Ash Wednesday

Director: Larry Peerce  
Elizabeth Taylor, Helmut Berger, Henry Fonda

We live in a world where there is a lot of variety. Many different races, religions, languages, and a lot more that makes each of us very different from the person next to us or in a different country. But while each of us has many different attributes that make us all different, for the most part we share some of the same basic desires. Some of these are pretty obvious, like the need for food, water, and shelter. But another desire that you'll find in people is the desire to belong, to be accepted by the people around us. This need for wanting to be accepted by your peers comes in many different ways, and has gotten people to commit countless certain acts in order that the results would have them be accepted. For example, take the fact of many people needing corrective lenses for their eyes - I've heard that about half the population of the world finds they need corrective lenses sometime in their lifetimes. Despite the fact that so many people need corrective lenses, and some of them being very famous people (I once read that every president of the United States has needed corrective lenses for their eyes), there is still a strong feeling among many people that having glasses makes you appear to be less of a person. This has resulted in people coming up with ways to get around needing glasses. There was the perfection of contact lenses in the late 19th century. More than a hundred years later, there came the invention of laser eye surgery, which with a few zaps can make you appear to be one of the individuals who has been blessed with lifetime 20/20 vision.

I am one of the half of the world's population that needed corrective lenses. When I was younger, I wore contact lenses in an attempt to fit in. But after several years of sore eyes, I finally said screw it, it's not worth it. And I would never consider laser eye surgery, after reading several stories of people who went through the process and found that their vision was actually damaged. You might think that I don't really care how I come across in public, and to some degree that's true. But now that I am approaching middle-age, I am starting to find that part of me is trying to fit in society in a certain way. Recently, one morning when I was looking into the mirror in my bathroom, I was shocked to find that I had a few grey hairs on the side of my head. Fortunately, after a trip to the barber for a much-needed haircut, those grey hairs were all but invisible to the eye. So with regular haircuts for a few more years, I will still be able to pass myself off as being a fairly young individual. Yes, I am still obsessed with being a part of the youth culture. As you probably know, whether you are a truly young person or not, youth in many ways rule just about any society that's in this world. This includes when it comes to motion pictures. Youth didn't always rule the motion picture industry. Think about movies that were made in the 1930s and 1940s, for example. When you saw someone in a movie from that era who was in their 20s, they always seemed to be played by actors who looked much older than that. Being an adult was clearly more admired than being a youth back then.

The real youths decades ago were certainly frustrated at times by that. Producer Samuel Z. Arkoff once recalled seeing a very adult Elizabeth Taylor playing a teenager in a movie, and a youth in the audience yelled, "She's old enough to be my mother!" But for many people, Taylor could Ash Wednesdayget away with a role like that. She was not only talented enough to win two Academy Awards in her career, she was undeniably a beautiful woman. I am sure that she chose some of the roles in her career that complimented her beauty - that would be a real ego boost. So I can see why she probably jumped at the opportunity to star in Ash Wednesday. It not only dealt with portraying her as coming across as young and beautiful, but it dealt with the idea of plastic surgery - something I am sure many of us aging moviegoers have mulled about since youthful looks seem to be key to happiness in this beauty and youth-oriented society of ours. In Ash Wednesday, Taylor plays Barbara Sawyer, a woman from Detroit who may be middle-aged, but thanks to the makeup department looks a lot older than she really is. At the beginning of the movie, she is being prepared to go under the plastic surgeon's knife in an exclusive Europe clinic. The reason she is going through the procedure is unexplained at first, but it is slowly revealed that she is estranged from her husband Mark (Fonda, The Great Smokey Roadblock), and hopes that her rejuvenated looks will jump-start her marriage. After getting the surgery, and now looking like the beautiful Elizabeth Taylor we all know and love, she travels to the Italian resort of Cortina where she spends most of the remaining running time waiting for Mark to arrive. While she waits, she makes friends with a famous fashion photographer (played by Keith Baxter), reunites with her adult daughter (Margaret Blye, In The Heat Of The Night), and contemplates having an affair with a younger man despite wanting to save her marriage.

