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‘Rambling Rose’ (R)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
September 20, 1991

At first, "Rambling Rose" threatens to be unbearably precious. Southerner John Heard has returned to his childhood home of the 1930s to remember the old days with unrequited love Laura Dern. The film's tinted with sentimental amber. Elmer Bernstein's wistful music cloys the air. Fuzzy little blossoms flit through the sunlight . . . .

Things change almost immediately. A warmly amusing reminiscence breaks through director Martha Coolidge's crystallized surfaces. Dern (the Rose of the title) turns out to be very interesting. An uneducated child-woman escaping a shameful past in Alabama, she has come to the Hillyer home to start anew. Household head Robert Duvall and wife Diane Ladd have brought her in to watch over 14-year-old Lukas Haas (playing the young Heard) and his siblings.

Haas, a hyper-intelligent, sexually inquisitive teenager, is intrigued by her. There's something mysterious and appealing about this gullible farm girl. She seems to be controlling demons. It isn't long before Haas (and the family) finds out what those demons are. The first giveaway is her passionate attraction to Duvall. As Haas watches open-mouthed from behind a door, she throws herself on the bewildered gentleman.

What follows is a superb scene, which demonstrates screenwriter Calder Willingham's fine pen. "I can't kiss you," Duvall tells Dern, when she begs for his lips. "I only kiss Mrs. Hillyer."

When Dern presses harder, he retreats nobly away. "I am standing at Thermopylae," he declares. "The Persians shall not pass."

Duvall doesn't mention the incident to his wife. But Dern's rapacious desires become apparent. Strange men show up at the Hillyer home. She gets arrested and bites a policeman's thumb in the process. Despite Ladd's indefatigable protection of Dern, it becomes a losing battle to hold on to her. When the girl's escapades lead to a major crisis, Duvall and Ladd find themselves posed with a difficult, moral question. It takes a close understanding between Ladd and Duvall to answer it.

Dern's eccentric presence is vital to the movie. It makes her effect on men utterly believable. Haas exudes a perfectly pubescent sensibility. Ladd, with an ahead-of-her-time, progressive outlook, is memorable in a Joanne Woodward sort of way. But Duvall shows why he is one of the greats.

"Darling," he says, when Ladd has delivered another liberal observation, "don't go off into the fourth dimension."

Willingham, who also scripted "Paths of Glory," "Little Big Man" and "The Graduate," wrote "Rose" in the early 1970s. Thanks to these sterling performances almost two decades later, his screenplay enjoys a fresh and tender blossoming.

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