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MGM Studios DVD presents
Stanley & Iris (1990)

"Teach me to read."
- Stanley Cox (Robert DeNiro)

Review By: David Krauss  
Published: January 11, 2004

Stars: Jane Fonda, Robert De Niro, Swoosie Kurtz, Martha Plimpton, Harley Cross, Jamey Sheridan
Director: Martin Ritt

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for (mild sexuality, domestic violence, mild language)
Run Time: 01h:44m:15s
Release Date: January 13, 2004
UPC: 027616901378
Genre: drama

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B+ B+A-B D

DVD Review

At times, Stanley & Iris feels more like an extended public service announcement than an actual film. Although it tenderly and perceptively addresses adult illiteracy in America (and back in 1990 shined a beacon on the issue), the drama's altruistic focus often overshadows its more interesting, emotional story. For beneath its primers, worksheets, and tutorials, Stanley & Iris is just what its title advertises—a simple character study of two average people. And on that level, it largely succeeds.

Iris King (Jane Fonda), a recently widowed mother of two, toils on the assembly line of a New England bakery. Plagued by grief, economic problems, a rebellious teenage daughter (Martha Plimpton), and the bickering of her live-in sister (Swoosie Kurtz) and brother-in-law (Jamey Sheridan), Iris struggles to keep her life on an even keel. When she becomes the victim of a purse snatching on a local bus, good samaritan Stanley Cox (Robert DeNiro) comes to her aid. Iris quickly discovers Stanley also works at the bakery, as a cafeteria chef, and the two strike up a casual friendship. As they spend more time together, Iris wonders why Stanley lives alone with his elderly father and seems mired in a succession of odd jobs. Soon, however, the pieces fall into place, and she learns Stanley's mortifying secret—he's functionally illiterate.

At first, the revelation strains their relationship, but after his father dies, Stanley realizes the severity of his handicap, and how it prohibits him from standing on his own. He begs Iris to teach him to read, and during the subsequent lessons, Stanley not only learns the mechanics of grammar, he also learns about his instructor. And over time, he returns her favor by teaching Iris how to move past her husband's death and move on with her life.

On its own, Stanley & Iris never rises above TV-movie status, and although illiteracy doesn't exactly qualify as a disease-of-the-week, the bromide-filled screenplay exhibits many of the category's clichéd elements. In the hands of Fonda and DeNiro, however, the material comes alive, and the stars' natural portrayals infuse the film with a sensitivity and believability it otherwise would not have enjoyed.

On paper, however, the pair seems strangely mismatched. Although Fonda is only six years older than her co-star, it seems as if she comes from a previous generation. She's a holdover from the old Hollywood, while he's a standard-bearer of the new, and their acting styles reflect that difference. Yet because they play an odd couple on film, their contrasting methods somehow mesh, adding realism to their scenes together and keeping the film afloat during dicey stretches.

Rarely has Fonda acted with less affectation. With little makeup, a dowdy hairstyle, and a discount wardrobe, she fully inhabits her lower-middle-class role, making us believe she's a frazzled, worried, aging woman who can't face starting anew. Amid all of Fonda's fitness tapes and the hoopla surrounding her reign as trophy-wife-supreme to media mogul Ted Turner, it's easy to forget she's first and foremost an actress. And Stanley & Iris reminds us what a good one she can be.

DeNiro equally impresses, often achieving a heartbreaking melancholy that goes far beyond what's written in the script. As he's aged and gravitated more toward comedic roles, DeNiro has adopted an unfortunate Jack Nicholson quality, making it difficult for audiences to divorce his persona from his screen roles. But 15 years ago that wasn't the case, and DeNiro loses himself in Stanley, beautifully embodying the pride, shame, and vulnerability associated with illiteracy. He makes us not only empathize with Stanley's plight, but also understand the intense stress and fear the disability causes.

Director Martin Ritt traverses familiar territory, focusing once again on the struggles of the working class with his trademark insights and gentle touch. The factory setting is reminiscent of his previous Norma Rae, while the character driven story recalls such similar Ritt efforts as Hud, Sounder and Murphy's Romance. Although the final third of Stanley & Iris lags, and the overly pat, too-good-to-be-true ending leaves a sugary aftertaste, Ritt manages to make a bland subject palatable, involving, and ultimately uplifting.

Sadly, the film would prove to be his last. In fact, Stanley & Iris has become a swansong for many of its creative personnel. Only a year after the movie's release, Fonda retired from the screen to marry Turner, and although rumors of a comeback continue to circulate since the couple's divorce, she hasn't acted in 15 years. Harriet Frank, Jr. and Irving Ravetch, long-time Ritt collaborators who wrote Norma Rae, Hud and The Long, Hot Summer for the director, have never penned another screenplay. And, most tragic of all, Ritt himself died shortly after completing the movie. In retrospect, it seems appropriate that a man who specialized in socially relevant, deeply human, and deceptively simple films was able to end his career with one. Stanley & Iris may not be a masterwork, but it's a fitting finale for this acclaimed craftsman.

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: B+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio2.35:1 - Widescreen1.33:1 - P&S
Original Aspect Ratioyesno

Image Transfer Review: MGM has done a fine job transferring Stanley & Iris to DVD, offering both anamorphic widescreen and full-frame pan-and-scan versions on a double-sided disc. The widescreen source print is just a notch or two below pristine, with only a couple of nicks dotting the image. Fleshtones are accurate, and the inviting color palette flaunts unexpected richness and depth. Despite the film's rather grungy settings, the film possesses the warm glow of old-fashioned Hollywood, which is quite appropriate for a love story starring two legends.

Image Transfer Grade: A-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishyes

Audio Transfer Review: The stereo surround track features no major defects and provides clean, good quality sound. Slight directionality across the front channels can occasionally be detected, but dialogue is the essential element here, and it's easy to understand throughout. John Williams contributes a surprisingly subtle yet effective score that fleshes out the audio field and nicely underscores the action.

Audio Transfer Grade: B


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 20 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
Packaging: generic plastic keepcase
1 Disc
2-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extras Review: The film's original trailer is the only supplement offered. Too bad Fonda and/or DeNiro couldn't have been coaxed into sitting down for a commentary.

Extras Grade: D


Final Comments

Stanley & Iris is far from a great film, but the well-crafted performances of Fonda and DeNiro make it worthwhile. Sure, it can be preachy and saccharine at times, but how many issue-oriented love stories aren't? Those who enjoy fine acting, solid direction, and tender storytelling should give this underrated film a try.


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