Two fine actors give among the best performances of their careers in “Blue Sky,” a long-on-the-shelf Orion picture that deserves a good shot at theatrical life before being put out to video pasture. This 1991 production was the last film directed by Tony Richardson, and it happens to be one of the more credible efforts of the latter part of his career. The old-fashioned but lively character study of a long-married military couple having midlife trouble will go nowhere without distrib support and some fine reviews, but a lucky break would give it a chance at sleeper status.
Jessica Lange makes the most of an opportunity at a full-blown star turn as Carly Marshall, the wife of Army scientist Hank Marshall (Tommy Lee Jones), whose irrepressible sensuality and wild spirit can’t be reined in even by the military. It’s the early 1960s, and at the outset, she friskily teases and tempts the local officers in Hawaii with her Brigitte Bardot get-up, only to shortly move into a Marilyn Monroe phase.
In fact, Bardot and Monroe are about the only other actresses one can imagine pulling off such a role as well as Lange has. Bardot, in fact, did it in “And God Created Woman,” laying to waste every man on the horizon, and Monroe could easily have been the object of the comment made by another military wife about Carly: “Women like you are the reason men like women in the first place.”
When Hank, Carly and their two girls are transferred to a base in Alabama, the “litter box” they are forced to live in sends Carly into a deep funk. It becomes clear that the even-keeled Hank is the only person who understands Carly and can calm her down, but her violent mood swings are nevertheless alarming, especially to older daughter Alex (Amy Locane), who has just entered troublesome teendom.
While Hank is forced to cope with the Army’s gung-ho nuclear-test fanatics, Carly tries to integrate herself into femme life on the base, but she’s a blond bombshell at a tea party and bound to cause trouble.
Sure enough, when Hank bows out of twirling her around at a big social, Carly gets carried away on the dance floor with the camp’s commanding officer, Vince Johnson (Powers Boothe), and the seeds are surely planted for future trouble.
Taking care of a life force such as Carly is clearly a full-time job, so when Hank is sent to Nevada for two weeks to observe an underground nuclear test, the door is opened for Vince to prey upon Carly’s obvious weakness. Unfortunately, their latenight tryst is witnessed by Alex and her new beau, Vince’s son Glenn (Chris O’Donnell), and all hell breaks loose on the base.
Rama Laurie Stagner’s semi-autobiographical original story, which she cooked into a lively screenplay with help from Arlene Sarner and Jerry Leichtling, pushes into rather more dubious and murky territory from this point on.
When Hank tries to reveal the fact that two civilians were exposed to radiation during the test explosion, the Army comes down hard, committing him to a hospital for “observation” and threatening him with court-martial. Carly then takes matters into her own hands, suddenly becoming a crusader for full disclosure of military secrets and coverups and fighting to save her husband from career oblivion or worse. Melodramatic contrivances of the last act are somewhat hard to swallow, but the lead characters have generated such good will up to this point that the tendency is to grant them the benefit of the doubt and wish them the best.
Richardson, who died in 1991 shortly after completing the picture, mounted the action in a visually straightforward, unflashy manner, concentrating his attention where it counted, on the performances.
Result is much like a solid melodrama from the 1950s, and gratifyingly so — a sharply focused piece in which a small number of characters define themselves in terms of their interaction within physical and social limits. Pic feels like a throwback, but in a refreshing way.
While Lange has the showy role, with almost unlimited opportunities to emote and strut her stuff, which she does magnificently and with total abandon, Jones must let his characterization take shape more gradually. But his Hank ultimately emerges as fully three-dimensional as does his wife, with the actor demonstrating terrific control and nuance on a tight rein.
Boothe and Carrie Snodgress are very good as the base’s first couple, while Locane and O’Donnell, both of whom have matured significantly since the pic was made, fill the bill nicely as the sparking adolescents.
Production values are modest but serviceable.