Milestone: “Klute” (1971)

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By Scott Ross

It is more than a truism that movies (and men) often locate women within an inhuman bifurcation: Madonna or Whore. Klute‘s Bree Daniels is perhaps the ultimate hooker role — sharp, intelligent, cool, and, however frightened she is by the unknown stalker who may or may not be threatening her life, in control.

Or is she? As portrayed by an astonishing Jane Fonda, Bree’s nervous energy constantly smolders just under the skin, until it periodically bursts through in justifiable rage. She’d rather be a model, or an actress, than a call-girl, but as we see from her attempts to enter either profession, the control belongs to others. Mostly men, but not entirely: At a fashion ad cattle-call the woman in charge (Mary Louise Wilson) sees Bree and the other hopefuls solely, and entirely, only as the various facets of their bodies the creative team wishes to exploit; when Bree is asked to show her hands, Wilson casually rejects them as “funny” before going to the next aspirant. Similarly, when Bree visits an actors’ agent (Anthony Holland) he pushes the hair of her shag cut off her forehead and tells her not to hide her face. Since Holland was gay and his on-screen persona reflects that, the implication is that even men who aren’t interested in Bree sexually feel they have the right to touch her without permission.

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The elegant meat-rack at the high-fashion magazine.

Klute’s screenwriters, the brothers Andy and Dave Lewis, were television scribes desperate to break away from the small screen, and they fashioned in their script a curious hybrid. Their eventual director, the redoubtable Alan J. Pakula, later remarked upon Alfred Hitchcock’s dictum that a melodrama cannot also be a character study, yet this is precisely what the Lewises devised, what interested Pakula, and what has made Klute so well-respected, and so memorable, for nearly a half-century; whatever the movie’s virtues or weaknesses as a thriller, there had never been a more fulsome, detailed, and honest, study of a whore in American movies when the picture opened, and there hasn’t been another to touch it since.

It has been suggested that the eponymous figure, played with both enormous restraint and great, if minimalist, feeling by Donald Sutherland, is a supporting character in the movie, and it’s difficult to argue, although calling it Bree, as Roger Ebert suggested, would have been wrong; a thriller needs mystery, and the name “Klute” is just odd and mysterious enough to be intriguing to a ticket-buyer. I know it was to me when, as an adolescent, I caught the picture on television. Still, once the picture moves past its opening sequence, Bree is in nearly every scene, and Klute is more involved in her actions and behavior than in the intrigues the suspense format requires. In this way the movie is the polar opposite of Pakula’s subsequent masterwork, All the President’s Men, which is almost entirely unconcerned with the private lives of its protagonists. Not that the plot is by the way; John Klute’s search for his missing friend and for the man whose unnerving anonymous calls to Bree strand her on the knife’s edge, are what the narrative is nominally about, and without them the lives of Bree and Klute would never intersect. But the filmmakers see Bree Daniels whole, and not merely as a technical contrivance.

27b71be408a63359fe6037c9b316bf23For all that it is concerned with sexuality, Klute is almost chaste in its presentation of Bree. There is a moment, early on, in which we see how she operates with a john, where for a brief moment one of Fonda’s breasts is exposed. But while we see the pair in bed later (and, as when Klute finally succumbs to Bree’s blandishments, Pakula shoots it from the shoulders up) the camera is focused on Fonda, seen in a tight close-up as she feigns passion, and takes a surreptitious look at her watch. Pauline Kael found this moment the only false note in Fonda’s performance, observing that Bree’s looking at her wrist before or after she coos encouragement into her client’s ear would have been valid but that to do so during it was indulging in a cheap laugh. I disagree. Part of Bree’s sense of control is being on top of every aspect of her paid trysts, and a prostitute is always aware of the progress of time. Time after all is her (or his) ultimate enemy. Other than child stars, models, dancers and athletes, no one ages out of desirability faster than a whore.* As the fashion writer Amy Fine Collins notes on the new Criterion edition of Klute, Fonda’s wardrobe in the picture constitutes a curious split. On the one hand, she usually wears high collars, but just as often revealing skirts, and her breasts are unfettered by brassier whether she is at home, on the job, or in the streets. Bree parades her sexuality openly, yet she’s protecting some part of herself. Her outfits are both a come-on and a holding back.

