Natalie Portman and Todd Haynes, actress and director In ‘May December’ two women circle like sharks around a helpless man. Portman: “Actors are more honest than people who pretend to be themselves.”
You can confidently leave complex roles to Natalie Portman (42), actress and psychologist. She looks a bit glassy and absent in a simple role, but only really comes to life when things get challenging. Such as the role of actress Elizabeth in MayDecember fearlessly enters a hornet’s nest.
In 2015, she arrives in Savannah, Georgia, to observe Gracie (Julianne Moore). Gracie, almost 60, was at the center of a tabloid scandal in the early 1990s when, as a 36-year-old, she was caught in the back of a pet shop with 13-year-old assistant Joe. After her prison sentence they got married, but now the children are leaving the nest. Elizabeth plays Gracie in a TV movie; her arrival stirs up everything within the apparently serene couple and in the close-knit community.
“It was quite meta as an actress to play an actress who wants to play a real person,” says Natalie Portman when we speak to her in Cannes in May. “But very interesting, because I have also done such research myself. The challenge was not to make a parody of it.”
The sometimes viciously funny psychological maze of MayDecember leaves open whether Elizabeth’s behavior is authentic, an act, or imitation. A colleague asks whether Portman, as an actress, also encounters such skepticism in normal life. Portman: “Continuous, but what is authentic? I think all people know to wear masks. I mean: every culture has masked balls or rituals, that metaphor for role-playing is universal. Actors who play a role are actually more honest than people who pretend to be themselves.”
We meet Portman and director Todd Haynes ( Carol , I’m Not Here ) on the roof terrace of the Marriott Hotel the day after the world premiere. MayDecember may irritate you as glib or pretentious, but either way makes you think. Is this serious or camp? The latter suggests the muddy 70s soap opera vibe and the arthouse display of mirror image, deception and double entendres.
Elizabeth and Gracie hold off and merge with each other, circling like sharks – shark bays? – around the caring, helpless Joe, now a 36-year-old radiologist and an orphaned dad who never had a real childhood himself, or never grew up. The key question: is Gracie a pathetic, unstable woman or a cunning manipulator? Her immediate environment sees an emotionally needy woman who fiddles with flower arranging and cakes, the outside world a depraved seductress.
Natalie Portman sent casting director Samy Burch’s sophisticated script to Todd Haynes during a Covid lockdown – MayDecember was on the ‘Black List’ that year of Hollywood’s most promising but unclaimed scripts. Portman: “Todd has his own view of suburbia, the dark underbelly of America, the inner lives of restrained women. I’ve wanted to work with him for a long time.”
Logical, because Haynes gives his ‘leading ladies’ – Julianne Moore, Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara – serial Oscar nominations. And actress Elizabeth is a wonderful role for Portman. Todd Haynes: “Natalie lulls the viewer into the idea that Elizabeth – especially compared to Gracie – is balanced. And then undermines that idea almost in slow motion.” As a celebrity, Elizabeth consciously or unconsciously uses her sexuality everywhere; see a memorable class discussion where she silences a cheeky student who asks her about sex scenes with a hot exposé: how there is sometimes chemistry on the film set, scantily clad bodies rubbing against each other in a sweat, with heavy breathing men around them. “Do you pretend that you are enjoying yourself or do you pretend that you are not enjoying yourself,” Elizabeth whispers to the silent class. Portman, cheerfully: “That scene is so inappropriate!”
Must we MayDecember take it to us as ‘high camp’? Haynes moved his film from bleak Camden, Maine to Savannah, the sultry old heart of the state of Georgia and of the ‘Southern Gothic’. When you see green oaks with Spanish moss hanging over the roads like a sinister cobweb, you immediately think of twisted families in white plantation houses. Haynes flirts with that association, he acknowledges. “Savannah immediately gives a film a gothic air of mystery and suspense.”
Yet Haynes, known for his queer sensibility, said he did not have camp in mind beforehand. To understand the ‘vibe’ of the film, he had his cast and crew watch about twenty films, focusing on the melancholy oeuvre of the Swedish maestro Ingmar Bergman: Autumn Sonata, Winter Light And especially Persona from 1966, from which Haynes quotes heavily. In that film, which you now experience almost as a parody of high-flown nouvelle vague arthouse, a troubled diva merges with her young nurse. Haynes: “Nothing is less camp than Bergman feels Persona now on as campy high art . Maybe it is MayDecember that too: campy high art with tabloid twists. Such a clash of highbrow and lowbrow is nothing new. It’s no secret that every molecule of my brain is soaked in the melodrama of Douglas Sirk.”
According to Haynes, his use of Michel Legrand’s intense film score enhances it The Go Between (1971) that impression of camp. This is how we hear Legrand’s menacing piano chords – da-Dáng! – immediately when Gracie opens the refrigerator and screams in dismay: “The hot dogs are gone!” Haynes: “Fascinating film music, certainly not a modern music score that tries to be invisible. Such a score fits European arthouse of the 1970s. It puts viewers to work, inviting them to fill in the gap between what they see and what they hear. Because something is brewing, that’s clear.”
Haynes bases his film on the teacher case Mary Kay Letourneau and her 12-year-old student Vili Fualaau, whom she later married. Haynes: “Vili was Samoan, Joe is Korean. There is something of ‘the other’ in it, something exotic that Gracie has captured in a cage.” He calls the age difference between Gracie and Joe “complex and quite disconcerting at the outset, and the adult relationship still bears the traces of this.” “But what attracted me to this script is that the women follow their desires, even if they are inappropriate and create victims. It’s a patriarchal dynamic, but with the sexes switched.”
Does it make sense to call these harpies patriarchal, I ask. Haynes: “Yes, I think they act from a patriarchal system of power and dominance, just as homosexual couples can also behave heteronormatively. I mean: Gracie treats Joe like a kid, Elizabeth has no respect for men, sees them as disposable. And Joe accepts that, he doesn’t know any better.”
Haynes does not want to confirm that matriarchy can also be quite evil. “Although this film does touch on the fact that women usually run the family, and the marriage and the household and the value system and what you buy and what you eat and what you do in your spare time. All these matters are dictated by women rather than by men, who like to submit on those points. Because of this invisible division of labor, people are often quite resentful about mom.”
During the conversation, Haynes passes around a French edition of his ‘mood boards’, image collages he made to suggest the atmosphere of his ten feature films. A beautiful book, fresh from the press. “Nice,” he beams. I leaf through it: at MayDecember there is a picture of a black widow, the poisonous spider whose female eats the male after copulation. I point this out to Haynes and he denies it. “No, not at all MayDecember ?” I show him the page: “Oh, that’s just a spider.” A patriarchal spider? He chuckles.