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.
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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.
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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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Berry attempts to get info from Joe; she visits the pet shop where the two met and talks to the owner and visits the stock room where they had sex; she has coffee with the ex-husband Tom (D.W. Moffet); helps Gracie pick out a prom dress for Mary; meets the local cop (Lawrence Arancia) and friend who was the first person Mary called after the affair; and she meets Gracie’s first-born Georgie (Cory Michael Smith), who is a little unhinged. All of them hold keys that Elizabeth thinks might inform her portrayal.
More importantly, why did all this happen? Does Gracie, who we see is prone to sudden emotional outbursts, have mental issues, or was she just incredibly needy and looking for eternal happiness? She lives in a small island town that has whispered behind her back for years. That is very apparent, even as she runs her own cake-baking business but not with a big clientele as Elizabeth learns. Joe seems like a good guy, but once the wall is broken down Elizabeth will also learn more about him than she might have imagined. He has his own problems. The kids and the extended family have their issues too and always have, but the really fascinating stuff happens between Elizabeth and the woman she will play — particularly a scene in front of a mirror where Gracie teaches the star how she applies her makeup.
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Mirrors in general have a lot to do with this film: whole conversations are shot in front of them, all the better for the imitation of a life that is about to start shooting in three weeks. Upon reflection, Gracie and Elizabeth both may be more than they seem during the first measured meetings, and with Gracie pointing out to Elizabeth that the actress is exactly the same age she was when the affair began, well, it appears the “May December” of it all is really them. Much of the fun though is watching it all slowly play out. You could see Cukor or Sirk latching onto this material, just as Haynes has done in sparking to this screenwriter’s first produced script.
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Some of it is very funny, particularly a scene where Portman is going over video auditions for potential co-stars, all awkward 13-year-olds with braces, etc. She winces at the thought she is going to be doing sex scenes with these kids. Also Georgie, an aspiring musician, basically tries to blackmail her into getting a job on the movie as music supervisor (he read a list of film jobs and liked that one), promising in return he won’t go to the press to ruin it when it comes out. “I really know how to pick out good songs for movies, ” the loose cannon of a young man promises. Portman’s reaction is priceless. Gracie’s breakdown over a customer canceling a cake order is also pretty spectacular.
You cannot, cannot do better than having Portman and Moore front and center with juicy roles like these. Watching their cat-and-mouse game again confirms these two Oscar winners are as good as it gets. Melton (Reggie on Riverdale) really is believable and vulnerable here as the 33-ish-year-old version of a kid who succumbed to this in the first place, though just who seduced who seems to be a bone of contention between Gracie and Joe. Smith, who was in Carol, amusingly nails Georgie.
The music is terrific, and it should be, because Haynes fell in love with the late-great Michel Legrand’s 1971 score for The Go Between, a Julie Christie movie, and had composer Marcelo Zavros adapt it. It works on every level for the movie, especially as it gets more mysterious and revealing as it goes along.
The film is looking for distribution. Rocket Science presents, and several production companies are involved including Gloria Sanchez, Killer Films and Mountain A in association with Taylor & Dodge and Project Infinity. Producers are Portman, Sophie Mas, Christine Vachon, Pamela Koffler, Grant S. Johnson, Tyler W. Konney, Jessica Elbaum and Will Ferrell.
Title: May December
Festival: Cannes (Competition)
Director: Todd Haynes
Screenplay: Samy Burch
Sales agents: CAA Media Finance, UTA Independent Film Group
Cast: Natalie Portman, Julianne Moore, Charles Melton, Cory Michael Smith, Elizabeth Yu, Gabriel Chong, Piper Curda, D.W. Moffet, Lawrence Arancio
Running time: 1 hr 53 min