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Harvard Film Archive spotlights the resilient vulnerability of Brooke Adams

Brooke Adams and Donald Sutherland in "Invasion of the Body Snatchers." (Courtesy Photofest)
Brooke Adams and Donald Sutherland in "Invasion of the Body Snatchers." (Courtesy Photofest)

Film retrospectives tend to uphold the auteur theory. A slice of a director’s filmography gets public airing, framed by a suggested evolutionary or at least connected thread. Occasionally, a cinematographer receives such attention. Actors, less so.

So, it’s worth noting when a series focuses on an actor, especially one with a career as varied, vibrant, and arguably underrated as Brooke Adams. She began acting at age 6, appearing on television in the 1960s, then blossomed on the big screen in the late 70s. Since then, she has toggled between stage, screen and other creative endeavors, such as painting and writing.

Brooke Adams in "Days of Heaven." (Courtesy Harvard Film Archive)
Brooke Adams in "Days of Heaven." (Courtesy Harvard Film Archive)

In 2020, she told Martha’s Vineyard Arts and Ideas about the need to decide she’s “not an actor anymore.” “I love to paint, and I sell my paintings, so it’s all good,” she said. She and her husband, actor Tony Shalhoub (“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” “Monk”), live part-time on Martha’s Vineyard and were interviewed together. Adams acknowledged that as his star waxed and hers waned, she needed to find “a new head space, of not feeling like I was a has-been.”

That kind of candor comes through over decades of press coverage with Adams and often overlaps with her onscreen presence. Both in character and as herself, she speaks of frustrations with matter-of-fact vulnerability. Blunt but not overly severe. Yielding but never weak. And often funny. The forthcoming film series, "Brooke Adams: Radiance in Plain Sight," reveals a similar relatability in five roles between 1978 and 1992. All screen at Harvard Film Archive from Nov. 12-20, with Adams present for two events.

Chronologically first but closing out the series is Adams’ most well-known role in the rambling, agrarian “Days of Heaven” (1978). Writer-director Terrence Malick set the pre-Depression era love triangle in a sea of Texas wheat. Adams plays Abby, torn between the rebellious, pound-foolish laborer, Bill (Richard Gere), and the wealthy farmer (Sam Shepard, angular and earnest in his screen debut).

Brooke Adams and Richard Gere in
Brooke Adams and Richard Gere in "Days of Heaven." (Courtesy Harvard Film Archive)

At once documentary, novelistic, melodramatic and futuristic (Gere’s haircut and smug persona casts the die for 80-90s leading men, himself chief among them), “Days” has been known to turn the movie curious into the movie-obsessed. It has plenty of debatable backstories, like the script Malick wrote and abandoned; why he disappeared after its success; the amount Haskell Wexler did or did not shoot; plus, it launched principal talent into stardom. It also troubles the notion of narrative clarity, leaning heavily on Oscar-winning naturalistic cinematography (by Néstor Almendros, part of the debate), and a relentlessly depressing score by Ennio Morricone. However many times I see it, though, the most striking element remains the improvised voiceover by Bill’s kid sister, Linda (Linda Manz).

As for Adams, the movie gave her a chance to shine with windswept mutability. The carefree affection her character shares with Bill, who encourages her to pull a fast one on the supposedly dying farmer, does not diminish when she falls for the farmer, too. Despite the storyline’s fundamental grift, Adams moves with an air of indefatigability, a quality lacking in the men she’s sandwiched between. Her easygoing defense keeps the story in motion. Upon a recent re-watch, I thought of how coolly Abby leaves Linda near the end of the film, for example. Adams will speak after a screening on Sun. Nov. 20 at 3 p.m.

Brooke Adams in
Brooke Adams in "Vengeance is Mine." (Courtesy Jake Perlin)

Far less-known until its June re-release, and the likely impetus for this series, is a resurfaced turn of Adams as a young woman in transition in “Vengeance is Mine” (1984). Written and directed by Michael Roemer, a Harvard grad credited with making the first student feature film there around 1949, “Vengeance” screens as part of Michael Roemer and the Rite of Rediscovery (Nov. 11-27, also at Harvard Film Archive). While the film wanders into extremes, this is the golden ticket because Adams and Roemer (age 94), will appear together to discuss on Sat. Nov. 19 at 7 p.m. Produced by WGBH Boston and broadcast on public television as “Haunted,” scenes include locations along the I-91 corridor in Western Massachusetts as well as to and from Block Island.

“Vengeance” lives in that now-rare realm of adult interpersonal dramas. Her own life in upheaval, Jo befriends Donna (Trish Van Devere) and inexplicably embeds herself into Donna’s failing marriage. The women struggle like a two-headed monster vying over which head should rule the beast. Is the beast marriage? Motherhood? Sanity? The movie offers no easy answers.

In Roemer series notes, Jake Perlin, responsible for the film’s release, wrote that the director had an “aversion to telling stories he felt were lies” yet often refused to telegraph his intentions, dwelling instead on “people’s unpredictability and emotional brutality.” Above all else, in “Vengeance” Adams has plenty of time to think, react and shift gears before our eyes. And like in “Days of Heaven” she holds that connection even as her character falters or doubles back.

Brooke Adams and Trish Van Devere in
Brooke Adams and Trish Van Devere in "Vengeance is Mine." (Courtesy Jake Perlin)

Adams plays more straightforward roles in two other titles screening in the series, as a Board of Health scientist in the 1978 sci-fi thriller, “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (remade from 1956), and as a mother to two teen girls in the 1992 drama “Gas Food Lodging.” In “Invasion” she is again torn between two men, a reoccurring theme she jokes about in the inset here. Her boyfriend quickly falls prey to a pod that replaces free-thinking humans with replicas that, well, see for yourself. Her boss (an especially needy Donald Sutherland) spends most of the movie trying to figure out the pods and deal with his love for Adams’ character. A wild ride of a movie with a deep cast and uncanny present-day resonance, “Invasion” spurred other sci-fi and horror roles for Adams as well as another pairing with Sutherland. David Cronenberg’s “The Dead Zone” (1983), also screens in this series.

Fast forward nine years to arid New Mexico. Adams plays a truck stop waitress and single parent in Allison Anders’ “Gas Food Lodging.” In addition to being unique for its working-class female protagonists, Anders’ movie challenged ideas about sexuality and consent in an era of teen movies filled with everything but. In Adams’ instance, her character has motivations and desire beyond her daughters (played by Ione Skye and Fairuza Balk), who mistakenly think boyfriends will solve all their problems. That’s the straw dog the movie exposes. Burdened but not broken, holding steady in the background, Adams keeps her girls—and this movie—afloat.

In its distillation of her creative work through the decades, this series shows that whatever life throws at her characters, or her characters throw back at life, Brooke Adams radiates a will to keep going. Brooke Adams: Radiance in Plain Sight appropriately recognizes the actor’s staying power.


"Brooke Adams: Radiance in Plain Sight" runs at the Harvard Film Archive Nov. 12-Nov. 20.

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Erin Trahan Twitter Film Writer
Erin Trahan writes about film for WBUR.

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