by Elaine Hegwood Bowen
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The kid never had a chance. This phrase could easily be applied to any boy growing up in the inner city. But in Savage Grace, a movie in which the main character could have been either Barbara Baekeland or her son, Antony (“Tony”), I’m using this phrase to describe the heir apparent to the famed Bakelite plastics fortune, Tony Baekeland.
After growing up in a family whose lives were filled with incest, homosexuality, adultery, bi-sexuality, betrayal and mental illness, and oh—don’t forget privilege, it seems neither Tony nor his mother (Julianne Moore) had any recourse but to attempt suicide.
But I’m jumping the gun, or the knife. Anyway, Savage Grace is the screenplay based on a book detailing the epic life story and sorrowful scandal of the Barbara Baekeland murder.
The story follows Tony Baekeland’s (Eddie Redmayne) infancy around the mid-1940s and moves from Manhattan to Paris, then to Spain and finally to London in the early 1970s. It seems rich people get bored with one scene and just simply pack up and move off to another location.
Barbara is an aspiring actress and artist who, upon her mother’s instructions, marries into money, and works throughout the marriage to maintain the appearance of an upper-class life, even when things are falling apart around her.
Barbara enjoys an affluent existence as the socialite wife of Brooks Baekeland (Stephen Dillane), but she’s so stuck on herself and eventual acceptance into elite social settings that she doesn’t see—or seem to care—that her pretentious personality irks her husband, who at first just seems to go along for the ride.
Along the way, Barbara manages to “raise” Tony, who is so conflicted on so many levels. He appears to be gay in one scene, straight the next; consequently he comes (no pun intended) off bi-sexual, and ultimately he commits the ultimate sin of incest with his adoring mother.
Conversely, Brooks and Barbara don’t share such intimacies as these. As sort of a “truth or dare” at a dinner party one night, after Barbara corners Brooks into saying he’d accept $1 million to run off with a complete stranger, Barbara gets into the car with the first guy that drives up the road, only returning home the next morning. As a matter of fact, Brooks and Tony don’t seem to have a warm relationship, either. But it could be because Barbara seems to want the kid all to herself.
I suppose Barbara’s longing for love, after Brooks leaves the marriage with Tony’s ex-girlfriend in tow, causes her to cling even closer. The son and mother share bathroom scenes, where he’s reading to her while she’s bathing. They share pot, together with one of Tony’s current boyfriends, and they even share a light moment where Tony tends to her sutured wrist after she attempts suicide
“Taking care of Mommy became my inheritance,” Tony tells his father, after his parents’ estrangement.
Then there’s a character, Sam (Hugh Dancy), who provides sort of a finishing course for Barbara after she nearly goes ballistic upon seeing Brooks and his mistress at an airport.
Sam tries to impress upon Barbara that it’s important to be seen in public after Brooks has absconded with the eye candy. She mustn’t let others think that she’s merely moping around the house. He implores her to take up her art and arrange lunch dates with old friends, which he says will in turn provide access for her into the social arena that appears to be her life’s ambition.
I’ve read where Moore resembles the real Barbara, and it seems the book and movie stays true to form of the real life story. What a sad story!
No one seems to be happy. Not poor Tony, who tries one sexual liaison after another in his quest to belong. He even competes against his mother for Sam’s attention. What transpires is a disgusting exchange between son and mother, vying for the amorous affections of the transient stranger. But before the scene is over, it’s implied that son and mother might go at it with one another, also.
And then there’s Barbara, who craves more and more, even following her husband to a hotel one night, only to be humiliated sexually. Further, a woman who has sex with her own son and when he doesn’t seem to be completely satisfied, she proceeds to stimulate him manually.
And finally, there’s Brooks, who I suppose feels entitled to some happiness, after having to put up with Barbara’s disrespectful and officious treatment. Brooks doesn’t even greet Tony when he comes to plant a letter to his dad, in which he asks him to cut the shenanigans with his young mistress and return to the family home.
Tony is so jaded by this point and so affected by his and his family’s dysfunctions that at one point he explains that Brooks’ affair doesn’t hurt him but only serves to hurt Barbara. (Note: Only in affluent families can children get away with calling their parents by their first names).
But even amid such dysfunction, being privileged never looked so posh. The exotic locations that become temporary homes for the Baekelands were simply exquisite! Even the spelling of the family name, with the extra “e” sets them apart. The designer clothing that the entire cast wears, especially as Tony grows older and he and Barbara live out that fateful day in that London flat. Barbara comments on his choice of attire, asking whether they are five-button pants, right before she straddles him for what ultimately becomes the last sexual romp of her life.
Spoiler alert! It appeared that it could have been an accident. In Tony’s devastation around searching for and finally finding a lost dog collar that he’s managed to keep up with throughout the years—certainly this is the only static thing in his life—he confronts Barbara, with butcher knife in hand. After she slumps to the floor, he calls “911” and shortly thereafter calls for Chinese food delivery.
The authorities find him sweetly and unassumingly sitting on the floor next to Barbara’s body, enjoying his dinner.
He’s institutionalized briefly, only to be released and again act out his frustrations on his maternal grandmother. She survives and he ultimately pays homage to his late mother by committing suicide while incarcerated at Rikers.
Savage Grace reveals a textbook example of decadence, privilege, dysfunction, despair and ultimate disastrous demise. Given all those sad components, however, it provides a good escape.
Elaine Hegwood Bowen is a freelance writer and film critic in Chicago.
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