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"The Hours" Discussion Pt. 1: Nervous Hands, Ravenous Kisses

[Editor's Note: for the centerpiece of our 10th anniversary celebration of The Hours, I asked Joe Reid and Nick Davis if they'd like to talk about the movie and it turned out they already had. A heretofore unpublished conversation. I'm sure you'll enjoy it as much as I did! - Nathaniel ]

JOE REID: Three (!) years ago, I had planned out an end-of-decade feature for my own blog, wherein I would converse about my favorite films of 2000-2009 with a selection of writer friends. The logistics of it got away from me, but I did manage to get started. One such conversation lost to history was with my fellow Film Experience Podcast panelist Nick Davis on the subject of The Hours. With the ten-year anniversary of The Hours upon us, I thought I'd dig up this abandoned reflection and let it see the light of day.


JOE: The Hours is absolutely on the list of movies from the past decade that I truly, unabashedly loved. I suppose there's something chromosomal about a movie starring Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman, and Julianne Moore (and Toni Collette, and Allison Janney, and Miranda Richardson). But it's more than just watching all these fantastic actresses hand off scenes to each other for two hours. It's also the suicides and the repression!  

Of course, after signing you on to correspond with me on this entry -- and many thanks for that, by the way -- I checked up and found that your feelings on it were decidedly more ambivalent. Is this an "every time I watch it I feel differently about it" kind of thing, or is it always the same kind of mixed bag for you?

 As for me, while there are a BUNCH of aspects of The Hours I'm hoping we can touch on, for some reason, my most recent screening of the movie made me anxious to mention two things: kitchens and hands. I couldn't stop watching Nicole Kidman's hands, either when Virginia is gripping her pen with a desperately tight claw grip or deep inhaling those cigarettes. And Meryl Streep separating egg yolks as she's unraveling in her kitchen has always been a favorite image.

And that brings me to the whole kitchen thing...

kitchen melodrama and sapphic smooches after the jump...

Laura Brown's is her prison; Clarissa Vaughan's is where she tries to keep up appearances (Richard does still love the crab thing), and Virginia Woolf is afraid of hers -- though that's another one of my favorite scenes, Virginia tormenting her kitchen staff in a fit of mischief and misdirected rage.

Here are my questions to you, to kick things off: What was Laura's hands moment? In a movie this dogged in its triple-parallels, I have to believe she had one that I'm forgetting. And do you think kitchen metaphors for repressed women is too on the nose, or did The Hours do right by them?

NICK DAVIS: Thanks for having me, Joe! Even though, as you say, I am sometimes a little abashed or frustrated at my affection for The 
Hours, I still feel completely caught up in it, and I'm so happy to talk to someone who loves it. 
I'm amazed how many people really have it in for this movie.  I have heard on occasion from folks 
for whom The Hours is "too depressing" or too full of, um, thoughtful and interesting grown-up women.  I can't believe how much air time still goes to Nicole's nose when there's so much else to
 talk about.

 So, moving to other body parts.  I think of Laura's hands frequently patting her already flat hair 
and just as often smoothing the front of her dress.  Or is she just wiping the flour off her hands? 
One way or another, this gal is nervous, but I like that she's nervous in such a remote, aloof way, 
rather than spazzing out with actorly versions of jangled nerves.  Not my absolute favorite Moore
 performance, but an interesting one, and a different kind of woman than we usually meet in the movies.

I also think of her hand reaching for those pill bottles before she drops Ricky at Margo 
Martindale's and heads to the hotel.  Julianne went on record about how hard she fought against
 this shot, since she based so much of her performance on the book's idea that Laura doesn't 
necessarily consider suicide till she's already sunk in the hotel, feeling moonish because "Mrs.
 Dalloway" is over.  This one image of what Laura does with her hands does change the story and the
 woman, but in the context of the film, I like its suggestive power.

Margo Martindale, spontaneous babysitterWhat DO you think of all this suicidal stuff, since you mentioned it right up top?  Does it bug 
you, like it does a lot of Hours haters?  I haven't even gotten to kitchens or Clarissa or Virginia 
yet, or how much I would have loved it if MY mom had dropped me occasionally at Margo Martindale's, but I gotta pass the ball back to you.

