“Keep Your Hands on the Wheel, Ashleigh”: Elle Fanning in A Rainy Day in New York
Woody Allen’s films are based on the tension between two principles; this tension is not inadvertent or symptomatic, but deliberate, contrived in the best sense.
According to the first principle, there are some people who, pretty much, never change. Their personality – summarised in a handful of tics and traits, look (body shape and clothing) and posture – stays rock solid for all their lives, from cradle to grave, and hence from the start to the end of a film. They can each be ‘pegged’ as being of a particular social class, from a particular kind of family, belonging to a certain kind of occupation or lifestyle – even as having a specific IQ. It resembles TV situation comedy, this parade of characters in Allen who can be eternally counted on to act and react, speak and move in a certain way – once we have figured them out, within the director’s always deft and economical way of sketching them in their veritable essence.
The second principle, however, completely contradicts, or at any rate complicates and contaminates, the first. According to this principle, there are some people who change radically. They wear disguises, they perform, they assume other personalities. They move up and down the social ladder, often in extreme leaps. They may have hidden pasts, hidden selves. They cannot be ‘taken in’ at a mere glance; their histories have to be unravelled.
A Rainy Day in New York (2019) offers, from its very first moments, the ongoing and ever-repeated proof of its near-closing statement from Gatsby Welles (Timothée Chalamet) to Ashleigh Enright (Elle Fanning): “We’re two different creatures”. Always are, always were, always will be different. And too different to end up together, certainly not (as the 1957 musical Silk Stockings has it) “fated to be mated” – they scarcely touch one another in the course of the film, and their bedroom behaviour seems especially chaste, distant. It’s like the demonstration of a theorem: they are not meant to be together, ‘meant for each other’, and here is why … The only suspense (for the spectator) resides in when (and how) the characters themselves will come to realise and articulate this (that is, if they ever do).
Next to that very typical, almost inviolable principle of romantic comedy, is placed the second: people who change. Often, in Allen, that change can be rapid, frequent and forced upon people by external circumstances (which are themselves highly unstable): a cigarette girl (Mia Farrow as Sally) finds herself, by sheer chance encounters, ascending the social ladder in Radio Days (1987 – see my analysis here); an average person inexplicably becomes a celebrity until the fickle media finds a better subject (Benigni/Leopoldo in To Rome with Love, 2012); and the exemplary figure of Zelig (1983), whose every interaction with an Other incites the spontaneous creation of a new, internal Self! Change sometimes involves revelation: of a character’s past or secret life.
On this plane of revelation we find the most wonderful and surprising scene of A Rainy Day in New York – and also the one that raises the most hackles for being supposedly ‘unbelievable’ and ‘risible’, and even offensive to some, exactly because of that: when Gatsby’s mother (Cherry Jones) reveals her secret past as a prostitute, which provided the initial infusion of capital for her husband’s successful business ventures. (Has Allen been reading Norman O. Brown’s philosophical essay “Daphne, or Metamorphosis”, which sagely reflects: “She is his mother; she may have been a whore”?) Because of that confession, Gatsby comes to respect his mother, to strike up a new rapport with her, and to understand something about his own, ‘wild’ nature – rebellious, whimsical and frivolous within certain, well-defined limits (such as his propensity to ‘blow off’ boring studies for the sake of generating some quick cash through gambling).
People are the same, rigidly; people change, wildly. Neither of these principles belongs, finally, to the register of sensible verisimilitude. Neither are naturalistic. Both are artificial, expressions of life viewed precisely as a story, a system, a patterned game. Allen brings this pattern to a high point of finesse in A Rainy Day in New York, one of his very best films.
This is an essay about Elle Fanning as Ashleigh – the character, and the performance. I started with the overall pattern of the film’s principles because to extricate any of Allen’s characters from that pattern is immediately to reduce and distort them. And worse, to open them up to ‘real life’ or realpolitik discussions/objections such as: she’s such a sexist stereotype, a pure male projection! What prurient desire and/or sadistic cruelty is laid upon her! Assuming, as always, that she would have been better as a more naturalistic, complex, well-rounded or three-dimensional character – a ‘real person’.
