BOOTLEG FILES 399: “The Effects of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds” (1972 feature film starring Joanne Woodward and directed by Paul Newman).
LAST SEEN: We cannot confirm the last public screening of this film.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: Now that’s a real mystery.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: It should turn up someday.
Joshua Logan once commented that you cannot take a theatrical play and just film it – material that was specifically created for a distinctive medium (which involves an immediate rapport between audiences and live actors working in a finite space) requires to be transformed so it fits the parameters of another distinctive medium (where close-up camera shots magnify the triumphs and/or the flaws of the source material). Intimate theatrical dramas that rely on emotionally intense dialogue and powerhouse performances usually fare the worst when adapted to the big screen. After all, what seems big and important on a stage often comes across as shrill or hammy when put on film.
This was the problem with the 1972 film version of Paul Zindel’s absurdly titled “The Effects of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds.” (For the sake of space, I’ll just call it “Gamma Rays” for the rest of this article.) The play won the Pulitzer Prize and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award when it played Off-Broadway in 1970, and its larger-than-life central character made a star out of Sada Thompson. Since that triumph, it became a staple of community and student theaters around the United States.
But when “Gamma Rays” came to the screen, something went very wrong. Part of the problem had to deal with the talent responsible for the production, but a great deal of the film’s failure was its source material.
Zindel was a high school chemistry teacher in Staten Island, New York, when Houston’s Alley Theatre staged the premiere of “Gamma Rays” in 1965. The following year, it was produced by a small theater in Connecticut. An abbreviated version was created for broadcast on National Educational Television, the forerunner of PBS, and the play turned up at the Cleveland Playhouse before it took root in New York’s vibrant Off-Broadway theater environment.
Zindel, who was eager to get out of teaching and support himself as a full-time writer, scored a significant lead when he was commissioned to create a screenplay based on Violet Weingarten’s 1967 novel “Mrs. Beneker.” This project was being considered as a starring role for Joanne Woodward, with her husband Paul Newman serving as director. Newman and Woodward never heard of Zindel, so they took in a performance of “Gamma Rays.” They were greatly impressed with the play and purchased the screen rights for $65,000. Since Zindel was busy on “Mrs. Beneker,” Newman and Woodward hired screenwriter Alvin Sargent to adapt “Gamma Rays” as a film.
Newman and Woodward ultimately opted to pursue “Gamma Rays,” and the “Mrs. Beneker” project was shelved. Zindel played no role in the film version of his prize-winning play – and according to Newman biographer Lawrence J. Quirk, the playwright’s sole visit to the film set was an uncomfortable experience because Newman took an immediate dislike to Zindel.
“Gamma Rays” is centered on Beatrice Hunsdorfer, a loud, obstreperous, delusional wreck whose erratic behavior earned her the nickname “Betty the Loon” by the local townies. Beatrice’s husband abandoned her years ago and she is barely raising two daughters: Ruth, an epileptic who emulates her mother’s least desirable qualities, and Matilda, a shy girl who wants to become a scientist.
In case you are wondering where the weird title comes from, it involves Matilda’s science fair project, which studies the results of flowers that have been exposed to low levels of radioactivity. Some of the flowers wilt and eventually perish (a fate that seems to be in Ruth’s future) while some manage to survive, albeit in a warped way, despite the brutal environment (cue Matilda).
For any actress who likes to overplay her hand, the role of Beatrice Hunsdorfer is the ultimate over-the-top virago. She runs across a variety of emotions (desperate, abusive, sarcastic, pathetic and crazed) and often feels like every female lead from every Tennessee Williams drama rolled into one volcanic explosion.
And that’s a chief reason why “Gamma Rays” did not work as a film. Woodward, wearing a bad wig and speaking TOO LOUD, gave a theatrical performance that was better suited for the stage. When magnified by the camera, her high-decibel output came across like a distaff version of Jon Lovitz’ Master Thespian. Woodward’s creation never seemed like a real person – it seemed like a bad case of misplaced overacting.
In fairness, Woodward realized something was going awry. Lawrence J. Quirk, in his biography “Paul Newman – A Life,” noted that Woodward was initially uncomfortable with the character, which resulted her engaging Newman in “blistering fights” on how to present Beatrice in a cinematic context. Caught in the middle of the on-set feuding was Newman and Woodward’s daughter, who played Matilda under the screen name “Nell Potts” – this was her first and last major acting role. (Nepotism also reigned with the role of Ruth going to Roberta Wallach, the daughter of actors Eli Wallach and Anne Jackson.)
But even if Woodward was able to dial down the strident aspects of Beatrice’s outrageousness, “Gamma Rays” was ultimately too fragile to work as a film. On screen, the filthy Hunsdorfer home and the grimy blue-collar setting (location shooting took place in Bridgeport, Connecticut) created an exaggerated visual style often made the film seem like a parody of doom-and-gloom melodrama. As the work progressed, the characters slowly turned into caricatures, and the climactic confrontation between an out-of-control Beatrice and a perpetually burdened Matilda rang false and hollow.
20th Century Fox released the film theatrically and it managed to score some level of support – Woodward received a Golden Globe Award nomination and won the Best Actress Award from the Kansas City Film Critics Circle. The film played at Cannes in 1973, and she won the festival’s Best Actress Award.
However, Newman belatedly acknowledged that he misdirected the film. “[There was] too much theater and not enough cinema,” he told Time magazine. “I screwed up there.” Perhaps going for a second chance, he and Woodward would return to a similar vehicle in their 1987 film adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie,” with Woodward playing another over-the-top mother ruining her fragile daughter’s life.
Over the years, “Gamma Rays” has turned up in television broadcasts and in retrospective film series honoring Newman. However, there has never been a commercial home entertainment release of the film. For those who are really curious, bootleg copies are very easy to locate.
As for Zindel, he sought out his own path into the world of bad movies by writing the screenplays for Barbra Streisand’s “Up the Sandbox” and the Lucille Ball version of “Mame.” No further comment is necessary.
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