Monday, January 18, 2016
The Subject was Roses
SPOILER ALERT! The plot of the movie will be discussed.
At one point in this 1968 film, Patricia Neal’s Nettie Cleary asks her son, Timmy (Martin Sheen), “What can I say that will make you believe me?” Given the amount of mistrust among the family members in this story, it is a difficult question to answer. The story, based on Frank D. Gilroy’s Pulitzer Prize - winning play, is full of emotional avoidance, manipulations to gain affection, and jealousy stirring up the Oedipal stew.
The movie opens with an already awake Nettie, looking sad, apparently just waiting for the appropriate time to get out of bed and start her day. She looks over at her still sleeping husband, John (Jack Albertson in a supporting actor Oscar-winning role). We know right away that there are intimacy problems, since they sleep in separate beds, and Nettie’s nightgown shows less than if she were wearing sheet metal armor. As we follow her through the apartment, we get information through the images shown us. There is a banner that reads “Welcome Home Timmy.” We see a military uniform on a hanger. There are remnants of a party. But, we are not shown the celebration. We are introduced not to the joy of the homecoming, but to trying to deal with the hangover feelings of the day after the party. Thus, the mood has been set.
When John does get up he is alone for a bit, looks at his son’s uniform and touches it, looking proud. But then he does something curious – he tries on the Army jacket. We immediately sense that there is some jealousy about not having had the chance to be in uniform himself. So, there is this mixture of affection and envy involving his feelings for his son. Later, John, on the ride to the family lake house, admits that he regrets that he was never tested on the field of battle, and so he will never know if he would have met that challenge. He was not free to pursue a military career because he had to take care of his impoverished family. This admission shows a bit of insecurity which the audience would not otherwise suspect existed in his bombastic character.
Nettie and John immediately exhibit the tension between them, but not by talking directly about their relationship problems. They instead exhibit their anger by arguing about how to treat Timmy (a name that sounds like what you would call a child, which is what Nettie wants to have her son remain, needing his mommy). He says he has to leave for a business meeting. She chastises him for abandoning their son the day after his return from service. John says that he and his son hit off so well at the party that there is nothing wrong with him leaving for a bit. She then blames her Irish husband for allowing Timmy to drink too much, and that the result was that he was sick during the night. She emphasizes that it was she who held his head while he had to vomit. Again, by indirection, she is saying that it was John’s fault that Timmy was sick, and it was his mother who has to sacrifice sleep to clean up after the mess John caused. This idea of self-sacrifice at the expense of self-enjoyment is key to understanding Nettie’s character. John then counters by saying that she stunted his development by doting on him, never allowing Timmy to grow into a man. John basically accuses her of keeping him a boy, and it was leaving her for the Army which was the best thing for him. His jealousy of her relationship with Timmy is shown when he says that she criticizes him for leaving, but she really wants time alone with their son. In essence, Nettie has a double-win – she can accuse her husband of being unfeeling about leaving for work, and also have Timmy to herself. He reveals his resentment of the mother-son relationship when he says that she can’t wait so that she and Timmy can talk about him behind his back.
When Timmy wakes up he starts to say in the three years since he has been away, his father has changed. He wonders what has caused him to look older. Nettie dismisses talk about John, wanting to make the most of her breakfast time with her son. But, she feels crestfallen when he forgets that the waffles she is making is his favorite dish, and starts to cry when the batter sticks to the grill. She becomes angry at Timmy when he repeats one of her husband’s saying, “Bless and save us, said Mrs. O’Davis.” She is horrified that he is acting like John, who she does not want to see her son turn into. She laments that “Nothing is right.” On the surface she is talking about the breakfast, but is actually referring to their lives. When she holds onto his hand too long, Timmy recoils at the inappropriateness of it, but then covers up his aversion with a joke. Timmy tries to cheer her up by saying he was looking forward to having a dance with her the day after he came home. He puts on some music and they dance. This scene definitely Oedipal, as they talk like two people meeting at an impromptu date. Nettie stumbles while dancing, and quickly pulls down her skirt that rode up a bit. John, changing his mind, enters the apartment, like a husband finding his wife cheating on him.
