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Clara's Heart, Robert Mulligan's Voice

by Robert Keser

Robert Keser teaches film in the Fine Arts department of National-Louis University in Chicago and at Facets Multimedia. He has written on Nazi cinema (Bright Lights Film Journal), Seijun Suzuki (24fps), and Fred Zinnemann (Senses of Cinema).

“Nobody really knows anyone. And just when you think you do, they change right before your eyes.” Clara’s Heart

“A sequence of beautifully composed shots tends to leave the audience outside the frame—spectators who are continually aware of the director’s fine eye for composition. A good director tries to eliminate this distance between audience and action, to destroy the screen as a picture frame, and to drag the audience through it into the reality of the scene”. Michael Roemer, “The Surfaces of Reality” [1]

As the narrator of Summer of ’42, Robert Mulligan’s physical voice speaks clearly (though uncredited), but his authorial voice as a director has proven to be elusive, even to sympathetic commentators, perhaps because his style is subtle and without vanity. The meager literature on this director draws unedifying attention to his frequent plots centered on children and adolescents, adapted from best-sellers and plays, typically in Southern settings by Southern writers. Received opinion charges that his style is inconsistent and mutable, continually sloping toward the sentimental. Among the critics, David Thomson identifies the director’s “besetting flaw” as “the preference for tastefulness rather than true rawness…To make serious material easeful is Mulligan’s greatest fault” [2], while Andrew Sarris describes his direction as “unstressed, impersonal, and uncommitted” [3].

Yet how to account for the power with which Baby, the Rain Must Fall or Man In the Moon ensnare us in the emotional growth of their characters? It seems more useful to regard Robert Mulligan as a recorder of intimacy rather than “true rawness”, his films achieving an intensely emotional presence that is sorely missing from contemporary American work with its emphasis on aggressive visual stimulation. Still, even beyond his two great crowd-pleasers—To Kill a Mockingbird and Summer of ’42—Mulligan pursues surprisingly tough themes with a distinctive visual economy, in a voice that seeks to connect directly to the emotions. His is a cinema of direct address, a unique poetic sensibility that lets feeling grow in the distances between characters, in what Fred Camper has called “the emotionalization of space”. Making only sparing use of irony as protective cover, Mulligan unapologetically commits himself to the immediacy of experience. Perhaps this is what moved the ever-contrarian Jean-Luc Godard to choose Mulligan’s Love With the Proper Stranger as one of the ten best films of 1964.

Mulligan’s great theme is how the self is created or clarified in an unstable, constantly changing world. His concern with rites of passage suggests a cyclical approach to existence, where each generation passes through the same doorways, a comforting succession when facing the injustices and cruelties of an unpredictable universe. Even the reality in To Kill a Mockingbird admits that psychopaths may live around the corner, rabid dogs can roam the streets, andparents might abuse their children. As the good father Atticus tells his son, “There’s a lot of ugly things in this world. I wish I could keep them all away from you. That’s never possible”. In John Russell Taylor’s words, Mulligan’s films “abound in images of a world not so much gone mad as out of the individual’s control” [4].

However commonplace the surface elements of these films, there’s an emotional integrity that unites and deepens them, as the director works to evoke the intimacy of private relationships, not only within the family but also among lovers and artists. In his hands, even the middlebrow couple of Same Time Next Year—that socio-cultural parade of persona-changes milked for Neil Simon-style laffs—accumulate an unexpected gravity, as Mulligan buildsto the moving revelation of first one death, then another. Throughout his work, the admitted pleasures of the world are challenged by the grownup difficulties of living, hardly “easeful” material.

Notwithstanding the criticism that Mulligan tells comfortable stories that oversimplify reality, very few of his films end in unmediated happiness. Baby, the Rain Must Fall, for one, closes with Lee Remick’s character back where she started, on the move again and once more without the husband who has permanently gone off the rails. Even Mulligan’s greatest hit, To Kill a Mockingbird, has the decent and humane lawyer losing his case and thus delivering his innocent client to injustice and the wrath of a lynch mob. These films reliably lead us in unexpectedly dark directions [5], with death providing a wrenching but transformative occasion to heal and rebalance the family in Man In the Moon, a work that now clearly looks like the best American film of its year and arguably of the decade.

