Stanley & Iris

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Tuesday January 17, 2017

Stanley & Iris

The Martin Ritt film "Stanley & Iris" was -- as noted by essayist Julie Kirgo, who also appears on the comment try track, and her fellow commentator Nick Redman - besieged by bizarre criticisms upon its release in 1990. The primary gripe was that a pair of glamorous Hollywood stars -- Jane Fonda and Robert De Niro -- would dare to portray ordinary people. (Well, er, yes. It's called acting. It's what they do.) The film quickly sank into obscurity, though in recent years -- so say Kirgo and Redman -- it has come in for reassessment.

Essentially a small romance that falls somewhere between an American "women's movie" and a British "kitchen sink movie," "Stanley & Iris" follows the stop-and-start relationship that develops between an illiterate, but extremely dogged, man -- Stanley (De Niro) -- and a struggling recent widow -- Iris (Fonda) -- sharing a house she can barely afford to keep with her two children as well as her sister and her brother-in-law, both unemployed. Swoosie Kurtz plays the sister, and Jamey Sheridan her husband, Joe. Martha Plimpton stands out as Iris' rebellious daughter.

The film is an adaptation of British novelist Pat Barker's sprawling fiction "Union Street," though -- as Redman and Kirgo make sure to point out -- Ritt's screenwriters, married couple Harriet Frank and Irving Ravetch, tended to make their adaptations so loose as to practically reinvent the material they were bringing to the screen. That approach works fine for the social concerns the film tackles, namely inequality and illiteracy (and, by extension, large nation-defining systems like education and economics).

Where the film falters is less in the idea that accomplished and good-looking actors shouldn't be allowed to play ordinary, economically challenged people (because let's face it, many actors are just that) but rather in the tropes that are used to elevate those supposedly normal people. Many viewers will be familiar with the experience of financial pressure; some might also be familiar with some form of difficulty in reading, be it illiteracy or dyslexia. (And who's to say that ordinary people can't also be good looking, stylish, charismatic, or physically graceful?) But how many working folks are blessed with a genius for mechanical invention -- or, for that matter, able to scrape up enough material and spare time to custom-build a complicated food-making machine made out of thousands of working parts? Moreover, an interest in trees is one thing; but someone who memorizes the Latin names of all the arboreal varieties in town by having a chat at the local plant nursery? What are me meant to do with that, if not to accord Stanley a great deal more sympathy based on the idea that his smarts confer onto him an extra helping of merit? Could we not identify with Stanley and care about his prospects if he were a little less of a whiz?

Iris' family issues take the opposite track, charging into well-worn and even cliched territory, what with a boozehound brother-in-law and a daughter facing single motherhood. (The way the sister and brother-in-law simply vanish from the movie after a while leaves too many plot threads hanging, including a suggestion that Joe is uncomfortably fond of Iris.)

The production itself was not without its controversies. In the commentary track, Redman recalls that the production had originally been slated to take place in Connecticut but, because local veterans groups protested the involvement of "Hanoi Jane" Fonda, the production had to be moved to Canada.

That said, the movie is not without its merits. You can see why cinephiles would go for it: De Niro and Fonda both turn in superb performances; the story dares to resist boilerplate beats and plotting -- for one thing, the two don't simple tumble straight into bed, but rather come into and out of each other's lives in a naturalistically paced manner; a subplot involving Stanley's aging father and the desperate straits Stanley faces trying to make sure he's cared for takes little screen time, but adds considerable emotional depth to his role (far more so than his whirring cake-baking machine). Besides, it's handsomely photographed by Donald McAlpine, and scored by John Williams (with the score given its own isolated track on this release). Moreover, look at its lineage: "Stanley and Iris" is part of a small canon of films that Ritt created together with the screenwriting team of Frank and Ravetch (they also brought "Hud" and "The Sound and the Fury" to the screen, and Ritt had also directed classics like "Sounder" and "Norma Rae").

"Stanley & Iris" feels like it belongs to the strata of films that you need to have seen at least once and know about. Whether you watch it on an annual basis, or even give a second viewing ever again is up to your personal preferences. That might qualify the film as a classic in some minor sense, but it also makes this Twilight Time Blu-ray edition -- presented in 1080p hi-def -- the definitive home release for this movie.

"Stanley & Iris"



Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.