The Tempest is one of Shakespeare’s stranger plays; though it’s classified as a comedy or romance, it starts out very much like a revenger’s tragedy, and the happy ending depends on unexpected grace. The hero, Prospero, is an obsessed man, blind to the needs of his own daughter as well as both the airy spirit and the misshapen beast who serve him. Prospero’s noble title and lands have been snatched away by a relative, and he now lives on an island, stranded far from civilization. Bitterness dominates any feelings of pleasure that he might experience from the natural world; instead he seeks to control the elements, for if he cannot use them to rewrite his destiny, he can at least influence the fates of those who have betrayed him.
In Paul Mazursky’s The Tempest, a successful architect in the throes of a mid-life crisis takes his daughter and flighty girlfriend to an island to escape the dual betrayal of his wife and his employer. While Phillip Dimitrius has been feeling like a sell-out and agonizing over his age, his wife Antonia has revived her career as an actress and begun an affair with Alonzo, whose commissions Phillip resents, though they have made him a wealthy man. During an escape to Greece with his daughter Miranda, he meets Aretha, a singer who accompanies them when they flee from Antonia’s demands for custody of Miranda. On an isolated island with only goats and wild-man Kalibanos for company, Phillip orders the others to help him build an amphitheater for an increasingly mad power-play.
The plot emerges in flashbacks after an opening that shows the frustrations of Miranda, Aretha and Kalibanos under Phillip’s relentless stage-management. Citing a desire for asceticism, Phillip refuses to make love with Aretha and is enraged by the possibility that Kalibanos might lust after his little girl. Miranda insists that she isn’t a child and is uncomfortable with her father’s demands for her affection, yet she has no interest in Kalibanos’ inept attempts at seduction after he lures her to his lair with the promise of forbidden television. Miranda confesses to Aretha, who looks more like her sister than would-be-stepmother; Aretha warns Phillip, who attacks the inarticulate Kalibanos in a boat, then saves him from drowning. “You are God, Boss,” Kalibanos tells him earnestly.
Then Antonia and Alonzo arrive on their well-appointed yacht, accompanied by his personal doctor, lawyer, comedian and estranged son. Racing out to the wind-swept cliffs of his island, Phillip commands, “Show me the magic,” and the skies darken. But Phillip can’t control the furious storm he unleashes, which puts his daughter’s life in danger as well as those of his enemies, and causes Kalibanos to cry, “You not God! Only God God!” In the aftermath, the players sort through the wreckage of their belongings and their relationships, discovering that their hearts are more resilient than any of them suspected.
The details don’t match up point for point with Shakespeare’s play, yet Mazursky’s The Tempest maintains both the sweeping spirit and the unexpected humor of the original. Antonia’s affair is not the cause but an effect of Phillip’s self-doubts. During a rant in their living room about everything that annoys him about his life, he says he hates a vase and their cat, then adds almost casually, “And I hate you.” Drunk after a funeral, he interrupts a meeting of Antonia’s theater friends, forcing a famous producer to dance with him and behaving in a manner Antonia labels “disgusting.” There’s pathos as well as levity in his claims not to know who John Travolta and Woody Allen are; Phillip is never going to feel “with it” again, something that gives him serious angst.
Alonzo is the sort of man who buys out a comic’s Atlantic City contract so he can have the man amuse him during his many hypochondriac visits with his personal doctor, even though Phillip’s working-class father already knows all the comic’s jokes. Alonzo believes he owns Phillip, and is only half-kidding when he threatens to have his thugs beat Phillip up if the architect tries to quit. So it is that the discovery that his wife has chosen his boss, of all people, to replace him shatters Phillip’s life. Miranda is with him when he discovers Antonia’s infidelity; though she finds her father embarrassing and her prep-school life hopelessly boring, she cannot stand to be near Antonia after the revelation, and begs Philip to let her accompany him on a flight from New York society.
In this climate they all must struggle to maintain a sense of humor. Mazursky — who plays Antonia’s pompous producer in the film — tries to demonstrate divine providence’s own role in comedy. When Antonia weeps over Phillip’s disinterest, she finds herself standing under a theatrical poster for “Such Sweet Sorrow.” When Phillip meets Aretha (who fills the dramatic role in The Tempest of trapped spirit Ariel), he turns down her offer to go to bed with him by averring that he’d give a lot for a cold Sprite — the soft drink.
