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‘Patty Hearst’ (R)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
September 23, 1988

Patricia Hearst always thought of herself as a golden girl, equal to every situation, sheltered, priviledged, indestructible.

Then, in February 1974, after taking a shower and settling down to study in the apartment she shared with her fiance', that sense of herself came under vicious attack. As recreated in "Patty Hearst," Paul Schrader's new film starring Natasha Richardson, she was abducted by members of the Symbionese Liberation Army, and, at various times over the next 19 months, jammed into a car trunk, threatened at gunpoint, sexually molested, stuffed in a closet and kept blindfolded for 57 days. Then, given the choice between being released and joining the SLA, she joined and became Tania, the revolutionary.

When the now-famous pictures of Hearst as Tania, wearing a jaunty beret and carrying a rifle, were taken during the SLA raid on the Hibernia National Bank, she was 19. Attorney General William Saxbe called her a "common criminal." Hearst called herself "a soldier in the people's army."

What one hopes for in "Patty Hearst" is a movie that would straighten out the tangles of her life, and make sense of the woman and her story. But making sense has never been Paul Schrader's strength as a director, and not only does he refuse to sort out her tale, but he ties a few stubborn knots of his own.

In "Patty Hearst," Schrader combines B-movie effects with art-house tactics; it's both sleazy and hoity-toity. Early on, Schrader skillfully creates a sense of traumatic dislocation. The opening scenes are spiky, high-contrast montages shot from Patty's point of view as she sits in her closet and her captors spit threats and revolutionary slogans in her face. We're not allowed to see any more of Patty's captors than she sees. And, certainly, these scenes, with their provocative slashes of light and dark figures in silhouette, are flamboyantly and even effectively shot. But sitting in her closet, Patty never struggles to hold on to herself; she's compliant, vapid, victimized but unsympathetic. And because Schrader is repulsed by her, we feel ourselves shrink away as well, in disgust.

As a result, we never once ask ourselves, "What would I have done? How would I have stood up?" Schrader doesn't involve us enough in Patty's struggles for that. The leader of the rebel group, "Cinque" (pronounced "Sin-cue" and played by Ving Rhames), is impassioned, uncompromising, and perhaps psychotic. And (though Rhames is a terrible actor) more likable. He and Patty are supposed to represent society's greatest opposites -- the haves and the have-nots -- and some of Richardson's best scenes show her dainty forbearance of her captor's uncouth manner. (At one point, when Patty is reading his demands onto tape, she primly corrects his grammar.)

If Schrader -- who's working here from Nicholas Kazan's adaptation of Hearst's own account, "Every Secret Thing" -- were more in control of his tone, he might have made a spanking good satire on the radicalism of the '60s. "God, I wish I was black," says Bill Harris, a k a Teko (William Forsythe), after he smears shoe polish on his face, like a sort of Marxist Jolson, and begins gesturing and talking jive into the bathroom mirror. Whites, Harris feels, can't lead the people's revolution -- their hearts are too hard, their sins too great -- and when the group stagnates its solution is to seek out new black leadership, even if it means going door to door.

Neither Schrader's faithfulness to Hearst's book nor his own preoccupations would allow him to stage his material openly as street theater burlesque. (As it is, the satire here is sneaky, underhanded.) As Patty, Richardson's performance is as good as Schrader will allow it to be, and in places it is brilliant. But because we see almost nothing of Hearst before her abduction it's difficult to gauge how the ordeal changes her. And though it's tough to keep an audience interested in an airhead, this actress manages it. She's wonderfully bumbling, blowing Patty's lines in her big bank-robbery speech, and I loved her practical-mindedness in the face of some of Cinque's more off-the-wall proposals.

But Richardson cannot deliver what's not there. Schrader seems to have gotten no closer to knowing Patty than to show that she was a well-mannered girl from a good home cast among ruffians. Once this debutante's veneer -- though Patty never actually "came out" -- is scrubbed away, Schrader doesn't find anything. And not finding anything, he's turned off. It's early on in Patty's reorientation that we sense Schrader's distaste for his own protagonist, and it's this failure to find any sympathy for the character or her dilemma, his inability to discover comradely feeling toward any of his subjects, that undoes the film and turns us away.

Though the movie suggests that Hearst was brainwashed -- or at least coerced through fear to act as she did -- it maintains a safe distance from any definitive position. In the end, we have not come any closer to an understanding of Patty Hearst. But ambiguity, in this case, isn't an indication of complexity; it's a refuge. It's an admission of failure.

Schrader's own indictment of Hearst's class background is more damning than that of her Marxist captors. Patty's greatest sin, in Schrader's eyes, was her soulessness, her lack of depth. But what he has failed to realize is that her privileged shallowness was her strength. Since there wasn't much of a personality to dismantle, there could be no collapse. She assumed the role of the people's soldier, the princess comrade, as easily as she had everything else in life. And discarded it just as easily when it was all over. (Certainly, there are scars -- her marriage to her bodyguard shows that.) Patty Hearst was the indestructible golden girl after all.

"Patty Hearst" contains profanity, sexual situations and violence.

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