In Clara’s Heart, his twentieth and penultimate feature, the unpredictable title character joins the director’s long line of toughly pragmatic women, heroines who deal with disillusion and frustration. Clara’s predecessors include the pregnant shopgirl (Natalie Wood) in Love With the Proper Stranger, who forcefully rejects her lover’s marriage proposals because she questions the authenticity of his feelings; the tormented movie star of Inside Daisy Clover(Wood again) who suffers a breakdown in the silence of a sound-recording booth; the fearlessly determined new teacher (Sandy Dennis) in Up the Down Staircase, perhaps his strongest woman,who lets no bureaucracy or hostile audience stop her; and the mother (Eva Marie Saint) fiercely protecting her son to escape the wrath of his Apache father in The Stalking Moon.

Apart from the themes and characters, Mulligan’s films also share a classical visual balance that is deeply satisfying. This holds true whether it’s Ernest Laszlo at the camera for Love With the Proper Stranger, composing geometrically precise images in crisp black-and-white, or Joe Coffey who sweeps with handheld freedom through the milling throngs of students in Up the Down Staircase, or Freddie Francis in both Clara’s Heart and Man In the Moon, whose unpretentious framing feels fresh and spontaneous and subjective, as if his compositions are responding to the emotions of the characters and could change at any moment.

To transplant Clara’s Heart to the screen, Mulligan and screenwriter Mark Medoff (author of Children of a Lesser God) whittled down Joseph Olshan’s award-winning 1985 novel, compacting its tale of a young boy rescued from the trendy self-absorption of his wealthy parents by the hard-won lessons of Clara, their unshakably practical Jamaican housekeeper. Clara herself was made more youthful, the location changed from suburban New York to tidewater Maryland, and the time span reduced from eight years to approximately one. (Olshan subsequently brought Clara back to reappear, at 75 years of age, in his 2003 novel, In Clara’s Hands).

When we first see Clara as a hotel maid, she is grounded in the powerful physical presence of Jamaica, here a headland jutting out into the waves. Coming upon a guest who refuses to leave her suite—a woman nursing her grief for the crib death of her infant (like the mother in Mulligan’s The Other, withdrawing into her misery)—the earth-centered Clara offers quiet empathy but no consoling fictions, telling her straight out: “Nobody wants to be around someone who spreads black clouds and doom”. The mother grasps at Clara’s certainty and brings the Jamaican back to her family’s lakeside Maryland estate as a kind of token that helped her survive a difficult period.

Mulligan makes it clear that, although the mother champions Clara, no two-way relationship will arise (unlike an equivalent pair in John Sayles’s Passion Fish). For all that she seeks change among New Age therapists and psychiatrists, this mother is not really susceptible to it. By default, Clara finds herself in charge of the couple’s other child, confused young David, restless in his privileged but hollow existence and on the verge of discovering an unsuspected world of adult secrets—his mother’s selfishness, his father’s adultery, Clara’s hidden tragedy, and not least his own looming adolescence.

With a kind of moral authenticity, Clara breaks into the life of the family like intrusive reality: she respects none of their closed doors and accepts none of their excuses, to the displeasure of David’s father. Unimpressed by his rank and income, she cloaks her disdain in metaphor, tartly noting that “the higher the monkey climbs, the more he exposes”.

As the upmarket parents inevitably break up, their self-regard leads them to concentrate on grief seminars, geographical moves, and new partners, while neglecting meaningful guidance for their son. To justify her narcissism, the mother reasons that “If I’m happier, my son will be happier”, but Clara gravely dissents, “Your own happiness can never be as important as that child’s.” Far from the honeyed discomforts (and treacly pictorialism) of Spielberg, Mulligan does not sentimentalize the home that is disintegrating under the boy. (Just like Natalie Wood’s street kid in Inside Daisy Clover or the resilient Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird, Mulligan’s children are pushed to face painful truths that life is dangerous and fleeting).

Mulligan shapes the narrative around discovering the secret about Clara’s own son, while David negotiates between competing realities: the upholstered affluence of the suburbs, seen in well-behaved colors like powder blue, peach, and pewter, and Clara’s vibrant community of Jamaicans, alive with warm reds, browns and yellows. She establishes her own apartment in a working class Baltimore neighborhood of West Indian guest workers (a milieu virtually ignored in U.S. films except for border melodrama or sitcom froth, and a precursor to the struggling community of foreigners in Dirty Pretty Things). The islanders here are complex and full of life, though by no means glorified; they are good and bad, laborers and pimps, though the film shows no interest in the economic struggle of service workers.

