In many a season past the cry has gone up, Where are the good, non-decorative roles for women? The cry has faded a little, historically considered, although actors might argue that there are never enough really testing assignments for either sex.
Yet at the moment are to be seen two unusually fine portraits of women at the far ends of distress, enacted with a persuasive force that never seems like mere theatricality.
It took Farrah Fawcett a while to get past the blinding fact of her own beauty and prove to the skeptics that she had the gifts and patient determination to be a serious actress. But the images of her as a battered wife in "The Burning Bed" were a kind of declaration of independence from her angelic past.
In "Extremities," the role she played on stage of a terrorized rape victim is a further declaration of her arrival as a serious and intelligent actress who happens to be beautiful.
Sissy Spacek in a sense went at it the other way 'round. She earned star status as an intense and skilled actress whose appeal was not glamour but an Everywoman realism, as early on, for example, the runaway teen-ager in Terrence Malick's "Badlands."
It was the glamour of stardom achieved that helped us to see that Everywoman owned, not so incidentally, a fine and delicate beauty. There is thus a certain irony in that to do " 'night, Mother," as a world-exhausted young woman moving purposefully toward suicide, Spacek had to work consciously against her own attractiveness and star status to make credible the character's total hopelessness. That she succeeds so well is accordingly a sort of double victory.
Taking to the stage is fraught with peril for any Hollywood star who hasn't been there before. The critics do not so much sit on the aisle as crouch in it, ready to spring. But Fawcett confronted them in the very physical and ferociously dramatic "Extremities" Off Broadway, and came away with critical honors and a broken wrist as a badge of commitment.
Taking "Extremities" to film was risky, and not simply because of the usual problems of transfer from one, enclosed medium to another with limitless possibilities for opening up. The risk was not in opening up (what there is works well enough) but in the danger of enlarging the two long sequences of attempted rape into merely exploitative stuff indistinguishable from a long, sorry list of revenge melodramas.
As it happens, "Extremities" as a film does have some real problems, although in the end exploitation is not one of them. Fawcett's relations with her two roommates (Diana Scarwid and Alfre Woodard) are ill-defined, so that their reactions to her plight are bizarre if dramatically convenient.
More damagingly, author William Mastrosimone tells us very little about the rapist (played to a menacing fare-thee-ill by James Russo). The randomness of the confrontation of rapist and victim is probably the point, but we spend too much time with him not to have more clues as to why he is the way he is.
The burden as well as the possibilities of the film therefore fall heavily on Fawcett. If "Extremities" gets beyond its sensational passages, including even the satisfaction of seeing the victim becoming the victimizer, it is because she makes the woman so thoroughly individual and believable in her fright, and her outrage, courage and bewilderment. The gross invasion of privacy has never seemed so obscene, or so unprovoked.
The message is bleak--that the process of law is a wet tissue of protection for the attacked woman--and Farrah Fawcett is nowhere more impressive than when the character bleakly accepts that vengeance is not the answer either. The character, like the actress, has come a long way in a brief time.
In " 'night, Mother," Sissy Spacek and Anne Bancroft are daughter and insensitive, self-centered mother. Bancroft acts all-stops-out as the woman who finally tumbles to the fact that her daughter is serious about ending it all. The mother, in Marsha Norman's roundly packed dialogue, can then summon no arguments against the suicide that don't in fact merely underscore how bad things are between them.
A sadness is that well-known performers carry to a new role a backpack of personal biography and previous work. Sometimes the pre-existing images can be set aside, sometimes not. Bancroft seems to me so resolutely urban, Northern and intelligent that all her great skills and headlong embrace of this part of an uneducated and not overly bright mid-South countrywoman could not disguise the actress acting.
It's paradoxical always; at their best the stars are known to us as stars, yet they can take us somewhere else. Even with her hair a drabbed-out brown and her blue eyes hidden behind contacts, Spacek is unquestionably Spacek. And yet, and yet, she becomes that woman whose light at the end of the tunnel is the extinction of the light.