Blue Sky (1994)
Director: Tony Richardson
Cast: Jessica Lange, Tommy Lee Jones, Powers Boothe
Run time: 101 minutes
Release date: 25 January 2021
Jamie Havlin offers his opinion on the final film by Tony Richardson, featuring an Oscar winning performance from Jessica Lange.
An almost naked blonde woman sunbathes on a beach in Hawaii. This is Carly (Jessica Lange), who loves to scrutinise Life magazine, lapping up stories of glittering stars and garnering advice from the beauty tips offered. Her hair is pure Marilyn and her sunbathing inspired by a report on Brigitte Bardot in Cannes – this being the pre-Beatles early 1960s.
Three helicopters hover above, her husband, Major Hank Marshall (Tommy Lee Jones), in one of them. ‘Beautiful, isn’t she?’ he observes to a colleague and laughs, knowing that the other men in the copters will agree as she performs a dance for their delight before stepping into an almost impossibly green sea where she strips off. She believes she is living in paradise.
Cut to a band of soldiers in protective clothing combing the same golden sands for signs of radioactivity. This beach is about to lose its paradise status. Yellow and red radioactive warning flags are soon planted across the entire area.
Hank is a soldier with a background in science, his speciality being nuclear power. Carly is a Virginian, a fantasist, and a flirt. An unconventional woman in an environment where conformity rules, she also likely suffers from what would have been called manic depression at the time. The relationship between the pair is loving, though volatile. You sense a strain exists when Hank returns home to see Carly entertaining a delegation of visiting international soldiers with a sexy flamenco dance. Maybe his earlier words were fuelled by a little bravado.
A superior ticks him off about his failure to keep his wife ‘under control’ and this leads to Hank being transferred to a position in Alabama, the military deeming Carly’s exhibitionist antics more worrying than the contamination from open-air nuclear testing. Hank incidentally favours testing taking place underground, which doesn’t help his cause. The new family home in Alabama is far from sweet. The furniture is dowdy and a dog perpetually barks outside. Carly immediately declares it a dump and works herself into a destructive fury.
These histrionics are clearly nothing new. Her mood swings and sometimes outrageous behaviour aren’t easy for her teenage daughters in particular to cope with. Drawing on his background, Hank perhaps unhelpfully, seeks to reassure them by comparing her condition to water: ‘Sometimes it’s water. Sometimes it’s ice. Sometimes it’s steam. Or vapour. It’s always the same old H₂O. It only changes its properties. Your mum’s like that.’
And here in the manner of Hank, I’ll mention that If Carly was a nuclear test (rather than water) her detonation would take place in open air, while Hank’s would be carried out underground.
More of the family dynamic is revealed in Alabama. Younger daughter Becky does aspire on occasion to her mum’s glamour while older sister Alex more resembles her father, opposing all atomic testing and hanging a peace sign in her room.
Both daughters may class their father as a ‘square’ but they obviously adore him. It’s his side they’ll take when their mother next embarrasses herself. This occurs at a crowded officers’ club party when she dances sensually with base commander Vince Johnson (Powers Boothe). Johnson has a mind to takes things further and at the first opportunity, sends Hank off to Nevada for a fortnight to help supervise another test there. You don’t have to possess much knowledge of the Bible to see what Hank’s hinting at when he asks Carly: ‘How did David steal Bathsheba away from her husband?’
She recognises the reference but this doesn’t mean she shalt not commit adultery when the temptation calls.
Rumours of the affair soon circulate. For Johnson’s wife Vera, who made every effort to help Carly fit into her new home, she is now only one less Christmas card to send. You can’t blame her, just as you can’t blame the other army wives who laugh at a ‘lock up your husbands, girls,’ quip when they see Carly. But Richardson ensures you still retain sympathy with Carly, even when she’s putting the man who loves her so much through the emotional ringer.
During its final third, the story veers into a direction I hadn’t foreseen. You could make a case that this final act required a small dose of suspension of disbelief but the sheer quality of the acting rescued Blue Sky from any implausibilities in the script.
Jessica Lange deservedly won the Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal of Carly. While her visceral performance steals the show, Jones is incredible too. He’s her perfect foil, as subdued as she is flamboyant.
Blue Sky was completed in 1991, when production company Orion was on the brink of bankruptcy. Sadly, it was held back and by the time of its eventual release in 1994, Tony Richardson was dead.
As finales go, this only added to the reputation of one of British cinemas’s most important ever directors. An integral part of the groundbreaking new wave movement along with Lindsay Anderson, John Schlesinger, and Karel Reisz, Richardson proved here that three decades after making such classics as A Taste of Honey and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, he was still capable of making highly involving and socially conscious dramas.
Extras include a newly recorded audio commentary by film critic Nick Pinkerton; Operation Hurricane (1952): a haunting film that documents the first atomic bomb test on the Monte Bello Islands; Atoms at Work (1952): a behind-the-scenes look at the Harwell atomic research establishment, and – with the first pressing only – a fully illustrated booklet with a new essay on the film by Jim Hemphill and more.
For more on the release click here.
All words by Jamie Havlin. More writing by Jamie can be found at his Louder Than War author’s archive.