Given their predilection for stuffy period stories, it’s always surprising to see how well the Merchant-Ivory team handled contemporary narratives. Freed from obligations to replicate the décor and mannerisms of yesteryear, director James Ivory, producer Ismail Merchant, and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala could focus on the simple business of documenting human behavior in all of its sad and beautiful dimensions, creating charmingly melancholy movies like Roseland. Set in the titular Manhattan dancehall, a mecca in the ’70s for aging New Yorkers eager to recapture the elegance of their younger years, Roseland comprises three featurettes with separate casts; the movie gracefully segues from one story to the next simply by cutting across the sprawling Roseland facility.In the first story, “The Waltz,” aging widow May (Teresa Wright) fixates on an unglamorous dance partner, Stan (Lou Jacobi), because whenever they waltz together, she sees visions of her younger self and her late husband in mirrors. “The Waltz” is a sweet fable about the strange ways people find happiness, and it delivers a warm message about the transformative power of dancefloor intimacy.
The longest story, “The Hustle,” focuses on professional dancer Russel (Christopher Walken), who juggles unusual relationships with three women. His mother figure is his dance mentor, Cleo (Helen Gallagher), who probably wants to become lovers but doesn’t push her luck because she senses her affections are not reciprocated. His benefactor is Pauline (Joan Copeland), who treats Russel like a pet and plies him with compliments and gifts. Russel enjoys this murky status quo until he becomes involved with Marilyn (Geraldine Chaplin), a control freak who demands Russel give up his nebulous status as a boy toy and assume adult responsibilities. Jhabvala deftly sketches the myriad ways an intruder upsets the social order created by complex relationships, and she’s meticulous in her depiction of Russel as an opportunist who belives no one’s getting hurt by his choices, even though everyone involved is actually wounding everyone else on a daily basis. “The Hustle” is a smart, understated piece of work.
Roseland closes with “The Peabody,” which has a lovely story and a grating lead character. Aging, delusional dancer Rosa (Lilia Skala) perceives herself as a once-and-future star, so she’s obsessed with winning the weekly Peabody contest because it’s the closest she can get to notoriety. Unfortunately, her regular partner just died, so Rosa tries to mold her enthusiastic but untalented new partner, Arthur (David Thomas), into a competitor. Meanwhile, she ignores the fact that he adores her, since Rosa considers him beneath her station. This dynamic is Merchant-Ivory class observation at its best, a kind of textured social anthropology that reveals how people are limited by the walls they accept or create.
From start to finish, Roseland is brisk, romantic, soft-spoken, and tragic, and it’s easily the best movie Merchant-Ivory made in the ’70s.
Roseland: RIGHT ON