By Pete Hammond
Todd Haynes has a way with female stars. I would even call him the new-age George Cukor in that regard. Whether in Carol with Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, or his HBO limited series Mildred Pierce with Kate Winslet, or his homage to the director of so many so-called “women’s pictures” of the ’50s Douglas Sirk in Far From Heaven with Julianne Moore, he seems to be in his comfort zone with women. That has never been more apparent than his latest, May December, a deliciously entertaining showcase for Natalie Portman and Moore (her and Haynes’ fourth film together), which just had its world premiere Saturday in competition at the Cannes Film Festival.
The title is fine, but watching the film I kept thinking a really great title for it from Hollywood’s past would have been Imitation of Life from the aforementioned Sirk, not that this movie has anything else in common with that 1959 weepie, but its title does in terms of the basic concept here — about a TV actress who descends upon Savannah, Georgia to spend a few days researching her latest role, playing a real-life 36-year-old wife and mother who was the rage of tabloids 20 years earlier due to her affair and later marriage to a 13-year-old boy.
The premise had me at hello, truly the stuff of classic Hollywood melodrama, but with a smart contemporary spin. Portman, also a producer on it who brought the Samy Burch script to Haynes, plays TV series star Elizabeth Berry, who has been cast in an independent film as Gracie Atherton-Yoo (Moore), who scandalized the world, landed on every tabloid cover, went to jail, gave birth to twins and got married there to a guy 23 years younger named Joe Yoo (Charles Melton). Now they are still married, devoted to each other, and the twins Mary (Elizabeth Yu) and Charlie (Gabriel Chong) are graduating from high school. Berry turns up at this time in Savannah to do some in-person research with the person she is going to play. She slowly ingratiates herself, first at a barbecue and later in other ways as this Hollywood star becomes, however briefly, one of the family as it were. Berry approaches this in the same way a reporter might, trying to learn everything she can from and about Gracie. Of course it is awkward, but Burch’s script reveals a little at a time, painting a much larger and more complex psychological picture with each stroke.
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