powered by AFI
A brutal, intense, but rewarding adaptation of young adult novelist Paul Zindel's 1971 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds (1972) is directed and produced by Paul Newman starring his wife Joanne Woodward.
In an economically depressed sliver of a Northern American town defined by crumbling, once noble Victorian homes, lives Beatrice Hunsdorfer (Joanne Woodward) a damaged matriarch lording over her sad, broken family. Her home is a decaying disaster area and she lives some alternate dream of what could be by reading the classified ads. A disappointed woman who harbors delusional fantasies of opening a tea house and other grand schemes, Beatrice spends her time demeaning the two members of her household who have hopes of a better life, her young daughters Ruth (Roberta Wallach), whose anxiety results in epileptic seizures and fragile, brilliant Matilda (Nell Potts) who has a gift for science. Beatrice takes out her life's frustrations on her daughters, cruelly complaining about Matilda's beloved pet rabbit and threatening to keep them home from school for housecleaning. Abandoned by their father and Beatrice's husband years ago, the family of three women is stranded and desperate. Their income comes from Beatrice's phone solicitations on behalf of a local dance school and the depressing wages of taking in the elderly and sickly, including new arrival Nanny (Judith Lowry), a pitifully frail old woman who has been rejected by her own self-centered businesswoman daughter Mrs. McKay (Carolyn Coates).
The cumulation of the story that shows the ugly schism between Beatrice's dashed dreams and her daughters' tentative hopes for the future is the science fair for which shy, delicate Matilda has created an experiment with the help of her doting science teacher Mr. Goodman (David Spielberg). Subjecting marigolds to radiation, in the central metaphor of the film, Matilda manages to grow something beautiful despite difficult conditions. Like those marigolds, Matilda suggests a promise and hope for the future beyond the abject, depressing conditions of her own home.
A production featuring an array of Hollywood dynasties, beyond the husband and wife team of director/producer Paul Newman and his wife/star Joanne Woodward, The Effect of Gamma Rays also features the couple's daughter Elinor Teresa Newman billed as Nell Potts, one of three daughters the couple had together (in addition to Newman's three children with his first wife Jackie Witte). Potts, who had an abbreviated film career despite her obvious talent, was once projected to star with her father in Paper Moon (1973), but the father and daughter team dropped out of the production when a new director was chosen. The Effect of Gamma Rays was Potts' final film. In a 1973 review Roger Ebert called Potts "extraordinary. She glows." The New York Times also praised Potts, but saw her mother's performance as one in a long-line of theatrical clichs of broken, half-mad women. "It's a lovely, solemn performance," noted reviewer Vincent Canby, "in a film that otherwise succeeds in being simultaneously too barren and too busy, like Beatrice herself." Also in the cast, was Roberta Wallach, the daughter of married actors Eli Wallach and Anne Jackson.
Director Newman was nominated for a Palme d'Or for The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds at the 1973 Cannes Film Festival and Woodward won the Best Actress Award despite finding her role, as she confided in The New York Times, "very alienating."
"I was so depressed and suicidal during that film I couldn't stand it. I hated the way I looked, I hated that character, what she did to her children," confessed Woodward in the book Paul and Joanne: A Biography of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward by Joe Morella and Edward Z. Epstein.
Novelist Paul Zindel's first play ran first off- and then on-Broadway for 819 performances. Zindel received the 1971 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and a New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for his play, based on his own childhood growing up in a family abandoned by their father and a mother prone to get-rich-quick schemes. A 2003 The New York Times obituary for Zindel quoted the author as saying, "'Like my mother, Beatrice was a scorned woman whose husband had left her, and who was left to raise two kids who were like a stone around her neck. She felt that the world was lurking out there to ridicule her clothes and to attack her with unkindness." Much of the material also originated in Zindel's early professional career as a Staten Island high school science teacher and the bad parents he had observed that held their children back in life. Zindel became a noted figure in young adult literature with his novels The Pigman (1968) and My Darling My Hamburger (1969).
Elderly actress Judith Lowry revisited her stage role as Nanny, Beatrice's geriatric boarder in Paul Newman's film version. Newman and Woodward bought the film rights for The Effect of Gamma Rays from Zindel for $65,000 after seeing the play. "I was thrilled to be working for these two big stars, and the more that I saw the impact that these two stars had, and the power that they had, the more impressed I was about working for them," said Zindel in Paul and Joanne; he became friends with Newman and Woodward and did not resent that the Newmans bought the film rights for so little. He had loved the Newman-directed Rachel, Rachel (1968) and beamed in Paul and Joanne, "I really loved it. Artistically, I thought it was sensational. I thought the Newmans were the perfect ones for Marigolds." Upon seeing the completed film, however, Zindel was less than happy. He finally warmed to the film when it appeared on television, finding it, "less strenuous, less transparent."
The Effect of Gamma Rays was shot almost entirely in Bridgeport, Connecticut, near where Newman and Woodward lived, though in the play, the Hunsdorfer home was in Staten Island. Newman had previously directed his wife in Rachel, Rachel as another socially maladjusted spinster as well as 1970's Sometimes a Great Notion starring Newman, Henry Fonda and Lee Remick. Following The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds Newman would go on to direct one TV movie The Shadow Box (1980) as well as two features, Harry & Son (1984) and The Glass Menagerie (1987), all again featuring his wife.
Producer: Paul Newman
Director: Paul Newman
Screenplay: Alvin Sargent; Paul Zindel (play)
Cinematography: Adam Holender
Music: Maurice Jarre
Film Editing: Evan Lottman
Cast: Joanne Woodward (Beatrice), Nell Potts (Matilda), Roberta Wallach (Ruth), Judith Lowry (Nanny), David Spielberg (Mr. Goodman), Richard Venture (Floyd), Carolyn Coates (Mrs. McKay), Will Hare (Junk Man), Estelle Omens (Caroline), Jess Osuna (Sonny).
by Felicia Feaster