In addition to being one of Hollywood’s longest-lasting offscreen couples, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward made a formidable combination whenever Newman stepped behind the camera to direct his wife. Case in point: The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds, a bleak drama about a bitterly unhappy single mother raising two young daughters even though she’s barely capable of looking after herself. In a dodgy urban pocket of Connecticut, Beatrice Hunsdorfer (Woodward) lives in a disorderly house with high-schooler Ruth (Roberta Wallach) and grade-schooler Matilda (Nell Potts). Beatrice squeaks by on a meager income, which includes lodging a procession of decrepit seniors in a downstairs room.
Beatrice is a foul-tempered, hard-drinking, self-loathing harridan, a lifelong misfit whose sharp tongue made her a class clown back in her school days, but now serves to alienate her from nearly everyone she encounters. Resentful that her husband left her and subsequently died, dooming her to a hand-to-mouth existence, Beatrice brims with so much rage that she lashes out with every breath, deriding her daughters and burdening them with her adult problems. Ruth is old enough to retreat into the distractions of a teenager’s social life, but Matilda is so young and sensitive she can’t figure out where she belongs in her horror show of a home life.
Adapted by sensitive-drama specialist Alvin Sargent from a Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Paul Zindel, the story tracks an excruciating stretch in the life of the Hunsdorfer clan, during which Matilda slowly discovers a self-affirming identity as an exceptional science student (the film’s title relates to her horticultural experiment), and during which Beatrice spirals deeper into depression. Newman’s direction is clinical and unobtrusive, observing Beatrice somewhat like a wild animal in a zoo, and he concentrates much of his energy on coaxing affecting performances from the girls playing Beatrice’s offspring.
Wallach, the daughter of durable character player Eli Wallach, is appropriately reserved and sullen, but Potts provides the crucial counterpoint to Woodward’s intensity. The real-life daughter of Newman and Woodward, Potts (born Elinor Teresa Newman) is a fragile presence, her pale blue eyes expressing the unique confusion of a child frightened by her mother. Woodward is as powerful as usual, delving into Beatrice’s darkness and finding the wounds behind the ugliness, so when the story comes together in the last half-hour, the juxtaposition of Potts’ performance with Woodward’s creates something simultaneously beautiful and excruciating. The Effect of Gamma Rays is tough going, since Newman builds emotional tension without any reprieve, but it’s a worthwhile journey.
The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds: GROOVY