The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds, based on the play by Paul Zindel
Although not well known, this film is one of the best of 1972- and not just that year- nominated for it was probably the most important film competition- The Cannes Film Festival prestigious Palme D’Or and winner at the same gathering of the prize for best actress for Joanne Woodward.
The very talented actress has the main role of Beatrice Hunsdorfer, mother of Matilda and Ruth, struggling to face crisis in her life, coping with adversity in financial and more importantly, psychological terms.
The heroine is a widow, but her husband has not only died, but before that, as the protagonist likes to emphasize, the son of a bitch had left her and her kids, living in what is near squalor.
Matilda has a rabbit- at least for a good part of the motion picture, until her angry, inebriated, unstable mother decides otherwise- that leaves his droppings around the house, including the sink, the kitchen, to the understandable annoyance of Beatrice Hunsdorfer.
This younger sister is a precocious genius, taking part in an experiment described in the title: The Effect of the Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds that is selected for the final competition and has a good chance of winning the big prize, in the face of other, some weird initiatives.
A colleague, played with talent- we can only hope that the young artist is not thrilled in reality by the gruesome tests she is proposing- enters the competition with the skeleton of a cat, that rumor has it she skinned and then boiled, but on stage, the researcher claims had been brought from a rescue center, where it had been put to sleep in a special compartment.
Nevertheless, the description, the smile on the girl’s face are terrifying, with details of how the dead body is boiled, but then some obviously repellent composition is still left on the bones and then the participant had to scrape it off…but one has to have a CV for later, to show she did not just date through school- this is what she adds.
Finally, she announces that she hopes to win the first prize and she is considering doing the same thing with a dog for next year- and this is where the girls we had heard gossiping about the treatment of the cat look at each other with what looks to be inside knowledge.
At the Hunsdorfer house, the situation is tense, for the older Ruth is not willing to cooperate anymore, she is already dating and she is not happy when a new, but very old person is brought to the house, in the room which is let by the mother, in order to make ends meet, although she complains about this and the other aspects of her miserable life, summed up:
- I have a half-life, one daughter is half a test tube, the other has half a brain and there is a half corpse in the house…words to this effect, it is not an exact quote of the lament
However, Nanny Annie is perhaps the most likeable character, this viewer liked her more than even Matilda, for she is so sweet, quiet- even if perhaps desperate, seeing as she is somewhat abandoned by her daughter, who brings her to this sordid house, where amenities are not suitable for a woman who can hardly walk and it is obvious that they only do this out of necessity, the elder daughter even leaves the room while details of the residence of Nanny are discussed.
Ruth even acts in a sort of improvised, short, one play act created by herself, which gives a representation of her mother, with her always in the moth cigarette and permanent study of the newspaper, the classified ads section, her dreams of having a better life and then the plan to open a chain of cafes, called Man-in the-Moon, for which she seeks financing.
Alas, this is an utopic project, just like much, if not everything this protagonist envisages, from redecorating the garden, to cleaning up the house- although she does take a drastic and treacherous, abominable action, when she decides, under the influence of alcohol, to kill the pet of her daughter, Matilda.
Instead of understanding, appreciating her daughters-, one could say at least or especially the younger one, given that Ruth might be soon able to take care of herself and she has already an attitude of disgust and cynicism towards her mother- Beatrice keeps complaining.
Matilda would need just a little encouragement and she would have an incredible ascension, given that she is so gifted, intelligent and preoccupied as she is with higher things, The Effect of the Gamma rays, not just on the flowers she had tested, but as she says in the glorious speech at the final contest, on people and the future of us, human beings.
The film seems to be both accessible- the simple story of a poor family, trying to cope with hardship, conflict,, psychological imbalance on one side and superhuman abilities on the other- and sophisticated in its analysis of paramount themes, like how we can use radioactivity, the power of the atom- such a beautiful word says Matilda and an extraordinary potential for us, at least at the point when the movie was produced, by Paul Newman, the husband of Joanne Woodward.
The Effect of the Gamma Rays is a sensitive, beautiful, complex and yet simple drama, with great performances, and not just from the acclaimed artist in the leading role, but also from the supporting cast, the young daughters and the older guest at the Hunsdorfer house.