Waiting for the Moon

Literalists sometimes have a hard time with fictionalized history. When Amadeus wove a fantasia out of the lives of Mozart and Salieri, some were simply mortified; how could moviemakers tamper with the lives of real people?

Now comes Waiting for the Moon, another docudrama, this time about invented incidents in the lives of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. The great writer and her constant companion aren’t drawn into a murder mystery or anything so vulgar; the film might have had a bit more pep if they had. The imagined incidents aren’t objectionable; it’s just that the movie chooses two very interesting people and doesn’t tell us very interesting things about them.

The invented situation that frames the film is the news that Stein may have a terminal illness, which she learns at the beginning of the movie. Throughout, Toklas tries to understand Stein’s cool, intellectualized response to the news.

The film is broken up into a bunch of free-floating segments, with a flash-forward that returns from time to time. Depending on your metabolism, that can be a pleasant activity, and much of Waiting for the Moon is easy to take. Most important, it is beautifully acted by Linda Bassett (as Stein) and Oscar-winner Linda Hunt (as Toklas). These two really suggest the relationship that had lasted for years, and all the petty bickering that must be a part of such a bond.

Mark Magill’s screenplay contains a number of effective verbal jousts, and the bitchy humor is sharp. Much of it is along the lines of Toklas’s smiling kiss-off to Stein during an eminently civilized argument: “Gertrude, my dear, it’s such a lovely day for a walk. Why don’t you take one?”

Jill Godmilow’s direction serves the performers, but encourages a distasteful hint of smugness. Also, it doesn’t seem to exploit all the possibilities of the situation. Stein and Toklas’s house in Paris was a meeting place for the greatest artistic talents (and some of the most colorful people) of the 1920s, but the film is set in 1936 – after the golden age had passed. Perhaps that’s part of the movie’s point.

In any case, the only famous character who circles through the film’s orbit is Ernest Hemingway (Bruce McGill), in a drunken but sympathetic caricature. Picasso, on the other hand, is not seen, only heard.

It’s unfair to criticize the movie for what it doesn’t choose to do; clearly, the emphasis was always meant to be on Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. The lead actresses justify that decision, even if the surrounding circumstances don’t always lend them proper support.

First published in The Herald, April 1987

An American Playhouse production that got a theatrical release. Curiously, I do not mention the biggest name in the cast, Andrew McCarthy, who plays a small role. This was Bassett’s debut, and she has had a busy career since. I remember quite liking McGill’s Hemingway, part of an excellent decade this terrific character actor enjoyed. This was the only fictional feature for Godmilow, who had an Oscar nomination for feature documentary for the 1974 film Antonia: A Portrait of the Woman (co-directed by Judy Collins).

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