Based on the O'Henry award-winning novella,
this film was revolutionary in its creation
and subsequent cultural impact. It was the first feature film in America
to be written, produced and directed by women; the first women's film to
raise more than a million dollars and to receive major studio
distribution; and, the first women's film to get into the Cannes Film
Festival's 'Directors's Fortnight.'
Judith Martin, Washington Post:
"For forty-seven years they had been married. How deep back the
stubborn, gnarled roots of the quarrel reached, no one could say - but
only now, when tending to the needs of others no longer shackled them
together, the roots swelled up visible, split the earth between them,
and the tearing shook even to the children, long since grown."
That's the chilling opening and the theme of Tillie Olsen's story "Tell
Me a Riddle," from which three young producers called the Godmothers
have made an extraordinary film. Many powerful talents went into this,
and it's a powerhouse of sentiment. But that very chill, the most
frightening part of Olsen's depiction of old age, had to be sacrificed
to get the hot tears this film extracts.
Feeble bodies frailly encasing passionate souls occupy this film: Here
the quarrel between husband and wife concerns only their retirement,
thus making it of comparatively recent origin. The suggestion that they
part because they differ on how to spend their old age is dispersed by
the eloquent plaint of the husband that he would be lost without "my
comrade, my everything, my girl." Melvyn Douglas, as the old
paperhanger, and Lila Kedrova, as his moribund wife, perform one of the
great sensual love scenes when they cut through the cobwebby details of
their lives to rediscover the fire that has stoked them. Brooke Adams,
as their devoted granddaughter, an angel on rollerskates, is the eager
recipient of their emotional heritage.
But the film, often meticulous in repeating the story line, achieves its
emotional impact by offering reassurances about these old people: Yes,
the love is still there. Yes, the soul and the intellect will live on.
There's a tremendous legacy left at the old woman's deathbed, and
someone standing by who's worthy of receiving it.
Kedrova, brimming with unused excesses of thought and love, and Douglas,
brittle with over-use of mind and limbs, will wrench you apart between
them. Flashbacks have been used to reflect the shifts of senility,
giving a dignified logic to erratic behavior, and a corresponding
cruelty to the cold view of the outsider. It's a sensitive and clever
handling of the realized fears of aging - with the exception of
Janet Maslin, NY Times (12/15/80):
'Tell Me a Riddle'' is a slow, restrained, dignified effort.
Directed by Lee Grant, it
opens today at the 68th Street Playhouse. Miss Grant, whose film is
based upon Tillie Olsen's novella, seems to have made just the movie she
wanted to. Quietly and with a sometimes paralyzing gentility, she
unfolds the tale of an elderly couple who turn the wife's mortal illness
into an occasion for examining and reaffirming their lives. The couple,
played with reserve and dignity by Melvyn Douglas and Lila Kedrova,
begin the story in a state of estrangement. But as they visit their
family members and come to terms with their history, they begin to warm
up and the film moves faster. Eventually, they share a love scene that
is genuinely, atypically touching. By the time the movie ends, the
audience should feel very well acquainted with these two.
Dolorous as they are, they have produced an extremely peppy
granddaughter, played by Brooke Adams. Miss Adams is in large part
responsible for the movie's becoming livelier after a while. In a
studiedly eclectic San Francisco apartment - Miss Grant appears to have
taken a lot of care with decorating flourishes in the film's various
interiors - the granddaughter, Jeannie, lives a life of exceptional
zing. After breaking up with her boyfriend, for instance, Jeannie slips
into purple tights and red shorts and goes roller skating, bravely
announcing she never needed the guy anyway and then admiring her
grandmother's legs. Her spunk is an inspiration to everyone, as the film
so adamantly wants it to be.
So is Miss Kedrova's, and she has almost more spunk than one can bear.
