wrote and dropped; why he disappeared after his success; the amount Haskell Wexler drew or did not draw; moreover, he launched the main talent into stardom. It also clouds the notion of narrative clarity, relying heavily on Oscar-winning naturalistic cinematography (by Néstor Almendros, part of the debate) and a relentlessly depressing score by Ennio Morricone. No matter how many times I see it, the most striking element is the improvised voiceover of Bill’s little sister, Linda (Linda Manz).
As for Adams, the film gave him a chance to shine with windswept mutability. The carefree affection her character shares with Bill, who encourages her to pull a quick one on the supposedly dying farmer, also doesn’t diminish when she falls in love with the farmer. Despite the script’s fundamental plot, Adams moves with an air of tirelessness, a quality the men she’s sandwiched between lack. His easygoing defense keeps the story moving. During a recent re-watch, I thought about how cool Abby leaves Linda towards the end of the movie, for example. Adams will speak after a screening on Sun. Nov. 20 at 3 p.m.
Far less well known until its reissue in June, and the likely impetus for this series, is a resurfaced turn of Adams as a young woman in transition in “Vengeance is Mine” (1984). Written and directed by Harvard graduate Michael Roemer, credited with directing the first student feature circa 1949, “Vengeance” is screened as part of Michael Roemer and the Rite of Rediscovery (November 11-27, also at Harvard Film Archive). While the film wanders to extremes, it’s the golden ticket as Adams and Roemer, 94, will appear together for a chat on Saturday. Nov. 19 at 7 p.m. Produced by WGBH Boston and airing on public television as “Haunted,” scenes include locations along the I-91 corridor in western Massachusetts as well as to and from Block Island.
“Vengeance” lives in that now-rare realm of adult interpersonal drama. Her own life turned upside down, Jo befriends Donna (Trish Van Devere) and inexplicably fits into Donna’s failing marriage. The women struggle like a two-headed monster vying over which head should rule over the beast. Is the beast married? Maternity? Mental Health? The film does not offer easy answers.
In the notes for the Roemer series, Jake Perlin, the film’s release manager, wrote that the director had “an aversion to telling stories he considered lies,” but often refused to telegraph his intentions, though. dwelling instead on “the unpredictability and emotional brutality of people”. Above all, in “Vengeance,” Adams has plenty of time to think, react, and shift gears right before our eyes. And as in “Days of Heaven”, she maintains this link even if her character weakens or redoubles.
Adams plays simpler roles in two other screened titles in the series, as a Board of Health scientist in the 1978 sci-fi thriller, “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (remade from 1956), and as as the mother of two teenage girls in the 1992 drama “Gas Food Lodging.” In “Invasion,” she’s torn between two men again, a recurring theme she jokes about in the insert here. Her boyfriend quickly falls prey to a pod that replaces free humans with replicas that, well, see for yourself. His boss (a particularly needy Donald Sutherland) spends most of the film trying to figure out the pods and deal with his love for the Adams character. A wild ride of a film with a deep cast and a strange current resonance, “Invasion” spurred other sci-fi and horror roles for Adams as well as another pairing with Sutherland. “The Dead Zone” (1983) by David Cronenberg is also featured in this series.
Fast forward nine years to arid New Mexico. Adams plays a truck stop waitress and single parent in Allison Anders’ “Gas Food Lodging.” As well as being unique for its working-class female protagonists, Anders’ film challenged ideas about sexuality and consent in an era of teen movies filled with anything but. In Adams’ case, her character has motivations and desire beyond her daughters (played by Ione Skye and Fairuza Balk), who mistakenly think boyfriends will solve all their problems. It is the straw dog that the film exposes. Overwhelmed but not broken, steady in the background, Adams keeps her daughters — and this movie — afloat.
In its distillation of her creative work over the decades, this series shows that whatever life throws at her characters, or her characters reject in life, Brooke Adams exudes a will to carry on. Brooke Adams: Radiance in Plain Sight rightly recognizes the actor’s stamina.
“Brooke Adams: Radiance in Plain Sight” runs at the Harvard Film Archives Nov. 12-12, 20.