A rare view of Alzheimer’s
Shaped by personal experience, S.f.raised director’s film puts spotlight on caregiver
An Alzheimer’s diagnosis is devastating news for a patient’s spouse to digest, even if it’s likely to confirm their darkest hunches about what’s been causing a partner’s troubling behavior.
In filmmaker Tom Dolby’s new film, “The Artist’s Wife,” opening at several Bay Area virtual cinemas and available on demand Friday, Sept. 25, 60something Claire (played by a luminous Lena Olin) has been observing erratic, unsettling changes in her husband, the famous abstract painter Richard Smythson (played by Bruce Dern). He has fits of unprovoked anger, makes outlandish impulse buys (like a gaudy $94,000 alarm clock), snarls at his students and drinks too much.
And yet writerdirector Dolby, who grew up in San Francisco and now lives in Los Angeles, knows from personal experience that it’s human nature for family
members to want to attribute personality swings to something — anything — other than dementia.
A novelistturnedfilmmaker and producer (he was the first outside investor to back Oscar winner “Call Me by Your Name”), Dolby started writing a draft of “The Artist’s Wife” a decade ago, during a bleak winter he spent in the Hamptons, where the movie is set. Dolby’s father, San Francisco audio tech pioneer and Dolby Laboratories founder Ray Dolby, had just been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Over the next two years, Dolby saw his mother, philanthropist Dagmar Dolby, wrestle with the confounding changes in her beloved husband of 47 years. He died in September 2013. (Dagmar has since become a prominent backer of Alz
heimer’s research and in 2018 gifted $20 million to establish the UCSF Dolby Family Center for Mood Disorders.)
“The Artist’s Wife,” which Dolby calls “emotionally autobiographical,” is replete with small details he noticed as his mother coped with his father’s decline.
He knew, for instance, that in the film’s crucial diagnosis scene, Claire’s first reaction upon hearing the dreaded news from Richard’s physician would be a degree of denial.
“In that moment in the doctor’s office, Lena chose to look away when she’s asked, ‘Did it ever occur to you?’ ” Dolby told The Chronicle by phone. “It was one of those beautiful accidents because when I read an account my mom had written of her experiences going through this with my dad, she wrote that she had done exactly the same thing. She looked away. Maybe it’s because there’s so much you don’t want to look at headon. It’s a great metaphor.”
Numerous films have tackled the subject of Alzheimer’s (including stellar performances like Julianne Moore’s Oscarwinning turn in “Still Alice”), yet Dolby wanted “The Artist’s Wife” to take an unconventional approach by focusing, as its title suggests, on Olin’s character rather than on her ailing husband.
“I was drawn to this idea of the unsung heroine in a relationship,” he said. “The caregiver in these situations where somebody has a very serious ailment isn’t often recognized or portrayed on film.”
Claire, a painter who gave up her career decades earlier to be her husband’s fulltime helpmate, actually becomes more animated and confident, even more youthful, as the film progresses. She secretly rents a barn to start painting again, and “it gives her the confidence to know that she is going to have a vital third act, even though Richard is coming to the end of his,” Dolby said.
The Hamptons setting, with its rich history of working artists, brought to mind female painters like Lee Krasner ( Jackson Pollock’s wife) and Elaine de Kooning, Dolby said. His film “is a tribute to these women, and to so many creative partnerships where there is this second person who is so pivotal in the success of work, to the point where the work literally would not exist without them.”
“I was very drawn to Claire as soon as I read the script and realized here’s a character who’s my age, who has willingly played the part (of the dedicated wife) without realizing how much has changed deep inside her, how much she’s left behind,” Olin, 65, said by phone from her home in New York. “It rang so true, and I think it will for a lot of women.”
A star at a young age in her native Sweden, and a protege of Ingmar Bergman, Olin found fame in the U.S. when she costarred with Daniel Daylewis in “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” in 1988. She was nominated for an Oscar the following year for “Enemies: A Love Story,” and she’s currently working on developing a biopic of artist Hilma af Klint with her husband, filmmaker Lasse Hallström.
“Tom encouraged me to call Dagmar, and I was hesitant for a long time because you can feel like such an impostor portraying somebody else’s pain,” Olin said. “But when I finally did call her, she was so generous and open about sharing her journey. She talked about the embarrassment you feel seeing your spouse, a brilliant man respected by so many, acting differently in public.”
In a wrenching scene in “The Artist’s Wife,” Olin looks on from the audience as Dern babbles at the podium while accepting a major arts award.
Dolby said it was a thrill watching the natural rapport develop on set between his two powerhouse leads. Despite the heavy subject matter, Richard and Claire’s relationship still has shared humor and romantic heat.
“I started to refer to them as ‘The European’ and ‘The Cowboy,’ ” Dolby said. “Lena and Bruce had this sort of crackling energy, a natural oppositesattract thing going on.”
Dolby’s first movie, “Last Weekend” (2014), filmed at his family’s historic Lake Tahoe house, starred Patricia Clarkson as the clan’s matriarch. His next project is an adaptation of Frances Mayes’ novel “Women in Sunlight.”
“It’s about three women in their 60s who, instead of joining a retirement community, decide to rent a villa in Tuscany and then all discover new passions,” Dolby said.
“At this moment in history, I think it’s important to tell stories about how we can still break out of our shells or the cocoons we’re in.”
Top: Alzheimer’s patient Richard (Bruce Dern) and wife Claire (Lena Olin) in “The Artist’s Wife.” Above: Olin and writerdirector Tom Dolby on set.