Keith Gordon began acting at a young age, appearing in films by legendary directors like Brian De Palma and John Carpenter but when he found acting in films, like the Rodney Dangerfield comedy Back to School (1986), unfulfilling, he decided to try his hand behind the camera, tackling a series of literary adaptations on modest budgets but managing to entice actors like Nick Nolte and Gary Sinise to appear in his films. In his Senses of Cinema interview with Gordon, Peter Tonguette best sums up the director’s body of work as having: “moral gravity and their aesthetic richness.” Arguably his most successful and sincere film to date is Waking the Dead (2000), a heart-wrenching story about love and loss spanning two decades.
In 1974, two Chilean nationalists and an American activist are killed in a car bomb. The two nationalists had been touring the United States and speaking out against Chile’s dictatorship government. Sarah Williams (Jennifer Connelly) was the American activist also killed in the explosion and the film begins with her boyfriend, Fielding Pierce (Billy Crudup), finding out about her death via a television broadcast. We flash back to 1972 when Fielding and Sarah meet for the first time in New York City. She’s working for a publishing company that Fielding’s hippie brother, Danny (Paul Hipp), runs while Fielding is serving in the Coast Guard.
For Fielding it is love at first sight and over lunch he shares with her his idealistic beliefs – that politics can still make a difference and that you have to be part of the system to do it. He sees serving in the Coast Guard as part of his duty for his country and a stepping stone on the way to becoming President of the United States. He lectures for a bit but you can tell that Sarah sees right through him. Over dinner it is her turn to share her idealistic beliefs. She can tell that he’s ambitious, but doesn’t share his career path. Despite their ideological differences they fall in love.
We flash forward to Chicago, 1982 and Fielding is a lawyer in the District Attorney’s office and working his way up the social and political ladder. His girlfriend Juliet (Molly Parker) is a socialite and her uncle Isaac Green (Hal Holbrook) pulls strings so that the governor personally picks Fielding to run for a congressional seat. His life seems set until one snowy night he hears Sarah’s voice in the wind. Is it her ghost or his conscience? Or did she somehow manage to survive the car bombing back in ’74? Fielding still misses her and confesses to his sister (Janet McTeer), “it gets better and then it’s like it never got better at all.” Is he cracking up, sabotaging himself just when he’s poised to achieve a crucial step towards his ultimate goal?
Keith Gordon takes us back and forth in time to explore Fielding and Sarah’s relationship and how it continues to haunt him in the present. For example, he sees a little girl standing on a sidewalk who reminds him of Sarah. He walks through an airport terminal and everyone begins to look like her. These visions really get under Fielding’s skin (and ours too). With the nature of Sarah’s work it is possible that she faked her own death to continue her activism. Whenever Fielding sees her she is tantalizingly just out of reach like a ghost. He regrets not dwelling more on her death and trying to figure out what happened. There’s a nice scene between him and his father where he tries to articulate how much he still misses Sarah. Billy Crudup does a fantastic job of conveying how Fielding tries to make sense of his feelings and convey them to his father. He’s wracked with self-doubts at the worst possible moment in his life but he’s got to sort through them if he hopes to continue on his current career trajectory.
There’s a scene where Fielding and Sarah go to a black tie event and while he schmoozes, she can barely hide her contempt and then tears into a guest, confronting him about his politics. If they continued on these paths would they have stayed together had she lived? She even calls him on his trajectory: “It’s all mapped out. It’s been mapped out long before we ever met. I’m not going to change it.” One of the things that strikes me about their relationship is the real and honest discussions they have about their beliefs. They are depicted in a way that is smart and fascinating to watch play out. At one point she says to him, “it’s so infuriating loving you sometimes,” and what couple that has been together for some period of time has felt this way and maybe even verbalized it? It’s a realistic portrayal of a relationship: they love each other passionately and have ugly arguments, too, just like anybody else. It is this commonality that we can all identify with. One can’t help but see some of themselves in their relationship.
Jennifer Connelly is a revelation in this film. Not only does she play Sarah as a vision that haunts Fielding’s conscience but also a real, tangible person who is smart, beautiful and with fierce political convictions and unafraid to voice them. Sadly, this is in short supply in American cinema and her character evokes Sigourney Weaver’s Jill Bryant in Peter Weir’s The Year of Living Dangerously (1982). Early on, Connelly delivers a passionate monologue where Sarah tells Fielding what she wants out of life. It is the moment where he falls in love with her and so do we. In this scene, the actress conveys the intelligence and passion of her character. It’s where we become emotionally invested in Sarah. She is beautiful and smart and like Fielding we want to know more about her.
Paul Hipp plays Fielding’s ne’er-do-well brother Danny, the black sheep of the family who goes from goofy publisher of a counterculture press in the ‘70s, to the drug-addicted mess who wants to marry an Asian prostitute (Sandra Oh) in the ‘80s. The actor had a scene-stealing turn in Clint Eastwood’s adaptation of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1997) and has worked with filmmaker Abel Ferrara on numerous occasions. He gives a memorable performance in Gordon’s film, making the most of his limited screen-time, refusing to play a stereotypical hippie or a clichéd junkie.