In an article of extraordinary grossness coming from someone so renowned within the field of academic film studies, Geneviève Sellier writes just this kind of thing about Ashleigh in A Rainy Day in New York. In a brief account (which is mainly an adorned or “loaded” plot summary) titled “On the Masculine Fascination for Idiot Nymphets” published online in Le genre & l’écran (i.e., “gender and the screen”), the analyst hammers (with far less elegance than Allen) her unbending point: four times in scarcely two pages she repeats that Ashleigh is presented as “idiotic and ignorant”, a “ravishing idiot”, “blonde and idiotic”; in the final screen moments of the penultimate scene, the character remains “dumbstruck and, as always, idiotic: understanding nothing of what has happened to [Gatsby]”. As for Gatsby himself, “privileged narrator”, he flees into the waiting embrace of that “fleshy brunette” (stereotype alert!) – Selena Gomez as Chan – who is “clearly more promising on the sexual level”, since “that’s what girls are for, after all”! Sellier concludes, in a manner resembling Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette tele-special monologue:
One can’t say there are any surprises in this Opus 31: girls are irresistible, especially when they are scarcely pubescent (but, of course, there’s no relationship between the artist and the art!); they’re idiotic but that doesn’t matter – when it comes time for art and culture, men stick with men. And when one wants to get down and dirty, there are always some rather hot, pretty brunettes …
Even worse, for Sellier, the continuing popularity of such a film reveals merely that “the fantasies of the so-called cultivated elite are much more regressive and perverse than one could have possibly imagined”, and that this situation “does not bode well for any great radicality evident post #MeToo – within cinephile milieu, at any rate”.
Note: Gatsby and Ashleigh, as college students, are presumably in their early 20s – Ashleigh tells us at one point that she’s 21. (Gatsby talks to a few guys in passing, but there is no elevated “male bonding” in the film, such as Sellier implies.) Chan is the younger sister of Gatsby’s ex-girlfriend, so probably still a late-teenager. Reality-comparison: Gomez was 25 during shooting of the film in September-October 2017, considerably older than Fanning at 19 and Chalamet at 21. I say this not to stoke any sinister theory of Allen’s perverted drive to infantalise women, but as an indication of what a good actor Gomez is! And how perfectly, indeed, each actor incarnates, inhabits and projects their fictional part.
For that’s exactly what is missing from Sellier’s admonition: an appreciation of acting! Yes, sure, Ashleigh has scripted moments when she can’t tell Cole Porter from Shakespeare, or she shows some inexperience of the ways of the big, urban world, or she even forgets her own name for a few seconds. (Although this is not, finally, the whole story, a point to which we shall return.) Yes, Allen lets us see Gatsby’s fleetingly blank look of exasperation, for a split second at the end of a scene or a shot, during such moments, which are certainly common in Allen’s films. But: you can get no fun from A Rainy Day in New York if you are unable to appreciate Fanning’s very smart and canny performance of Ashleigh’s traits of naïveté, social awkwardness, girlish or adolescent excitement, and so forth. The “idiot” (of “apparently irresistible charm” [Sellier’s phrase] or not) is a type playable by both men and women; Fanning is here in the tradition of many great actors including Judy Holliday, Jim Carrey and Melanie Griffith.
There are many figures of “lower IQ” in Allen, both female and male (opposed to those of announced “highest IQ” like Larry David’s character in Whatever Works ); the pleasure is in seeing how they constructed, played, and moved around within the overall pattern of the film. Rather than the “ridicule” and “cruelty” that Sellier judges as “reserved for the female characters” by Allen, I see, through the camera’s gaze and the choreography of the mise en scène in A Rainy Day in New York, the director’s unreserved admiration for Fanning’s skill, control and wit as an actor: her craft and her art. It is hard to play what, personally, you are not! The film is a homage to her, and indeed to all the actors. On this plane, there isn’t much distance between Allen and, say, Jean Renoir (who also cast actors in “idiot” roles quite frequently).
I propose that we study Fanning’s performance of Ashleigh along the axes of four questions. They are questions that, with appropriate variations, we could use as a methodological tool to study many fine film performances.
1. How does Ashleigh move?
Ashleigh is introduced visually into the film (directly after the verbal mention in Gatsby’s voice-over narration) in a superb, mobile, outdoor long take that runs for almost three minutes. Almost every trait that marks the physical embodiment of her character is evident in this sequence-shot. She appears in the background and moves swiftly into the foreground, breaking into a kind of skipping run: there’s a war of both excitement and containment in her bodily movement that will later be expressed in the character’s “sexually conflicted” reactions – and her hiccups.
