Directed by Paul Newman
Written by Alvin Sargent, from a play by Paul Zindel
Starring Joanne Woodward, Nell Potts, Roberta Wallach, Judith Lowry
It’s a cliché that what actors really want is to direct. Paul Newman managed to get the chance,and made the most of it with films like Rachel, Rachel and the wonderfully titled The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds.
It’s ostensibly the story of Matilda “Tillie” Hunsdorfer (Nell Potts), a shy middle school student with an interest in science, which gives her a refuge from her mercurial mother Beatrice (Joanne Woodward). Beatrice is filled with ideas, some sensible, some wildly fantastic, but never can follow through with them, and often uses Tillie as the subject of her rage. Her other daughter Ruth (Roberta Wallach) is older and trying to form her own identity. The title of the movie* is the description of the experiment Tillie is preparing for the science fair: she exposes marigold seeds to gamma rays to see how they are affected.
The movie is a character study about how toxic Beatrice is her children, without her being aware of it throughout the movie. The title indirectly references this: how her influence affect her kids.
Woodward is excellent in the role, managing to develop sympathy for a character that is hardly sympathetic.
Of note is Judith Lowry as Nanny, an old woman in a wheelchair that Beatrice takes in as way to make some money. Lowry was a stage actress who retired to raise her kids, but then returned to play old women. She is important to the plot but manages to give Nanny some personality.
The movie was a family affair. Woodward was married to Newman and had already won an Oscar. Potts was their daughter, and Wallach was the daughter of Eli Wallach.
The movie was a success, with Woodward gaining a lot of notice. Wallach went on to a minor career in TV and movies and is still working today. But it looks like Potts decided not to pursue a movie career: This was her last film.
*From the Pulitzer Prize winning play by Paul Zindel.