As in Mulligan’s debut film, Fear Strikes Out, where the parent (Karl Malden) pressures his son to win at baseball, David’s father (Michael Onktean) forcibly pushes him into competitive swimming. When his parents separate immediately after David fails at his school’s swim trials, the boy understands that he must rely on himself alone, that mastering his body will strengthen his identity. In established dramatic fashion, his conflict gets externalized into building swimming prowess, with the young hero defined through physical movement. When the boy finally achieves his goal of swimming across the lake, Mulligan treats the sequence as a subsidiary corner of the narrative and provides no witnesses (and no triumphal music) because the victory is a private one. The director’s restraint prevents a clichéd moment, and then when David succeeds in beating his rivals, the boy pointedly ignores his father’s praise because he did it for himself.

The day of decision arrives with the mother planning to move to San Francisco with her new lover, and the father already living with his mistress in his minimalist condo: both parents have not only emptied out their nest but dismantled it. When they allow David to choose which parent to live with, he correctly perceives the choice as a lack of real engagement with him. Caught in the double-bind of not wanting to live with either parent, he wants to stay with Clara, but he learns to make the best of an imperfect situation as Clara tells him that is no realistic solution. This makes another adult lesson that brings him out of the self-absorption modeled by his parents.

Famously attentive to performance, Mulligan guides Whoopi Goldberg to realize Clara’s wry gravity without self-conscious technique (but equally without begging for sympathy, as in her otherwise affecting screen debut in The Color Purple). For all the brash, frontal theatricality she uses elsewhere—as in Robert Altman’s The Player, let alone on the Hollywood Squares—the actress never overplays this character’s obliquely sarcastic humor. In his film debut, the golden-haired fourteen-year old Neil Patrick Harris—discovered at drama camp by screenwriter Medoff—captures David’s callow edges as well as his sensitivity. (Harris went on to a measure of fame in TV’s “Doogie Howser M.D.”, then had scene-stealing spots in Starship Troopers and Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle).

At the script level, Clara’s Heart plays as a drama of rhetoric, with character revealed less through actions than dialogue, whether Clara’s aphorisms, the parents’ jargon of self-actualization, or the boy’s newfound aping of Jamaican patois (and a verbal insult from him almost estranges him from Clara). Mulligan’s scripts often feel curiously pared down, with verbal exchanges that are underwritten to a point nearing abstraction, yet this allows space and gesture and actors’ choices to convey the feeling when the words are absent. What remains unspoken between people can itself draw us into the intimacy of their relationship. Of course, also missing is the facile psychologizing that purports to tame human behavior with simplistic labels; in Mulligan’s dedication to living the moment, assigning blame to perceived causes fades to irrelevance.

With no button-holing displays of resources and technique, and with a simplicity worthy of Howard Hawks, Mulligan’s self-effacing style looks to create its poetry from the emotion-charged space between his performers, aided by gesture and staging and camera placement. In terms of gesture, Baby, the Rain Must Fall has a striking demonstration of how the mother and her little girl are constantly holding each other throughout the hard knocks they experience, their body language evolving into the bittersweet truth that this loving parent-child intimacy is the only relationship they can count on. By contrast, the parents in Clara’s Heart never touch the boy with a similar intimacy.

To create the transformative intensity that Roemer says “drags the audience through the screen into the reality of the scene”, Mulligan deploys camera placement, quality of light, and rhythms of stillness and activity. Human activity articulates and defines space, even creates space. David’s mother, for example, first seen reclining in a tub, often remains seated and static, while Clara moves about in dynamic contrast. Time and again in Clara’s Heart, the frame opens on an empty space until a figure moves in to fill it, or conversely the frame lingers empty for a moment after the actor has left, a strategy that tends to charge the image with our expectations as well as the characters’ uncertainties, longings, and satisfactions.

In Clara’s Heart, the sensuous camerawork and glowing colors of Freddie Francis (veteran of David Lynch’s The Elephant Man and The Straight Story) brings to life the material reality of the spaces with an almost palpable light. Often his mobile camera hews close to the character who faces the lens and moves toward us, down halls and across crowded streets. When Clara finally shares the truth about her son, however, the revelation takes place at her kitchen table, in the quiet and stillness of a rainy night. In this flattened space, her narrative of rape, incest, and suicide becomes inescapably immediate, and also foregrounds David’s progress to feeling the first stirrings of adult understanding.

