Stanley and Iris was Martin Ritt’s final film, and it’s a beautiful swan song to his career. More specifically, it’s a beautiful swan song to his working relationship with Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr., the husband and wife team who wrote Hombre, Conrack, Norma Rae and Murphy’s Romance. Like most of those films, Stanley and Iris is set largely amongst working class folk, focusing upon Stanley Cox (Robert De Niro) and Iris King (Jane Fonda), two employees of a bread and pastry factory situated in a low-income, high-crime area of Connecticut. They first meet after Iris is mugged, and only then realise that they share the same workplace, since they’ve never seemed to notice each other before. In part, that’s because Stanley spends his days in the cafeteria while Iris works on the production line, but it’s also because they’re both, in their different ways, retiring characters, and unlikely to draw much attention to themselves without some kind of crisis to bring them together. On the one hand, Stanley is quiet and introspective, while Iris is struggling to get her life and family together after the recent death of her husband. With Stanley still living in his family home with his ageing father, and Iris taking care of her sister and brother-in-law in addition to her own children, they’re both responsible for keeping households afloat, meaning that neither of them really have the time or inclination for romance at the outset of the story.
Accordingly, it’s not romance that initially brings them together, but the revelation that Stanley is illiterate, and that he has been concealing the fact ever since he started working at the factory. Partly because she was responsible for outing him as illiterate in the first place, and partly out of gratitude for his help when she was mugged, Iris takes it upon herself to teach Stanley how to read, and most of the film revolves around the eccentric friendship that forms through and within these weekly sessions. By their very nature, these can’t take up too much time and space within a working-class routine, and as they are folded into the rhythm of life, and even the passing of the seasons, Ritt uses them to build a wonderful vision of the dignity, solidarity and resilience of life on the poverty line, without ever romanticising or idealising it either. In particular, the film evinces an almost neorealist attention to the quotidian details of Iris’ routine, which accommodates to expand her burgeoning friendship with Stanley rather than radically transforming as a result of his presence. Indeed, the first act of Stanley and Iris simply tracks the two characters as they bump into each other over the course of their respective routines, while the second follows them as they learn to incorporate each other within those routines, creating a tremulous, emergent rapport that never quite devolves into Hollywood romance, if only because the film is so devoid of those middle-class spaces where Hollywood romance typically occurs.
As might be expected, the reading sequences are an especially beautiful inversion of Hollywood romance, which usually features men gifting language to women – or white folk gifting language to black folk – in one more or less concealed form or another. Those tendencies are complemented by a beautifully understated performance from De Niro that’s quite redolent of Sylvester Stallone in the opening act of Rocky, and devoid of even the most residual histrionics and hamminess. Watching him, I could barely believe that Stanley and Iris was released in the same year as Goodfellas, so distant is De Niro here from his depiction of Jimmy the Gent, or from any of his more iconic and masculinist roles. As Ritt alternates between scenes on the factory floor and scenes in which Iris teaches Stanley to read – and then write – the film gradually turns into something like an attempt to make a film about American class consciousness in the 1990s, which perhaps explains why Stanley and Iris received such an excoriating and classist reception at the time, with many film critics blithely reducing it to a heavy-handed think piece or after school special on adult illiteracy.
More specifically, contemporary critics tended to either accuse the film of demonising illiteracy or trivialising literacy acquisition by displacing it from any notion of specialist care. Yet that’s to ignore the tribute that Ravetch, Frank and Ritt pay to the working class to map their world, a tribute that culminates with a sequence in which Iris tests Stanley by giving him a street directory and instructing him to meet her a couple of streets away. In one of the best sequences of the film, Stanley discovers that his reach has exceeded his grasp, and ends up taking hours to travel the several hundred metres to where Iris is waiting for him, only getting there late in the evening. Far from consummating their relationship or orienting them too easily with respect to each other, this harrowing meeting temporarily estranges Stanley and Iris more than ever before, as all the audience’s expectation of a breathless moment of romantic “arrival” is offset by the even greater revelation that class consciousness is challenging, counter-intuitive and hard won. At the same time, though, this sequence is what it takes for Iris to finally inhabit the profound disorientation of literacy herself, and ends up building a new solidarity with Stanley even if it momentarily displaces and defers the more conventional romantic communion that seems to be initially promised.
