May 24, 2012

The holiday season will bring many prestige movies; films that compete not merely for immediate box-office receipts but also for honors. These films are released now so that they might win a few year-end critics’ awards, and qualify for next year’s Oscars.

Nuts is such a film. It’s the sort of courtroom drama that allows for large, attention-getting acting, and it carries a potent, serious message. Aside from these credentials, Nuts also happens to be a shrewdly crafted entertainment. That said, it is not, I think, a very good movie.

The matter at hand is a competency hearing to decide whether a defendant (Barbra Streisand) is sane enough to stand trial on a manslaughter charge. She, a high-class prostitute, has killed an abusive client (Leslie Nielsen, in flashbacks). Her wealthy parents (Karl Malden and Maureen Stapleton) prefer that their incorrigible daughter be sent to a nice rest home and wither away there for the rest of her life. They hire a smoothie prosecutor (Robert Webber) to ensure this result.

The defendant is curiously impassive to her fate. Contemptuous and angry, she socks her own attorney and is assigned a new court-appointed lawyer (Richard Dreyfuss).

Dreyfuss doesn’t think she’s crazy. Smart, hurt, strange, but not crazy. But she won’t even help him help her; she’s uncooperative and disruptive during the hearing. At one point in court he shouts, not without some grudging affection, “This is a woman even a father could hate!”

Dreyfuss’s excellent performance caps his comeback year, and will likely get him an Oscar nomination. He remains the good-humored point of audience identification, since the Streisand character is intransigent throughout.

Streisand will probably bag another Oscar nomination; she also produced the movie and wrote the music. She carries forth with the stridency that marks so much of her work. In Nuts, this is actually useful, however, since the defendant is supposed to be insufferable. But the movie tries to have it both ways: She’s officially unpleasant, but she can lob in some adorable zingers when required. Webber’s prosecutor, for instance, is putty in her hands.

I suspect Streisand may see this script, written by Tom Topor, Daryl Ponicsan, and Alvin Sargent from Topor’s play, as analogous to her own experiences. For years after Funny Girl, she was the brassy, kooky actor who annoyed people because she wanted her own way, and made no bones about saying so; then she was the would-be filmmaker who spent years battling the Hollywood gender barrier while making Yentl. It’s probable that the Hollywood system belittled her as “nuts.”

Martin Ritt (Norma Rae) directs with the professionalism of a veteran. He doesn’t need to be told that the courtroom form is automatically compelling, and much of the movie is enjoyable on the gavel-banging level. Ritt’s supporting cast reads like a New York reunion of the Actor’s Studio: Malden, Stapleton, Eli Wallach (as a psychiatrist), and James Whitmore (the judge, crusty as they come).

Nuts hits a number of provocative issues, and every so often seems ready to delve into really interesting territory. To my mind, it stays on the surface of those issues, which is why, despite its attractions, it’s ultimately a failure.

First published in the Herald, November 19, 1987

No Oscar nominations after all for this overlooked movie—I’m not sure whether that means it’s better or worse than I thought. Babs was getting pretty picky about her roles at this time, which made the autobiographical reading more likely to me. But what an old-school cast, and what a bizarre role for Leslie Nielsen just before he slipped into the world of slapstick comedy.