By the time she made Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams, the formidable Joanne Woodward had been playing troubled women onscreen for years, so she was way past the point of trying to engender audience sympathy; quite to the contrary, her performances in ’70s pictures like this one are truly fearless. Put even more bluntly, Woodward had no reservations about playing complete bitches, probably because she trusted her ability to reveal the hurt beneath the anger. And that’s just what she does in Summer Wishes, to the point that her performance has a subtlety the rest of the movie can’t quite match. So, while the film as a whole is good but not great, no such hedging is required when praising Woodward’s work. She’s abrasive, exhausting, rude, vicious, and vulnerable, portraying the whole spectrum of one woman’s complex emotional life.
Rita Walden (Joanne Woodward) is the wife of a successful optometrist, Harry (Martin Balsam). They live in upper-middle-class luxury in New York City. Rita whiles away her time shopping with her stuck-up mother (Sylvia Sidney), fretting about a past love she can’t forget, and trying to understand why she’s at loggerheads with her adult daughter and completely estranged from her adult son. In the course of the story, a family tragedy and a resulting breakdown force Rita to question her life choices, even as the long-suffering Harry takes her on a romantic getaway to Europe. Profoundly lost, Rita lashes out at anyone and everyone, yet still expects her loved ones to come when she calls; she’s incapable of realizing that her psychological prison is of her own making. And once Rita and her husband reach France, we realize Harry his is own demons, because traumatic memories of his World War II combat experiences come flooding back.
Directed by journeyman Gilbert Cates as the follow-up to his similarly bleak award-winner I Never Sang for My Father (1970), and written by Stewart Stern (an Oscar nominee for the 1968 Woodward vehicle Rachel, Rachel), this is a posh but understated production from top to bottom. The interior scenes, evocatively lit by cameraman Gerald Hischfeld, are bathed in deep shadows that reflect the emotional states of the characters, and the exterior scenes, particularly those in the former battlefields of the European theater, are suitably overcast.
Balsam, though primarily focused on mirroring Woodward’s acting, has some sweetly affecting moments as a man struggling to understand his enigma of a wife, and Sidney is fierce in her brief appearance. The picture isn’t perfect by a long shot, and the subplot of Rita being traumatized by her son’s homosexuality is treated clumsily; dream sequences in which Rita’s son is romanced by a male ballet dancer are at best dated and at worst borderline offensive. That said, Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams attacks a worthy theme with focus and purpose, making it easy to overlook a few narrative hiccups. (Available through Columbia Screen Classics via WarnerArchive.com)
Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams: FUNKY