"Anna," a fable of fleeting beauty and America's obsession with youthfulness, is full of wonderful moments, yet it's not without its wrinkles. A bittersweet look at an actress' struggle with aging, it serves chiefly as a dramatic showcase for Sally Kirkland's superb, Oscar-nominated performance. She manages to be convincing even when this ethnic take on the off-Broadway blues becomes downright ridiculous.
Give Bette Davis a Czech accent, gobs of angst and an urge to nurture, and you get Anna Radkova, an aging exile actress who is upstaged by her stunning young prote'ge'. Like so many stories based on real people -- in this case, actress Elzbieta Czyzewska -- "Anna" is full of messy implausibilities. Screenwriter Agnieszka Holland of "Angry Harvest" has provided a scattered script, disorderly as Anna's strange apartment, a private stage on which Anna overplays her bravura life.
Kirkland, an American veteran of stage, screen and even "Falcon Crest," is an actor's actor: courageous, honest, a human chameleon. Anna Radkova, a Czechoslovakian superstar who fled to New York in the '60s, was that kind of actress, and could be again if only she could get a part. But the fading 44-year-old is a mature face in an immature land, and is lucky to be an understudy in an awful feminist play written by a woman who wears brogues.
Then, right out of Busby Berkeley by way of the Brothers Grimm, enters Krystyna (model Paulina Porizkova), a fan of Anna's just in from Czechoslovakia. With her cover-girl face and her frumpy duds, she looks like a model from Ellis Island. When she faints at Anna's feet, clutching an old 8-by-10 glossy of the actress in her heyday, the older woman takes her in. A midlife crisis of extraordinary proportions is about to begin.
Krystyna is radiant despite rotten teeth -- which are capped by a philanthropic orthodontist. Then, under Anna's auspices, she meets a famous producer and becomes an overnight sensation. It's "All About Eve" with nice people -- plus hints of "Sunset Boulevard" and "The Morning After." Krystyna is an unassuming fairy-tale princess with a witty immigrant's-eye view of America. In a letter home, she writes, "Teeth are very important in America. Everybody famous has big white teeth."
She's a confident beauty, never peering at herself in mirrors, while Anna is obsessed with her reflection, trying to catch her face in the act of aging. She is quietly devastated when an old professor (Stefan Schnabel) asks, "What have you done with yourself? You were the most beautiful girl in my class, and now look at you." But she turns the other cheek, and Kirkland actually makes you believe her.
Anna's got lousy friends and lovers -- a failed writer (Robert Fields) who gets down on all fours on her command and barks like a dog. Then there's the former husband (Steven Gilborn), a successful director who divorced her because she reminds him of the past. Jealousy complicates even these unsatisfying relationships, and finally it brings an end to her mother-daughter symbiosis with Krystyna.
Clearly Anna should see a therapist. And the screen writer could use a script doctor. And yet "Anna" has its scrambled pleasures -- aside from Kirkland's rarefied work, there's Porizkova's comic promise and the charm of the central relationship the women enjoy, destroy and reinvent.
Anna, playing at the Outer Circle, is rated PG-13 and contains nudity.