Elizabeth Taylor was forty-one years old when she made Ash Wednesday, an age when actresses in Hollywood start to find it difficult to be cast in major Hollywood studio movies. So no doubt Taylor was starting to feel the pressure of appearing at her very best, both in looks and with her acting ability. One might wonder before watching this movie if Taylor was able to perform at her best with these pressures, as well as wonder if Taylor was able to appear as the beautiful woman the other characters in the movie feel her character is. After watching the movie, I can tell you with full confidence that whatever faults the movie might have, none of them have to do with Taylor. Taylor at this stage still looked as beautiful as ever, so you can believe incidents like when a much younger man at the resort is attracted to her enough to want to sleep with her. But Taylor doesn't let her looks do all of her character's talking - she does some serious acting as well. Taylor gives her role a number of subtle touches that make this character a real person and not a caricature. In one scene, she is telephoning her husband while her back is pointed to the camera. Her husband does not pick up at his end, and Taylor lowers her posture ever so slightly in reaction to being ignored by the one she loves. Her body language tells us of her hurt feelings. Later in the movie, there is a scene where Taylor, with her new face, sees her reflection in a pane of glass. She does not smile, but the expression on her eyes, and the playing with her necklace with her fingers shows that her character is still amazed by herself weeks after her surgery, and that she loves her new looks. Aspiring actors might want to watch this movie to see some examples of what they can do on stage when their characters have no dialogue.

When Taylor does have to deliver some dialogue, she manages to find the right tone to speak it. Another actress in the role might have felt that playing a now-beautiful woman would require being extremely proud and expressive, which I don't think would have been right. Taylor shows in her words that her character is happy, but one that still has some fears about her marriage and what might happen when she finally meets her husband. These doubts make her a more sympathetic and interesting person than someone who would be more brash and proud. I feel I should also point out that Taylor is not the only actor in Ash Wednesday who gives a good performance. Keith Baxter gives a sparkling performance as the fashion photographer who befriends Taylor. His playful acting gives his character intelligence, as well as giving a welcome sense of humor to an otherwise serious movie. Margaret Blye also does well in her somewhat small role as Taylor's visiting daughter. The role requires her to be someone who loves her mother, but someone who also has her own life now that she's an adult, and one who doesn't hold back the truth about the status of her mother's marriage. Blye's seriousness is the right note for this character. As for the other actors in the movie, I did have a couple of problems with them. It's not the fault of actor Helmut Berger (The Godfather: Part III), who plays the young man attracted to Taylor at the resort, that he's given so little to work with the screenplay; I don't think his character's name is even mentioned once in the movie, for one thing. And as for Henry Fonda, he only appears in the movie's last ten minutes, and the fact that his role is so small might explain why Fonda doesn't seem very interested in his surroundings or giving anything more than a pretty bland and unemotional performance.

I have several other complaints about the movie, complaints that I could spend some time discussing. There is the part of the movie where the plastic surgery is performed. Not only is it unnecessary of the movie to show us the surgery, the movie uses footage of real plastic surgery, which is somewhat gross to witness. (This footage may explain why the movie got an "R" rating at the time, despite the rest of the movie being barely PG-grade.) There is also the fact that the characters Baxter and Berger play eventually disappear and are pretty much forgotten about by the time the end credits start rolling. Maybe I could look over such flaws like those had the biggest problem I had with the movie wasn't there - and it's a BIG problem. What is the problem? Well, the biggest problem the movie has is that between the opening plastic surgery and Taylor meeting with her husband in the last ten minutes, pretty much nothing of consequence happens. When Taylor gets to the resort, for example, the movie shows her walking alone... then having dinner alone... then drinking a hot drink... then taking another walk... then going on a ski gondola... then sees people with other people... then eating a pastry... then calling her daughter... then going out to dinner.... then... must I go on? Most of Ash Wednesday is filled with scenes like those, scenes that don't have any point or consequence. After the surgery, the movie just makes us wait for those final ten minutes when Taylor and Fonda reunite, and we find out if this marriage can be saved. But by then, we the audience are so bored that we don't care one way or another what happens. Although Ash Wednesday isn't an actively bad movie, it's so utterly pointless that you'll likely be at the end as angry as if it were more carelessly made.

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See also: Breezy, The Great Smokey Roadblock, My First Mister