Yes Sir, That's My Baby: Infancy and Performance in Heartburn, or the Business with the Banana

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Yes Sir, That's My Baby: Infancy and Performance in Heartburn, or the Business with the Banana
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  ‘ Yes Sir, that ’ s my baby ’ : infancy andperformance in  Heartburn  , or thebusiness with the banana MICHAEL LAWRENCE One of the most memorable moments in Mike Nichols ’ s  Heartburn (1986) takes place during a dinner party, when Meryl Streep smacks a Keylime pie  –   splat!  –   right into Jack Nicholson ’ s face. Streep ’ s character Rachel has plenty of motivation, as her husband Mark (Nicholson) hasrecently resumed his affair, and the actress performs this action, as wewould expect, with accuracy and precision (Streep is, of course, renowned for her control and technique). Pauline Kael observed that it might be  ‘ theonly pie in the face in the history of movies that  ’ s flung more in sorrowthan in anger  ’ . 1 In an earlier scene, however, it is Streep herself who hasfood forced into her face: Rachel ’ s infant daughter Annie, played by one Natalie Stern, smears a blob of soft banana across Meryl ’ s mouth. Rachelis standing in the hallway of her father  ’ s apartment and talking to thehousekeeper, who is holding Annie. The baby brandishes a banana popsicle. She decidesto share her fruit snack, and reachestowards Rachel,determinedly poking a handful of banana mush at her mother  ’ s face withunderstandable clumsiness (she is, after all, merely an infant). Becausethis gesture  –   a baby trying to feed its own mother   –   seems so appropriate,the interaction between the infant and the adult here has an unusual, evenunnerving, authenticity in the context of a fiction film. This business withthe banana seems much more motivated than we would expect from aninfant   ‘ actor  ’ .If the action with the Key lime pie is executed more capably than theaction with the banana, this is easily explained by the differences in 1  PaulineKael, Hooked:FilmWritings 1985  –  1988   (London: MarionBoyars, 1990), p. 190. 465  Screen 53:4 Winter 2012© The Author 2012. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of Screen. All rights reserveddoi:10.1093/screen/hjs052  d    o  s  s i      e r      a  t   Uni   v e r  s i   t   y of   S  u s  s  e x on J   un e 2  6  ,2  0 1 4 h  t   t   p :  /   /   s  c r  e  e n . oxf   or  d  j   o ur n a l   s  . or  g /  D o wnl   o a  d  e  d f  r  om   dexterity (motor skills, hand   –  eye coordination) that separate an able infant from an able adult. Both scenes present actions that appear to bedeliberate, decisions to do something with whatever is at hand. While the pie scene functions to signify Rachel ’ s decision to leave Mark, the business with the banana is a seemingly insignificant detail in thedomestic drama. Yet both these actions contribute in meaningful ways tothe representation of their characters ’  relationships (Rachel ’ s with her husband,Annie ’ swith her mother).It is obvious, however, that while bothactions are presented within the fiction, the infant  ’ s behaviour has adifferent relation to the production of that fiction than does the adult  ’ s behaviour: the reason Meryl has banana on her face is not quite the sameas the reason Jack has Key lime pie on his. A comparison with the well-known example of Marlon Brando ’ s impromptu handling of the glove in On the Waterfront   (Elia Kazan, 1954) is perhaps useful here: just asKazan did not srcinally intend for (or direct) Brando to pick up EvaMarie Saint  ’ s character  ’ s glove, Nichols could presumably neither direct Stern to share her banana, nor insist that she do so. 2 The action with theKey lime pie was demanded by the film ’ s screenplay; the business withthe banana, by contrast, appears to be a spontaneous gesture (but, unlikeBrando ’ s, the baby ’ s actions cannot qualify as improvisation). Annie ’ s behaviour here epitomizes the way her   ‘  performance ’  in  Heartburn  positively affects the film ’ s constitution of a fictional world: Natalie iscertainly not   ‘ representing ’  her character  ’ s actions before a camera, but her actions nevertheless seem to  ‘ flesh out  ’  that character for the purposesof the fiction. Her   ‘  performance ’  in this scene invites attention precisely because this action contributes meaningfully to the film ’ s representationof a fictional world without properly belonging to the  order   of representation. If her actions are not offered as a conscious representationof a fictional character, they are in certain respects discontinuous with thefilm ’ s more general organization of bodies  –   its