Two legendary actresses offer differing portraits of the female experience in these sadly forgotten films.
The lack of robust and worthwhile female roles in film has always proven a problem no matter what decade the industry finds itself in. It’s so hard to authentically illustrate the female experience on the screen, especially when those in power don’t seem all that interested in doing so. When promoting her turn as an overworked high-powered lawyer in the 2001 drama I Am Sam, Michelle Pfeiffer was asked just how many good roles she thought there were for women in Hollywood. “Not enough,” was her reply. “But they’re out there,” the three time Oscar nominee added. It’s true that while the representation of women on the big screen will never be at the level it should, each era continues to produce strong and winning portraits of female protagonists in a variety of films. Recently, Kino Lorber brought to blu-ray two such sterling examples starring a former child acting sensation and one of the world’s greatest superstars.
In Me, Natalie, Patty Duke stars as the title character: a wise, but insecure Brooklyn girl whom we follow from adolescence to her early 20s. Along the way we see Natalie wrestle with her body, her attractiveness to the opposite sex, her role models and what it is she really wants out of life. Meanwhile, in All Night Long, Barbra Streisand stars as a housewife named Cheryl who falls for the father (Gene Hackman) of her younger lover (Dennis Quaid). Despite being demoted from his corporate position and now forced to be a night manager at a local drug store, Chery can’t keep her mind off her new flame and this unexpected romance soon leads to more than she bargained for.
One look at each character at the start of her respective film and it’s obvious that both Natalie and Cheryl were created by people sincerely curious about the individuals they are. When we meet Natalie, she’s an awkward teen who has resigned herself to the notion that she’s never going to be anyone’s beloved and has armed herself with a collection of self-deprecating one-liners as a way to deal, using them against herself before the rest of the world has a chance to beat her to the punch. The only joy she finds is in her uncle Harold (Martin Balsam) with whom she feels simpatico with and who builds up her confidence in ways her own mother (Nancy Marchand), tries but never can. It’s a shame then when Harold suddenly dies, leaving Natalie without her hero, but with a newfound determination to leave her parent’s home and find a place (and life) of her own.
At first glance, All Night Long’s Cheryl might seem to be an early 80s version of Marilyn Monroe’s character from The Seven Year Itch with slightly overdone hair and a small ditzy quality. Yet as the film spends more time on Cheryl, it becomes apparent that she’s a character who simply approaches all of life with total abandon. She’s confident and self-assured, going after what she wants, no matter how or what she looks like doing so. Cheryl is by nature a curious creature; an eternal student with the world around her ripe for exploration. It’s really this part of her nature which causes her to pursue two entirely different kinds of men, despite being married herself. Sure, there’s an element of lust and desire at play (which the script wisely chooses to let speak for itself) but really it’s an attraction of energy and soul that drives Cheryl to the men in her life.
Both Natalie and Cheryl end their films having each made journeys which elevate them. We see Natalie become an accidental feminist by leaving home in a huff and then a real one when she later tells her mother (forever pleading for her to settle down with one of the boys chosen for her): “I don’t want you to be happy for me and I don’t want to be miserable for you.” After finding romance and heartbreak with an architect turned artist (James Farentino), Natalie ends her film at her most invigorated and alive, showing she’s no longer dreading the future, but is instead ready to wholly embrace it.
Like Natalie, Cheryl is likewise transformed by the romance she enters into. After realizing she’s had more of an effect on George (Hackman) than she intended, Cheryl finds the balance she’s struck in her life suddenly thrown for a loop as he starts to relentlessly pursue her. It’s this turn of events which causes her to realize that not only has she been with the wrong man up until now, but that she’s been the wrong person as well because of this. George’s romantic view of Cheryl causes her to look at herself in a way she hadn’t before and for perhaps the first time she develops a groundedness and a maturity within herself she never envisioned being capable of.
For some reason I find it rather curious and maybe just a little telling that there was behind-the-scenes drama on both these films. Duke and Me, Natalie director Fred Coe reportedly fought throughout most of the production, no doubt over the character’s portrayal and how realistic it should be. Meanwhile, Streisand walked into the drama on All Night Long when Hackman felt original lead Lisa Eichorn was not right for the role and demanded she be fired. Since the film was being directed by the husband of Streisand’s agent, the legendary Sue Mengers (who reportedly didn’t want her client to go another year without making a movie), Babs stepped in. Thankfully no hints of any backstage struggles ended up in the final products nor in the performances of either leading lady. Duke is at her most alive and passionate as Natalie, giving a turn that’s both heartbreaking and inspiring. Meanwhile, Streisand’s work as Cheryl is likewise inspiring thanks to the quiet fearlessness and openness she injects into the character. The star never needed help with comedy timing or delivery, but so rarely has it ever been so on point at it is here with Streisand at quite possibly her most silly and serene.
If only the films themselves had been greeted with as much enthusiasm and affection as I have for them. Alas, both titles were met with almost no fanfare and very little acclaim. Streisand even found herself with her first Razzie nomination for Worst Actress, while Duke did at least claim a Golden Globe for her magnificent work. Neither film seemed to have much impact on either woman’s career. Duke would win an Emmy the following year for the telefilm My Sweet Charlie and soon take her place as one of the queens of the TV movie landscape for decades to come. As for Streisand, the star’s involvement with All Night Long would soon be forgotten as just two years later she would emerge as the star and director of Yentl, ushering in a new phase of her already-impressive career. It should be said that the movies themselves are both great pieces of original screenwriting which balance the kind of character and humor found among many of the titles from both eras. Both offer mature, yet potent bits of humor and both care about the people on the screen. Yet neither Me, Natalie or All Night Long would be anything worth writing about in 2020 if it weren’t for their heroines and the talented actresses who made them come alive.
Me, Natalie and All Night Long are both available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Kino Lorber.