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Wanting Things We Can’t Have and Having Things We Don’t Want

April 28th, 2009 · 4 Comments

The Age of Innocence (1993)
Screenplay by Jay Cocks & Martin Scorsese, based on the novel by Edith Wharton
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Produced by Cappa Productions/ Columbia Pictures
Running time: 139 minutes

Age of Innocence 1993 poster Age of Innocence DVD

What the *&#! Is This About?
In New York City of the 1870s, Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis) is among the well heeled who attend a performance of the opera Faust at the Academy of Music. Newland is taken aback by the entrance of the Countess Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer), who’s left her husband in Europe and become an object of great scandal by returning to her family. Newland is engaged to Ellen’s innocent, pampered cousin May (Winona Ryder). To discourage gossip against the family, he announces his engagement to May at an opera ball that night. When Ellen fails to appear, Newland seems disappointed. He goes out of his way to ingratiate her back into the favor of New York society, with the help of May’s reclusive grandmother Manson Mingott (Miriam Margolyes).

Sensing she might feel lonely, Newland wants to help the free spirited and exotic Ellen. “Is New York such a labyrinth? I thought it was all straight up and down, like 5th Avenue, all the cross streets numbered and big honest labels on everything.” “Everything is labeled,” he tells her, “but everybody is not.” Behind closed doors, Newland questions conformity. In public, he upholds family and tradition. “This was a world balanced so precariously that its harmony could be shattered by a whisper,” says our narrator (Joanne Woodward). The Mingotts enlist Newland to dissuade Ellen from seeking a divorce, but he finds himself falling in love with her. He tries to speed up his engagement to May, who correctly guesses he’s in love with someone else. Newland denies this.

Age of Innocence, 1993, Winona Ryder, Daniel Day Lewis

For Newland, responsibility to his mother and sister, who rely on him for every security, comes before his own desires. A year and a half later, Ellen returns to New York when Mrs. Mingott suffers a stroke. Newland goes to meet her at the train station. They share a carriage ride, where a simple touch of Ellen’s wrist qualifies as a consummation of their affair. Ellen refuses to take it any further for fear it will hurt May. Meeting each other at the Metropolitan Museum, Ellen changes her mind about the prospect of an affair. Newland finally decides to confess his feelings to his wife, but she interrupts to tell him that Ellen is returning to her husband. Newland realizes that his family and all of New York society have conspired to send her back to Europe to preserve decorum.

Who Should Be Held Responsible?
Edith Wharton wrote most of The Age of Innocence from September 1919 to March 1920 while living in the Rue de Varenne of Paris. Her sister-in-law Minnie Jones helped research 1870s New York society by combing through back issues of the New York Tribune at Yale University Library. Published in 1920 in serial format, then as a novel, The Age of Innocence became a phenomenal bestseller. Columbia University awarded it the Pulitzer Prize for Literature – making Wharton the first woman to receive the honor – and within two years, the author had reaped $50,000 in royalties, including $15,000 from Warner Bros. for the film rights. The studio produced a seven-reel feature in 1924, while RKO mounted a talkie version in 1931 starring Irene Dunne as Countess Ellen Olenska. Neither was a box office success.

Age of Innocence, 1993, Michelle Pfeiffer, Daniel Day Lewis

60 years after its publication, Jay Cocks – former film critic for Time Magazine – handed a copy of The Age of Innocence to his friend, director Martin Scorsese. Appearing on The Charlie Rose Show in October 1993, Scorsese recalled, “We had known each other since ’68 and over the years we saw so many different films and over the years we really tried to write scripts together and do all kinds of projects and really got involved with wanting to do many different genres: westerns, costume pieces – you could call them costume pieces – romantic films, musicals, etcetera. And so around 1980 he gave me the book and said, ‘When you decide to do that romance piece,’ he said, ‘this one is you.’ Meaning this has the qualities that you would like.’”

Scorsese continued, “When I finally did read the book – because when he gave me the book I was finishing Raging Bull and I was going into King of Comedy – and in a sense, Raging Bull is a picture that is spinning. It’s like a vortex of emotion. I was very much into that state of mind. So it took me a while to sit down and read the book. But when I did, I reacted immediately to the passion of the love story between Archer and Ellen and especially the fact that it’s unconsummated … maybe because I read it and it was 1987, January and I had gotten older, but I reacted immediately to that. I must tell you that I’ve read other books – I’ve loved the books of Thomas Hardy and other types of classical literature and 19th century English literature – but this one, I said I can make into a film.”

Age of Innocence, 1993, Winona Ryder

Adapting a screenplay in 1987, Cocks & Scorsese had a first draft in three weeks. The Age of Innocence was set up at Fox, with Scorsese planning to direct as soon as he completed GoodFellas. But when studio chairman Joe Roth weighed the commercial risk of an Edith Wharton novel against Scorsese’s $32 million budget – as well as the director’s unwillingness to reduce his fee – the project was put into turnaround. Scorsese accepted an offer to direct Cape Fear for Steven Spielberg, but even after that movie became a blockbuster, Universal Pictures considered The Age of Innocence too rich for its taste as well. Mark Canton, chairman of Columbia/TriStar, was eager to forge a relationship with Scorsese, who by that time had been crowned “the greatest living American director” by critics. Columbia agreed to finance the film.