Klute is one of those time-capsule movies, like The French Connection, Born to Win or Marathon Man, that capture in amber the look and feel of New York City as it was in the 1970s, after white-flight reduced its tax revenues and before gentrification began to push its poorer (and darker) residents out. And while she is reduced by circumstances into living in a hovel next to a funeral parlor, Bree behaves as if she’s still ensconced on Park Avenue; the Mermaid dress she sports with a feather boa when she visits the elderly garment merchant (Morris Strassberg) is clearly a remnant from palmier days and must once have set her back several thousand dollars.

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Bree in the mermaid dress

There is despair around the peripheries of the picture’s action, and while it is palpable — the scene in which Bree and Klute inadvertently foil two strung-out junkies’ attempt at a heroin connection is, in the couple’s mute, stunned anguish, nearly unbearable — it never overwhelms the movie. The marginal existence of Klute’s whores, johns and junkies is neatly offset by Gordon Willis’ lighting of the perfectly appointed office in which the psychopath (Charles Cioffi) is seen in his natural milieu. With its huge sliding panel (a photo of Neil Armstrong’s moon-walk) it becomes a kind of dark sanctum, accessible only to the man whose wealth and insularity imply a control he barely hangs onto. Although we don’t quite know what Cioffi is up to, the filmmakers telling us who the killer is before the mid-point points out the difference between a suspense movie and a mere mystery.

Pakula’s direction is remarkable throughout. Being more interested in actors than in flash, his style is mutable. Yet it’s never dull, or ostentatious. All that connects Klute and All the President’s Men are their sense of comprehensible paranoia — a third Pakula picture during this period, The Parallax View of 1974, completed a disturbing triptych on American themes — their intelligence, and the presence of Willis as the cinematographer. Pakula is the auteurist’s despair: A filmmaker whose approach is dictated not by identifiable touches recycled with variation from movie to movie but by the material in them. The look of Klute is nearly documentarian, which is as it should be; even within the contrivances of the thriller plot, the picture captures a life as it is lived, in all its messy contradictions.

The editing, credited to Carl Lerner, is crisp and pointed; there is a striking moment early on when Klute’s friend literally disappears from the picture. Michael Small’s music is, like his score for Marathon Man, eerily unsettling, all the more so in his use of Sally Stevens’ ethereal vocalese, so effective that Lalo Schifrin included her in his music for Dirty Harry later in the year. Willis’ cinematography is, as always with this painter of light, masterly, the bright sunlit streets contrasted with the nocturnal darkness that conceals, enshrouds, and threatens. The Lewis’ screenplay is taut and judicious, doling out no more information than is necessary for us to comprehend the basic set-up and to follow as it unwinds, and their dialogue never makes a misstep. It’s sharp and, occasionally, pleasingly elliptical, as when Bree, thinking she’s seen the last of Klute, taunts him. When he refuses to rise to the bait, all she’s left with is an angry, “Fuck you!” She thinks she and her underground compatriots have “gotten” to Klute, but he gets to her by dismissing her cynicism as empty posturing. There’s no need to go any further into it. Writing well is sometimes knowing when to stop.†

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The Lewises also give Fonda a classic monologue. When, during his first interrogation of her Klute makes reference to the old gentleman, Bree laces into what she reads as his judgmental attitude with barely controlled fury:

You saw that? Goddamn you! He’s 70 years old! His wife’s dead. He’s cut garments since he was 14. He’s maybe in his whole life had one week’s vacation, and I’m all he’s got! And he never lays a hand on me! What harm is there in that? What’s your bag, Klute? What do you like? You a talker? A button freak? Like to have your chest walked around with high-heel shoes? You like to have us wash your tinkle? Or do you get it off wearing women’s clothes? Goddamn hypocrite squares!

