Remember My Name (1978)

Anthony Perkins is one of my favorite actors so I was thrilled when I recently got the opportunity to finally see Alan Rudolph’s 1978 film REMEMBER MY NAME. In the movie, Perkins plays a man being stalked by his former wife (Geraldine Chaplin) but his low-key performance is just one of many elements that made REMEMBER MY NAME such a memorable viewing experience. I was predisposed to like Rudolph’s neo-noir but his film surprised me in ways that I hadn’t expected and made me gain a new appreciation for the director’s work.

Rudolph forgoes simplistic plot devices and a clear narrative structure in this atypical thriller to explore the mind of Emily (Geraldine Page) who has recently been released from jail and has decided to track down her ex-husband (Perkins) and his new wife (Perkin’s real-life wife, Berry Berenson) in an attempt to frighten them. When she’s not terrorizing the couple, Emily tries to fit into conventional society by getting herself a new wardrobe, a new hairstyle and a new job but these superficial attempts at living mask untapped passions and a seething bitterness that have laid dormant for years. Emily is not a happy woman and she aggressively dismisses anyone that gets in her way while seeking revenge on the one person who she believes has made her life a living hell. That person is Neil, her ex-husband, who is surprisingly sympathetic at first.

I’ve always been impressed with the ways in which Anthony Perkins can make the most despicable characters seem benign and in REMEMBER MY NAME he does an exceptional job of making us think that Neil is a considerate and caring man who is deeply concerned for the safety of his family. But his benevolent behavior masks a troubled past full of dark secrets and lies that never fully reveal themselves to the audience. The film also features brief but memorable performances from Jeff Goldblum, Alfre Woodard and in particular Moses Gunn, as the considerate manager of the halfway house that Emily is forced to live in after leaving prison.

The star of REMEMBER MY NAME is Geraldine Chaplin and she delivers what might be her greatest performance here as the deeply disturbed Emily. I was enormously impressed with her ability to make us both fear and sympathize with her character. There is a juvenile quality to Emily’s behavior that is incredibly unnerving. Her inability to interact with people and the narrow way in which she perceives her surroundings indicate that she might be suffering from some kind of developmental disorder. But I suspect that her real problems stem from the abuse she suffered at the hands of her ex-husband although none of this is clearly explained to the viewer.

Alan Rudolph asks the audience to come to their own conclusions about why Emily is stalking and terrorizing her ex-husband but there are various clues that point to the abuse Chaplin’s character may have suffered in Neil’s hands. Your own assumptions may be different but I think the film’s ambiguous themes are made clearer by Alberta Hunter’s searing score. The acclaimed blues composer and singer was asked to provide the music for REMEMBER MY NAME and her memorable songs vividly express Emily’s emotional uncertainty and longing. Hunter’s exceptional score combined with Chaplin’s unforgettable performance transform REMEMBER MY NAME from a simple revenge fantasy into what might be one of the best woman’s pictures of the 1970s.

According to film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, Rudolph said that he wanted to make “an update on the themes of the classic woman’s melodramas of the Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Crawford era.” Rudolph’s film can be enjoyed as an updated take on classics such as Gilda (1946), The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946) and The Damned Don’t Cry! (1950), but there is also an element of pure terror and raw emotion in REMEMBER MY NAME that is reminiscent of more modern revenge films like Clint Eastwood’s Play Misty For Me (1971).

Rudolph was a protégé of Robert Altman and he worked with Altman as an assistant director during the making of some of his best films including The Long Goodbye (1973) and Nashville (1975). At that time Rudolph was also busy working on his own movies such as the unusual horror films Premonition (1972) and Nightmare Circus (1974). Although REMEMBER MY NAME isn’t exactly a horror film, it is a very bleak movie with horrific elements much like Altman’s own award-winning Images (1972) and 3 Women (1977). Remnants of Altman’s celebrated psychological studies featuring deeply troubled female protagonists seem apparent but Rudolph’s film has its own rhythm and takes some unexpected turns. Altman fans will undoubtedly recognize his influence on Rudolph’s movie so it should come as no surprise that Altman also produced REMEMBER MY NAME.

I enjoy Rudolph’s early horror films as well as his period pieces like The Moderns (1988) and Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (1994). I can also appreciate his romantic comedies such as Choose Me (1984) and Afterglow (1997) but REMEMBER MY NAME might be his most complex and multi-layered film. It can be appreciated as a fascinating deconstruction of Hollywood’s obsession with exaggerated romantic ideals or a complicated exposé on feminist ideology. I prefer to enjoy it as a disturbing tale of of one deeply troubled woman’s quest for redemption and vengeance. Unfortunately the film never really allows Chaplin’s character to achieve her goals. Emily’s final act of revenge seems as empty as the lifeless shopping bags that she carries with her. She might be free of her ex-husband but she will never be free of society’s expectations or her own desire to adopt some narrowly defined feminine role.

Throughout REMEMBER MY NAME  Rudolph undercuts the drama with an international disaster that is unfolding on televisions across the country. Whenever someone turns on their TV the characters are inundated with information about a huge earthquake that has killed thousands but no one seems to notice. They’re too bogged down in their own problems to worry about anyone beside themselves and they seem to use up all of their energy concocting elaborate lies and disguises to get through the day. Rudolph once said that REMEMBER MY NAME was “a metaphor for whatever impact the women’s movement as a public forum had on me.” If that’s the case I have to assume that it made him question his own identity and individual importance. The film clearly asks the audience to remember Emily’s name but I think it also asks us to remember our own humanity.

Recommended Reading:
– Review of Remember My Name by Jonathan Rosenbaum that originally appeared in Film Quarterly

by Kimberly Lindbergs, originally written in 2011 for Turner Classic Movies.