It is painfully obvious that the 1968 movie “The Subject Was Roses” is a filmed play. Most of it takes place in an apartment in the Bronx. The surviving son of a couple who are terminally at odds is returning from World War II. Before going off to war, he was a sickly momma’s boy. His father is surprised that the son succeeded in the infantry, and is even more pleasantly surprised that his son chooses to spend his first day back with him rather than with his mother.
The antagonism is nearly as stylized as that in “Who”s Afraid of Virginia Wolf?” (though here there is a non-imaginary spawn). The well-crafted play is closer to other canonical American plays. Nettie Cleary brings to mind the difficult, disappointed mothers Amanda Wingfield and Mary Tyrone in “The Glass Menagerie” and “Long Day”s Journey Into Night,” with their sensitive future writer sons. An Irish family in which the sons drink too much and there is a gruff, permanently disgusted, tightwad father makes “Journey” the prototype. “Long Days” Journey” is more despairing and more poetic. (It is my choice of the best American play.) Although it is not without the touch of Irish American poetry and won the 1965 Pulitzer Prize, Frank Gilroy’s play and this 1968 film adaptation seem more television drama with muted passions. (I noticed that the play is out of print. Gilroy also adapted another of his play “The Only Game in Town” for Warren Beatty and Elizabeth Taylor (1970): it was George Stevens”s last film and might have ended the careers of lesser stars than Taylor and Beatty!)
Playing Timmy Cleary on Broadway launched the career of Martin Sheen. Playing his father, John, won Jack Albertson first a Tony, then an Oscar in the movie. (An Emmy later for “Chico and the Man” completed his actor’s triple crown.) Both are compelling in the parts, though both seem a bit too old for them. Albertson was 58, Sheen 28. One might think that Patricia Neal, then 42, was too young rather than the males being too old. Irene Dailey (then aged 45) played Nettie on Broadway, but it is easy enough to compute that Sheen was a more credible age when the play opened in 1964.
Although Patricia Neal would have had to be 13 if she were to have conceived Martin Sheen, she looks credible to me, perhaps because of the hell she had been through, nearly dying of a stroke shortly after reaching the pinnacle of her career in an Academy Award-winning performance in “Hud.” In “Roses” she is superficially tough, but badly (and recurrently) hurt by the cranky philandering husband she once loved. She is at once a wronged/mistreated wife and a “ball-breaker.”
John has frustrations of his own, including a longstanding seeming alliance against him by his wife and his son, and the loss of his dreams of riches in the 1929 crash. Perhaps the message is that some couples should divorce. At one point Timmy says that before he went away he blamed his father for the atmosphere of acrimony in which he grew up and on his return he blamed his mother, but now realizes that no one is to blame (another echo of “Long Day’s Journey Into Night”).
It is somewhat odd that he never blamed himself, as children of chronically squabbling parents often do–but he’s the one who grew up and wrote the play and constructed the account of the noble warrior returned from war and wanting no part in the old dynamics. He realizes he has to get out of the position of being sought as an ally of one or the other parent in their long-running war. They are hurt, angered, resigned, and maybe even understand, though this last spin is suspectly self-serving.
The movie leaves the apartment three times. The first time, father and son visit the family’s summer cottage. The second time, all three go to a Manhattan nightclub, where John is called up onstage to perform one of the numbers he used to do (in vaudeville, like Albertson). The third is a day of wandering about by Nettie. Patricia Neal has no lines in this last sequence, and only one in the preceding scene, a confrontation with Timmy. I find her completely convincing. It is almost as good a part as the one she had in “Hud.” Having had to learn to speak again after her stroke, it is one of the sad wastes of talent that there were no more good parts for her. Knowing her subsequent career trajectory and real-life griefs makes her character’s brave and dignified response to pain all the more poignant. (Glenda Jackson portrayed her in “The Patricia Neal Story”: now there’s a “tearjerker”!). Albertson and Sheen are very good, too, though rather too “theatrical” and overplaying, but they had futures-Albertson’s a continuation of the crank on large and small screens, Sheen with “Apocalypse Now” and “Badlands” ahead of him, and, more recently, as President Bartlett on “The West Wing.”
I have to conclude that the film-makers sought a drab look. Neal is dressed in dark brown, Sheen is in his lighter brown uniform, the exteriors are autumnal with brown grass and leafless trees. Plus Judy Collins singing “Who knows where the time goes?” I think it would be tough to dislike the song and to like the movie. The movie also requires some tolerance for filmed stagework, though the blend of close-ups and longer shots is judicious.
I think the best role Neal had after this movie was as Cookie in Robert Altman’s 1999 “Cookie’s Fortune.” She died August 8th at the age of 84. Memorable earlier role were in Elia Kazan’s “A Face in the Crowd” (1958) with Andy Griffith, and Blake Edwards’s “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” (1961) in which she was keeping the character played by George Peppard.
Neal received an Academy Award nomination as best actress for her performance in the movie. Jack Albertson won the Academy Award as best supporting actor. Surprisingly, neither was nominated for Golden Globe awards, though Sheen received a Golden Globe best supporting actor nomination for his performance in the movie..