A Fine Romance Friday: Reds

Wait wait, you say, it’s Thursday, not Friday! Why are you posting a fine romance column today? Well because it’s May Day. So the selection is Reds (1981), a messy, imperfect film based on the real life romance between the socialist writers John Reed and Louise Bryant.

Directed by Warren Beatty, Reds opens in 1912 when the bored socialite Bryant (Diane Keaton) hears Reed (Warren Beatty) speak about the economy and workers’ rights. Almost immediately they embark on an affair and she soon leaves her husband to move with Reed to New York City. He’s working as a journalist and agitator; she’s trying to establish herself as a writer. They’re part of a Bohemian set that includes the playwright Eugene O’Neill (Jack Nicholson) and the anarchist Emma Goldman (Maureen Stapleton).

They fight, treat one another terribly, make up, have affairs, and eventually go to Russia to participate in the revolution they hope will fulfill their dreams. Tragically, and perhaps inevitably, it fails them. (And without spoiling it precisely, let me say that Reds isn’t a genre romance because there’s not a happy ending.) The film is intercut with interviews of people who knew Bryant and Reed describing the atmosphere of revolutionary America in the 1910s.

It is a very long (3+ hours), occasionally ponderous, and not always pleasant journey. But what I continue to find compelling about the film is the marvelous dialogue and the naturalist style that reminds me a bit of Robert Altman. We’re often floating in the back of smoky rooms watching a political debate that comments metaphorically on a personal one. I truly love Bryant’s attempts to maintain independence and status within her romantic relationships and the thoroughly modern difficulties she experiences in that pursuit.

Emma Goldman’s electrifying autobiography, Living My Life, challenged everything I though I knew about late nineteenth-century American womanhood and activist communities. I’m clearly someone who’s interested in labor politics (see Millie’s job in Special Interests), and I think Reds does a good job of trying to capture the hopes that socialists had in the period along with the sometimes terrible bargains they made in trying to achieve them.

In a qualified way, then, I recommend Reds to you.

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2 thoughts on “A Fine Romance Friday: Reds

  1. I remember going to see this film when it released. I think your assessment is spot-on. Though I didn’t embrace it, love it, etc., I haven’t forgotten it after 33 years …

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