'Girl with Green Eyes': 47 Years Later

Turner Classic Movies allows yours truly to catch up on movies never seen and movies viewed so long ago that memory has left muddled, imprecise impressions.

In 1964, age 14, I shlepped from Brooklyn into Manhattan to see the British movie Girl With Green Eyes. Those were the days when I actually took movie critics oh-so-seriously. Okay, I was a dopey teenager, what did I know?

Here’s what I remember:

Actress Rita Tushingham: Her name made me giggle because Tushingham is just too close to the Yiddish word tushy, which means butt. My maternal grandmother Chana Gittel used to pinch my rear and exclaim: “Tushy-sweet!”

Everyone in my family thought this was just hysterical.

I wasn’t so sure.

Also, I was kind of huh? about Tushingham. She did not look or sound like a real movie star.

True confession: I was, and probably remain, totally superficial; ga-ga over Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn, and of course Brigitte Bardot, though I had not seen one of her movies, only endless photographs which were quite enough to induce sleepless adolescent nights.

Also, I kept staring in horror at co-star Lynn Redgrave’s crooked teeth. Sheesh, even movie stars in Britain can’t get decent dental care. At the time I figured they didn’t have Jewish dentists in Britain. Now I know about the National Health Service. Socialized medicine means periodontal disease… for all.

So I sat in this art house movie theater feeling all sophisticated and —

Bored.

To.

Death.

About ten minutes into the film I was thinking:

1. Is this film in English? Because it really needs subtitles.

2. When does the story begin?

3. Is there a plot?

I think I fell asleep. Probably dreamed of BB.

Anyhoo.

Girl With Green Eyes was on TCM recently and I decided to give it another chance. Forty-seven years is a long time and surely my tastes have changed, hopefully matured.

Synopsis: Tushingham is Kate Brady a young Catholic farm girl who comes to Dublin to find work. She falls in love with the much older and divorced writer Eugene Gaillard, Peter Finch. That’s it. No clever plot twists, no car chases, no nude scenes, no gun battles, no drama. Just meandering scenes spliced together with zero awareness of structure.

Okay, older and wiser me has to admit that Rita Tushingham is a pretty skilled actress. She does not do glamour. No way. But she is a proper working class heroine, a Marxist pin-up.

Finch is also pretty darned good, though he’s hobbled by a role which locks him into endless dour and humorless scenes. But he’s got a great rugged look and it’s easy to see why Vivien Leigh cheated on Laurence Olivier with the emotionally volcanic Australian.

Girl With Green Eyes is a classic example of kitchen sink realism, all the rage in Britain from the late fifties to the mid-sixties, a tedious and mannered cinematic movement that has much in common with Soviet Socialist realism. Other films of this genre are Look Back in Anger (1959), Room at the Top (1959), The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962), The Pumpkin Eater (1964), and Alfie (1966.)

Don’t ask me why, but I stayed with this reel of Thorazine. I wanted to like it because, in truth, I want to like every movie I watch.



Rita Tushingham and Peter Finch in Girl With Green Eyes, 1964.

And then it was all worth it.

One scene.

One line of dialogue.

Tushingham, a devout Catholic, attends Mass. Finch, a cynical and world-weary intellectual, waits outside for his young lover. When she exits church he asks why she bothers with religion. Tushingham’s Kate replies:

“Because when I don’t go to Mass I feel all the goodness going out of me.”

I actually sat up, hit the rewind button and played the scene again. A few times.

Because this little throwaway scene should have been the spine of the movie if the screenwriter and director had understood or cared about dramatic velocity.

It’s a lovely moment that is the saving grace of an otherwise unbearably boring and flabby movie. Tushingham delivers the line with a touching mixture of strength, innocence and spiritual bewilderment. Finch’s reaction shot is perfectly modulated to her heartfelt declaration. He realizes in a stunning rush of clarity that they have no future.

In a sense, G-d has intervened in a doomed relationship.

Forty-seven years later, Girl With Green Eyes delivers a moment in time that’s been worth the wait.

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