Barbara Daly Baekland was an actress who married Brooks Baekland, heir to a Bakelite plastics company, and together they spent their lives living glamorously while doing not much of anything else. Barbara and Brooks had a son, Tony, who watched his parents’ marriage become a facade and eventually implode. Brooks eventually ran off with a younger woman whom was Tony’s girlfriend, and later Barbara, disturbed by her son’s homosexuality, allegedly coerced him into having sex with her.
An emotionally unstable woman, Barbara was prone to erratic mood swings and attempted suicide several times. Sadly, Tony seemed to inherit his mother’s mental illness and was diagnosed as a schizophrenic, the signs of which became apparent in his early 20s. In 1972, Tony stabbed and killed his mother and supposedly was found ordering Chinese food as the police arrived.
These details about the lives and deaths of the Baeklands are laid out in the 1985 book, Savage Grace, written by Natalie Robins and Steven M. L. Aronson. The book has been loosely adapted into a film by the same name and is being released on DVD December 23. Directed by Tom Kalin (Swoon), the film is an intriguing, condensed version of the Baekland tragedy starring Eddie Redmayne (The Good Shepherd) as the troubled Tony, and the incomparable Julianne Moore as the smothering mother, Barbara.
Working from a screenplay by Howard A. Rodman, the film quickly dives into the twisted world of Barbara and her desire to climb the social ladder. As baby Tony sleeps at home with his grandmother, the parents are out on the town. It’s New York in 1946, and Barbara already shows signs that she’s not all there. After a later dinner game of questions between socialites, Barbara, upset by Brooks’ answer that he would (theoretically) go home with the first woman who walks through the door, jumps in a passing car with three strange men and drives off laughing, leaving Brooks aghast and pondering who the hell it is he married. Brooks is played by Stephen Dillane (HBO’s John Adams) who gives the role the right mixture of disdain, aloofness and sadness to make us not like him, yet feel a slight touch of sympathy for him having to live with a force of nature like Barbara.
After that incident, we jump ahead thirteen years to Paris, where Barbara and Tony have developed a close relationship; almost peers. 13-year-old Tony begins to show signs that he has picked up on the sexual games his parents play with each other, acting quite proud about seducing a local teenage boy and sleeping with him. While Brooks is horrified about his son’s homosexuality, Barbara comes off as somewhat impressed that he managed to draw a prey into his own bed for the night. From that point on, Barbara appears indifferent about Tony’s sexuality, deviating from the book, it seems.
From Paris, we enter the late ’60s, when Tony is a young man, living with his parents in Spain. For the first time, he shows interest in a young woman. Her name is Blanca (Elena Anaya), and she becomes the first female Tony makes love to. But Blanca is more interested in Brooks, and eventually runs off with him, leaving the unstable Barbara and Tony to comfort each other. At this point, the film begins to focus on the dark, creepy and, yes, incestuous relationship that develops between Barbara and Tony. At one point, the two of them wind up in bed with the same man (whom they’ve both slept with on separate occasions) and have a menage a trios (thankfully offscreen).
Contrary to the book and the scandalous rumors, in this film, Barbara’s incestuous act appears more of an act of loneliness than any attempt to control Tony. As shown in a scene where he cares for her after a suicide attempt, once divorced from Brooks, Tony is all she has. However, the magnitude of what they have done does not register on either Barbara or Tony’s personalities. Perhaps it is the multitude of drugs or just their failing mental health, but neither seems to recognize how wrong their actions are becoming. The series of incidents leading to that fateful (fatal) moment in which Tony kills his mother are equal parts disturbing and car-crash-can’t-look-away mesmerizing.
Moore is electric. We’ve seen her play the scorned, messed-up woman before (Short Cuts, Magnolia), but I don’t think I’ve ever seen her this fierce in a role. She dominates every scene she’s in, as she should, because she inhabits the role of Barbara so magnificently. In a just world, this film would be in theaters right now and Moore would be receiving nominations and year-end awards from critics. Instead, Savage Grace seems to have fallen off the radar screen at The Weinstein Company (who distributed the movie). Eddie Redmayne’s portrayal of Tony is also quite effective. We slowly watch his transformation from impressionable youth to a sad, disturbed man who has trouble discerning reality from the paranoid delusions in his head. By the end of the film, Redmayne has changed Tony into a shell of a man, a specter. It’s heartbreaking to see because we’ve seen where he began, innocent and full of potential.
Savage Grace has the feel and look of what people consider an “independent” film, therefore it isn’t for everyone; this isn’t some glossy Hollywood biopic. What’s more, Kalin takes an artistic approach to his storytelling, relying on the viewer to fill in some of the blanks to follow the narration. Everything is not laid out for you and you have to think about what you’re watching and afterward, what you’ve seen. Savage Grace may not be the jolly, family film you want to gather around and watch over the holidays, but it’s worthy of your time once the in-laws have left and you want to watch something thought-provoking.