JOE: I figure the suicide stuff is as good a subject for a major theme as any. And despite the fact that the movie begins and ends with a suicide -- and the fact that Kidman's Woolf delivers one of the more lyrically beautiful justifications for suicide I can recall ("to know [life] for what it is, to love it for what it is, and then to put it away") -- I don't find the moods in the film oppressive. Though, honestly, I can't entirely blame anyone who would, considering Laura Brown's pivotal decision to choose against killing herself only puts off the suicide forty years down the road ... and onto her son. But that's not really a dealbreaker for me.

Speeeeaking of Richard, though, and of suicide, what did you think of the position the film puts him in? Specifically, how he is at all times an unspeakably oppressive burden on everyone in his life, whether as an unceasingly loving and clingy child (for Laura), a passionate and beautiful lover (for Louis), or a nasty and demented nurse patient/specter of lost love and youth (for Clarissa).

Leaving Richard was the defining moment that saved Laura's life (and certainly improved Louis's mood, ridiculous and fortunate as it is), and his tumble out his loft window essentially gives Clarissa her life back. I find it all incredibly rich, and this time around, I found Ed Harris's oft-maligned performance admirably unsympathetic, but I did get a bit queasy that the story set him up as such a boogeyman, seemingly from birth. 

To answer your question, would that we all could have spent some time in the care of Margo Martindale. And you give me an excuse to mention Martindale and Eileen Atkins (as Clarissa's flower-shop owner) delivering note-perfect cameos where they both cast the same sideways glances at the lead women, seeing right through but not calling them on it. Atkins, in particular, gets off those wickedly condescending barbs about Richard's book -- which in turn allows Streep to do some excellent acting-through-averted-eyes that I love so much. (Linda Bassett's Nelly serves the same function in Virginia's story, as it happens, in that kitchen scene I love so much.)

And i can't get out of this email without co-signing you on the maddening hyper-focus on The Nose. I think I still hold a bit of a grudge against Denzel Washington for throwing a bit of tarnish on Nicole Kidman's Oscar Moment™with that foolishness. 

So talk to me about Richard. And (though you didn't bring it up), the trio of actressexual makeout sessions (Moore/Collette, Streep/Janney, and Kidman/Richardson) that left me both wide-eyed at the audaciousness and yet also kind of confused as to how some of them came across so expressionistic as to take me out of the movie.

NICK DAVIS: Happy to oblige, especially since another thing that can happen when people talk about The Hours is that it becomes a story about these three women, when in fact there are all these other interesting people swooping around and reading each other, sometimes in that "House of Labeija" way.  They see through each other's drag acts - as women, as men, as artists, as lovers, as versions of each other and of themselves - and as you mention, Eileen and Margo and the excellent Linda Bassett aren't above throwing a little shade.  (I love that Bassett's Nelly can't even be bothered to hide it when she's caught impugning the boss.)  

Jeff Daniels, who I think is just wonderful as Louis, is too  
giggly and then too fit to be tied by all of Clarissa's contradictions to throw shade in any focused way, but Claire Danes, as Meryl's daughter, seems to be honing quite a bullshit detector. 

On Richard: I've gone all over the map on Harris's performance, and I'm surprised he doesn't ace
 it, though those astonishing eyes sure give Richard the right air of seeing too much of you all at
 one time.  He's never for a moment convinced me that Richard is seeing "electrified jellyfish" 
anywhere, but then, Cunningham didn't, either.  The fact that he's hard-edged and something of an
 albatross might seem more callous on the film's part if it didn't help ameliorate the irritatingly
 sainted figure of the tortured artist who keeps threatening to pop up all over this material.
 Kidman's severity and impatience and hunger for other people are so much interesting than Harris's,
 but if he doesn't quite convince me of the character, he avoids some of the "takes" on Richard that
would have annoyed me even more.

Nicole & Miranda. Juli & Toni

But enough "adapted from the Pulitzer-winning novel" high-mindedness.  Let's go all MTV Movie
 Awards and rate some kisses.

Vanessa/Virginia: A bracing window into Virginia's jealous hunger for beauty and danger and
tenderness, and how she'll seize the rare moments when she has a shot at tasting all three.
Miranda is terrifically freaked out by this moment, though I admit I miss the novel's suggestive,
chapter-closing beat that Vanessa "returns the kiss."

Kitty/Laura: I love how vitally this scene pulls out the combo of garishness and sensuality that
 Toni Collette can be so good at, but I'm never QUITE convinced of the scene, I have to say.
 Laura's distressed, tiny-voiced attempts to console her and then to redeem the moment after the
 post-kiss discomfort sinks in are more poignant to me than the actual kiss.

