“Ratched”–Ratcheting Up the Tension

This Netflix quasi-horror thriller creates a backstory for Nurse Ratched, the heartless villain in the 1975 Academy-Award winning classic “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest”.  “What made Ratched so vile and so unimaginably cruel and unempathetic?” The answer, of course, has roots in Nurse Ratched’s  tragic early years, unhealed wounds that continue to fester.   Ratched is a female-villain origin story.  

Ratched  opens in 1947 as Mildred Ratched arrives in Big Sur to seek employment at a leading psychiatric hospital.  New experiments, believed to be cutting-edge,  have begun on the mostly affluent patients committed to their care. But there is  a brutal darkness within the hospital’s walls, literally cutting-edge, as lobotomies and other heinous surgical operations become almost daily routine.  In  eight episodes set in Hitchcock-style scenes, the diabolical scheming regurgitates similar carnage to “American Horror Story”(by the same producer, Ryan Murphy).

 In Ratched Sarah Paulson (also starring in “American Horror Story”)  plays the conniving, pathologically manipulative title character.  She performs with such intensity that the viewer wants to turn away from watching   how she entertains herself by creating chaos at others’ expense. As a predator master-planning each killing blow, Ratched’s targets all know she is coming for them but none are her match.  

The first four episodes are spellbinding, with an occasional act of kindness from Ratched to prevent a  one-dimensional  villain and sadist.   Ratched becomes understandable–if not relatable.  A subplot in which she has a tenuous relationship with Gwendolyn Briggs (the always wonderful Cynthia Nixon) has some of the best dialogue in the series. 

Nurse Ratched  becomes a metaphor for the corrupting influence of institutional power and authority.  And in Ratched, almost everyone is amoral.  Mildred’s co-worker and adversary, Nurse Betsy Bucket (the terrific Judy Davis), has the same ice-cold authoritarian blood. And Edmund, Mildred’s brother (Finn Wittrock), is both the embodiment of evil and a hopelessly wounded victim.   

The second half of the mini-series stands in stark contrast to the first.  In Episode 5 the story goes into a dizzying spiral downward in both plot and structure.  Charlotte Wells (the astonishing actor  Sophie Okonedo) is a patient being treated for severe multiple personality disorder. Why she is introduced and so poorly interwoven with the other characters is puzzling.  Okonedo, in a role not worthy of her in spite of sensational acting,   unravels the first half of what otherwise would have been an extraordinarily riveting narrative.  The first four episodes could stand alone as a far more integrated whole.  

Conclusion:  Watch for a very exciting story for the first half.  Stop if you don’t have time or the inclination to finish what is a very disappointing downhill narrative .

“Death of a Salesman”–Trapped by the American Dream

Last week we had the unforgettable experience of attending “Death of a Salesman” at the historic Ethel Barrymore Theater in New York City.   One of my absolutely favorite plays has been revived five times on Broadway, broadcast in several television productions and produced twice for the silver screen.   Starring some of the most highly regarded actors in the US, “Death of a Salesman” still electrifies 63 years after its debut in 1949. This Arthur Miller tragedy is as timely as the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Sixty-three-year old Willy Loman (the magnetic Philip Seymour Hoffman), is the central tragic figure who has a fire in his belly.  Broken by the optimism essential to being a successful salesman, Willy Loman’s blood pumps with the belief that he can make things happen, can dream the impossible dream, almost surely a self-willed delusion. Willy is a hope-inflated man who has injured his family gravely.  His wife (played by the luminously reserved Linda Emond) brings an iron-strength to her role as protector of her husband’s fragile mental health.   She is also an unsung hero. We feel an ache for her when all the air goes out of her husband with her famous warning, “Attention must be paid”.

But the story belongs to Willy Loman and to his older son, Biff (brilliantly acted by Andrew Garfield of “Social Network” fame). The searingly brutal father-son relationship takes center stage in the most devastating emotional outbursts between the loneliest of lonely figures–Willy–and the disillusioned, lost Biff.  The words, like shards of glass, are gut wrenching.

But there is also another, younger son, Hap aka”Happy”, (the remarkable Broadway debut of Finn Wittrock), the outlier who follows in his father’s footsteps but is ignored nonetheless.   All four main characters harbor unspeakable, unhealed wounds.   Hoffman, as Willy Loman, hides his self-doubt from both sons while outwardly projecting the optimism so essential to “sell”: “A salesman is got to dream, boy. It comes with the territory.” Only his wife, propping up his ego, listens to his insides crumpling, his waning faith in the system he believed would always support him: “There were promises made.” And Charlie, his neighbor and only friend, understands:   “You have to have the ability to believe in yourself enough to go out there and make it happen.”

There are things that have happened–that can’t be spoken of–and that is the tragedy.  The Loman family is disintegrating in spite of their efforts and intentions.  Biff is blind-sided by his father’s callous lack of respect for his mother, Hap wants to be the success his father coldly ignores, and Linda just wants to make it through another day with her Willy. “But he’s a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him”, she says– but one link in the chain affects the others.

Willy’s misdirected pride inevitably causes him to disintegrate. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s unique contribution to this classic drama is that he acts without soliciting pity or conveying self-loathing.  We left the theater with a tremendous sadness for someone who strived so exhaustively for the American dream.