I was first introduced to The Subject Was Roses sometime in the late 1980’s if I recall correctly one of the cable networks was doing a birthday salute to the film’s star Patricia Neal, and this one was on the schedule with her Academy Award winning performance in Hud and the memorable A Face in the Crowd, directed by Elia Kazan. I wasn’t expecting much, but to my surprise the three character drama grabbed me right from the opening moments. These were real people; people I could identify with.
Nettie Cleary’s (Neal) son Timmy (Martin Sheen) has just returned from three years of fighting in Europe. Her husband John Cleary (Jack Albertson) tries his best to paint the picture of domestic happiness but in reality is estranged from his wife. They keep communications to a minimum, and any hint of affection is a thing of the past. He keeps up the image of an important businessman even though he lost his early fortune in the crash of 1929. Since then, he’s kept his finances secret from his wife, forcing her to nag him for even the smallest amount of household money. The homecoming party for Timmy sets the Cleary family into a tailspin, forcing some serious self-reflection. John is happy his son has returned home alive, and not maimed like several other boys in the neighborhood, while Nettie is bothered by her son’s less innocent attitude. Nettie is shocked and angry when Timmy expresses little desire to visit her relatives. Instead, he seems to relate to his father’s brash views, and wants to take a ride to the family summer cottage with him. Nettie is left home alone to stew in her sadness and disappointment.
On their way home, Timmy buys a bouquet of roses and tells his mother that they were his father’s idea. Deeply touched by the gesture, when John suggests the three of them go to the city for a night on the town, Nettie agrees. They hit up several clubs. Nettie is overcome with emotion—when when John volunteers to sing an Irish song at one of the nightspots. She excuses herself to use the bathroom, which causes her to miss her husband being approached by a woman who clearly was an extra-marital fling. When the Cleary’s return home, John mistakes Nettie’s declaration of a pleasant evening as an invitation for sex; it’s not long before the roses that had brought her so much joy become the centerpiece in a huge argument.
A key scene in The Subject Was Roses is Nettie’s rebellious escape—she leaves for an entire day, offering no account of her movements. Handled as an extended montage, complete with a haunting vocal by Judy Collins, Nettie seems more trapped than ever, even her attempt to have a quiet meal at a seaside motel is ruined by a pickup attempt.
This was Patricia Neal’s return to films after three long years recovering from a series of strokes, and it gives the movie an emotional impact it wouldn’t otherwise have. She has a slight limp, but her husky voice and sense of the theatrical remained intact. Her ‘escape’ from her family perfectly exemplifies suffering, and she doesn’t utter a word.
Based on the Frank D. Gilroy’s 1965 Pulitzer Prize winning play (Gilroy also wrote the screenplay), Ms. Neal’s role was originally played on stage by Irene Dailey. Both Martin Sheen and Jack Albertson reprised their roles. The interaction between the three is so natural; it’s easy to believe they are family. Patricia Neal expresses various emotions without ever overplaying it. For Nettie, life has been a series of disappointments, yet Timmy has always been her biggest fan. Now, even he seems to be letting her down. John comes across as the most aggressive, but even he, is basically a good guy who has been beaten down by the circumstances of his life. Timmy is a young man who’s spent his life trying to please his parents, thus stunting his own growth.
Jack Albertson won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor and Patricia Neal was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress. Martin Sheen was nominated for the Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor – Motion Picture.
The Warner Archive Collection’s DVD-R of The Subject Was Roses is a wonderfully enhanced 1:85 widescreen transfer that matches the quality of a typical DVD release. Colors are excellent throughout.
The mono 1.0 audio is very solid. Dialogue is clean and clear throughout and Judy Collins’ memorable “Who Knows Where the Time Goes,” comes through beautifully.
The only extra is the trailer.