Patty Hearst came out in 1988, and was based on Hearst’s 1982 autobiography Every Secret Thing (co-written with Alvin Moscow) and directed by Paul Schrader. For those who might not know the story, Patricia Hearst is the granddaughter of media tycoon William Randolph Hearst, and was kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) in 1974. The SLA was basically a radical Marxist group, although there were some more anarchist types and a large feminist component within the group as well. The kidnapping sparked a media frenzy that became even higher when Patty announced she had joined the ranks of the SLA and partook in bank robberies and a botched robbery at a sporting-goods store. The entire SLA saga played out well into the new millennium, but as a portrait of Patty’s role in the tale, the film is fairly accurate.
Schrader was not the first choice for director, but I can’t find out who was offered it before him. He was an interesting choice. He is known for films about conflicted men (Taxi Driver, First Reformed) and not really for films about women: as he says in the interview on the disc, Cat People and Patty Hearst are the only films he has made which were primarily about women. The subject matter/politics and the fact Patty is basically in a closet for a third of the movie was a turn-off for other directors who were offered it, but Schrader took it as a challenge. The film is interested in the politics of the SLA, but they do take a backseat to Patty’s inner story. Schrader has never been afraid to deal with radical politics in his film—Blue Collar was one of the most politically savvy films of the ’70s, covering class and race struggle in the world of unions in Mid-West America. His most recent film, First Reformed, dealt with issues around global warming and “ecoterrorism.”
The screenplay wasn’t written by Schrader but, interestingly, by Nicholas Kazan, who as you might have correctly guessed is the son of Elia Kazan. Schrader probably did an uncredited polish on the script, and had plenty of his own notes. During the HUAC era, Elia Kazan infamously named names of alleged communists in Hollywood and never regretted it. Given his father’s history, it’s no wonder Nicholas Kazan would be drawn to the story, and probably this contributes to the slightly dismissive tone of the revolutionary rhetoric in the film. It doesn’t shy away from some of the absolute absurdity of these almost entirely white college kids trying to overthrow the racist patriarchal capitalist system. One of the white revolutionaries, played by William Forsythe, literally exclaims “God, I wish I was black” and later on they even “black up” to disguise themselves. The problem you could face with telling the story, especially using Patty’s account, is that you by definition have to paint them in a negative light, even though what the SLA was spouting to a large extent is “right-on.”
The ’80s were an interesting decade for Schrader, and some of his finest work came out during that era. The ’90s and ’00s were not as kind, but there were still three or four great films mixed in there. Right smack in the middle of the ’80s he made Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, a loose biopic of Japanese author Yukio Mishima, who attempted a coup but at the end committed ritual suicide. It’s one of the most visually startling films ever made: Schrader used aspects of Mishima’s life, but also incorporated elements of the man’s fiction. Visually he chose a deliberately artificial look that makes the audience aware that this is a set and is not “realistic.” He took a similar approach with Patty Hearst, especially during the first third when the SLA is holed up in a house and Patty is locked up in the closet. This is probably the strongest part of the film: the “AmeriKKKa” speech by Ving Rhames’ Cinque is one of the greatest sequences in Schrader’s career. Some of these stylistic flourishes come back near the end, after Patty has been arrested. Schrader first messed around with this style on his Cat People remake. Given that it was a “genre film,” he probably felt safe to test some of his more experimental ideas.
Natasha Richardson plays Patty, and is much better then I remembered from having seen it earlier. I think my issue was the hair, because the indelible image of Patty is of her in a brunette wig in the bank or up against the SLA logo, which I didn’t realise for a long time was a wig. Patty is a blonde for most of the film, because she is indeed a blonde. Richardson gets the inner world of Patty down pretty well, but you never quite get why she to some extent joined their struggle, as the story is only skin-deep regarding the way they brainwashed, drugged and tortured her. There are so many angles from which you could portray the story. On the disc, Schrader sensibly says that if he was making it today, it would be a six-part mini-series at least. The strange Oregon chapter of the saga is completely written out, and Patty’s romantic relationship with Steven Soliah isn’t even mentioned. Ving Rhames also gives perhaps my favourite performance of his career: he just commands the screen in every minute he appears.
The film hints at more than it explicitly tells the audience about Cinque’s rape of Patty (she said others raped her, including Willie “Cujo” Wolfe), and the likelihood that she engaged in lesbian sex willingly or under distress. She is constantly questioned about the lesbianism within the SLA near the end, and seems to be keeping a tight lip. Given how scandalous the story already was, to bring in any lesbianism involving herself would probably have not helped her case in the late ’70s. Patty has never publicly said she did, but given that the majority of the SLA was known to partake in group sex and pretty much all the woman involved were bisexual or lesbian, it’s not hard to speculate what may or may not have gone on.
Hearst was convicted for bank robbery after all, along with a gun-related felony, but her sentence was commuted by President Jimmy Carter. Decades later, in his final act in office and one of his best, President Bill Clinton gave her a much sought-after presidential pardon.
Overall, Patty Hearst caps off one of the most interesting decades in Schrader’s career, although there is certainly a better film you could make about Patty Hearst and SLA. Recently Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski of Ed Wood fame wrote a script based on Jeffrey Toobin’s book on Patty Hearst. Elle Fanning, who would’ve been perfect, was set to star as Patty, and James Mangold was asked to direct, hot off the box-office success of Logan. However, Patty kicked up a storm, claiming the project “romanticizes my rape and torture and calls my abduction a ‘rollicking adventure’.” This was in the early months of #MeToo, so the plug was pulled on the film. I’m sure the script was a bit more nuanced than that, so it’s a real shame. But as it stands, Schrader, who would only return to the biopic once more with Auto Focus (produced by Scott and Larry, coincidently), made one of his most intriguing and most expressionist films with Patty Hearst, even if the way parts of the story are condensed can be maddening.
Vinegar Syndrome recently made a deal with MGM, and Patty Hearst is the second title to be released out of that arrangement. The beautiful new 2K restoration was made from its 35mm interpositive transfer. The stunning cinematography from Bojan Bazelli, who is better known for his work with Abel Ferrara, finally gets it due after being relegated to old DVD transfers. The disc isn’t loaded, but there is a new 13-minute interview with Schrader that covers how he came aboard, from introducing Patty to her biggest fan, John Waters (they become good friends, and Waters has cast her in his last five features) at the Cannes Film Festival, to how in today’s climate you would have to make it more of a female empowerment story. It’s a real shame he didn’t supply a commentary track, because you have a feeling he has much more to say about the film, both positive and negative. The disc is rounded off by a promotional stills gallery, and it has a reversible cover—I much prefer the stark black-and-white cover.