And indeed, the scene between Fonda and Strassbreg is, in its way, the gentlest and most revealing in the picture. While he plays an old recording of a cimbalom-laden waltz, she spins out the fantasy of erotic Continental romance she knows he wishes to hear as she slowly begins removing her clothing. It illuminates at once how quick-thinking Bree is, how much she relies on her acting ability to ply her trade, and how in control of the scenario between herself and her client she really is. If Klute was less disgusted by the mere idea of prostitution, he might notice these things.

In the large supporting cast, Roy Scheider has a good, if brief, early role as Bree’s one-time pimp. Although the character is repellent, Scheider soft-pedals him, making him seem eminently personable and reasonable, yet the actor never lets us forget how dangerous he is, especially to Bree. Cioffi is disturbingly normal, pretending to be concerned about the disappearance of Klute’s friend (and his employee), stringing Klute along and, at the climax, calmly playing for Bree a tape recording of his horrific murder of the junkie as she silently weeps; that he is so disengaged from this event, and that we don’t know what he was doing to the girl as she screams in anguish, make the thing twice as chilling.

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Fonda and Scheider. Note the proprietary hand on her shoulder.

Aside from Holland and Strassberg there are also good roles for Dorothy Tristan as the junkie whore; Rita Gam as an angry, jilted Lesbian; Nathan George as a police detective; Shirley Stoller as a repulsive madam presiding over a joyless collection of bored whores and middle-aged johns; and Jean Stapleton, by the time of the picture’s June release an instant television star on All in the Family, as a comically harassed secretary. Candy Darling shows up as a club patron, Veronica Hamel is one of the models dismissed by the advertising team and Richard Jordan is a victim of Bree’s drug-addled flirtatiousness. Rosalind Cash has a tiny role in a nightclub. Richard Schull and Sylvester Stallone also allegedly appear, although when I see the picture I never notice either of them.

aSpeW79Sutherland, one of the most interesting actors of his generation, gives a performance of unerring exactitude, reacting in an understated manner to almost everything he sees and never pushing for effect. It’s a self-effacing performance, all the more so for the actor’s being willing, at that stage of his career (he’d just appeared as Hawkeye Pierce in MASH) to submerge himself in a secondary lead opposite the woman with whom he was romantically involved. Sutherland’s Klute is never snide or insinuating — although Bree perceives him as both — just quietly dogged. He cares about his missing friend, and while he doesn’t wish to believe the man capable of brutalizing women, it’s an idea he’s willing to accept if it gets him closer to his goal. Having unintentionally gotten a woman killed, Klute takes pity on her junkie boyfriend, slipping him some bills from his wallet. It’s a gesture the man is too zonked to do anything but accept, yet we sense that, for Klute, however much it was, it could never be enough. His essential decency is never far from the surface as when, trying to comfort Bree, his hand hesitates before making contact with her body.

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There’s also a nice switch on domestic roles late in the picture, when he and Bree stop at a sidewalk vendor’s stalls and she watches with relaxed amusement while he tests the fruit with his long fingers. As in the sequences in which he watches over her as she sleeps or attempts to soothe her fevered brow, it’s as if he’s perfectly happy to accept a more traditionally and stereotypically “feminized” position, performing as mothers do without thinking. It speaks to Sutherland’s thespic gifts that he never makes a show of these moments, or comments on them with either his face or his gestures.