Mulligan’s camera rarely peers down from on high to judge humanity in isolation, and rarely employs the hard deep focus whose unsparing clarity encourages us to dissect the image. Since individual characters do not dominate the frame as assertions of their power (as in Hitchcock, for example), the principals look equal and balanced. Mulligan can also engage our complicity by composing deep back in the frame, so that we are peering into the image rather than at its surface. In Michael Sicinski’s words, “traditional film-frame space is present to be ‘acted through’, as one plays through a golf course. The space of the green is just so much noise surrounding each hole along the narrative.” [6] With Mulligan, on the contrary, we are always aware of our position in relation to the characters, in effect giving us a place in the film’s arena of emotions.

Locations are delineated clearly, used as more than just spatial noise. InUp the Down Staircase, the Calvin Coolidge High School classroom setting is memorably introduced with a near 360º pan, while in The Stalking Moon Mulligan takes a good look around the cabin interior that forms the vital last refuge for a family group. Then, when he crosscuts—between Gregory Peck tensely facing the camera as he awaits an attack, and the excruciatingly slow appearance of a shadow on a door—Mulligan extends the moment until the threatened invasion of this sheltered space becomes invested with near-unbearable tension.

Instead of cutting from a medium shot to a close-up, again and again Mulligan flouts convention by relating a moment to its environment: from a medium shot he steps back to a long one, and only then to a close-up (Clara’s editor is Sidney Levin, who did the same job for Mean Streets and Nashville). Mulligan’s staging also works at evoking an open feeling, rarely boxing in his people in frames, which makes the formal composition all the more powerful in Clara’s Heart when mother and father accuse each other of betrayal, their psychological fissure embodied in their physical separation in adjoining rooms as they face in opposite directions.

Any sensibility that respects delicate shades of feeling tends to get stigmatized as soft on the rawness of contemporary life, yet Mulligan’s characters are consistently asked to stand up to unpleasant realities. A sentimental Clara’s Heart would reassure the audience by contriving a reconciliation for David’s parents, thus reconfiguring the family, but Mulligan undermines any idyllic solutions and refuses to allow the boy’s relationship with Clara to form a new parallel family unit. The integrity of the film comes partly from Clara stressing that their time together must be a temporary arrangement.

Equally, any audience-indulging work would paint its young hero as unreservedly appealing, unlike the thoughtless and often whiny David, who violates Clara’s privacy by reading her letters and spying through her bedroom window. What’s more, when this gilded son of privilege prefers to live with the maid, the family’s hired help, the film subverts the idealization of the family and proposes a radical rejection of the American ethic of financial success (although Clara sends him to his mother, sensibly meeting his objections with unarguable realism, saying that for better or worse, “A child’s place is with his mother” and stating with terrible candor, “Our relationship has changed. Life is change”).

The world of Mulligan’s films is hardly therapeutic or analgesic in the cozy multiplex way where human quirks are shrunk down to predictability. Rather, Mulligan conveys a sense of unstable reality shifting and sliding (“Nobody really knows anyone,” says Clara. “And just when you think you do, they change right before your eyes”), affirming that security is only an ideal. When Mulligan’s people cry, they shed tears of frustration, like Natalie Wood unable to escape the trap of living with her controlling family in Love With the Proper Stranger, or Wood again in Inside Daisy Clover, her head stuck in the oven, having even her suicide attempt foiled by an insistently ringing phone. For an unforgettable raw intensity, Steve McQueen in Baby, the Rain Must Fall depicts the husband´s descent into madness after the death of his domineering guardian, as he claws the earth at her grave, vainly laboring to dig her up again. Enigmatically, Mulligan does not specify whether it is love or hate (or both) driving him, but there’s an admirable purity in avoiding facile psychology. What do labels matter in the face of this man’s primal pain?

Death’s imbalance of the family occupies all Mulligan’s films: Clara’s Heart begins with David at his sister’s funeral, and loss permeates the film throughthe dramatic climax where Clara’s reveals that her own son threw himself off a cliff. The subject is not that all our lives are moving toward extinction but rather how death shapes the living. Clara explains why she is not bothered that her flat has a fine view of the cemetery: “Them that die don’t create the agony and strangeness of life. Only the living do that”.

