Blue Sky (1994)

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Directed by Tony Richardson
Written by Jerry Leichtling, Arlene Sarner, and Rama Laurie Stagner

Rated PG-13

Jessica Lange as Carly Marshall
Tommy Lee Jones as Hank Marshall
Powers Boothe as Vince Johnson
Carrie Snodgress as Vera Johnson
Amy Locane as Alex Marshall
Chris O’Donnell as Glenn Johnson
Annie Klemp as Becky Marshall
Annie Ross as Lydia

Tony Richardson’s Blue Sky is a difficult film to categorize by genre.  It has elements of political intrigue, charged romance, and dramatic thriller.  Watching it again more than 20 years later, I was surprised how well it holds up.  To the film’s benefit, it was set in the late 1950s or early 1960s, and it was filmed a few years before it’s release in 1994.  The bankruptcy of the Orion Pictures lead to the film sitting on the shelf before it was ultimately released.  Blue Sky exists as a time capsule of a film, during a time in America when certain things were still unknown, or taboo.  More on those taboos later.

Tommy Lee Jones and Jessica Lange play Hank and Carly Marshall, a military couple with two daughters.  We first see Carly sunbathing topless, and Hank flying overhead in a helicopter, witnessing her brazen, sexually charged free spiritedness.  Of course, the male-dominated Army finds Carly’s behavior outrageous, titillating, and appalling - all at the same time.  Hank, though clearly enamored of his bombshell of a wife, suggests she has gone too far.  Carly’s response: “Brigitte Bardot strips for millions, she’s a goddess; I sunbathe topless and I’m a scandal.  Touché.

Here are we reminded of both the acting prowess and sexual magnitude of Jessica Lange.  She made an easy-on-the-eyes impression as the damsel in distress in the 1976 King Kong remake.  And went on to make a string of Serious Films (Frances, Country, Sweet Dreams, Music Box) to prove she is an excellent actress.  It worked; she won an Oscar for playing Dustin Hoffman’s leading lady in 1982’s Tootsie).  In Blue Sky, Lange combines her bombshell appeal with her stellar acting credentials, and she delivers one of her best performances - and her worked yielded another Academy Award, this time for Best Actress.  Timing was on her side, as Lange won her Oscar for Blue Sky within weeks of co-starring in Rob Roy (with Liam Neeson), delivering yet another superb performance.

The driving storyline in Blue Sky is debatable, but I was most intrigued by Carly’s unidentified mental illness. When the family arrives in Alabama, Carly has an episode, a scene required by the plot to set the stage to show Carly’s unpredictive patterns. She can transition on a dime, from flirtatious sexpot to unhinged, erratic harpy. Major Marshall advises his frustrated daughters that his love for Carly knows few boundaries, no matter how disruptive and alarming her mental disorder can become. Of course, the love story component of the film will be put to the ultimate test when Carly gives in to the advances of Hank’s superior officer, base commander Vince Johnson (as smarmy and manipulative as Jim Jones himself).

To be fair, Carly willingly engages in a provocative dance with Gen Johnson at an officer’s ball, which makes a spectacle of Carly and Johnson, and humiliates their respective spouses. Up until now, Carly had begun a tentative friendship with Vera Johnson (Carrie Snodgress, an Oscar-nominee for 1970’s Diary of a Mad Housewife), who later delivers a response to Carly that is pointed, direct, and more dignified than Carl deserves. Carly may be a tease, but she’s certainly no victim – she’s a willing participant when she refuses to resist his advances. How their tryst is discovered is a solid scene, and it’s the lead-up to one of Lange’s best moments in the film. Though she is not innocent, her mental instability also renders her not entirely guilty, either.

Jones’s performance is every bit the equal of Lange’s, only less showy. The film was shot before her won acclaim for JFK and Under Siege, culminating in an Oscar win for 1993’s The Fugitive. Jones plays Hank as a man with a great deal of integrity in his work. He discovers nuclear testing (the project is “Blue Sky”) that has exposed at least two civilians to radiation, and Gen. Johnson’s indiscretion with the volatile Carly allows the base commander to provide convincing rationale to have Hank committed to an institution.

Here, Carly becomes resourceful, and as close to a hero (or heroine) the film has. The scientific community has long suggested a link between mental illness and high levels of intelligence. When Carly catches on that there has been a set-up, she launches an intriguing campaign to clear her husband’s name, disclose the truth about “Blue Sky,” and secure her husband’s release.

It’s pretty standard stuff from this point on. Blue Sky was probably never intended to big box office hit, but it’s a thoughtful and intelligent drama. The poignant and steadfast Jones mixed with Lange’s radiant force of nature kept me interested and involved. Their chemistry is real and potent, and if it seems like labeling a woman with brains, looks, and simmering sexuality as “crazy” is misogynistic, even by Archie Bunker’s standards – hey, those were the days.

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