Sutherland in Klute

As Bree, Jane Fonda’s acting is so spontaneous it almost seems to be observed by a hidden documentary camera, yet you’re never in doubt that she knows exactly what she’s doing. Pakula observed to Dick Cavett (in an extra on the Criterion disc) in 1978 that she couldn’t have given the same performance in 1971 had she been the woman, and the actress, she later became — that her nervousness and her uncertainties, about herself and her off-screen activities, bled into her approach to the part. (She tried to get out of playing Bree, thinking she was wrong for the role, but Pakula knew it was her nerves speaking.) As with Sutherland, there is not a moment in her performance that reads as false, or “acted.” She’s beyond acting here, and she never censors Bree Daniels or tamps down on the less pleasant aspects of her personality. She can be cruel, as when she seduces Klute only so she can dismiss his ardor afterward, yet you don’t hate her, no matter what she says, or does.

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Pakula directing Fonda. (Photo by George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images)

Fonda’s line readings, always unusual, seem exactly right even when they’re a little off-kilter or she places the stress on a different word, or even on a different syllable, than you expect. It’s part of what makes her performance so astounding, and so fresh, no matter how many times you watch it. Although some lines were changed during shooting, as is nearly always the case, only the sessions between Bree and her psychiatrist (Vivian Nathan, in a nicely calibrated performance) were actually improvised. It was a clever notion of Pakula’s, forcing Fonda to confront her feelings about the character, about what she does for a living, and how she feels about it. Bree becomes more complex, more vulnerable and interesting — more alive — as a consequence, especially when she speaks with trepidation about her growing feelings for Klute. That’s a complication she never counted on, and being vulnerable to and with another human being shakes her.

Nor is Fonda afraid to let herself look slovenly, or zonked-out, or, as in the climax, notably moist; while Cioffi plays that hideous tape, you become aware not only of the tears falling down Fonda’s cheeks but of the thin strings of mucous hanging from her nose. That’s partly what I mean by her being, in Klute, beyond acting. What she does with the role is as powerful now as when the movie was new; Jane Fonda’s performance as Bree Daniels is one of the finest, of any kind, ever committed to film.

No, I’ll go further: It’s the single greatest performance by an American screen actor in the past 50 years.


*By “desirability,” I do not necessarily mean erotic attraction; I’m referring to professional limitations, artificial or otherwise.

†In the shooting script, Bree does later ask Klute what he meant by “pathetic,” but he doesn’t answer.

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Text copyright 2019 by Scott Ross

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Jill Clayburgh in Paul Mazursky’s “An Unmarried Woman” (1978)

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By Scott Ross

An Unmarried Woman, written and directed by Paul Mazursky, was a touchstone for me when it opened in 1978. I kept going back to see it, over and over throughout that spring, and bringing women friends with me. It was a foreign country, kids; they did things differently there. Like making mature, intelligent, sexy and truthful movies about human beings… and especially, about women.

Why Jill Clayburgh did not take home the Academy Award the next year for her fulsome, achingly honest performance I’ll never know. Which would I rather sit through? The earnest, phony pieties of Coming Home again, or the joy of An Unmarried Woman?

Baby, there’s no contest.

Goodspeed, Mr. Mazursky. Thanks for the laughs, and the love.


Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

By the Great Horn Spoon!: The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin (1967)

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By Scott Ross

Revisiting a movie one loved as a child is always a risky undertaking, especially when the object is a Disney movie — particularly a Disney movie comedy of the slapstick-happy 1960s. Will it be unbearably coy? Unutterably bland? Unendurably silly? Will the very elements that captured one’s youthful, unformed, imagination now reek of cheap, easy immaturity? Or will a return visit reveal new facets, more resonant with adulthood?

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The remarkable pulchritude of Roddy McDowall in 1967. He never looked better than he did from this period through the mid-1970s.

What a pleasure, then, to revisit The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin (1967)! From Ward Kimball’s minimalist, deliciously recherché opening titles to the hilarious climactic bout of fisticuffs, it proves that rare thing: A movie comedy whose tone and style never waver from beginning to end. And for those who, as I do, admire the great Roddy McDowall, the movie provides the additional unalloyed delight of enjoying him near the summit of his attractiveness and personal charm.