Speaking with the New York Times in 2007, Daniel Day-Lewis recalled The Age of Innocence and Martin Scorsese. “He is a mighty man, and when he asks you to do something, you want to do it. I was struggling to escape from English drawing rooms, but because of Martin, I accepted the role in The Age of Innocence.” Michelle Pfeiffer had already worked in drawing rooms as well, but Scorsese was more impressed by the versatility she’d shown in Married to the Mob, as well as Scarface, offering her the role of Ellen Olenska. The actress recalled, “What’s most universal and timeless about the novel and the film is what they have to say about the charades people play, the masks people wear for the sake of what’s socially acceptable. That’s still going strong. And when you see someone’s whole life guided by those standards, it touches a chord. You ask yourself: Will I wind up like Newland Archer? Could I make those sacrifices without becoming bitter?”

Age of Innocence, 1993

Many of those involved with the production of The Age of Innocence seemed enamored with the timelessness of Edith Wharton’s story. Jay Cocks remarked at the time, “The themes – which are love, passion, conscience, commitment – they’re pertinent and immediate and compelling at any time, whether it’s 1993 or 2010. We have the same problems of wanting things we can’t have and having things we don’t want, and that’s what this story is about.” As filming was just getting underway, Martin Scorsese addressed his suitability to portray those themes successfully. “I guess you try to make films about what you know. Merchant and Ivory are maybe more attuned to this kind of society. It is second nature to them, whereas Mean Streets, GoodFellas, Raging Bull are more second nature to me. But a love between two people, whether successful or unsuccessful, is common to everybody.”

By the time The Age of Innocence went before the cameras in March 1992, Scorsese’s visual research consultant – Robin Standefer – had spent two and a half years studying New York society of the 1870s. Her work with the New York Historical Society, the Library of Congress and Edith Wharton scholars was so meticulous that Standefer discovered Wharton had misnamed a Bougeureau painting in her novel. A dozen other consultants were devoted to food, to decorative arts, to etiquette. With its three-story brownstones, the Victorian city of Troy, New York – located on the east bank of the Hudson River across from Albany – stood in for 19th century Manhattan. The opera sequence was filmed over a five-day period inside the Philadelphia Academy of Music, while outside, the streets were covered with soil, as New York had no paved streets in the 1870s.

Age of Innocence, 1993

Accustomed to having a year to cut his films, when The Age of Innocence wrapped in June 1992, Scorsese and editor Thelma Schoonmaker were initially given only five months to have the film ready for Christmas. Then Scorsese’s 79-year-old father Charles – who had played bit roles in many of his son’s films – fell seriously ill. The studio decided against hurrying the greatest living American director. Producer Barbara De Fina recalled, “All the fine cutting and shaping would have suffered, the down-to-the-frame timing that makes it a Scorsese movie. Marty also likes to cut his scenes to the music, not lay in the score afterward.” Adding $2 million to its production costs, Columbia was confident that they were positioning the film for Academy Awards consideration in ’93, with industry observers predicting a Best Actress win for Michelle Pfeiffer.

Premiering at the Venice Film Festival August 1993, The Age of Innocence opened in the United States and Canada in limited release the following month. The critical praise was faint. Rita Kempley, the Washington Post: “Though lovely to behold, this film isn’t meant to send you home with a song in your heart.” Todd McCarthy, Variety: “An extraordinarily sumptuous piece of filmmaking, The Age of Innocence represents an impeccably faithful adaptation of Edith Wharton’s classic novel, which is both a blessing and a bit of a curse.” Jonathan Rosenbaum, Chicago Reader: “As beautifully mounted as this production is, Scorsese has a way of letting the decor take over, so that Wharton’s tale of societal constraints comes through only in fits and starts. But it’s a noble failure.”

After test screenings had not gone well, Mark Canton successfully lobbied Scorsese to cut the film from 165 minutes down to 139 minutes. Audiences ignored the film anyway, which grossed $32.2 million in the U.S. The New York Times cited an unnamed prominent theater exhibitor as saying, “It’s a coast picture, a specialized picture that does best on the East Coast and the West Coast but doesn’t hit in the heartland. The women seemed to like it, but it didn’t grab the men at all. A good picture, but not mainstream.” Nominated for five Academy Awards – including Winona Ryder for Best Supporting Actress – only Gabriella Pescucci (Best Costume Design) ended up being honored. Michelle Pfeiffer wasn’t even nominated.

Age of Innocence, 1993, Daniel Day Lewis, Michelle Pfeiffer

Should I Care?
Stanley Kubrick bent the heads of critics and moviegoers into a question mark in the mid 1970s when the director of 2001: A Space Odyssey and A Clockwork Orange announced he was adapting an 1844 novel by William Makepeace Thackeray titled Barry Lyndon. If the choice of material wasn’t visionary in itself, the costume piece starring Ryan O’Neal was rendered to film with nothing less than the artistry of an 18th century impressionist painting. Martin Scorsese routinely cites Barry Lyndon as his favorite Kubrick film and The Age of Innocence is not only the director’s valentine to it, but surpasses it in style, exquisitely interpreting the language and descriptive flow of a Victorian Era novel, while boasting actors and production techniques that make Kubrick’s 1975 film look on many levels like hobby moviemaking.

