Audrey Kupferberg: Lizzie And First Cow | WAMC

Audrey Kupferberg: Lizzie And First Cow

Nov 10, 2020

Audrey Kupferberg
Credit WAMC

The gruesome legend of Lizzie Borden has not faded from our popular culture, even after 108 years.  Remember the oft-quoted rhyme:  Lizzie Borden took an axe and gave her father forty whacks. When she saw what she had done, she gave her mother forty-one. 

But twenty-first century works about the thirty-two-year-old “spinster” heiress from Fall River, MA, are less grisly and more analytical. In the recently published book, The Trial of Lizzie Borden, author Cara Robertson takes both a scholar’s and a detective’s view of the case, playing down the horror story. In recent years, a possibility of Lizzie’s lesbian inclination has been probed.

In the 2018 feature film, Lizzie, directed by Craig William Macneill and written by Bryce Kass, viewers witness the imagined lead-up story to the murders, a portrait of a dysfunctional, stereotypically cold, wealthy New England family, and then a somewhat brief aftermath as Lizzie is imprisoned.

Chloe Sevigny and Kristen Stewart portray the title role and that of the Borden’s Irish maid Bridget Sullivan, respectively.  After years of seeing these two as alternative style icons, here we see them dressed down, with only a bit of make-up.  Stewart’s performance is tepid.  Maybe it’s just the nature of the role.  Sevigny really hits the target as Lizzie.  Her worried face and stiff body tell the story of years of misery in a gloomy household.

The film has been labeled a psychological thriller.  Scenes of the bloody axe murders are not flung in our faces, but some viewers will be sickened, if only by the knowledge of the actions rather than by their sight.  History tells us that whoever killed Lizzie’s father and stepmother struck him ten to eleven times and her nineteen times.

…which brings up those two characters and their participation in the film.  Jamey Sheridan plays the role of Andrew Borden. His performance suits the atmosphere of the film.  He is subdued but frightening; he is cruel and a bully. Fiona Shaw plays stepmother Abby Borden.  Here the filmmakers go awry.  They miss a fantastic opportunity to inject more potency into their film.  Irish actress Fiona Shaw is so accomplished, a frequent nominee and winner of major acting awards.  In Lizzie she sits in chairs, lies in bed.  Why did the filmmakers hire such an outstanding actress and then give her no meaty scenes to play?  Even so, Lizzie is an absorbing film.  It’s a quiet film but it has an impact. 

A few words about another recent film set in nineteenth century America, the 2020 release First Cow, directed and co-written by Kelly Reichardt.  John Magaro plays Cookie Figowitz, a baker who travels with a group of fur-trappers in the Oregon Territory in 1820.  With his partner King-Lu, played by Orion Lee, they concoct a plan to sell delicious bakery items for big profits to all the trappers in the area.  One problem: Cookie’s recipes call for fresh milk.  There is but one cow in the area, and it belongs to someone else!  First Cow is an unusual film, a stylized production that seems listless at first and then really comes to life.

Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and appraiser. She is lecturer emeritus and the former director of Film Studies at the University at Albany and co-authored several entertainment biographies with her husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.

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