The sudden reemergence of The Many Faces of Lady Leotard Hanoi Jane Vadim Hayden Turner Fonda (a possibly ill-advised return from retirement, the new book) has inspired me to revisit Klute (1971). In it, she portrays Bree, a stalked prostitute who balls detective Donald Sutherland and conveys her feelings clinically to her therapist as if they were co-workers rather than doctor and client. Like everything else connected to Fonda, her depiction of Bree shouldn’t be nearly as effective as it is.
Fonda never, no matter what the role, loses her clipped, boarding-school diction — which has a condescending effect though she likely intends the opposite. Somehow depicting working-class women (as in Stanley and Iris) or merely working women (as in Klute) who speak so precisely and stridently rings hollow — as if she holds these women at such bay that she is speaking of them rather than climbing inside them.
But in Klute she manages to evoke that terrible hush that creeps into a life unpopulated by real human connection in every moment. Even Sutherland seems uncharacteristically muted in her presence. In her poorly lit rooms, as she smokes dope, leafs through books, stares down her ugly walls with all the weight of one who knows that silence is threatening to extend forever, she really does relay the grimness of a woman who has accepted she’s fallen through the cracks. Who accepts that she is doing nothing to steer from the path she’s charted by default, that she’s surrendered so fully to her isolation that she luxuriates in it as if it were bathwater still warm though dirty. You believe she can tolerate no intruder save her cat entirely, and that kindness unwires her, angers her, however irrational she recognizes that fact to be.
Klute is not a terrific movie by any stretch of the imagination; it falls prey to many ‘70s movies pitfalls, including poorly built suspense (a high, female voice singing to a single piano note does not in itself conjure fear) and self-important pauses. The first time I saw that movie I’d been alone for a long, long time, though, and it felt so familar that it was as if I were kissing my own arm.
*Also, why hasn’t anyone pointed out that Shue’s prostitute character in Leaving Las Vegas draws so much on Fonda’s Bree? Both women stride about with the same very middle-class, can-do assertiveness rather than brassiness, and both films deploy that oy-vey storytelling technique of the women confiding in their shrinks while jazz trumpets blare bleakly.