AUTUMN LEAVES fall with the taint of blight on Joan Crawford in this 1956 psychodrama, putting her again, as in her earlier hit Sudden Fear, in a marital relationship that goes from giddy to grotesque when she finds out her considerably younger husband (Cliff Robertson, 17 years Joan’s junior) is not just ardent but compulsive. Worse, he’s unstable. Adding to her dawning realization that she’s picked the wrong ‘Burt’ are the sudden appearances of his relatives who have vested interests of their own.
Though it leans into territory that back then was daring drama but today is on the hysterical side (those so lazy as to dismiss Crawford as a camp figure will smirk themselves into a coma) it’s nonetheless put over with sincerity from the actors and directed with style by Robert Aldrich. Associated with tough male-oriented pictures, Aldrich later told an interviewer “I guess self-survival made me do that one. People were getting pretty collective in their criticism of the violence and anger and wrath in my pictures, although these things were intentional, and I thought it was about time I made a soap opera. I was also a great fan of the Butlers – Jean Rouverol and Hugo Butler – and this was her original story.” The couple were blacklisted at the time, so screen credit was given to fronting Jack Jevne. A title change from “The Way We Are” was made to take advantage of the popularity of the song “Autumn Leaves”, done by Nat King Cole.
VIRGINIA: “Sure, he should be committed!” MILLY: “Of course, you’d want me to commit him, get him out of your life, put him away permanently someplace where he can never again remind either one of you of your horrible guilt; how you and you had committed the ugliest of all possible sins, so ugly that it drove him into the state he’s in now!” MR. HANSON: “What kind of a woman are you to be satisfied with only half a man? There must be so…” MILLY: “Even when he doesn’t know what he’s doing, he’s a saner man than you are! He’s decent and proud. Can you say the same for yourselves? Where’s your decency? In what garbage dump, Mr. Hanson? And where’s yours, you tramp?” MR. HANSON: “I don’t have to listen to that!” VIRGINIA: “She’s the one who’s crazy!” MR. HANSON: “She has to be crazy to put up with that weakling!” MILLY: “You, his loving, doting fraud of a father! And you, you SLUT! You’re both so consumed with evil, so ROTTEN! Your filthy souls are too evil for Hell itself!”
Crawford’s quite good, especially when she forcefully blasts back at the usurping relatives played by Vera Miles and Lorne Greene (only eight years older than “son” Cliff), both in rare mean mode; Miles cat-nasty alluring, Greene arrogantly bluff. This is probably the most animate, emotionally charged role the generally low-key Robertson ever had, and it was early in his career, a year after his official debut in Picnic (he’s done two uncredited bits in the early 40s, before going into the service). While the psychobabble is simplistic and dated, the personality conflicts hold sway, thanks to the vitality of the cast and the spirited direction.
Though coming in 109th wasn’t a big hit, the gross of $3,100,000 effectively banished the modest production cost of $765,000, and the project set up a friendship with actress and director that would foster a more famous Joan-in-peril thriller six years down the line. With Ruth Donnelly, Shepherd Strudwick and Maxine Cooper. 108 minutes. *
* Crawford called it “the best older woman/younger man movie ever made”. To her “Everything clicked on Autumn Leaves. The cast was perfect, the script was good, and I think Bob handled everything well. I really think Cliff did a stupendous job; another actor might have been spitting out his lines and chewing the scenery, but he avoided that trap. I think the movie on a whole was a lot better than some of the romantic movies I did in the past…but somehow it just never became better known. It was eclipsed by the picture I did with Bette Davis.” That was Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?, also directed by Aldrich.