regimen. The baby, whenshe appears in the fiction film, contributes to the film ’ s representation of character despite being unaware of, and thus in important ways exempt from, the regimen of representation itself: the governance of the adult  performer is understood by the actor in relation to the character they are playing, whether this governance is external (from the director) or internal(the actor  ’ s interpretation), but the governance of the infant performer,whether internal (her temperament) or external (in the form of cajoling),cannot be understood by that infant in relation to their performance of acharacter for the film. Thus the infant  ’ s behaviour necessarily belongsto adifferent order of being than that to which the adult  ’ s behaviour belongs;she behaves according to her satisfaction/dissatisfaction with, and her interest/disinterest in, what is present or presented to her: this is theregimen which governs the behaviour of the infant. When the infant appears in the film, this regimen is enveloped by the governance of the production constituting the fiction, to which she cannot consciouslycontribute and in which she does not consciously participate, even whenher actions accord with the needs of the fiction ’ s regimen. The infant  ’ s 2  See James Naremore,  ‘ MarlonBrando in  On the Waterfront  ’ , in Acting in the Cinema   (Berkeley, CA:University of California Press,1988), pp. 193 – 212. 466  Screen 53:4 Winter 2012 .Michael Lawrence . ‘   Yes Sir, that  ’   s my baby  ’            d      o      s      s         i      e      r   a  t   Uni   v e r  s i   t   y of   S  u s  s  e x on J   un e 2  6  ,2  0 1 4 h  t   t   p :  /   /   s  c r  e  e n . oxf   or  d  j   o ur n a l   s  . or  g /  D o wnl   o a  d  e  d f  r  om   appearance in the film is thus the result of an  abiding in  the production of that fiction, while the adult  ’ s appearance is the result an  abiding by  aregimen of representation governing the production (including, of course,a particular organization of performance).However, if the infant represents a particular subcategoryof child actor,then the performance of Natalie Stern in  Heartburn  provides perhaps aunique case for a consideration of infant performance. Critic Walter Goodman declared:  ‘  Natalie Stern, an inordinately cute baby, is alreadyaccomplished enough to steal scenes even from Miss Streep ’ . 3 As KarenHollinger has suggested, the  ‘ most prominent component  ’  of Streep ’ simage  ‘ is her critical recognition as the finest actress of her generation ’ . 4 How and why was this particular   ‘  baby ’  considered a sufficiently ‘ accomplished  ’  performer to upstage her costar? Stern ’ s exceptional ‘  performance ’  as Annie in  Heartburn  was arguably the result of thecasting of the film, which meant that the regimen of the infant could beenveloped and accommodated by the production of the fiction in a highly particular way, as I will examine below. The authenticity of the infant  ’ s ‘  performance ’  in the film is due to the special conditions under which thefilm was made.If infancy is a specific stage in childhood, then the appearance of aninfant in a film is a par ticular instance of the child  ’ s participation in the production of cinema. 5 It is generally assumed that when very youngchildren appear in films, their behaviour before the camera cannot qualifyas conscious performance: in such cases the children are simply beingthemselves, and this is simply recorded by the camera. Infant characters infilms, then, represent a special case of   ‘ the presence of the child   –   as, perhaps, a peculiar case of actuality ’  which  ‘ inflects the  …  frame of representation ’ . 6 The infant can be a distracting presence in a film precisely because we are aware that the infant is unaware of the fictionalorder of the situation in which they appear. Béla Balázs is one of the fewtheorists to have reflected on the infant  ’ s appearance in film: since theyshare speechlessness, he discusses the film infant alongside the filmanimal. In a passage considering nature and naturalness in cinema, hedescribes the  ‘ very special charm ’  that young children and animals havewhen they appear in films. 