1 Hr., 48 Mins.
Autumn Leaves April 23, 2018
oan Crawford considered Autumn Leaves (1956), among her last prestige pictures, to be one of her best films. “Everything clicked on Autumn Leaves,” she remembered. “The cast was perfect, the script was good, and I think Bob [Aldrich] handled everything well …. I think the movie on the whole was a lot better than some of the romantic movies I did in the past, but somehow, it just never became better known.” She believed it was the finest May-December romance featuring an older woman and a younger man ever made, and would come to regard at it as one of her finest cinematic moments.
In certain sections, I do too. Although I think Crawford made better, and more interesting, films in the 1950s – specifically 1952’s Sudden Fear and 1954’s Johnny Guitar – Autumn Leaves is notable for marking the beginning of a transitional period in her career. It would denote the end of a largely stainless run of respectable, if sometimes campy, melodramas that started with 1945’s Mildred Pierce; it would be the last time in which she would be provided with a distinctive, comprehensively written role before becoming a horror movie mainstay in the 1960s. (Some, though, could argue that her supporting part in 1959’s The Best of Everything gave her just as much to do.)
So the movie in store, which isn’t altogether successful, is bittersweet, and not just because its content is so dewy-eyed. Though it contains a pearlescent performance from its lead, it signals a career winding down. It is, in a way, a last hurrah.
This is at odds with the storyline, which, while often stormy and emotionally violent, is nonetheless optimistic at its core. In the film, Crawford stars as Milly, a 50-something-year-old, freelance typist who’s all but given in to spinsterhood. Save for frequent visits from her landlady (Ruth Donnelly), Milly has little to look forward to in her day-to-day life. For all intents and purposes, a social life is nonexistent, as are possibilities of romance. We take it that she’s used to this sort of lonely existence: Flashbacks reveal that, in previous years, her life mostly consisted of taking care of her ailing father.
In Autumn Leaves, though, our introduction to her comes just shortly before her life is about to change. One night, while eating alone – once again – in a modest diner, she meets Burt (Cliff Robertson), an Army veteran whose loneliness parallels her own. While Milly is attracted to him, she is immediately inclined to put up an emotional wall, both because her past courtships have left her so numbed and because Burt is almost 20 years younger.
But their conversations are intimate and their connection is corporeal, which helps break down Milly’s reservations. (This is also helped, in no doubt, by the way Burt makes it clear that he wants to pursue something from the get go.) A brief but intense courtship ensues; Milly, though constantly on edge as a result of her lacking of self-confidence, hasn’t felt this blissful in years.
A month or so into their romance, Burt proposes. Milly initially rebuffs his marital advances. But then she changes her mind: When she sees him walking away, she realizes that such an opportunity will likely never present itself again.
A short time after actually getting married, the pair is happy, and Milly can feel her inhibitions slipping. But then fractures start infiltrating this too-good-to-be-true honeymoon period. Burt, who once appeared to be the unconventional man of Milly’s dreams, proves himself a compulsive liar; fibs about his professional status, as well as his background in general, proliferate. He is also prone to violent outbursts, which increase in scale as the movie progresses.
Milly’s renewed discomfiture is heightened when Burt’s ex-wife, Virginia (Vera Miles), appears out of nowhere and demands that her former spouse sign a property settlement. Burt’s father (Lorne Green) is also in town, presumably to track down his son.
At first, Milly seems disposed to filing for divorce and pretending this marriage never happened. But her feelings for Burt run too deep, and she’s convinced that while his instability is out of control, it is fixable. This is solidified when it is revealed that Virginia and Burt’s father are in a romantic relationship, and that Burt’s unsteadiness is actually the result of traumatically stumbling upon the two in bed together some months ago. Milly, while putting herself in danger, takes it upon herself to essentially rescue her new husband and attempt to ease his traumas.
While this development does provide for a handful of dynamic scenes — like whenever Milly and Burt take part in heated exchanges as the former does everything she can to try not to say the wrong thing — Autumn Leaves is less effective the more sensational and flagrantly melodramatic it becomes. Although some have argued that one of the reasons the movie is so remarkable has to the do with its rather careful depictions of mental illness and aging, I think the later scenes, which establish that Milly has gotten herself into something of a nightmare situation, lose sight of what makes the movie so captivating to begin with.
The first act of Autumn Leaves most obviously resembles a character study. It intently watches as Milly puts up a confident, coolheaded facade in front of others but obsessively thinks about her singlehood and her flagging sexual appeal behind closed doors. In one scene, she memorably goes to a concert alone, and tells anyone she can that she doesn’t need a date – there’s nothing wrong with a little alone time. But once she’s in the concert hall and strings fill the room, a cinematic spotlight highlights her face, which is characterized by a disquiet that only hints at her dejection.
When she meets Burt, then, we can practically feel the icicle that is her heart thawing. She doesn’t want to admit to herself that she has romantic feelings; it’s scary, opening herself up when she’s been shut for so long. And we can sense that discomfort in Crawford’s performance, which picks up on the minutiae of Milly’s neuroses.
There’s an especially memorable sequence in the film that finds her and Burt spending the day at the beach. The sequence begins with her putting on a bathing suit in front of a mirror in a changing room. She pauses, regarding herself; she sucks her stomach inward and pushes her breasts outward, as if trying to renew her body. She doesn’t like looking at herself.
It’s heartwarming, then, when she leaves the room and Burt admires her figure. It’s even more so later on when they go swimming together; after treading water for a bit, Burt pulls her in for a kiss, and she’s hesitant, worried she’ll lose her bearings. But he assures her that he has her, and in that moment, we understand exactly why Milly would give herself to him after knowing him for such a short time: He’s the first man, perhaps ever, to both seem attracted to her and genuinely concerned with her well-being.
When the film digresses into more histrionic territories, the initial sensitivity and enormous emotional impact disintegrates, and we’re left with a calculated soap opera. Autumn Leaves should have simply basked in the glory of this unorthodox romance, and wallowed in the joys of this couple getting to know one another. Then again, I’m not so sure audiences of 1956 would have taken to this sort of understated romantic feature, as the genre mostly intermingled with comedy or tragedy at the time.
This leaning toward the overdramatized tended to affect Crawford’s vehicles anyway, so as such is Autumn Leaves’s standing as only half an excellent film is unsurprising, if still something of a letdown. But I like much of what it does, and I took to the way the movie’s director, Robert Aldrich (who was known at the time for virile features like 1954’s Vera Cruz and 1955’s Kiss Me Deadly), employs his usual noirish style to boost a sense of perturbation and modernity. Crawford made finer, but the film nevertheless accentuates her virtuosity. And reminds us what made her the doyenne of melodrama in the first place. B