Kalibanos speaks of lovemaking in a combination of foreign slang and nonsense endearments, assuring Miranda that his interest is not sex but love. Still, when a tanned blonde from Alonzo’s entourage arrives on the island and gasps about his charisma, Kalibanos assures her that his charisma (previously known as his Bonnie Johnnie) “is growing like mountain flower in springtime.” He also plays “New York, New York” on his rustic oboe for his goats, who obligingly follow him like a Pied Piper and dance. The swishy Trinc follows him as well despite the fact that, when they meet, Kalibanos is foaming at the mouth from trying to wash down a mouthful of Noxema with champagne.
Raul Julia plays Kalibanos with total abandon, passionately kissing goats, howling Greek curses at Phillip in between half-recognizable lines from Caliban’s famous speech about how he was master of the island before Prospero arrived and enchanted him with words. This level of mania is necessary to balance John Cassavetes’ fearless performance as the increasingly mad Phillip. When he first murmurs, “Show me the magic,” it’s a joke to himself, something he’s not sure he believes in, despite the blasts of lightning that illuminate the New York skyline (including a painfully revelatory image of the World Trade Center). Later, when Kalibanos tells him of the yacht’s approach, Phillip is too busy recounting old baseball statistics to take the time to listen. But as he emerges, tilting his glasses at the sun to summon the magic, he’s unnerving, unhinged, truly dangerous.
Cassavetes’ wife Gena Rowlands plays Antonia, who remains a bit of a cipher — although she’s evidently going through her own mid-life crisis. While she wants to resume her acting career and grow closer to her adolescent daughter, she abandons both to play Jacqueline Kennedy to Alonzo’s Aristotle Onassis in the Greek islands. Rowlands is the sort of actor who can convey more pain with a tiny twitch at the side of her mouth than many can by screwing up their whole faces and wailing; emotionally, her performance is dead-on, even if it’s not clear how Prospero’s usurping brother has mutated into this frustrated, frustrating woman. In her first film role, Molly Ringwald portrays Miranda, in whom one can see antecedents of the cynical, wise-yet-innocent characters she played in John Hughes films in the years following.
Susan Sarandon has had so many highs in her career that The Tempest has become insignificant on her resume, but I believe it’s the only film in which she plays a character who shares the last name she was born with — Tomalin. She gives Aretha intense, aching sexual needs and a pained romantic spirit that refuses to be quenched by the dismal choices of men in her life. She also provides the requisite Ariel-like flightiness, particularly in a funny scene where she and Ringwald sing “Why Do Fools Fall In Love” as their characters attempt synchronized swimming. In the most hilarious moment in the film, she chants “Hava Nagila” to a bar filled with Japanese tourists and Saudi sheiks. One senses that Phillip couldn’t hold on to this free bird and knows it, which is undoubtedly one reason among many that he refuses her luscious advances.
The cinematography of The Tempest is literally breathtaking at moments, such as a dream sequence in which Phillip sees his family drowned, a glimpse up a long spiral staircase as balloons cascade down the empty space in the middle, the surreal musical theater of the dancing goats, the storms that rage over Manhattan and later the island. The Dimitrius family lives in a rooftop apartment with enormous windows that provide endlessly shifting displays of light. After Phillip flees to the island, the sun streams through cracks in windows, walls and trees, creating endless opportunities for him to get a little illumination.
The magic is everywhere, and one boggles that he could be blind to it. But Prospero is only a few lucky breaks short of becoming Lear, and Phillip can’t break out of his self-imposed prison before he runs away to Greece. “It’s all here…magic, inspiration, serenity, not to mention silence, amazement, intimacy, enchantment,” he tells Aretha’s dog during their stay on the island, though he chooses the most barren, empty vistas to fill with his imagination, and tells Aretha that he doesn’t have smart words anymore — he just likes it there. It takes a tempest of his own making to remind him how to dance.
(Columbia Pictures, 1982)