John decides to take a ride with Timmy to the lake house which he promised to do earlier. Of course, this spoils Nettie’s plans, and she and John, again using Timmy as a way to battle each other, jockey over whom will have custody over him for the day. Nettie says that their son is expected to visit her mother, and the disabled cousin, Willis. When his name was brought up earlier by his mother, the audience could see dislike for such a visit on Timmy’s face. The son decides to take the ride with his dad, adding symmetry to the story as Timmy is first given time with his mother, and now with his father. John shows himself to be a complex character here. He praises his son for his service, but is also disappointed to hear that he did not do anything heroic. But, he admits that given Timmy’s unpromising childhood, he underestimated his ability to get through his hitch in the military. He also shows his generosity to his son (which contrasts with his penny-pinching when it comes to his wife) by offering to help pay for his college education. Timmy kids with him, pushing him to reveal how much money he has. Here we see John’s not being upfront about his assets, as he becomes upset by his son’s probing, which emphasizes the lack of familial trust. But then his softer side is seen when he waxes romantic, remembering how taken he was when he met his future wife. She looked refined, and his less fortunate family contemptuously called her “The Lady.” He smiles as he remembers her dressed all in blue. But, the color evokes sadness, undermining the memory.
John says that Nettie’s father, now deceased, would always buy her roses for her birthday. Timmy buys roses, and then tells his dad to say the flowers were from him. Here Timmy, like his parents, although well intentioned, is being manipulative and deceptive. He does the same when he tells his mother what a great dancer she is after her disappointment about his lack of enthusiasm for breakfast, and when he keeps reassuring his father that he would have been a great soldier. When Nettie returns from her visit to her mother’s, she is overwhelmed by the gift. Instead of just being happy for the roses making his wife feel good, John gets a gleam in his eye that indicates he hopes Nettie may be willing to have sex with him. Nettie distances herself when she sees how he is looking at her, not able to consider the enjoyment that intimacy might bring, but also seeing the look of selfishness in John’s eyes.
The family goes out on the town to celebrate Timmy’s homecoming. They go to a club, and John is persuaded to sing a song. When Timmy says that his dad connects with an audience, his mother takes it as a criticism of her for not allowing him to pursue his performing dreams. Again there is mistrust seen behind every statement, as if one family member is always trying to undermine another. These people are so used to not communicating that they misinterpret innocent statements. Nettie goes to the restroom, and John is not sure why she looks upset. He asks Timmy, who again obscures the truth, just saying she had to go to the bathroom. Then a woman with whom John was seeing on the side approaches them. She leaves once he introduces his son. He covers it up by saying she was someone he once knew and couldn’t even remember her name. Timmy, realizing what’s going on, makes an attempt at honesty by saying, “I understand.” But, his father won’t be forthright with him and says he doesn’t know what Timmy is talking about.
When they return home and Timmy goes to bed, Nettie goes on again about the roses. Her mistrust of John comes out because she continues to question what would make him do such a sweet thing. He now applies more pressure about wanting sex, grabbing her from behind and pawing her body. She is outraged, and confronts him this time without evasion about his “whores.” He grabs her in a sexually assaultive manner. Again, she is honest when she says that what is wrong with the two of them can’t be fixed by Timmy being at home. She continues this change to frankness by saying that when she saw the roses it stirred something inside her that she thought long dead. For her, it is a loving affection for her husband. But, he turned it into lust. Here we have the stereotypical portrayal of the male as only interested in sex, and the woman wanting romance, but it does fit this story since it deals with Nettie’s lack of being able to enjoy herself. John, guilty about saying that the roses were his idea, and probably also because he now wants to hurt his wife for her rejection of him, admits that the roses were Timmy’s idea. Nettie is so upset, she throws the vase holding the flowers onto the ground, shattering the possibility of romance. But, it also symbolically means smashing the lie on which the phony attempt at intimacy was based.
The next morning, John resumes the pattern of evasion by directing the anger for his wife toward his son. He verbally assaults him by saying he didn’t accomplish much as a soldier and really had it easy with his veteran’s benefits. He berates him for not practicing his Catholicism, demands that he accompany John to mass, and after Timmy agrees to go, says God doesn’t want someone that has to be dragged to church. He deliberately tries to get a rise about him by using an ethnic slur about Jews, which almost causes Timmy to hit his dad. Of course, John is angry at his son for having convinced him to say the roses were his idea, given the disastrous results of the night before. Nettie uses the situation to gain favor with Timmy by saying that he is a grown man and has the right to make his own decisions about religion.
