Blu-ray Review: Grace of My Heart (1996)

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Leveling with his former employee and protege, the singer-songwriter Edna Buxton (Illeana Douglas) whom he'd professionally renamed Denise Waverly years earlier, Joel Millner (John Turturro) swoops in after a devastating heartbreak to give her a dose of tough love. Dissecting the way that he's watched from the sidelines as she's fallen into one impulsive, often misguided romantic relationship after another, he says, “Well, I know one thing, the only sense any of these jerks you've allowed to sidetrack you have had in common is a belief in your talent, I know that.” 

Of course, by this point in Grace of My Heart, we realize that belief in Denise's extraordinary talent to turn the emotional truth of everyday life into musical poetry is something that Joel has in common with her lovers as well.

Having left behind her dream of becoming a singer when she was told that girls were no longer in vogue, Denise finds her calling as a hit-maker in the early 1960s, writing pop music chart-toppers that frequently address the issues faced by women and minorities in the real world. Yet her true gift is in the way that she's able to subtly weave her powerful message into an irresistibly melodic soundscape, a skill that eludes her first partner Howard (Eric Stoltz) who – as is often the case with men – prefers to spell out everything literally. Quickly, we deduce that confrontation and controversy seem to be Howard's favorite two words, because both allow him to get on his PR soapbox so that he becomes, in his own mind at least, as big as the song. 

Thus, it's only when Denise writes alone or teams up with Joel's other talented female songwriter Cheryl (Patsy Kensit) that she embraces her knack for subtext once again, deliriously and fittingly writing a love ballad called “My Secret Love” for a secretly gay Lesley Gore-like ingenue played by Bridget Fonda. 

So then why, you might ask, does she first tie her creative and romantic fate to a suitor who prefers the end result of a Denise Waverly song but doesn't truly see the magic in what she does?

The first of three men to be seduced by her gift but are unable to fully understand who she is and where her craft comes from, it's only later in her hard-hitting confrontation with the mentor who knows her best that Denise's romantic Achilles heel suddenly makes sense. Following up his summation about her past lovers, Joel argues that Denise's talent is meaningful to the men but not herself. Or perhaps, sidetracked by love, life, and an upbringing as an heiress where she's repeatedly told she doesn't fit in, Joel posits that Denise hasn't treated her gift the same way.

Brought ferociously to life by an extraordinary Turturro and Douglas who match each other fiery outburst for fiery outburst, it's a mind-blowing scene and one that unexpectedly hit me much harder when I watched this – my favorite Allison Anders movie – for the first time in years, thanks to Kino Lorber's fantastic new release of the film on Blu-ray.

Able to at once hear Joel's words and understand Denise's feelings, it's a staggering sequence that Anders captures in one shot as her cinematographer Jean-Yves Escoffier slowly pushes in from an overhead crane until we are right in their personal space. It's here we realize that just like there is a difference between an opinion and a fact, understanding and respecting one's talent are two decidedly different concepts, especially when you need to figure out how to prioritize one's craft amid all of the demands that society places on women in both the 1960s and today. 

Executive produced by Martin Scorsese, and written and directed by the enormously talented filmmaker of Gas Food Lodging and Things Behind the Sun, 1996's Grace of My Heart is a film that speaks one way to men and one way to women, and another still to female creatives everywhere.

A historian of the era who sought inspiration in the artists of the '50s and '60s, including Carole King, Lesley Gore, Joni Mitchell, Brian Wilson, Dennis Wilson, and others, from the songwriters of the famed Brill Building to the symphonic surf rock of California and beyond, Anders' film is a love letter to one of my favorite periods in American music.

Featuring instantly memorable songs like the wondrous “God Give Me Strength,” which was written by Burt Bacharach and Elvis Costello, although it can be treated as just a compelling overview of the time, Grace of My Heart is an unmistakably personal film for Anders and the affection she has for the people at its center spills over and makes us feel the same.

Breaking down something true and universal about the way we evolve from the role of daughter to friend, girlfriend, wife, and mother, while also trying to reconcile that with our work as an artist, as we watch Denise be drawn into one new love after another, we start to see that there is more than just a basic belief in her talent connecting how she relates to these men.

Each one of them – and this includes her platonic relationship with Joel – appreciates something different about her and sees a side of herself that she tries her best to hide. Howard can be somewhat excluded from this list since above all, we feel that the connective tissue between the two might just be lust, plus his hope to use her as a professional stepping stone (even if he'll never admit it to himself). Still, all of the other men in her life –  all three with names that start with the letter “J” –  play a vital part in Denise's journey to better understanding herself, her place, and her art.

Throughout the film, she becomes involved with a married man (Bruce Davison) who connects to her on an intellectual level, a virtuoso yet unstable musician (Matt Dillon) who sees the raw emotion behind her music and immediately relates to her soul, and of course, Joel, who knows she's cut out for bigger and better things altogether. 

Is she attracted to these men because they're able to articulate her talent in a way that society frowns upon when it's a woman doing the same for herself? Do they allow her to “try on” new sides of herself the way that Jane Fonda has admitted that from the '60s to the '90s, for example, she became an entirely different woman with each new partner? Is Denise drawn to them because they're the first cheerleaders she's ever had, and if so, do they really see her for who she is or who they want her to be?

Not blessed with that inherently male trait of solipsistic confidence – even without the goods to back it up – Grace of My Heart understands how many mixed messages women receive from men both romantically and in our art, even when they're our allies, lovers, or are otherwise unaware that they're sending them.

Through the film, Anders uses Denise to illustrate just how vital it is to make mistakes, to go through all of the love and pain that comes from living your life because that's the only way you have anything of value to offer anyone else. Knowing that you can't get everything from one person – man or woman – we see Denise's goodness starting out as a Philadelphia steel heiress who gives the expensive dress her mother ordered Denise for a music contest to a Black contestant (Jennifer Leigh Warren) whose vocal talent is unparalleled. 

The start of a friendship that lasts throughout the course of the movie, even though Denise has been taught to be fearful of other women trying to take her place in the professional world, when women have the courage to let down these walls and support one another, they make beautiful music together. We know this because – especially in the 5.1 Dolby soundtrack included on the Blu-ray – we can so clearly hear their harmony in Douglas' scenes with Kensit, Fonda, Warren, and scene-stealer Tracy Vilar.

The towering achievement of her career as an actress, Illeana Douglas is incredible here. Struggling to come into her own, first as a singer-songwriter before love, marriage, and children enter the picture, Denise's authentic vulnerability in the way she tries not to let the equally tender Matt Dillon see just how badly she's been hurt when she performs “God Give Me Strength” is a scene that immediately rings true. Lip-syncing the number, it's in both her nervous energy – acutely aware of being observed – and the way she struggles to reign in her emotions that makes it one of the most exquisitely compelling moments in the entire film and also one of the hardest ones to watch.

Knowing that her talent has gotten her to where she is today but trying hard to figure out just what that means in the scheme of things or where she really wants to go, her journey from song-to-song and “J” to “J” never fails to move me each time I press play on Grace of My Heart. Filled with passionate performances, historical touchstones, and autobiographical details that are the result of cathartic artistic sublimation by Anders, this film is more than just the story of a creative woman learning to both believe in herself and find her way in the world. In the end, it's about all of us, and through Denise, Allison Anders lets us know that as long as we have the strength, we'll get where we're going in time. 

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