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‘’Night, Mother’ (PG-13)

By Paul Attanasio
Washington Post Staff Writer
October 13, 1986

"'Night, Mother" was made as a labor of love, and huzzah for that, but it never feels like a movie -- it's more like a play with a camera stuck awkwardly in the middle of it. Based on Marsha Norman's Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, it's almost a textbook example of how not to bring Broadway to the screen.

As adapted by Norman, "'Night, Mother" tells the story of a young woman, Jessie (Sissy Spacek), who announces, toward the beginning of the piece, that she plans to kill herself later that evening. Her mother (Anne Bancroft) tries to talk her out of it. They cry. They laugh. They holler. They reminisce. And through their confrontations, the despair that led Jessie to her decision is revealed.

"'Night, Mother" has its moments. The poignant way Jessie tries, if only for a night, to finally put some order into her life, by arranging her mother's affairs and the disposal of her own possessions, can tear at you. And so can Norman's language, her unobtrusive eloquence -- her words can be violent or funny, fuzzy with anecdotes or shotgun-direct, and loneliness runs beneath their simplicity.

But the structure of "'Night, Mother" is essentially a conceit built for the theater -- two people talking in a room -- and its power depends on the theater experience, the fact that you're watching flesh and blood and spittle and sweat 10 rows away. Adapting it would have required the kind of imagination that, apparently, was sorely missing.

Which brings us to the always exhilarating process of assigning blame, in which case, you'd have to look to producers Alan Greisman and Aaron Spelling, not only for choosing a project that even a genius might have failed to make into a convincing movie, but also for going on to miscast it, both behind the camera and before it.

Norman hasn't done much work in translating "'Night, Mother," and understandably -- it would be like killing your own child. But adaptation requires a certain amount of ruthlessness, almost a contempt for the text, which is exactly why she shouldn't have been hired to write the screenplay.

For the same reason (and others as well), Tom Moore, who directed "'Night, Mother" on Broadway, shouldn't have been assigned the task of bringing it to the screen. Whatever his virtues on stage, Moore's work here doesn't make him appear anything but the first-time film director that he is -- he thinks of movies as theater with close-ups. He doesn't always show you what you want to see -- he loves to pull away from an emotional climax, for example: good Brecht, but bad filmmaking. And while Moore has chosen to keep the action confined to the house, to preserve the condensed quality of the play, he doesn't give that environment any expressive qualities.

In this regard, a talented cinematographer might have helped Moore, but instead the producers have saddled him with the inept Stephen Katz ("The Blues Brothers"). Katz's image is flat, grainy and unevocative, with the sort of "realism" you identify with a three-camera sitcom, and it only underscores what seems phony, trumped-up and talky about the play.

Spacek struggles with a difficult part, a character who goes through no real changes -- Jessie's big realization, after all, comes before the movie begins. But again, it's an odd casting choice. She may not be wearing makeup, but she's still a movie star, which keeps you at arm's length from Jessie's despair. And Spacek can't avoid her own warmth and naturalness, exactly those qualities that have made her a movie star. She makes suicide seem life-embracing.

All by herself, Bancroft tries to pull this mess up to the level of acceptable drama, and if her Oscar-grabbing histrionics don't exactly fit the rest of "'Night, Mother," they're at least an enjoyable exercise in old-fashioned, big-canvas character work. Bugging her eyes and twanging away in a southern accent, schlepping her flesh (presumably, not all hers) around in a tent of a housedress, Bancroft's Mama gabs, wheedles, lies, jokes, scolds and bullies, all to try to keep her daughter alive. She's eccentricity and common sense in equal measure, a dummy and a shrewd survivor.

"'Night, Mother" is rated PG-13 and contains some profanity and sexual themes.

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