Griffin Dunne and Amy Robinson first approached Keith Gordon about directing Waking the Dead because they liked his adaptation of The Chocolate War (1988) and asked him to read Scott Spencer’s 1986 novel Waking the Dead in 1991. At the time, he was in the midst of falling in love with the woman that would eventually become his wife. While reading the book it made him think about “what would happen if I ever lost her, and how devastated I would be, and whether I could go on, and whether what I had gotten with her would be enough to go on or whether there would be no point.” He wrote the first draft in late 1991 to early 1992 when Warner Brothers was interested in backing it. The studio asked him to tell the story in chronological order, give it a happy ending, take the politics out and make Sarah more likable because “people don’t like a woman with strong politics.” Gordon refused and the project stalled so he went off and made A Midnight Clear (1992) and Mother Night (1996). After making the latter film, he read the script for Waking the Dead again and still wanted to make it into a film.
Gordon contacted Spencer who told him that the rights to the novel had reverted back to him. He gave the filmmaker permission to adapt it free of charge because he liked the script. The project finally picked up steam when Jodie Foster agreed to make it with her production company. Gordon had tried to get her interested in financing Mother Night but she passed on it. After attending one of its screenings, Foster told Gordon that she made a mistake not backing it. She asked him if he was working on anything new and he gave the script for Waking the Dead. She read it and wanted to do it. Foster had a deal with Polygram and took the project from Warner Bros. and set up Gordon’s film there.
Foster suggested Tom Cruise play Fielding and they sent him the script but he did not agree to do it despite liking the material. It was at this time that Gordon got a call from Billy Crudup’s agent telling him that the actor really wanted to do the film. He knew of the actor’s reputation but had not seen much of his work. Gordon thought that Crudup might be too young and that Polygram would not approve. At the time, the actor was making The Hi-Lo Country (1998) and executives at Polygram thought he was going to be a big movie star and were willing to take a chance on him.
For the role of Sarah, Gordon auditioned all kinds of actresses but found that they would “get the intelligence, but not have the sensuality. Or they would get the sensuality, but wouldn’t have the anger.” He did not even want Jennifer Connelly to read for the part because he was under the impression that she was beautiful but not a great actress. Her agent was persistent, however, and got Gordon to watch two independent films that had not been widely seen. In particular, he was impressed with her work in Far Harbor (1996) where she delivered a “long monologue about the death of her baby and she played this manic-depressive woman and she was fabulous.” Once he cast Connelly, he not only realized that she had the qualities necessary for the character but that she and Crudup had chemistry right away. Gordon rehearsed with the two actors for three weeks, discussing what happened between scenes and what their characters were like together so that they knew everything about them by the time principal photography began.
Waking the Dead received mostly mixed to negative reviews from critics who didn’t seem to connect with what Gordon was trying to do with this film… or simply felt that he wasn’t successful. In his review for The New York Times, Stephen Holden wrote, "In falling short of its goal, the movie raises the question of whether it's possible to film an intelligent tear-jerker that prompts us to think and cry at the same time … At its best, Waking the Dead suggests an intellectually upscale answer to Love Story. At its weakest, it comes off as a stiff, muted exercise in countercultural nostalgia.” Roger Ebert gave the film two-and-a-half stars and said it "has a good heart and some fine performances, but is too muddled at the story level to involve us emotionally. It's a sweet film. The relationship between Sarah and Fielding is a little deeper and more affectionate than we expect in plot-driven melodrama.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film a "C" rating and Lisa Schwarzbaum wrote, "the arbitrariness of the lovers' passion and the somber hysteria with which the novelist and filmmaker treat every issue, whether its South American dictatorship or female armpit hair, is enough to anesthetize the living.”
The Chicago Reader’s Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote, "I can cite only one unequivocal reason for seeing Waking the Dead, and that's Jennifer Connelly ... What makes Connelly so remarkable isn't her character's radicalism but her capacity to keep the character fresh every time she appears and to leave a lingering impression that makes the hero's (and the movie's) sense of loss acute.” On a more positive note, the San Francisco Chronicle’s Mick LaSalle called it "a film teeming with riches. One of the most powerful romances of recent years, it is as generous as they come ... an intelligent tale told with go-for-broke passion ... Crudup and Connelly are splendid together ... Waking the Dead gives us acting at its biggest and most beautiful." In his review for the Los Angeles Times, Kevin Thomas wrote, "The seeming presence of Sarah creates a special challenge for Gordon and his stars, and that Waking the Dead deals with it so imaginatively, makes the film all the richer and provocative an experience.”
I love that Waking the Dead opens with the beautiful Joni Mitchell song, “A Case of You” from her Blue album. It has been said that the song is told from the point of view of a sarcastic, cynical lover and one can’t help but see this as a commentary on Sarah. This film is many things – a love story and a supernatural thriller with politics woven throughout. At its heart it is a love story about two people with contrasting beliefs but who fall in love anyway. How does someone carry on after the love of their life is gone? How does it affect your life? Waking the Dead offers no easy answers (because there are none) and explores, in fascinating detail, how one man deals with the death of a love one. Gordon never really tells us definitively if Sarah is dead or not, leaving it up to us to make up our own mind. One could argue that a huge chunk of Fielding’s idealism died the day Sarah did and his visions of her are bits of it fighting to re-emerge. Ultimately, his struggle is an inner one with his soul as the prize.