In other words, Ritt prevents class consciousness from ever collapsing into Hollywood romance, while Frank and Ravetch are equally careful to avoid the kinds of sentimental didacticism that might be appropriated, despite themselves, by the imperatives of Hollywood romance. Admittedly, the dialogue can be wordy at times, with some especially repetitive sequences, but this works well for a film about illiteracy, and for a character like Stanley who is physically oppressed by the visual presence of a language he can’t decipher. In fact, being illiterate just seems to render language more prominent and inescapable in Stanley’s world, since even after he is fired from the factory he is forced to confront the traumatic opacity of words in the graffiti he is required to scrub off public toilets in his newfound role as a council labourer. Yet for all Stanley’s illiteracy – or even because of it – it’s clear that he has a certain relish for language as well, as evinced in his obsessive memorisation of the Latin names of local Connecticut flora, along with a vast repository of linguistic and nomenclatural marginalia. For all that the film celebrates his acquisition of language then, it’s equally clear that he is already, in some sense, literate – he just doesn’t have the language to back it up – as he works day and night on the invention that eventually gets him out of Connecticut. That’s not exactly to say that his ingenuity exceeds literacy either, but that the film converges ingenuity and literacy until it feels as much a celebration and affirmation of working-class autodidacticism as of a romantic pedagogical relationship.
In fact, Stanley and Iris never quite feels like a romance at all, with its two main characters only finally getting together about ten minutes before the end of the film. Even then, however, romance is subsumed back into a broader ethic of friendship, as Stanley observes to Iris that “What goes on between me and you is more than sex and maybe even more than love. I don’t know what to call it but we patched each other up and we put each other together again and that’s…glue, lady.” At these moments, the dialogue loses its wordiness and takes on a burnished sheen, as do Fonda and De Niro’s vocal inflections and facial expressions, resulting in two of the most tactful performances of their respective careers – the tact needed to tell the story of two people who become friends first, allies second and lovers last. Yet if romance is subsumed back into friendship, then romance also feels like an inevitable component of friendship as well, which is perhaps why the moment of consummation turns out to be so pragmatic that it has effectively already occurred by the time the characters arrive at it: “Are we going to walk around each other, Iris? Is that what grown-up people do?” The net result of all that affective elasticity is a convergence of friendship and romance onto a broader solidarity that encompasses Iris’ and Stanley’s family, their co-workers at the factory, and all the incidental figures in their lives, gathering them up into a working-class collectivity that turns Stanley and Iris’s rapport into something richer than mere Hollywood love or lust: “I like you Iris, just about as much as I love you.”
Even if it shot through with nostalgic idealism at moments, then, Stanley and Iris is nostalgic for a radically different kind of working-class culture from the bourgeois insularity of most American film criticism in the early 1990s. At first glance, some of Ritt’s compositions might seem to resemble the most reactionary nostalgia images released at the time, yet the film finally plays as an impassioned deconstruction of what it actually was that all these bucolic depictions of small-town America were nostalgic for. While there may be a bit of a fairytale ending, the rapport between Stanley and Iris never stops evolving, thanks in part to an abbreviated third act that seems him moving to Detroit to pursue his career. Despite the final reunion, the real emotional climax comes with his letters to Iris, since it becomes clear, at this point, that their solidarity is as open as his relationship with literacy itself. Sure, that might lead to a slightly hokey ending, and yet the sentiment somehow also feels hard won, if only because it comes at the end of Ritt, Ravetch and Frank’s careers. After all, surely you have the right to say that “anything is possible” at the end of lifetime spent writing and directing screenplays so urgent and tremulous in their vision of working class solidarity.