Sally/Clarissa: Quite a buss!  And suddenly, Clarissa looks as ravenous as Virginia often does, but
 for what?  And can Sally give it to her?  Are we seeing the full force of her bottomless
 codependence, now that its illustrious object of so many decades has left the building?  What will
 she do with all that solicitous maternalism?  I'm maybe less convinced than you that Clarissa has
 just gotten her life back.  I don't find The Hours oppressive, either, but I fear for Clarissa, and
 a little for Sally, at the end of this movie.

Sally & Clarissa: love rekindled or bottomless codependence?

JOE REID: You know, that's a take on the Clarissa/Sally kiss that I never quite considered, but one I'll keep with me for my next viewing. As it was, this last viewing was the first time I'd really been patient enough to notice Sally sneaking back into bed while Clarissa pretends not to notice. Obviously, that relationship is cracking at both ends, and in the end Sally feels like a mirror image to Kitty (and to a lesser degree Leonard Woolf) as characters I wish we could see more of, and who would certainly warrant their own highly pedigreed parallel-lives motion picture. (Of course, to Toni Collette's credit, I do feel like we see the fullness of Kitty in that one short scene.)

NICK DAVIS: All that and we haven't even hit the score.  Which I love.  Eat it, Glass haters.  Eat it like it's 
wackadoo, crumbs-in-the-frosting trashcan cake.


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Reader Comments (14)

Totally agree on this movie continually getting strange flack, and I've seen nastygrams directed at all three leads. The acting is pure heaven across the board. Really interesting points, especially on Clarissa and Sally, who I've always seen as the victors of the piece. It makes sense the three kisses would all be based in desperation, but theirs seems like an acknowledgement of and resignation to life that the other plotlines seem to lack. I've always assumed this is because of their desperate need to be understood, and Clarissa seems to find what she needs from Laura. In that way, it always struck me as a bittersweet ode to human connection.

January 19, 2013 | Unregistered Commentereurocheese

@Nick: I also love the score. Also, I don't think the Kitty/Laura kiss is supposed to feel poignant more than it's supposed to feel confusing. Laura is battling hard with her secret homosexuality, turning into internal torture as the years pass by without her able to satisfy that repressed desire. When she finally kisses Kitty it's not something she plans (though I think that's obvious) but something purely in the moment: she notices a risky opportunity and she takes it. Both of them are left confused immediately afterwards, Kitty in an awkward position where she doesn't know what the hell to say/do/think, and Laura embarrassed and nervous about what Kitty might think (even SAY godforbid!). I think Laura was going for a poignant kiss but it ended up being anything but. At least that's my humble opinion.

January 19, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBVR

Still my favorite movie and book of all time. The end.

January 19, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterCole

Watch it once a year and stll feel dillane should have taken harris's nom.

January 19, 2013 | Unregistered Commentermark

mark: Yes! I was just saying the previous Hours post that Kidman and Dillane are so good together.

Also, just realized that since Margo Martindale is also in this movie, they might as well cast some of the cast here for August Osage County.

January 19, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPaolo

What a treat! I can't believe this convo was kicking around in secret for so long.

I agree on the Laura/Kitty kiss being sightly unconvincing; for me, it's the actual choreography of the moment, which doesn't let it come off very naturally or comprehensibly. I do think it's something that could conceivably happen between the two, but they should've tried various takes (or chosen a different one). I do love Laura's little attempt at an apology; one of my favourite things about Laura is her tendency to include entirely awkward remarks in what are otherwise guarded conversations (for example, her admittance that she's "terrified" for Kitty when talking to Dan from the bathroom. He has no idea what to do with that).

I'm with Nick too on the Clarissa/Sally kiss, at least this viewing around, although I fear more for Sally than for Clarissa. Who knows - especially Clarissa - if Clarissa's found renewed life and hope in their relationship? It's obvious Sally's been strung along for quite a while before this particular snapshot of their life, and the sad hope in Janney's face throughout upsets me. (That said, where has she been that morning?)

And I do hope you discuss the score in the next instalment; I'm biased, because I love Glass, but this is some of his richest work regardless.

January 19, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDavid

What lovely high-and-not-so-high-mindedness! You guys, as you know, rock!

"Are we seeing the full force of her bottomless
 codependence, now that its illustrious object of so many decades has left the building?"

I mean, how do you come up with these things? Is it green tea or walnuts? Or meditation? Or damn genes that I can't buy anywhere??

