When I was nine, I wanted to see KLUTE, with Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland. I wasn’t a particularly sophisticated nine-year-old movie goer, but it was Saturday night and my parents were going. They often took my brother and me to the movies, to all kinds of movies, and I still remember seeing PLANET OF THE APES, FUNNY GIRL, and DOCTOR ZHIVAGO with them. Of course, I liked PLANET OF THE APES the best. But KLUTE, said the parental units, was too adult, which really made me want to see it. No dice. My parents went off to the movies, and Matt and I were relegated to watching KUNG FU with the baby sitter.
In retrospect, my parents were right. Too adult it was. Jane Fonda won an Oscar for her portrayal of the prostitute Bree Daniels (Bree sounds like her working name, doesn’t it? Bree would be a name for a prostitute like Candy would be a name for a stripper, I couldn’t help thinking as I watched), and she is excellent in her portrayal of a complex and troubled woman. While there is a mystery/thriller element to the movie (where has Tom Gruneman disappeared to, why did he write “sick” letters to Daniels, and is it he who is stalking her now?), it’s pretty thin, and every review I read talked about how the crime angle was just an excuse to do a little artful exploration of gender roles circa 1971.
Donald Sutherland is the cop, John Klute, who saves Daniels from the stalker, who is perhaps also a “john” (customer) come back to haunt her, and in the process Klute figures the whole mess out. I could have figured it out at nine. In addition, the camera shoots not from the perspective of the stalker, but over his shoulder, which is disconcerting.
And the music is right out of some NBC semi-scary movie of the week of that time period. It certainly doesn’t get into what motivates the stalker (Gruneman’s boss, who killed Gruneman when Gruneman discovered the boss was a “freak” who liked to beat up prostitutes). And as a cop, Sutherland is the strong silent type to the point where he almost disappears from the movie. He has two facial expressions to cover everything from fear and anger to confusion and stomach upset. One reviewer compared him to Calvin Coolidge. Most reviewers also questioned why they bothered to name the movie after him, and one suggested they should have called it “Prostitute in Search of an Identity” or some such, although to me that sounds more like an exotic French movie title.
You figure out who the stalker is pretty early on. And you don’t get any insight into his character or Klute’s. The movie does explore, in depth, the character of Daniels. It doesn’t give any easy answers, though, to what makes her tick, and I don’t think that is a failing. There are no easy answers to those kinds of questions. Why is Daniels a prostitute? Is being a prostitute harmful to her, or is it empowering in a hypocritical and patriarchal society that objectifies women and denies them the opportunity to be economically independent like men? Why does she always need to be in “control” in her relationships with men? Why does she always need to manipulate those relationships, instead of letting herself become attached to someone, to nurture and be nurtured, and all that warm and fuzzy stuff? Who the hell knows?
Daniels wants an answer. She goes, with her mod clothes, thigh high boots and shag haircut, to an analyst who is appropriately grey-haired, although she has no Viennese accent, and they try together. Daniels says she likes hooking, although she is trying to get out of the business, and she is going on auditions for Off Broadway type plays and perfume commercials, and yet she is lonely and sad. The analyst does that annoying analyst thing, not giving an answer when Daniels asks for her opinion, but asking “how do you feel?”
They say that an analyst’s job is to be a cipher, content free, blank, so you can imagine them to be your mother or father or other significant other, and then to aim all your angst at them as if they were that that person. Interestingly, it is Klute’s blankness which becomes something Daniels can project all her feelings about men onto, at least at first, when in that blankness he seems to her like he is incorruptible. She successfully maneuvers him into bed, figuring all men are led around by their nether parts and he is no exception.
Then things get more complicated. He shows her a kindness and compassion that is not simply a quid pro quo for sex, and she becomes confused. She says to the therapist she feels frightened and out of control because this kindness and her warm feelings towards Klute him make her feel like she is in danger. So much so that she tries to go back to her pimp, Frank Ligourin, played with greasy, overacted glee by Roy Scheider.
When she does so, we have what perhaps is the most stirring scene, or the most overdone one, in the movie. As Ligourin and Klute fight (and Sutherland kicks his ass, which I just couldn’t get my head around, this guy from Animal House beating up a guy who was in The Seven Ups and Jaws and was in real life an undefeated amateur boxer), Daniels picks up a knife and ends up attacking not Ligourin but Klute.
And still Klute is loyal to Daniels, and in the penultimate scene saves her from the “freak.” Just before that scene there is one where the two go shopping for fruit in an open air market. It is the one sweet and romantic scene in the movie, and though they do little more than smile at each other, it seemed real and was affecting. At one point, as Daniels stands behind him, she gets closer and closer to him, and you can see she wants to put her arms around him, to rest her head on his broad back, but she doesn’t, perhaps absolutely can’t.
The fact that Klute must save Daniels from a misogynist psychopath at the end is telling. In the kind of world Daniels lives in, hookers, and indeed all women, need to be protected from woman-hating freaks. The deeper questions the movie asks, like why does Daniels pick the life she chooses? (Many women in a patriarchal society, and many women afraid to let go of control in their relationships with men, don’t go the route she does), and will their always be men like the freak no matter how we structure gender relationships in our society? , go unanswered, as they should. No one has those answers, not really, and I doubt any one ever really will.
As a movie about the 70’s, I was intrigued. New York was portrayed as a cesspool. The seamy underbelly of the city included strung-out junkies and murdered prostitutes. The reality of death from drugs or violence for women in the world’s oldest profession was vividly portrayed. There is even a discotheque scene with an uncredited appearance by Sylvester Stallone. Everyone talks about letting it all hang out, and about who has hang ups and how they are going to get rid of them, and Fonda tells her clients to ask her for whatever they want, that “nothing is wrong” and I was surprised to find that all this seemed quaint. It was hot stuff in my parents’ time, but not now. Everyone is looking for fulfillment, and no one finds it. That’s perennially true, isn’t it? Daniels asks Klute if he is impressed with all the lights, the sin and the glitz and the glamour, and he says it is all so pitiful. In the end, Fonda is still looking for fulfillment, leaving the city with Sutherland to bravely face a brave new world. Is it a futile gesture? Who knows? The 70’s didn’t have the answer, and neither did Klute. Sometimes the point of a movie is not to answer questions, but to ask them.
© 2014 Mike Welch