But after John leaves for mass, Timmy acts like a true Christian as he voices his understanding of his father’s behavior. He is now willing to face the truth about his family. He tells his mother that they have to stop the alliance they have forged for years of “always ganging up on him.” He asks her if she ever saw things through her husband’s eyes. She fought John about the lake house and going to Brazil for a great business opportunity. Nettie scoffs at these acts, and keeps talking about the need to help her mother take care of Willis, who she calls a cripple, but who, as Timmy points out, seeking to have his mother confront the truth, has mental problems. He also admits a truth about himself, which is that he resented her taking him every Sunday to spend a depressing day with his disabled cousin. He basically tells her that, unlike her, he won’t now sacrifice himself for “the cause.” He realizes he may have gone too far, and apologizes for being cruel.
But, his words cause Nettie to seek time alone for herself. She leaves the apartment with the coins she has been saving, her monetary independence which she finally cashes in. Before she goes, she says to Timmy, “Thank you for the roses,” revealing her knowledge of the truth about the gift and laying blame at her son’s feet for creating a deception that avoided dealing with her marital problems. She goes to the beach and has dinner by herself in a musical interlude that, unlike the rest of the film, is devoid of dialogue, as Nettie finds time away from family too seek peace finally just for herself.
John is distraught that his wife has been missing for twelve hours. He paces as Timmy sits inebriated on the couch. John frets about the situation while Timmy talks about the past. There is no communication between them still, as the father does not respond to his son’s references about the family. When Timmy presses his father about what happened between him and his wife, he says, “Stop pushing, or I’ll tell you.” He finally says, “The humping I’m getting isn’t worth the humping I’m getting.” Timmy’s reaction to his father’s ugly, crude response is to call him a pig. He wanted honesty, but sometimes the truth can be brutal. When Nettie returns, she utters the line I mentioned at the beginning of the post about not being believed as to where she has been and what she has been doing. Timmy gives her a story to say about going down town, walking around, and seeing a movie. Nettie adopts the tale because she doesn’t believe that John can understand the truth about her journey out of the home. When she is alone with John she says that she left after she and Timmy had a fight, which surprises John. He is startled when she reveals the truth that Timmy said that the two of them should stop ganging up on his father, and that he thinks John is quite a guy. She also says that the twelve hours away were “the only real freedom I ever had.” She was free of her family’s needs, her self-enforced abstinence from self-fulfillment. When Timmy asks her why she came back, she say, “I’m a coward.” Nettie, like most of us, are not so bold as to permanently throw off the responsibilities that bind us, but which also provide us with order, security, and familiarity
That night, Timmy joins his mother on the roof (a place outside of the apartment where truth is not confronted, and a place above the confusion caused by selfishness and conflict). Nettie now is devoid of guile as she admits that a baker she knew when she was younger couldn’t give her the things his father could. John was full of promise, but the stock market crash in 1929 changed him. She now can admit that her husband was great with others in impersonal situations, in bars, meeting people, but emotionally he was not good in the intimacy of a home. The baker, who would get tongue-tied in public, “would have been beautiful in the home.” Nettie has confronted the true reality of her life. She also understands that Timmy will be leaving them. The next morning Timmy tells his dad that he will be moving out that day. The father tries to persuade him to stay, saying he can have full independence when it comes to religion and women. Timmy says that if he doesn’t leave now, he’ll stay forever, and that would mean that he will never be his own person.
The family has breakfast, and Timmy capitulates and says that he will stay. John says he can’t, he has painters coming in to paint his room, and he can’t reschedule. Again it is not the truth, but this time they all know it is just an unselfish act to give the son the enduring freedom the parents did not have. Earlier Timmy said that before his service he blamed his dad for what was wrong with their family. When he returned, he blamed his mother. He says now he realizes no one is to blame, not even himself. Blaming others is just a way to avoid the truth about our problems. Truth leads to understanding and the trust of others needed to overcome those problems.
The next movie is All the President's Men.