It took a while for audiences to be able to see Blue Sky. Completed in 1991, what would become the final film of Tony Richardson’s exceptionally prolific career went unreleased for 3 years, due to the demise of its distributor, Orion.
The kind of characterful, modestly budgeted American drama that was a 1980s/90s staple but which seldom gets the green light these days, Richardson’s film, available now for the first time on Blu-ray, finally appeared in 1994. By that time, sadly, the director himself had died. But the film’s respectful reception constituted a worthy, belated tribute – one crowned by Jessica Lange’s best actress Oscar win for her boldly inventive lead performance.
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Richardson was always among the most restless and protean of filmmakers, and the inviting retro classicism of Blue Sky could hardly be further from the frosty formalism of Mademoiselle (1966), the most recent of his works to hit Blu-ray. Both films are linked, however, by their rapt attention to the actions of a disruptive female protagonist.
Deriving from an autobiographically-inspired screenplay by Rama Laurie Stagner (also credited to Arlene Sarner and Jerry Leichtling), Blue Sky’s focus is on the dynamic between an army scientist, Hank Marshall (Tommy Lee Jones), and his wife Carly (Lange), an ebullient fantasist with a penchant for styling herself after her cinema idols, among them Brigitte Bardot and Marilyn Monroe.
Carly and Hank’s relationship is a volatile one that’s subject to Carly’s intense mood swings, which have been exacerbated by the couple’s frequent moves from place to place with their long-suffering daughters, Alex (Amy Locane) and Becky (Anna Klemp), in tow.
When we meet the family, they’re stationed in Hawaii, but Carly’s exhibitionistic antics lead to a transfer to Alabama. There Carly, a southerner who originally fled her hometown to pursue acting ambitions that would not be fulfilled, soon draws the attention of the appropriately named Colonel Johnson (Powers Boothe at his oiliest), while Alex pursues a romance with the Colonel’s son Glenn (Chris O’Donnell).
What distinguishes Blue Sky is its exploration of these relationships within a charged Cold War context. While also evoking Carly’s flagrant disregard for boundaries, the film’s title refers to an underground military nuclear-testing project. When a pair of unlucky civilians venture into the fallout of a Nevada test, Hank finds himself in hot water as he opposes a military cover-up of the incident, inspiring Carly to snap out of her fantasy world and step up to try to save her man.
As it progresses, then, Blue Sky develops into a sharp, if unsubtle, critique of US A-bomb ambitions and institutional corruption. An old-fashioned melodrama at heart, the picture pits marital love (however complicated) against military might. Some hokey narrative developments reduce the impact of Carly’s resourceful attempts to support Hank. Still, the film’s perspective is feminist, and its refusal of a tragic fate for its transgressive protagonist remains refreshing.
Combining old-school glam with jagged neurosis, and without succumbing to the easily meme-able camp of her recent Ryan Murphy-produced TV outings, the confident physicality of Lange’s performance grounds the film at every stage. Whether violently expressing Carly’s disgust at the unpleasant accommodation the family is given in Alabama (in a shocking sequence that abruptly violates the film’s to-this-point breezy tone) or hypnotically moving on the dancefloor to ‘It’s Only Make Believe,’ Lange never does the predictable thing.
Assuming different poses and looks, using her voice as expressively as her body, the actress makes Carly’s pleasure in performance palpable, but modulates to find affecting notes of vulnerability, insecurity and self-awareness in the character too. Richardson, whom Lange praised as “a true actors’ director,” allows her plenty of space to experiment, while editor Robert K. Lambert gives the best scenes an unpredictable snap, often cutting on an unexpected gesture or line of Carly’s in order to keep the viewer off-balance.
Lange is partnered effectively by Jones – the pair had previously co-starred in a TV production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof – and general echoes of Tennessee Williams’ work can be felt in aspects of their interaction here (including a cheekily allusive final scene).
The actor gives a subtle, self-effacing performance that conveys Hank’s increasing disillusionment with the military’s machinations – as well as the conflicted emotions of a husband who suffers the consequences of the male attention his wife enjoys even as he can’t help taking some pride in it. Together, Jones and Lange create a compelling portrait of a turbulent relationship in which neither party emerges merely as victim or villain.
Blue Sky’s investigation of Hollywood-fed fantasy and ’60s political reality isn’t seamless; the film surely indulges in a dose of the former in order to contrive a fairly cosy conclusion. Where the picture consistently scores is in its creation of an original female protagonist whom it refuses to either stand back from or to pigeonhole. Subverting the well-worn stereotype of an inevitably doomed, neurotic bombshell, Blue Sky prefers to leave Carly with her nonconformist spirit very much intact.