Coming off the heels of Hombre and Cool Hand Luke, Paul Newman was becoming a greater star than ever before, but, never interested in merely resting on his laurels, the star turned to directing in 1968 with Rachel, Rachel. To do so, and to extract the $700,000 from Warner Brothers to make Rachel, Rachel, he had to acquiesce to several demands of the studio, including having two films added to his contract to the studio in which he had to star, for which he would receive a dramatic pay-cut, and the film's star, Newman's wife, Joanne Woodward, had to sign on for another film, for which she too would be paid far less than her usual salary. It was a heavy price to pay, but as Robert Osborne introduced the film for Turner Classic Movies on the day they selected to memorialize the recently departed actor-director, October 12, it was a price paid for this, a Newman family labor of love. (The film also has Newman and Woodward's daughter, named Nell Potts, playing Rachel as a rope-skipping haunted daughter.)
The eponymous Rachel Cameron, a thirty-five year-old second-grade spinster schoolteacher, is a repressed woman in every sense of the word—socially, physically, intellectually and most graphically, sexually. Woodward's performance as Rachel is heartbreakingly touching, occasionally bordering on the hyperalgesic—which is precisely appropriate for her onscreen creation, as Rachel's partially broken psyche almost paradoxically finds relief in the sensing of danger, pain, regret, guilt, like the person who wants to inflict self-injury so as to experience the consequential pain. That attribute likewise informs and is informed by the aesthetically and narratively sensitive texture Newman conjures. With a screenplay written by Stewart Stern, based on the novel “A Jest of God,” by Margaret Laurence, Newman makes his picture specifically empathetic in tone, allowing for Woodward's portrayal to shine brilliantly. Rachel is not so selfish as to simply use herself as a testing experiment, allowing the weight of hurt, dashed hopes and the slow, throbbing indignity of her biddable life, cast forever as caretaker, errand-runner and source of unwavering love and affection, for her domineering, overbearing mother (Kate Harrington), whose health conditions appear to exist so as to keep her daughter perpetually within her orbit.
Newman's direction is finely composed, wresting an understated comeliness and effete daintiness from his wife, while shooting much of the film in deliberate, but completely engaging, medium shots that hold Rachel in a kind of tenaciously taut frame, which in turn molds the turn into something resembling that of a prisoner, their sorrow usually confined to behind closed doors. When Rachel can no longer withstand the drudgery and pain inflicted upon her by her mother and the women with whom “Ms. Cameron,” as she is called, plays poker, she walks back to her room, having made “delicious sandwiches” for the group of loquacious older women, and disintegrates, weeping uncontrollably. It is in these scenes and others that convey the innermost agony of her life of tedium, detachment and malaise, that Newman goes in closer, quite literally, moving in to capture the unsightly reality behind the insufficiently shielded persona of schoolteacher, daughter and member of the community.
Sheltered to the point of insulation, Rachel seeks some passage out of her ennui, an opportunity to break free from the shackles that conspire to enslave her, finding what may be at once the first and last avenue on which to scurry away from this most crushingly faineant life. A friend, another schoolteacher from the same institution, the proudly Christian Calla Mackie (Estelle Parsons), cajoles Rachel into attending a service from an aggressive and fustian preacher, with disastrous results. Rachel finds herself awkwardly approached by Calla, sexually, rejecting Calla's passively, tractable advances, ensuring that Calla becomes self-pityingly apologetic towards Rachel when they encounter one another again.
Another character, spotted by Rachel when she was a little girl, named Nick Kazlik (James Olson), sitting, lonely, as his brother is carried away in a basket by Rachel's undertaker father—whose job gave the young girl another source of grief, being teased by boys, further isolating her—resurfaces in the film's more linear narrative. Something of a roue, he projects a calm, pleasant certitude of masculinity lacking in Rachel's life. Straightforward in his approach, he asks her to see a movie with him. At first she is too uncomfortable to follow through with what she believes she wants but finally she does see the movie with him, and after a tense scene in which she decides whether or not to go back to her mother like the obedient child, a constant reality in her life, or to go to “someplace” with Nick. The sexual encounter is portrayed as an experience of clumsiness, nervousness and unease.
The usage of flashbacks and sequences existing solely in Rachel's imagination—such as bravely taking a child she believes is being persecuted by the bullying principal of her school—was ahead of its time as is the subject matter itself. The voices in Rachel's head argue about many an issue, from her wanting to leave the school she detests, to whether or not she should or should not masturbate to go to sleep. A film of this nature today would have to be an “independent,” both in its “edgier” placement as a film of non-commercial pursuits and the nuts-and-bolts intimacy of the film itself. The depiction of the rara avis, the outsider and the socially suppressed, disconsolate woman is fully rounded, displaying a singularly evinced and perfervid melancholic character study while ardently refusing to cozen the viewer through reducing other characters to simplistic strokes. Nick's actions are unpleasant, Calla is a woman bewildered by her radically antipodean inclinations and Rachel's mother is a shrewish harridan but Newman ensures that the audience accept them as the real, pulsating people that they are, beneath the respective patinas of untrustworthiness, pushiness and querulousness.
Rachel, Rachel as a title is most fascinating in its implications, as the title card has the first enunciation made large and bold, the latter small and frail-looking. Is it a description of the adult Rachel against the young girl often highlighted? An echoing of the Biblical point, made plain in the novel's title, “A Jest of God,” underlined by the grotesque horror show of a religious service Rachel finds herself at? The nature of motherhood is an instrumental element to the film, including Rachel's own potentially maternal transformation. Is the lost child the Biblical Rachel looking for truly herself? Rachel, Rachel as a title is beautifully copious in its myriad meanings, including the connotation of scolding, most pointedly from Rachel's unremittingly punishing mother.
Sadly, Newman's directorial efforts have gradually fallen beneath the waves of obscurity, and are frustratingly difficult to find. This, Newman's maiden voyage of filmmaking behind the camera, is a lovingly elegant picture, grounded and exalted, all at once, by Woodward's ceaselessly arresting turn. Newman as an actor projected a rebelliousness and profound discomfort with the powerful institutions (sometimes reflected in the abstraction made wholly personal, like “mothers” and “fathers,” “school” and “church”), laden with falsity and blithe neglect people in all sundry aspects out of which those individuals are made, all of the somatic and the spiritual, the corporeal and the anagogic. Rachel, Rachel finds such interests made articulate, in an enrapturing, sotto voce cinematic speech.