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The 1967 release poster captures the style of the narrative and of Ward Kimball’s amusing visual effects.

I first encountered this, and another unusually fine ’60s release, The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh (and which also more than holds up) on the weekly Disney television showcase around 1970. It was my introduction to McDowall, who almost certainly pinged something resonant in my nascent, pre-pubescent queer-boy radar. A year or two later, I greatly enjoyed reading Sid Fleischman’s 1965 source novel, By the Great Horn Spoon! with its picaresque Wild West narrative and its charmingly sketched illustrations by Eric von Schmidt. What I remember best about the novel (in which Griffin is called Praiseworthy, and Arabella is Master Jack’s aunt rather than, as in the movie, his older sister) is the perilous sea trip around Cape Horn, jettisoned from a film already plot-heavy without that lengthy but informative diversion.

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The movie edition paperback of “By the Great Horn Spoon!”, re-titled to reflect the movie.

The adult viewer of Bullwhip Griffin catches, and savors, the story’s fulsome portrait of the raw San Francisco of 1849; the dime-novel excesses that excite young Jack to head West and inspire him to ascribe outlandish attributes for his butler/companion; the effectively melodramatic George Bruns score; the recurrent narrative ballad by Robert and Richard Sherman, whose charmingly anachronistic melodic provenance seems to be Paul Dresser’s “Over the Banks of the Wabash, Far Away”; and spotting the many splendid character actors who provide comic assist. These include Mike Mazurki as the dim-witted Mountain Ox, Harry Guardino as an amiable urban weasel, Liam Redmond’s blustering Captain Swain, Cecil Kellaway’s phlegmatic family retainer, Hermione Baddeley as a slyly avaricious housekeeper, Joby Baker’s cheerful Mexican bandit, Arthur Malet as a nearly toothless recipient of frontier dentistry, John Qualen as a Frisco barber, Doodles Weaver as a bather in a fast sight-gag, Bert Mustin in an amusing bit as a lynching aficionado, and the peerless Richard Haydn as a florid stage actor, a character — and a performer — we only wish had a larger role in the proceedings.

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The splendid Richard Haydn, abetted by McDowall and Bryan Russell.

Bryan Russell, playing young Master Jack, sounds more like a youth from Los Angeles than the scion of Boston nabobs, but he’s a likable presence. (For many years, I misidentified him as Kurt’s brother, an understandable mistake given their similarity of facial characteristics, vocal timbre and boyhood appearances in Disney features.)

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McDowall and Russell in their ubiquitous red dress-shirts.

Karl Malden, an actor for whom I generally have scant use, is cannily employed as the movie’s unstoppable villain, the exuberantly smarmy Judge Higgins. Far better at broad comedy than in his more “distinguished” forays into drama, Malden is most effective when chewing all available scenery, as in his riotously frustrated Archie Lee Meighan in Tennessee Williams’ Baby Doll.

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Karl Malden as the slippery Judge Higgins. The onlookers are appropriately dubious.

And while she’s peripheral to much of the movie’s action, Suzanne Pleshette is her standard delight as Jack’s sister. No shrinking Boston violet, this Arabella; she’s as amused at as she is appalled by her profligate grandfather’s final joke of leaving her penniless, makes her confident way in San Francisco as a saloon chanteuse, and avidly spars with Griffin in preparation for his ultimate battle with Mazurki.

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The delectable Suzanne Pleshette greets her long-lost brother and her butler-cum-swain in San Francisco.

As Griffin, McDowall does everything he did well, plus. As imperturbable as Ruggles at his starchiest, tolerant of Jack’s boyish impulses, implacable in his sense of honor, unflappable in his determination yet game for whatever opportunities arise, McDowall’s Griffin is thoroughly engaging company. As an added fillip, the movie, smartly adapted by Lowell S. Hawley and stylishly directed by James Neilson, utilizes slapstick devices like under-cranking for sped-up effects along with a series of delicious animated assists from Kimball. The best of these is the period Cupid who floats languidly across the screen to the accompaniment of a hilariously underpowered horn solo, whenever Pleshette bestows a kiss on McDowall.

