Monday, January 22, 2024

A Water Nymph Makes a Splash in “Nyad”

 In Nyad, you’ve got to give Annette Bening credit for having courage. Not simply the courage to portray long-distance ocean swims that showcase her exhaustion, her nausea, and her multiple near-death experiences. But also, as an actress in her late sixties, the courage to spend most of the movie’s run-time decked out in a form-fitting tank suit. Most women, including me, would at a certain point in their lives rather not be photographed in swimming attire. And this film is hardly an Esther Williams-type extravaganza with a focus on glamour (and waterproof mascara). This is the real-life story (though some have quibbled about the details) of an champion distance swimmer who—having failed to swim from Cuba to Key West at about age 30, decided at sixty to try again. It sometimes feels like a stroke-by-stroke recap of her four failed attempts and her final 2013 victory over  the waves, the sharks, the jellyfish, and her own mind. (By the end, WE’RE exhausted.) Nyad is also a character study of a woman who is almost brutal in her determination to sacrifice everything in order to meet her goal.

 Diana Nyad, as portrayed in this film, is not often gracious. So single-minded is she that she risks alienating even those who love her best and admire her most. The #1 person on that list is Bonnie Stoll, a racquetball champ who years ago dated Nyad briefly. As a strongly competitive athlete with organizational skills and a tender heart, she’s the ideal coach for Nyad, though at times she’s fully determined to walk away from what seems like a foolhardy gamble. Jodie Foster pours her heart and soul into the role of Bonnie, which has made her a nominee for multiple best-supporting actress awards. Without her feisty but tender performance, we might well find Nyad (and Nyad) insufferable. Welsh actor Rhys Ifans is also memorable as an old salt whose grasp of Caribbean waves and weather makes that final victory possible. Though Nyad is a creature of towering ego, it’s worth noting that when she lands on that Key West beach, to be greeted by cheering throngs, she speaks of her achievement not as a solo victory but in terms of the “family” of support people who made it possible.

 It's an interesting film, though certainly not always an enjoyable one. Uplifting? Maybe, but I mostly came away relieved that no one was requiring me to go on a long-distance ocean swim anytime soon. And I need to point out some artistic distractions, like the frequent cutting away to childhood Nyad experiences (some of them disturbing, and not particularly well played) and also the insertion of footage from time to time of the actual Diana Nyad, who’s still very much around, pursuing a comfortable dry-land career as a radio and TV sports journalist. I also admit, from my spot on the couch, that watching Nyad give it her all was probably a good reminder to work a bit harder at my local gym.

 I’ve always admired Bening as a courageous actress. I first became aware of her in 1990’a The Grifters, in which she held her own as a con artist opposite Anjelica Huston and John Cusack. She also, in a startling moment, appeared jaybird-naked, another kind of courage. That let to her first Oscar nomination (in support). There’ve also been three Best Actress nominations for such strong films as American Beauty, Being Julia, and The Kids are All Right, but never (alas) a win.  

A long, strong marriage to former playboy Warren Beatty is a win of sorts, though.




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