When she sees a beach, by golly, she throws off her shoes and goes
dancing. When left alone, she makes merry, birdlike gestures with her
hands. When waxing eloquent, she pores over her scrapbook of Great
Thinkers Who Have Influenced Her, cooing at the memory of Victor Hugo
and Emile Zola and others. She is nothing but noble from the movie's
start to its finish.
''Tell Me a Riddle'' is so straightforward and so simple that it doesn't
prompt anything more elaborate than subjective reactions. If you bring
the right sad baggage to it, you may be deeply moved; if you resent
being manipulated, you may be moved in quite another direction.
Throughout the film, plain competence and good intentions are on
display, and at least in this case, they aren't qualities that make for
strong responses. This may be a movie to remind you of something. But I
don't think it's one to touch you on its own.
Desmond Ryan, Philadelphia
The film is an ambitious attempt to blend the memories of a dying woman
with her present domestic problems. It opens tomorrow
at the YMHA, Broad and Pine Streets, as the first offering of the Jewish
Film Festival, a collection of 21 movies that
reflect the Jewish experience.
Even with a movie as good as Paul Mazursky's "Harry and Tonto", growing
old in America is presented as a problem for the young
who must care for the aged. To her credit, Grant has chosen a story that
perceives the relationship of an elderly couple as a
viable subject in itself.
David (the late Melvyn Douglas) is a retired paperhanger who simply
wishes to sell his house. The most poignant scene in the
film finds him at the foot of a ladder in painting overalls realizing
that he no longer has the strength to climb. His wife,
Eva (Lila Kedrova), can tune the world out by turning down her hearing
aid. For her, the house is a trove of memories and
associations; giving it up would be catastrophic.
Grant shows enough in "Tell Me a Riddle", especially in the compassion she
extends to her characters without wallowing in their
emotional predicament, to suggest she could do more behind the camera.
Michael Blowen, Boston
Lee Grant's "Tell Me a Riddle" is a
melancholic adaptation of Tillie Olsen's novel inspired by magnificent
portrayals by Lila Kedrova and Melvyn Douglas.
Lee Grant, the Oscar-winning actress, has always shown a wide talent for
creating rich, winning performances. So it should come as no surprise to
find her coaxing good acting from others in her first film as a
director, "Tell Me a Riddle".
The late Melvyn Douglas, in his last performance, and
Lila Kedrova star as a quarrelsome immigrant couple seeking to find some
common ground in their twilight years. Douglas plays David, a retired
paperhanger. He longs for a circle of friend Why don't they sell their
seven-room home and move to a residence for the elderly where their
needs will be taken care of and they can socialize with folks who have
Kedrova, as Eva, turns down her hearing aid when such talk surfaces. She
wants to be alone with her memories, revisiting the literary heroes of
her violent Russian girlhood: Gorky, Mindelstam, Hugo, Zola. She's
warmed by the passionate ideals she shared with them. The survival of
their marriage is at stake.
Eva is dying of cancer. David, hiding this from her, takes her across
the country to visit their children and grandchildren for one last time,
a trip that leads them to San Francisco. It is there that their
granddaughter Jeannie, (Brooke Adams), helps
them reach, at last, a reconciliation. Eva finds the one woman to whom
she can leave her heritage.
The highlight of the film is Douglas' restrained performance. He is
absolutely first-rate. And Kedrova is irrestible, as well. Adams adds
her very best work, to date. All give evidence they were provided an
ideal situation in which to work through Grant's graceful direction.
And there are more to be singled out for praise in this truly wonderful
cast: Lili Valenty's fine portrait as Mrs.
Mays, an old comrade of Eva's, who lives in San Francisco. Zalman King
as Paul. Peter Coyote, playing David as a young man. And Nora Heflin,
daughter of the late star Van Heflin, as the young Eva.
Never for a moment is there a hint that a word of the script nor a
fragment of a scene was created without the deepest of respect for the
original Olsen work. And this includes the stunning production design by
Patrizia Von Brandenstein. This is a gripping and deeply touching movie.