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WUSA (1970)

August 1, 2014

wusa_xlgPaul Newman wears the crown of exalted actors in my book. It all began when I spotted those piercing blue eyes as Brick in Richard Brooks’ steamy drama, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. I have long respected the passionate performances of Orson Wells, the rough candor of Spencer Tracy, the everyman purity in James Stewart, and the crooked exterior of James Cagney; but of all the classic actors to stake claim as my favorite during my most beloved era of cinema, Paul Newman is the only one to have affected me on such a subterranean level. For years I’ve engulfed myself in all things Newman from his delicious pasta sauces (when budget allows) to his most obscure films just to explore his range and ability. Newman starred in quite a few duds in his day, yet he has always succeeded in holding his head above lackluster waters to deliver powerful, heartfelt performances. WUSA, a gem I found tucked away in my favorite local video store, is one of those examples.

WUSA is a product of its time. A pulp conspiracy film utilizing elements of psychedelic cinema to move its story forward, WUSA’s focus is Reinhardt, a homeless, alcoholic drifter. Reinhardt gets hired to work for WUSA, a political talk radio program with a very slanted message and great influence. With the help of a large amount of whiskey shots throughout his days, Reinhardt rationalizes using his raw talents as a “communicator” to promote a message he doesn’t agree. Although Reinhardt is charming and possesses great potential, his inability to focus his energies has led to confusion, a broken marriage, and assuming the role of a drunk in order to handle the issues he feels exists in the world and his own head. Reinhardt’s new position puts him in acquaintance of Rainey (Anthony Perkins), an idealistic social worker looking to aid disenfranchised urban citizens. Along with Reinhardt’s loopy, depressed girlfriend Geraldine (Joanne Woodward), the three learn that to make changes in their lives they must evaluate themselves and where their passion lies.

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WUSA is bathed in patriotic colors of white, blue, and red from its colorful set design to its lighting following a thematic critique on the American political system. The beautiful grain of 35mm film and Panavision color complements the harsh looks of city life in the 70s. Rarely any character is “dolled up” to look their best, not even Newman. He begins the film haggard and rough sporting an uneven 5 o’clock shadow while the usually pristine Woodard is scarred and slightly unkempt with ragged hair and cheap clothing. Characters are even photographed drenched in beads of sweat giving Louisiana, the film’s setting, a smoldering gritty, realistic look to it.

Despite its attempts at being a raw portrayal of a crooked system of political media, WUSA falters mostly because it’s too unfocused. It teeters around Rainey’s fight for social justice, Reinhardt’s search for self- fulfillment, and Geraldine’s trek for independence, all of which dilutes either aspect of the story from retaining any significance. We get fantastic background on Reinhardt, but it slips beneath numerous other aspects of the film all under an umbrella of conspiracy and lies. This wide array of focal points misses the mark for quite a few elements of the story. We never truly understand Reinhardt’s morals or why he accepts a job he doesn’t ethically believe in, especially considering the modest life he lives to make ends meet. Also, Rainey is only fragmentally understood. One character describes him as one of those “concerned young white folks who’ll walk through fire and water for the Negro race” but why? And what exactly are his intentions?

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Weaknesses aside, WUSA’s strongest constituents is its performances from the entire cast. Newman shines as bright as ever harnessing the pained confusion of a drunk getting by each day with alcohol to ease his anxiety of his place in the world. Newman shows his chops during an emotional argument with Perkins and Woodard as well as during his reaction to discovering the fate of a loved one. Director Stuart Rosenberg allows Newman to solidify his talents as an actor reminding viewers that he possesses more than good looks. Perkins magnificently captures the awkward, anxious existence of Rainey and his tender, but mentally unstable actions. Woodard illuminates the screen with her soft, emotional performance as a broken, sensitive woman searching for a reason to live and find peace in life. Minor performances from Cloris Leachman and Pat Hingle as Reinhardt’s boss give stunning performances that are just as noteworthy as the leads.

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WUSA is a golden gem in the repertoire of each actor, though not as a whole film. WUSA is littered with poor sound, wonky scene transitions and an all-around weak story which results in tedious and confusing moments. Despite its flaws, WUSA is still an interesting look into talk radio programs and the roles they play in social awareness and thought. Though not as groundbreaking as Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd or as brave as Sidney Lumet’s Network, WUSA is a must see for major fans of either of the three leads. You won’t be disappointed by their sheer brilliance in performing.

SEE IT.

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