Some people need love spelled out for them.
Cast your mind back to a long-ago time back before the year 2000. It was a time before the internet, and if you think back far enough, it was a time before Robert De Niro turned into a goofy grandpa. It was a good idea to have him spoof his mob persona in Analyze This, but it started a trend that continues to this day, where De Niro either plays a comic older guy or has a much-reduced role compared to his highlights of the 70s. I know I’m not being entirely fair to one of our greatest actors, but it’s difficult to imagine Robert De Niro getting a script like Stanley & Iris in the 21st century. It’s a quiet, non-violent narrative that looks at everyday people. It’s not the most satisfying drama, but it lets De Niro and co-star Jane Fonda shine.
Iris (Jane Fonda, Barbarella) is a grieving widow with a job working the assembly line at a bakery. She’s not sure how to cope with her recent loss when she meets Stanley, a man about her age who works in the bakery’s cafeteria. Stanley helps foil an attempted purse snatching, the pair form an unlikely friendship. When Stanley’s father passes away, Iris discovers that Stanley is functionally illiterate. With Iris’ help, Stanley wants to learn to read and their friendship becomes something deeper.
Robert De Niro has perhaps played too many gangsters. There’s something about his ability to convey depth of feeling without necessarily conveying typical intelligence that works well for characters who are more comfortable using violence than words to get what they want. But gangsters aren’t the only people with deep wells of feeling that lack the words to express them. Stanley is the perfect example of the kind of character that De Niro excels at as a dramatic actor. He gets to imbue Stanley with a sense of hard-won melancholy that betrays a complex character without having to express it in words.
But we kind of knew that De Niro would excel at this kind of role. The big surprise, however, is Jane Fonda. Though she’d won awards for her acting in the past, nothing she’d done really looked like her role as Iris. There’s nothing glamorous or otherworldly about Iris as a character. She’s an average, everyday woman, and to her credit Fonda plays her that way. She’s all matronly hair and plain makeup. It’s exactly the kind of role that gets called “brave,” when a woman who’s considered attractive plays an ordinary woman without perfect makeup and lighting. But the real bravery of the role is leaning into the grief that Iris is experiencing in the wake of her husband’s death. She’s facing down middle age, with two kids, and few prospects.
Twilight Time has given Stanley & Iris a strong Blu-ray release for a relatively-forgotten film from 1990. The film’s 2.35:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfer is sourced from a beautiful print that’s largely free of damage. Detail is strong, with a natural grain structure. Colors are appropriately saturated, with plenty of deep blacks. No significant artifacts or compression problems show up. The film’s DTS-HD 2.0 stereo track is equally impressive. Dialogue is clean and clear, with plenty of detail in the sound design. John William’s excellent score sound rich and deep. I’m sure with modern recording techniques the sound could be even better, but for a film of this age this track is most excellent
Extras start with a commentary by Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman (a pair of go-to commentators for Twilight Time). The pair are really informative and have good rapport, dishing on everything from the film’s production (including stories of difficulties generated by Fonda’s unpopularity) to it’s troubled ending. The pair are candid about what works in the film and what doesn’t, making their track both honest and informative. We also get an isolated score track, so fans can enjoy John William’s music without dialogue. The film’s trailer is also included. Twilight Time offers their usual booklet, this time with an essay on the film by Kirgo along with production stills.
Stanley & Iris is directed by Martin Ritt, a director who made a career out of looking at people on the margins of society’s working and lower-middle classes. There’s The Great White Hope, and Hud, and Norma Rae (perhaps most famously). So he’s told stories about people like Stanley & Iris before. Ritt, however, has also told some less-than-stellar stories, including his ill-fated adaptation of The Sound and the Fury. Stanley & Iris represents both of these tendencies in Ritt’s filmmaking. The vast majority of the film is a well-intentioned and detailed character study that also happens to be about people we don’t see a lot of movies about and a film about an important social issue. The problem is the ending kind of sells all that down the river for an overly-pat conclusion that betrays the complex character work of the rest of the film.
Stanley & Iris may not stick the landing, but the film is an amazing showcase for leads De Niro and Fonda. It tackles an important topic with empathy and good grace, the too-easy ending notwithstanding. This is an excellent Blu-ray release of the film, with a solid audiovisual presentation and some informative extras. Fans of the actors or the film can pick this one up with confidence.