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Griffin’s terpsichorean display of fisticuffs astounds the Mountain Ox.

The mis-matched boxing championship with which the narrative culminates hinges on these comedic effects, and could easily have been sunk by them. Instead, they, like the inventive choreography of Alex Plasschaert, prove positive assets, done with the complete assurance and the broad smile of the consummate prankster. Far too many Disney comedies of the period, and after, and which utilize similar devices, wedded to cutesy-poo plotting and cartoon characterization, are broad, vulgar fiascoes of the type that give “family comedy” such a black eye and which so fervently resist revisiting. The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin, like The Love Bug and the originals of That Darn Cat and Freaky Friday, are the exceptions one wishes had more often proved the rule.

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One of Peter Ellenshaw’s superb matte paintings, here evoking the 1840s port of San Francisco.


Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

Barbra Streisand in “Yentl”

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By Scott Ross

Barbra Streisand, examining the china on Amy Irving’s table (“A matched set/From France, yet”) in her own adaptation of I.B. Singer’s “Yentl, the Yeshiva Boy.” A beautiful, visually rich evocation of early 20th century Polish-Jewish life, Yentl also boasted a splendid central performance by its writer-director. The diva has made a lot of enemies over her career, not least due to her well-documented arrogance, although her admirable sense of perfectionism doesn’t endear herself to the conformists either. Still, one cannot help thinking that, had a male actor had made this impressive a directorial debut, he would have been showered with praise and given an Oscar.* Streisand got neither.


*cf., Robert Redford, Warren Beatty, Kevin Costner, Mel Gibson.


Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

Ellen Greene in “Little Shop of Horrors”

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By Scott Ross

Ellen Greene as Audrey, the hapless salesgirl heroine of the Mencken-Ashman Little Shop of Horrors. As fulsome vocally as she was inspired comedically, hers is a musical movie performance to stand with the classics of the genre. Greene’s impassioned release on the “Suddenly Seymour” duet with Rick Moranis sends chills racing up my spine whenever I think of it.

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

Kathy Bates and Judy Parfitt in “Dolores Claiborne”

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By Scott Ross

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The great Kathy Bates as Dolores Claiborne.

Although the movie is nowhere near as fine as Stephen King’s literary thriller — that the filmmakers did not trust the material is evident in their making Dolores’ daughter, who barely appears in the novel, a central character  — the picture contains two superb performances. As the battered wife of an unrepentant drunk, Bates gave us the flip-side of King’s Annie Wilkes from Misery, as warm and conflicted as Annie was coldly psychotic.

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Judy Parfitt as Dolores’ wealthy employer, Vera Donovan. The central mystery of the story — did Dolores murder the bed-ridden, seemingly unreconstructed rich-bitch Vera, or merely help her only friend end her suffering? — is also central to the role, and the British Parfitt was stunningly good. Her piquant line, “Sometimes being a bitch is all a woman’s got to hold on to,” ultimately proves heartbreaking in context.


Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

Barbara Hershey in “The Stunt Man” and “Tin Men”

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By Scott Ross

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Barbara Hershey (formerly Seagull) as Nina in The Stunt Man. Richard Rush, who directed and co-wrote the movie, called her “the dream girl.” She certainly was… even if her most pivotal scene ended up on the cutting-room floor.

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Hershey in Barry Levinson’s brilliant comic drama Tin Men. As the wife who discovers she’s been used as the ultimate prize in an escalating competition between her car dealer husband and a disgruntled aluminum siding salesman. This is from the lovely scene in the Baltimore rain, where she confronts Richard Dreyfuss with the truth and he, unable to say the words, “I love you” can only stammer, “I wanna… I wanna be with you.” Hershey is stunningly good.

Copyright 2014 by Scott Ross