Dante Ferretti lavishes the period in pictorial detail, with director of photography Michael Ballhaus bathing those scenes in vibrant color (the floral shop scenes alone are worth the price of a rental). Editor Thelma Schoonmaker, title designers Elaine & Saul Bass and composer Elmer Bernstein make The Age on Innocence a Thanksgiving banquet where each guest unwraps a spectacular dish. Like Thanksgiving, all this food – not to mention the many characters, their social positions and veiled agendas – are prone to give the first time viewer indigestion. On repeated viewings, the passion between Wharton’s exiled lovers and the tenacity of those seeking to keep them apart is much easier to distill and be moved by. Daniel Day-Lewis and Michelle Pfeiffer are as emotionally compelling here as any other roles I can remember.

© Joe Valdez

Age of Innocence, 1993

Where Are You Getting This *&#!?
“Scorsese, From the Mean Streets to Charm School”
By Alessandra Stanley. The New York Times, 28 June 1992

“The Fine Aging of Innocence By Steve Daly. Entertainment Weekly, 21 May 1993

“In Age of Innocence, Eternal Questions” By Francine Prose. The New York Times, 12 September 1993

“Recreating The Age of Innocence In Brick and Paint” By Christopher Gray. The New York Times, 24 October 1993

“Innocence & Experience: The Making of The Age of Innocence” (1993)

Hit and Run: How Jon Peters and Peter Guber Took Sony for a Ride in Hollywood. By Nancy Griffin, Kim Masters. Simon and Schuster (1997)

Tags: Based on novel · Concert · Dreams and visions · Master and pupil · Museums and galleries · Unconventional romance

4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 AR // Dec 2, 2008 at 1:20 pm

    Hmmm, seems like a good match for the previous film you reviewed, Remains of the Day. I like that film a bit more, but I do think Age of Innocence is underrated. It didn’t really grab me initially, bit clunky in places, but I liked it more when I saw it again a couple years ago.

  • 2 communicatrix // Dec 2, 2008 at 5:40 pm

    This is probably me being petty and small–or, more accurately, was me being petty and small–but I found this movie to be a profound disappointment.

    I’m not some whack-job purist (well, I am, but it’s not applicable here) who thinks people have their purview and should stay the hell in it. Foreign-born directors have given us some of our sharpest, most insightful views into American life. Outsiders looking in see stuff we can’t, I guess (although I’m trying to come up with a vice-versa situation–American-born directors brilliantly depicting everyday life in Japan or Russia or even England, and drawing a blank).

    As I recall, what killed this for me was Winona Ryder. Some actors–and yes, particularly American ones without the kind of rigorous outside-in training one gets in drama school–just stink outside of their own time. Ms. Ryder, whom I love in modern pieces, is like nails on a chalkboard or, to use a film reference, like Gwen Welles singing in Nashville or Shelley Duvall doing anything in 3 Women: cringeworthy. Only in the Altman film, those are skilled actresses making you cringe on purpose, not actresses working out of their range making you cringe inadvertently.

    And yeah, I’m a little nervous about Kate and Leo having a go at one of my all-time fave novels, Revolutionary Road. I’ll probably see it anyway, esp. if SAG does a free screening, but oy. Life’s too short for that kind of crap-assery.

  • 3 kelsy // May 1, 2009 at 8:06 pm

    Joe, I’m kind of skimming through your site and I enjoy your researched reviews.

    I’ve been dipping my toes into Scorsese lately, but I can’t say I’ve really connected to any of his films. I think if any of his films would connect to me, it would be a costume drama, but something about the subtle jump cuts and the pacing kept me from really getting into it. Although Daniel Day-Lewis is the most personable I’ve ever seen him in a role.

  • 4 Joe Valdez // May 1, 2009 at 8:15 pm

    Amanda: I’m glad you caught my attempt at New Beverly Cinema double feature programming there. The Age of Innocence is a great unrequited romance to watch with The Remains of the Day, tougher to penetrate, but filmmaking at its finest. You have to pay attention to what is not said, but this really pays off when you watch the movie a number of times, particularly with Winona Ryder’s character.

    Colleen: Hollywood seems to adore Winona Ryder. When Uma Thurman got pregnant, Warren Beatty suggested to Quentin Tarantino that he replace her in Kill Bill with either Gwyneth Paltrow or Ryder. Tarantino obviously waited for Thurman and gave David Carradine the Bill role in Reason #28 why I love Tarantino. Ryder doesn’t bother me in The Age of Innocence because she’s playing such an unlikable character anyway, but yeah, she’s two dimensional at best, and I feel your pain. Oy! Thanks for commenting!

    Kelsy: Thanks so much for stopping by and approving of my writing/researching technique. I can’t remember the last time I heard someone wasn’t connecting with Scorsese’s films. You might give Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore or Taxi Driver a try as it’s possible some of his gangster films come off too macho for your taste.

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