Note the care with which Allen introduces “bits of business” into a scene for his actors: in this sequence-shot, once Ashleigh and Gatsby have greeted one another, there’s a camera-move with the couple screen-left, over to a seat, where Ashleigh needs to pack the college books she has been carrying into her bag.
Movement is only one aspect of an actor’s entire corporeality. Fanning uses her posture, for example, in highly expressive and stylised ways: see the scene when she returns to Gatsby at the bar as he plays the piano, her neck thrust forward as if her head is almost detaching itself from her baggy-coat-covered body (shades of Nikolai Cherkasov in Ivan the Terrible!). Or the opening, establishing shots of the dinner date scene with Francisco (see below), where the wider frame given by the camera, showing her from the waist-up, allows her to play the action mainly through the hunching movement of her shoulders, and her constantly altered position (‘collapsing’ her neck and then sticking it out, receding or growing in the chair, moving toward or away from Francisco, trying to adopt a ‘professional’ journalistic posture with her pad and pen).
2. Where does Ashleigh look?
Ashleigh is never blank or zoned-out; she is always thinking – often thinking hard, and subtly tense in this mental concentration. (Speaking of idiots, that’s a Jerry Lewis trick: the idiot is a figure who visibly strains his whole musculature in order to think.) What’s more, her concentration distracts her from things that are immediately at hand – such as, primarily, Gatsby and his verbal patter. Ashleigh is almost permanently elsewhere in the very midst of a scene, figuring consequences, trying to grasp the ramifications of her actions and decisions. At the high points of Ashleigh’s self-performance, she even sometimes shuts her eyes, needing at that split-second to block out (and hence contain) the world’s reality.
The principal way that Fanning communicates this state of concentrated distraction is through the direction of her gaze. She will begin to stare intently at Gatsby (or whomever she’s with) as he speaks, but then her gaze ‘turns inward’ (as it were), she moves her head and looks at some indeterminate point in space for a while, then she snaps back to the source of speech before wandering off yet again … The entire geometry of her performance on screen can be traced in these zig-zagging movements of her look. It is amazing to behold, once you are on the alert for it. Note a very particular gesture, related to her looking, that Fanning deploys frequently: frantic head-nodding, which often signals that Ashleigh has returned to paying attention to somebody and is unconsciously trying to assure them (and possibly herself) of that fact.
3. What does Ashleigh do with her hands?
Ashleigh is regularly nervous, worried: almost her very first words in her first scene express her anxiety, for example, over what questions she should ask the famous New York film director, Roland Pollard (Liev Schreiber). What she seeks, sometimes desperately, is a state of control amidst the chaos of her emotions, sensations and impressions – hence her great words of self-advice when confronted with the seduction-moves of the glamorous actor, Francisco Vega (Diego Luna): “Keep your hands on the wheel, Ashleigh”.
Even when describing her emotions as a movie spectator (of Roland’s debut classic, Winter Memories), being overwhelmed and confused are her keynotes: “I got confused, and felt insecure, like I just wanted to be held and kissed”. Attentive readers of Allen’s recently published autobiography Apropos of Nothing will be able to relate Ashleigh on this score – the intertwining of neurosis and eroticism – with the long line of female characters in his œuvre (such as Christina Ricci in Anything Else, 2003) avowedly inspired by Louise Lasser.
Fanning’s hand gestures convey much of this complicated anxiety – far more than her dialogue. In the inaugural long take already cited, once Ashleigh has packed her bag and started walking with Gatsby, he places his arm around her – a gesture that, tellingly, she does not reciprocate. Instead – as her gaze becomes more inward – her hands begin a whole dance of gestures: her fingers intertwine, clasping and unclasping; she picks at her fingernails; she hikes up the sleeves of her pink sweater, which leads to folding and unfolding her arms; she meditatively places her hands on her hips (an unusual thing to do while walking!). Even when she makes more expansive or seemingly impulsive moves, such as throwing her hands up into the air, some fingers are twisted or bent or forced together, as if she is unable to completely ‘let go’ with her joy or surprise. Even the way she tends to splay out her fingers in a fan-pattern is odd, excessive and funny.
Across the film, Fanning invents many variations on expressing herself in these constricted ways. Everything repays close study: from the way she constantly plays with objects to hand such as pens, to the way she sculpts the movements of her mouth to produce an inventory of split-second smiles (embarrassed, relieved, tense, evasive … ).