January 19, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJames T

Yay, so many Hours fans! Joe and I discussed this so long ago that half of what I said here is a surprise to me. So fun that he asked me to do it, and so great of Nathaniel to post it.

@BVR: David's comment below is probably a better articulation of what I was trying to say about the Kitty/Laura kiss. I buy it more in the novel than in the movie, and I agree with a lot of your points about what Laura means and why the moment immediately confuses both of them in very different ways. I just don't think the acting or editing in that scene quite pull it off - the kiss itself, and its most immediate build-up and aftermath - even though I like so much else in that scene. Kitty's incessant smiles while confessing her prognosis in particular, and Laura's heartbroken empathy for her. I think I only disagree with you about Laura's "homosexuality," because to me part of that character's confusion comes from the fact that I don't see her as a lesbian per se, or if she is, she may or may not know that. It just feels like a totally intuitive, totally inchoate gesture, even to herself, though there's certainly plenty of desire motivating it.

Love hearing everyone else's thoughts about this movie, which I just never get tired of.

January 19, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNick Davis

I first saw this when I was 15 around 2005...It was my go to movie whenever I was depressed (is that weird?) I think I might have broken the library copy from continually seeing it. I still love this film and thank you for writing about it!

January 19, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterKen

Before Daldry and any of the actors was David Hare. His screenplay is a poignant adaptation - rich in its sparsity. The distillation of Cunnigham's novel is nothing short of brilliant.

January 19, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJKD

What Nick says go for me too -- this was long enough ago that even I am like "I said that? I thought that? Okay!" Not even stuff I disagree with necessarily (though there are a few things in Part 2 that don't really jibe with my current thoughts). I've probably seen The Hours a good 3-4 times since we did this thing, and I think I like Julianne Moore's performance even more than I did (though it's still Kidman>>>Streep>>>Moore for me). And I would not cast a parallel version of this movie AT ALL the way I said I would. Maybe that's a thought experiment for tomorrow morning.

Anyway, so so glad everybody is reading and commenting!

January 19, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoe Reid

Since it's just an unabashed "Hours" love/guilt fest up in here, I want to tell everyone about the magical moment towards the end of high school in youtube's early days when, in a fit of aimless "Streep Hours Kitchen Sink" googling, I stumbled upon a version of the movie that had been posted in ten parts on YT. At first I assumed someone had just posted the original movie, but it quickly became obvious that it was an earlier rough cut - - musical cues were in different places (or were simply changed, though it was still definitely Glass), the opening credits font was changed, and, most pearl-clutchingly of all, many sequences were edited differently, complete with new moments and alternate takes. I know that the movie went through some post-production scrambling, with older Laura Brown being re-shot with Moore chief amongst them (though in this version, the Moore scene was intact), so it makes sense that there would be different, earlier cuts of the movie, though who was in possession of one and decided to post it to YT I cannot say.

As this was six or so years ago, my memory of specific differences is foggy, but I can say that much of the post-suicide opening montage was changed, with a different version of Sally's arrival home and sneaking into bed, and some new footage of Woolf in her bedroom (where else in the world would I get to write the above sentence?). Also, in the "buy the flowers myself" echo, Streep's shot has obviously been shot on a different day, with her hair and general look different, and her reading of the line much more ethereal and thoughtful, as opposed to the more harried, and much better "SALLY I THINK I'LL BUY THE FLOWERS MYSELF" version seen in the final cut. I also remember the Claire Danes and Ed Harris sequences being markedly different, with some new material and alternate takes of stuff. Altogether I'd say the tone of the thing was more dream-like, and a little more floaty and emotionally detached.

Has anyone else come across this version, or any other version of the movie? The cut that I saw was ultimately removed a few months later, and I never got to take a second look. I've never been able to find any other evidence of it, which makes the whole experience of having watched it on YT seem in retrospect like some fabulous fever dream, though I swear to Holy Richardson that it happened. Anyways, after all this rambling, just want to add my compliments: great discussion you guys.

January 20, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDuncan

duncan -- i love this story and i think i may have seen something of this sort myself (though i wasn't so aware of the differences since I saw an early version of the movie but in terribly unideal circumstances.

I totally trust you given that no one would dare take Miranda Richardson's name in vain.

January 20, 2013 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Thanks Nathaniel - - - I'm trying to imagine an unideal circumstance for an "Hours" viewing, and all I can conclude is that it doesn't involve spotless glass tables upon which one can tremblingly set down their glass of white.

January 20, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDuncan

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