Too Close for Comfort: Theresa Russell in Bad Timing

Too Close for Comfort: Theresa Russell in <em>Bad Timing</em>

The first movie that Nicolas Roeg and Theresa Russell made together, Bad Timing (1980), was denounced by its distributor, the Rank Organisation, as a “sick film made by sick people for sick people,” which may sound to some like a ringing endorsement rather than a condemnation. Russell was twenty-two years old when she made it, and she was ambitious and very much her own person. She married Roeg, who was thirty years her senior, in 1982 and made four more features with him, plus a short for the movie Aria (1987), before they divorced sometime in the late 1990s.

When Roeg was conducting his last interviews before his death in 2018, journalists noted that a David Hockney portrait of Russell was prominently displayed in his home along with many other framed photos of her. This photo collage was commissioned by Roeg for Insignificance (1985), where Russell played a version of Marilyn Monroe. She is seen splayed out nude on pink satin sheets from many angles in the Cubist-style Hockney was favoring at that point, with her tongue lasciviously poking around her open mouth and her left profile seeming to merge with her full face, as if she is giving herself a kiss. This major Hockney piece expresses the deepest intent of the films that Russell and Roeg made together, which present the women the actress played from many angles simultaneously.

Russell’s character in Bad Timing, Milena Flaherty, is married to Stefan Vognic (Denholm Elliott), a man who is thirty years older than her, but the main drama here is the obsessive affair between Milena and the psychiatrist and teacher Alex Linden (Art Garfunkel), who is nearly twenty years her senior. Russell herself had been dealing with older men from the time she dropped out of high school at age sixteen and enrolled to study at the Lee Strasberg Institute in Los Angeles. She was introduced to the producer Sam Spiegel, who aggressively pursued her in vain and helped get her into her first movie, Elia Kazan’s The Last Tycoon (1976), where she played Robert Mitchum’s daughter. Russell then played Dustin Hoffman’s girlfriend in the very bleak Straight Time (1978), where her catlike, blue-gray eyes stared out at us from a default-sullen face that held touchingly limited hopes.

“Russell is very direct. Everything about the way she behaves says, ‘This is for real, this isn’t just pretend.’ ”

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