7 Taking the animal first, Balázs observes:  ‘ The particular pleasure we derive from watching animals on film is that theyare not acting, but living. They are unaware of the camera and go about their business with an unselfconscious seriousness. ’ 8 The animal presented to us in a film is appealing because it is obviously ignorant of the camera (and the apparatus of filmmaking more generally) and remainsfully involved in its own business, the serious business of animal being.This is simply living (re-presented   by  the film), and not acting (presented   for   the film). Balázsthen turnsto the human:  ‘ Babies have the same charmin film as animals: it  is the sense of eavesdropping on nature. Babies toodo not act, they live. ’ 9 Infancy, here, is a stage of human development wherein the child shares with the animal a mode of being in the world characterized by the incapacity to  ‘ act  ’  (in other words, the inability to 3  Walter Goodman,  ‘ Heartburn  (1986) ’ ,  New York Times  , 25 July1986, < http://movies.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=9A0DE1D91E3AF936A15754C0A960948260 > accessed 11September 2012. 4  Karen Hollinger,  ‘“ Magic Meryl ” :Meryl Streep ’ , in  The Actress: Hollywood Acting and the Female Star   (London: Routledge, 2006),p. 80. 5  For a discussion of infants in earlycinema, see Vicky Lebeau, Childhood and Cinema   (London:Reaktion, 2008), pp. 36 – 38. 6  Joe Kelleher,  ‘ Face to face withterror: children in film ’ , in KarinLesnik-Obertsein (ed.),  Children in Culture: Approaches to Childhood  (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan,1998), p. 41. 7  Béla Balázs,  Béla Balázs  ’   s Early Film Theory: Visible Man and The Spirit of Film  , ed. Erica Carter(Oxford: Berghahn, 2010), p. 60. 8  Ibid. 9  Ibid., p. 61. 467  Screen 53:4 Winter 2012 .Michael Lawrence . ‘   Yes Sir, that  ’   s my baby  ’    d    o  s  s i      e r      a  t   Uni   v e r  s i   t   y of   S  u s  s  e x on J   un e 2  6  ,2  0 1 4 h  t   t   p :  /   /   s  c r  e  e n . oxf   or  d  j   o ur n a l   s  . or  g /  D o wnl   o a  d  e  d f  r  om   consciously perform a role). By this understanding, infancy would end when the child acquires the skills (mental, verbal, physical) to  ‘ act  ’  with aconscious awareness that her actions properly belonged to the order of fiction (the world of make-believe). Lawrence Shaffer has suggested that  ‘ Children are first able to act when they find  t hemselves capable of  pretending something they don ’ t really feel ’ . 10 However, the abilities that emerge during infancy, especially those related to speech, might also havesome significance foraconsideration of the infant  ’ sperformance in afilm,as will be seen in the case of   Heartburn .  Heartburn  was written by Nora Ephron, based on her semi-autobiographical novel of the same name published in 1983. The novelwas inspired by the breakdown, in 1979, of her second marriage to journalist Carl Bernstein. When Ephron left Bernstein she was heavily pregnant; their first child, Jacob, was a toddler. In the film Streep playsRachel Samstat, a food writer based in New York City, and Nicholson plays Mark Forman, a Washington journalist; it begins with their first meeting and ends with Rachel leaving Mark and returning to New York.Rachel is pregnant for most of the film ’ s second half. During the production, Streep was herself pregnant; her second daughter, Grace, was born in May 1986 and the film was released in July. Streep chose the part in  Heartburn  because it was being shot in New York, where she lived withher husband and her two young children. 11 Streep married Don Gummer in 1978, and their first child, Henry, was born in 1980 with a daughter,Mary (nicknamed   ‘ Mamie ’ ), following in August 1983. In  Heartburn ,Rachel ’ s daughter Annie is played by Mary Gummer, whowas about two-and-a-half at the time, a ppearing in the credits as Natalie Stern (the namethat I use in this essay). 12 Streep thus worked side by side with her owndaughter on the film. In the novel Rachel has a young son and in the filmRachel has ayoung daughter, though whether this was owingto, or simply became part of, Streep ’ s domestic circumstances at the time is irrelevant.The use of Streep ’ s daughter in the film functions in a highly particular way for the constitution of the fiction. This is because her character  ’ sinteractions with the mother in the fiction of the film are in important respects continuous with her interactions with her own mother during theshooting of the film. Natalie ’ s abiding in the shooting of her scenes isoften unusually active and involved   –   presumably due to the proximity of her mother   –   and this produces an authentic impression of a fictionalcharacter  ’ s motivated and interested existence. In addition, the fiction privileges a mode of domestic performance appropriate to infancy; thedirection of her within the diegesis allows the baby ’ s visible efforts toregister for the audience  as  conscious performance, despite what weassume we know about infant   ‘ actors ’ .Rachel is dandling Annie on her knee when she proposes that they sing ‘ Itsy Bitsy Spider  ’ . The song appears to be a favourite: Annie garblessome of the words  – ‘ Down the rains! ’ –   and remembers some of theactions, clapping her hands as her mother sings. The infant character  ’ sapparent familiarity with the song implies, of course, that   ‘ Itsy Bitsy 10  Lawrence Shaffer,  ‘ Some notes onfilm acting ’ ,  Sight and Sound  , vol.42, no. 2 (1973), p. 103. 