Cult classics revisited: ‘Nuts’

Nuts is a 1987 drama based on Tom Topor’s play, which tells the story of a prostitute named Claudia Draper who kills a john in self-defense and then has to defend herself in a competency hearing. The film was directed by Martin Ritt (Norma Rae), and starred Barbra Streisand, Eli Wallach, Maureen Stapleton, Richard Dreyfuss, and Karl Malden, with Leslie Nielsen in a cameo. The film was a rarity for Streisand in that it was one of the few movies in which she tried giving a performance, free from all the schtick and schmaltz that usually marred her work. It was also the last genuine bit of acting she would ever do in her storied career.

What I found interesting about Nuts is just how dated and 80s it feels – not because of the fashions but because of the genre (court dramas were all the rage in the 80s) and because of the film’s status as a Barbra Streisand vehicle. I would argue that the 1980s was the last decade that produced the classic “female movie star vehicle.” I’m not saying we don’t have female movie stars now – Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Julia Roberts, and Meryl Streep are all still bankable – but in the 1980s, there was still a strange archaic trend to use a female superstar as the tent pole of a film. Think about it: Kathleen Turner, Melanie Griffith, Jessica Lange, Sally Field, Cher, Goldie Hawn – all these actresses would be handpicked for their talent, star power, and beauty, and would have a film essentially created around their performances. Since the 1990s, few female stars have deemed bankable enough to green light a project – Julia Roberts, Cameron Diaz, and Reese Witherspoon come to mind – but we haven’t had an across-the-board female movie star in a little bit. So that Nuts acts as a showcase for Streisand’s acting talents is just one of the few aspects of the film that date it.

Nuts is a reasonably gritty film that explores misogyny, perceptions of sanity, as well as moral relativism. Topor’s screenplay (written with Darryl Ponicsan and Alvin Sargent) asks a lot of questions through its protagonist, Claudia. There are people around Claudia: her lawyer, her parents, her doctors – all of whom want to conveniently want her declared mentally incompetent when she kills a murderous john (Nielsen) is self-defense. Because she’s an intelligent woman, she understands that she may avoid a criminal sentence, but instead she may be locked away in a mental institution. Rightly, she sees this as unfair because she was acting in self-defense, a very normal, sane, reaction to having a man try to kill you.

Part of her detractors’ arguments lay in her chosen profession: she must be nuts to be a hooker. Topor wisely examines class distinction and race when he approaches these arguments. As Claudia herself sneers sarcastically, hookers aren’t “nice white girls from nice white families.” Because a seemingly intelligent, self-possessed, white woman like Claudia turns to prostitution, it stands to reason to her doctors, that she must be nuts. During her address to the court, she brings up the relative nature of prostitution, by pointing to married women whose lives and choices aren’t that different from her own. In the speech, delivered by Streisand with bravura and passion, Claudia points out:

“I know what you expect me to do…But I’m not a picture in your heads…do you understand? I’m not just a daughter, or a wife or a hooker or a patient or a defendant. Can’t you get that? You think giving blowjobs for $500 is nuts…I know women who marry men they despise so they can drive a Mercedes and spend summers in the Hamptons. I know women who crawl through shit for a fur coat. I know women who peddle their daughters to hang on to their husbands. So don’t judge my blowjobs, they’re sane. I know what I was doing every goddamned minute and I’m responsible for it.”

It’s a well-written speech that lets the readers know just how punny the title is. What is nuts? Why do we judge certain people to be crazy, when if one looks at it, a lot of “normal” behavior is strange, when examined objectively. One of the taglines for the film reads, “Mad as in angry, or just plain nuts.” Topor creates a character that stands in for the repudiation of societal expectations of decency and normalcy. And the viewers are asked to turn off their own expectations, because, as seen in Claudia’s case, these rigid rules have real world consequences.

And all of this is done with severe sincerity by the cast, the writers, and the director, all of whom step it up, putting together a very serious film. It’s not necessarily an excellent film, or even a very good one, but it’s a solid couple hours of choir preaching.

Because the film is based on a stage play, much of the action and dialogue is, well, stagey. People in Nuts don’t just speak naturally, but they also give rousing speeches, often to explain plot points or to highlight context. When delivering her defense speech, Streisand the star blends in with Claudia the character – and it’s difficult to see if Streisand’s performing or if she’s merely grandstanding. These are one of the few instances in the film when the script works against its star. The quieter moments with Streisand gently sparring with Dreyfuss as her crusading attorney, Aaron Levinsky, are much better, and show off the actress as the talented craftswoman. But too often, Streisand is supposedly gifted with monologues, during which she paces back and forth. as if she was holding court on a stage in Madison Square Garden.

Aside from Streisand, the other actors in the film represent the then-surviving members of the Actors Studio. Maureen Stapleton, Eli Wallach, and Karl Malden were disciples of the Method and are predictably excellent, disappearing in their roles in a way that Streisand couldn’t (the “curse” of being a superstar). Dreyfuss, a star equal to Streisand’s star power, also is more powerful in his performance than his leading lady. As the bedraggled and overworked lawyer who takes on Claudia’s case, Dreyfus plays the altruistic weariness beautifully. And interestingly enough, Malden and Nielsen, both actors primarily known as playing genial gentlemen, do very well subverting their affable screen personas and portray men with dark and sinister tones.

But unfortunately, the success of the film rests on Streisand’s shoulders and despite her yeoman efforts, she ultimately fails in successfully portraying the caged-in paranoia of Claudia. When she’s called on to act extravagantly crazy, Streisand pops her eyes, flails, and shouts her lines in tough girl speak that feels hollow. And it’s not that she’s terrible in the film – in fact, she’s very good, but viewers can always see when Streisand is acting. Her internal acting gears are visible when the script calls for high drama. And as mentioned earlier, when Streisand gets to calm down, the film’s tone shifts, and there are momentary peeks of just how much stronger her performance would’ve been if she was allowed to remain subtle. As it is, in Nuts, Streisand’s acting prowess isn’t elastic enough to stand up to the script’s roller coaster of emotions.

Nuts is an interesting entry in Streisand’s oeuvre: it is, to date, her last drama, and the last time when she tried valiantly to hang up her diva persona and get inside of her character. In the handful of movies that followed, Streisand’s roles have been little more than just highlights of various facets of her onscreen persona (with the possible exception of the little-seen Seth Rogen comedy The Guilt Trip). The movie feels a bit sleepy, weighed down by its good intentions, but is nonetheless worth a view.

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