Every few years, a brave or foolish American film takes on the difficult topic of old-fashioned femininity, putting centre-frame a woman (usually a Southern belle) who just wants to be pretty, well-dressed, homespun and highly admired by the male population.
Miss Firecracker (1989) with Holly Hunter was a spectacularly confused movie of this type – and its uncomfortable oddness relegated it to video-only release in Australia.
Blue Sky, the final film directed by Englishman Tony Richardson (Look Back in Anger, 1958) – due to Orion's troubles, it appeared three years after his AIDS-related death – takes up the dangerous case of femininity. It begins boldly, moving from glossy magazine images of early '60s glamour icons (Bardot, Ava Gardner) to the spectacle of Carly (Jessica Lange) sporting topless on a beach for the pleasure of army men circling in helicopters.
One of these guys is her husband, Hank (Tommy Lee Jones), and the film makes clear that he actually gets a kick out of his wife's raunchy exhibitionism. But there is a limit to his tolerance, and it is revealed rapidly once Carly's sexual display leads to the sudden relocation of their family to another military base.
When the mood turns dark, Blue Sky converts Carly's dream of femininity into full-on female hysteria. She becomes a dysfunctional, mercurial, problematic woman in the face of oppressive masculine stoicism and rationality.
It is a measure of the fine performances in this film that we come to regard Carly as neither simply deranged nor victimized; and that Hank, although largely uncomprehending of his wife's plight, also registers sympathetically.
This is not only the story of a marriage, but also a family. A sub-plot follows teenage daughter Alex (Amy Locane from Cry-Baby  in her best screen role) and her pained reactions to her mother's behaviour. Alex is a fascinating character: thoughtful, brooding, sarcastic, on the verge of embracing '60s radicalism, she is the sullen teen stereotype made real and three-dimensional for a change.
Alas, there is more to Blue Sky than these intense ingredients. Americans are fond of making films that place a melodramatic family crisis in the vicinity of a nuclear test site – Desert Bloom (1986) being the model movie in this small genre. The situation provides a neat way of framing the vicissitudes of personal life within broader social issues. It also allows for cheap and easy dramatic metaphors. In Blue Sky, the raging female libido is often compared to explosive nuclear power.
But the film soon contrives to evade this subject altogether. It has a plot arc similar to that of Disclosure (1994) – around half way, the personal story is overtaken by a contrived bit of mystery-intrigue. The ambience of the early '60s nuclear age – a time of government secrets, military conspiracy and widespread disinformation – fills the movie and chokes its delicate, humanist themes.
It is as if the filmmakers hope that audiences will get so bound up in the narrative machinations, they will not even notice that the real subject of the movie has abruptly disappeared. But, as Blue Sky inexorably becomes a feel-good exercise in political consciousness-raising, it clumsily tries to cover its tracks.
The characters are suddenly made-over, and the ground of their personal traumas miraculously disappears – just as in the worst social issue telemovies.
© Adrian Martin March 1995