Nevertheless, Mulligan respects the privateness of the world (Clara insists on holding her pain close to herself, in contrast to the parents who attend confessional support groups), but he also shows that being alone together makes it both possible and preferable to survive. (Making the same point, Raymond De Felitta’s touching Two Family House evokes a similar ethos, including the romantic streak that illuminates Love With the ProperStranger and Man In the Moon). Throughout Mulligan’s work one hears the ghosts of his predecessors whose characters sought to establish the intimacy that would open access to their authentic selves, whether Frank Borzage’s lovers in A Man’s Castle or Mitchell Leisen’s in Remember the Night or George Stevens’s in The More the Merrier. [7]

Almost two decades after the release of Clara’s Heart, the film looks dated only in its virtues. As commercial cinema, it represents a classical control and modulation of storytelling, spinning its emotional threads patiently with no hammering close-ups and little pandering to the decoratively picturesque. Equally, the film seems sweetly unconscious of consumer culture that seeks to define us by acquisition and consumption: no brand names are touted, no recreational shopping montages display products to suggest meaning. (Have our films fallen too far down the rabbit hole now to reclaim this innocence?)

In his popular history of the African-American in cinema, Donald Bogle criticizes Clara’s Heart for “presenting the black woman once again as a mighty nurturer—an updated mammy” [8], but this suggests simplistic categorizing. No mammy ever had her name in the title nor a drama of her own, let alone one with the lineaments of tragedy. As a character, Clara has complexity and the dignity of an independent worker, who labors not in thrall to the family but treats it as a job like any other (in fact, she moves through three different positions throughout the film).

In the film’s coda, the boy visits the rehabilitation hospital where Clara now works, to report that “I hate to admit it, but everything’s okay”. Affirming their tie “beyond blood”, Clara also acknowledges their inescapably separate paths. Without untoward trumpeting about it, Mulligan celebrates David’s chance to avoid repeating his parents’ mistakes, but he also denies Clara completion as nothing has helped to erase her melancholy. But in the transcendent final shot, Clara looks directly out at us to echo the opening shot of David doing the same, as we feel Mulligan joining the characters across both ends of the narrative to span time and space.

Moving from the singular Clara to four strong women in Man In the Moon, Mulligan replaces the sterile environment and empty nursery of Clara´s Heart with this final work that teems with fertility, as the mother awaits her fourth childbirth. In this ultimate statement, with its selfless parents who are the opposite of David’s family, Robert Mulligan’s voice speaks undiminished to achieve a still more transcendent ending.


(1) Michael Roemer, “The Surfaces of Reality”, Film Quarterly, Vol. XVIII, No. 1, Fall 1964, reprinted in Film: A Montage of Theories, ed. Richard Dyer MacCann, NY: E.P.Dutton (1966), p. 265.

(2) David Thomson, The New Biographical Dictionary of Film (4 th ed.), NY: Alfred A. Knopf (2002), p. 617.

(3) Andrew Sarris, The American Cinema: Directors and Directions, 1929-1968, NY: E.P.Dutton (1968), p. 134.

(4) John Russell Taylor, Sight and Sound, Autumn 1971, quoted in CinemaTexas Program Notes, “Inside Daisy Clover”, Vol. 8, No. 6, January 21, 1975.

(5) Although George Cukor is the director of record on Rich and Famous, Mulligan actually started this loose remake of Old Acquaintance. After four days of location work in New York, marked by clashes with co-producer and star Jacqueline Bisset, he chose to leave when a strike by the Screen Actors Guild closed down production. It’s not surprising that according to Emanuel Levy, Mulligan’s concept was “darker and more realistic… [Candace] Bergen thought that if Mulligan had directed, the film would have been a more serious treatment of a love-hate friendship”. Emanuel Levy, George Cukor, Master of Elegance, NY: William Morrow (1944), p.387.

(6) Michael Sicinski, “Michael Snow’s Wavelength and the Space of Dwelling”, http://www.geocities.com/michaelsicinski/SNOWPAP4.htm

(7) In fact, The Stalking Moon was a project offered first to George Stevens, but rejected by him. One can speculate that the director of Shane might have inflated the story with deliberately-paced mythmaking and liberal guilt about America’s Indian genocide. For Mulligan, there is no time for idle lyricism or breast-beating because brute survival is at stake for the impromptu family grouping in The Stalking Moon, and he supplies his tightest filmmaking for this movie almost completely devoted to traversal of space.

(8) Donald Bogle, Toms, Coon, Mulattoes, Mammies & Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films (4 th ed.), NY: Continuum (2004), p. 298

Clara's Heart

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