11  Diane Maychick,  Meryl Streep: the ReluctantSuperstar  (NewYork,NY:St Martin ’ s Press, 1984), p. 160. 12  MerylStreep ’ sdaughternowworksas an actress under the nameMamie Gummer. 468  Screen 53:4 Winter 2012 .Michael Lawrence . ‘   Yes Sir, that  ’   s my baby  ’            d      o      s      s         i      e      r   a  t   Uni   v e r  s i   t   y of   S  u s  s  e x on J   un e 2  6  ,2  0 1 4 h  t   t   p :  /   /   s  c r  e  e n . oxf   or  d  j   o ur n a l   s  . or  g /  D o wnl   o a  d  e  d f  r  om   Spider  ’  was a feature of Natalie ’ s everyday life during the shooting of thefilm. An authentic impression of the fictional character  ’ s offscreenexistence is thus suggested by the infant  ’ s behaviour in the scene, whichinvolves a conscious and deliberate effort to perform the song. The scene presents an everyday instance of infant performance (a singalong) for the purposes of the fictional domestic scene. At this moment, the infant  ’ sabiding in the film becomes markedly effortful; the governance of her  body, both external (Meryl ’ s prompting) and internal (Natalie ’ s ‘ technique ’ ), means that her abiding in the scene changes as she attemptsto join in the singalong.  Heartburn ’ s representation of Annie ’ s participation here is, of course, determined by Natalie ’ s own ability: thecapability of the infant character is necessarily the same as the infant actor  ’ s. If the character soon loses interest in the song, however, it appearsto be because the infant actor has discovered the sunglasses in her mother  ’ s jacket pocket. She holds them up and asks (in baby-talk) what they are, opening their arms. This business with the sunglasses brings the performance of the song to an abrupt end. While the song commands theinfant  ’ s attention for a few seconds, and governs her behaviour accordingly, the discovery of the sunglasses provides for Annie new purpose: as she endeavours to put them on her mother  ’ s face, her mother helps by lowering her head into the open arms of the sunglasses. In other words, at this moment the adult actress ’ s performance in the sceneaccommodates the infant  ’ s actions, and responds to the infant  ’ s abiding inthe production of the scene. In her review of   Heartburn , Pauline Kaelremarks that   ‘ Streep can ’ t chew a bit of food without acting out chewing ’ –   the actress has regularly been criticized for the visibilityof her technique  –   but during these interactions with her  d aughter she reacts spontaneouslyto the baby ’ s unpredictable behaviour. 13 Her representation of Rachel for the scene, enveloping the infant  ’ s abiding in the production of the scene,is subsequently given shape by such responses; the regimen of the infant here increases the authenticity of those performing near and with her.There is another scene in which Annie is invited to perform. Rachel istalking into a tape recorder; Annie is seated at the table, where she is plucking grains of cereal from the tabletop. Rachel approaches Annie withher device, and asks her daughter to speak into it, clearly not expectingAnnie to talk. The film cuts to a closeup of the baby: she leans forward,scrunches up her face, and shouts  ‘ da! ’  into the machine. The next shot isa closeup of Rachel, apparently thrilled at her daughter  ’ s first   ‘ word  ’ ,followed byanother closeup of Annie, who shoves the spout of her beaker into her smile. In this scene, a performance is asked of an infant but without any expectation that the request will be met. The infant  ’ sacquisition of speech is the result of being cajoled to perform: once theinfant has uttered her first word, she will be asked to do so again and again. Sounds that sound like words will probably receive a more positiveresponse than other kinds of sounds  –   the learning of a language proceedsas a series of performances, staged in the domestic everyday. Therepresentation of Annie ’ s first   ‘ word  ’  in  Heartburn  necessarily partakes of  13  Kael,  Hooked  , p. 192. 469  Screen 53:4 Winter 2012 .Michael Lawrence . ‘   Yes Sir, that  ’   s my baby  ’    d    o  s  s i      e r      a  t   Uni   v e r  s i   t   y of   S  u s  s  e x on J   un e 2  6  ,2  0 1 4 h  t   t   p :  /   /   s  c r  e  e n . oxf   or  d  j   o ur n a l   s  . or  g /  D o wnl   o a  d  e  d f  r  om 
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