This shows an astonishing level of detailed control, on Fanning’s part, over her performance – a Katharine Hepburn or Barbara Stanwyck level of dexterity. Analysis also reveals how in tune she is with the position of the camera and hence the dimensions of the mise en scène at any given moment – because whenever she is framed from the shoulders up (as happens for one part during the long take), she momentarily halts or minimises her gestural choreography. This is the same intermeshing of performance and framing that Abraham Polonsky aimed for in Force of Evil (1948), as that director theorised in a 1962 interview, and as I have tried to demonstrate in my 2014 book Mise en scène and Film Style.
4. What does Ashleigh do with her voice?
I will treat the question ‘what is Ashleigh saying?’ – since it is more directly a matter of the words in the script – as a subset of the matter of voice, mainly in order to discuss the best and most delightful scene of A Rainy Day in New York: Ashleigh’s restaurant date with Francisco. While the scene is treated conventionally as a shot/counter shot arrangement across the table (after the two establishing shots mentioned above), the images of Fanning could well derive from a single long take (or be knitted from several takes, it’s hard to tell): at any rate, her performance here gives a striking impression of unbroken fluidity.
When the camera fixes her in medium shot, Ashleigh is at the point of responding to Francisco’s leading question as to whether she has a boyfriend. In the emotional and physical contortions that follow (the fingers of one hand drill into her cheek while the other hand awkwardly spreads its fingers around an oversize wine glass), her voice becomes a musical instrument: dropping to a low note when she answers, “Technically, no”; becoming a fluttery sing-song on “He’s a mere youth”; going flat and real when she echoes the word “Football?”.
As the shots roll on and the character loosens up through growing inebriation (a nifty bit of filmic unrealism/condensation), the musical tone of her voice gets more certain and direct: Ashleigh takes a few moments to search for the right words to explain that “Gatsby’s very dear … he’s, ah … very amusing … he’s unusual. Quaint, you know? That’s the word I would use to describe Gatsby: quaint. He’s … exotic. Searching shall we say, for this romantic dream from a vanished age”.
All throughout this speech, Fanning shows Ashleigh swiftly ‘cutting’, in her person, from a natural and spontaneous ‘homely’ demeanour (her “Oh no, not that” admissions), to a mode of public performance, straining to impress her famous interlocutor as knowledgeable (the way she stresses the movie title White Heat).
Breathing is important in this scene: the way Ashleigh takes short, sharp intakes of air or lets out a long, controlled sigh, as if to settle herself and then produce a well-modulated, even tone of voice (which never lasts very long). And laughter, which works in the same way: sudden, strangled, nervous.
So: hands, voice, look, movement – it’s one workable inventory or checklist for studying the art of an actor, any actor.
I have mentioned Gatsby’s mother as the figure in the film’s pattern who most surprisingly moves ‘out of her place’ in the narrative schema to reveal a hidden side, a hidden past, a previous identity. But – such is the action of contamination between the two essential principles we started with – Ashleigh, too, has a moment where (to use Jean-Claude Carrière’s expression) she “goes to the end of herself”, revealing a degree of insight we may not have expected. For Allen is always upsetting, adjusting, correcting, balancing our assumptions, expectations and judgments on his characters; that’s what the pattern and tension in his work are all about.
It’s on the morning of the second day in New York, departure time. As she walks about the room packing her suitcase, Ashleigh sums up, with great wisdom, her encounters with the three male types of Roland, cuckolded screenwriter Ted Davidoff (Jude Law), and Francisco. Verbal reprises of the narrative we have just experienced are common in comedy (Blake Edwards, Scorsese’s After Hours ), but Ashleigh’s insight catches us by surprise, because she appears perfectly, analytically aware of what each man she encountered has projected onto her:
So with Roland Pollard, it was like a spiritual thing. I was his muse, some inspiration, because he’s … really going through a rough creative period. And also, my name is totally the same as his first wife’s. Who also went to Yardley. Who he’s never really gotten over. And then Ted Davidoff. He was just absolutely traumatised by this affair his wife was having with his best friend. And there I was, you know. Just a person there to talk to, to hold his hand, during the crisis.
And “What about Francisco Vega?”, Gatsby testily probes (he did see them on TV together, after all) – getting in a stab by describing him as “Like James Dean, minus the acting chops”. In relation to that guy, Ashleigh entertains no illusions: “Francisco Vega was just after my body. But I was onto him. And I have terrific material for a hot story. I dated a hunk!”.
© Adrian Martin August 2020