'Henry & June': the film that buried the X rating

October 05, 1990|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

Henry Miller was like Yeats' rough beast slouching toward Bethlehem to be born, except that he had to slouch to Paris to be published.

But published he was, perhaps an inevitable figure, but a necessary one: He got sex -- or, rather, the sex act -- into the American novel, in all its sweaty, wet, seething glory. He was to sex as James Jones was to war: a terrible writer whose vision and guts far outclassed his talent. Oh brother, did it ever.

As he was obsessed with literature and sex, he was obsessed with their natural union -- that is, a woman: his wife, June Smith, a dance hall girl he met in 1923. Not that he was loyal to her, you understand, but nevertheless, he let her mesmerize and inspire him. Now Philip Kaufman, who directed "The Unbearable Lightness of Being," brings this peculiar relationship to the screen, steam intact.

June is a protean figure, not without precedent. Of transcendent sexuality and pliable morality, she was evidently charismatic, liberating, beautiful and completely talentless. Her role in life, besides getting by as best she could and not sleeping with too many men other than her husband, was to inspire artists. She ended up a social worker in Queens. Go figure.

June is here played wonderfully by the transcendently sexual young American actress Uma Thurman, behind a great New Yawk accent. Hers, though the smallest role of the principals, is the performance that makes the movie go and provides the fuel for the two others who get 90 percent more screen time.

These are Fred Ward, as Miller, and Portuguese actress Maria de Medeiros who plays the third member of what was to become a notorious Parisian triumvirate, the writer-diarist-pornographer Anais Nin. To begin with, de Medeiros has an eerie similarity to Nin: She's got a gamin's outsized head and eyes as vast as Betty Boop's; she's tiny, willowy, fragile as a sparrow, yet also seething with energy. And beyond the physical appearance, the performance is also brilliant; she's the pivotal point-of-view character, swept up by Henry's bounding energy, courage and undeniable artistic integrity, yet never losing the crucial sense of who she is and what artistic destiny she sought. But a part of her is drawn as well to the ever-sultry June, and it's a part she can't deny.

The erotic tension between these three is formidable; and Kaufman's sense of milieu -- decadent Paris in the early '30s, where the rules were beginning to erode and there was a sense of revolution (sexual and otherwise) in the air -- is pitch perfect. But . . . Fred Ward as Henry Miller?

Surely Kaufman was drawn to Ward for his sense of peasant-vitality; he's certainly one of the least pretentious actors around. And, like Miller, he has a wonderful masculine presence, and an open, likable, celebratory persona. But . . . Fred Ward as Henry Miller?

What Ward lacks is any sense at all of the city; he's about as New Yorky or Brooklyny as Kansas in August. Now and then he'll essay a game sally at the accent -- he conspicuously pronounces "work" as "woik," bird as "boid" -- but he's so country, so cowboy, so Gus Grissomy (he played doomed Gus in Kaufman's "The Right Stuff" and a cowboy roustabout in "Tremors") that the stretch just doesn't work. When's the next cattle drive, Tex, you keep thinking.

It's extremely hard to make an interesting and unsilly movie about a bunch of writers, and Kaufman hasn't quite managed. These people sit around and read each other's stuff and say things like, "Gosh, this is wonderful." Then they go to bed. A lot.

This, of course, is the notorious film that buried X and created NC-17. But that, alas, is what it's most apt to be remembered for, if anything. Well, except possibly, . . . Fred Ward as Henry Miller?

'Henry & June'

Starring Fred Ward and Maria de Medeiros.

Directed by Philip Kaufman.

Released by Universal.

Rated NC-17.

** 1/2

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