Carly Marshall (Jessica Lange) just wants to have a good time, but not everyone agrees with her idea of fun, given that she is probably undiagnosed bipolar, or manic depressive as they used to call it in 1962. Today she gets her military officer husband Hank (Tommy Lee Jones) into trouble with the top brass on his base by being seen sunbathing topless on the beach, and while he is as understanding as ever, he does wonder what he can do to keep his spouse on more of an even keel when she is proving more of a hindrance to his career than a help. They have two teenage daughters, Alex (Amy Locane) and Becky (Anna Klemp) who have to put up with their parents' troubled marriage, but the problems really start on their new base, which Carly does not like at all...
Jessica Lange won her second Oscar, this time in a Lead Actress category, for what was widely considered one of the worst races for that particular gong in the history of the competition. In light of the fact she secured her prize for a movie that was three years old by the point it was released - it was almost lost in the breakdown of eighties stalwart Orion - and its director Tony Richardson had been dead for almost as long, it did come across as if the Academy were rather desperate for actresses to nominate, and none of the performances that were have ever gone down in history as an example of their stars' best work. Still, here we were, with a somewhat minor movie garnering a small degree of renown for its status as a forgotten Oscar-winner, but not much else.
Looking back on it, you can see why it was not regarded as an all-time classic, as despite being partly autobiographical (from the perspective of co-writer Rama Laurie Stagner's mother’s experiences) it did not really ring true as a drama. Indeed, it was pretty hokey, with a crunching gear change two thirds of the way through to turn Carly into someone akin to Karen Silkwood (as played by multiple Oscar-winner Meryl Streep, of course) by crusading against the forces promoting nuclear weaponry. Before that, we had Lange's frankly very affected reading of her character's mental illness, going way over the top when the scene demanded it and laying on the sexpot who wishes she was in the movies stylings very thick. This meant she was hard to take for most of the running time, not that she was not doing what the script and direction demanded of her, but your tolerance of actorly tics would have to be high to make much progress with Blue Sky.
The plot started out as a melodrama in the fashion of a Douglas Sirk effort if he had directed Tennessee Williams, positing itself as a commentary on the immediately pre-Vietnam War era of the United States but not doing a whole lot with it other than serving up some lightly reheated cliches. Powers Boothe was Jones' love rival who sees Carly parading around trying to be Marilyn Monroe when she's more Barbara Payton or Cleo Moore, but he nonetheless sees an opportunity for some extra-marital sex and sets about seducing her. Alas, Alex finds out in the worst way possible, and it looks like the marriage is on the rocks - however, then the screenplay abruptly tired of this admittedly hackneyed line of thought in favour of implementing a conspiracy tale of the military trying to cover up the dangers of nuclear bomb testing. This would have been just about acceptable had it been in any way believable, but it was as cartoonish as anything Lange was getting up to, leaving you with a curio that was interesting to see for its place in cinema history, as long as you acknowledged it wasn't much of a place. Music by Jack Nitzsche.
[The BFI Blu-ray of Blue Sky has these features:
Newly recorded audio commentary by film critic Nick Pinkerton
Operation Hurricane (1952, 33 mins): after the first Soviet nuclear weapon was detonated in 1949, the British accelerated their development of their own nuclear deterrent. This haunting film documents the first bomb test on the Monte Bello Islands
Atoms at Work (1952, 10 mins): a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the Harwell atomic research establishment and the potential benefits of radioactivity
Original theatrical trailer
**FIRST PRESSING ONLY** Fully illustrated booklet with a new essay on the film by Jim Hemphill, biographies of Tommy Lee Jones and Jessica Lange and full film credits.]