The Rachel (Joanne Woodward) in Paul Newman’s directorial debut, Rachel, Rachel, has let her life go nowhere. She is thirty-five, living with her overbearing, widowed mother (Kate Harrington) in the same baby-pink room she grew up in. Her job as a second grade school teacher surrounds her with children that she grows to love, but can never call her own. Her only real friend is a fellow teacher, Calla (Estelle Parsons), but there are some tensions between the two.
All that only scratches the surface of Rachel’s issues. Her entire life, she has been surrounded by ideas and images of death and they seem to be the reason for her constant morbid fantasies. Her father ran the town funeral parlor, attached to the house. Her mother sweetly remembers the way he used to reek of embalming fluid. It’s no wonder her daydreams are about being hit by a car on her walk to work or shoving a full bottle of pills in her mother’s mouth.
When the school year ends, a long summer with her mother looms ahead for Rachel, then an old childhood acquaintance, Nick (James Olson), asks her out on a date. Rachel is the kind who makes excuses about her mother to avoid social situations, but Nick is persistent enough. We get excited for her, thinking that this could be a real turning point for Rachel, who has never had any hope for romance in her life. However, Nick is just looking for some action while he’s in town and Rachel is a virgin who remembers him best when his twin brother died and she watched her father get him casket-ready. It can be hard to get past that in any relationship.
Woodward’s Rachel is wonderfully lowly and yet we try to hold out some hope for her. Even through her more outlandish daydreams, she becomes a character that we feel sympathy for. Surely everyone can recall a time of repression, self doubt or crippling social anxiety. She brings out these ideas of shyness and depression that made me feel like she was just waiting to die. When she finally has a chance for happiness, we’re afraid to be uplifted, and I think she was as well. She has denied herself any sort of real happiness for so long, it’s hard to let go.
One scene that really shows Rachel’s drab and repressed personality is when Nick approaches her in the drugstore. The shop is full of teenagers, celebrating the beginning of summer, wearing stylish, bright clothes, dancing and touching in ways that make Rachel uncomfortable. My favorite image is a girl combing a boy’s long hair. These kids are on board with the sexual revolution going on while Rachel is left behind with her manicured bangs and drab wardrobe. Nick is in the right place to find some action, it’s just that the only woman of legal age does not quite realize his angle. I think Rachel realizes how out of place she is among the crowd, so she’s already uncomfortable even before Nick starts prodding her for a date.
At first glance, Rachel, Rachel seems like the ultimate female mid-life crisis. She hates living with her mom, her biological clock is ticking, being around kids all day doesn’t help and suddenly she has a lover. These elements have made up countless terrible movies. Here, Newman is crafty behind the camera, hardly letting anything slip a smile on our face, and that is a good thing. With the quiet, thoughtful feeling of this film and the morbid ideas interjected, Rachel, Rachel is intriguing, beautiful but a bit depressing.
“He told me now they’re putting perfume in the embalming fluid.”