Sharon Greytak’s “Archaeology of a Woman,” now playing in New York, is a scintillating, intimate look at the horrors of dementia crossed with a purposefully disorienting murder mystery. Margaret (Sally Kirkland in riveting form) is a septuagenarian prone to automotive scrapes and violent temper tantrums. Her fortysomething daughter Kate (an equally fine Victoria Clark) is understandably worried after the police begin calling her, on a nearly daily basis, about Margaret’s strange public behavior and memory loss, but Margaret steadfastly refuses Kate’s attempts to enter her in a group home.
Meanwhile, Margaret, a widow who took many lovers, has haunting memories about a fatal quarrel between two suitors, and she worries that the police’s sudden discovery of a corpse buried thirty ayears ago is connected to that incident. Is Margaret crazy? Is she really being stalked by a witness to this deadly past event or is she just paranoid? Or is she merely lonely for a man, as the film’s many lurid sexual episodes convey?
For Kirkland, the most challenging aspect of playing Margaret wasn’t her outbreaks of madness—a condition she tapped into for her Golden Globe-winning performance in the 1987 drama “Anna.” It was the raw sexuality she was required to display, an assignment not typically given to actresses in their seventies.
“There’s a moment where Sharon had me go to the refrigerator with my bra on, and I saw this roll of fat,” Kirkland recalled during a recent interview in New York City. “I thought, ‘My God! I’m never gonna be sexually attractive to anyone ever again!’ I was horrified. I said, ‘Can’t you cut that?’ And Sharon said, ‘No, I want you to be real!’”
“It’s a very naive way that American culture thinks, that people as they age become less sexual, and we really have to stop that,” said Greytak during a phone interview earlier this week.
Greytak, however, understood Kirkland’s vulnerability during scenes like these. For a particularly wrenching shower scene, Greytak respectfully requested for most of the camera crew to step aside. Mostly, though, the actress had no qualms about the role, from the moment she read the script; immediately after, she friend-requested Greytak on Facebook, and then auditioned for the part over the phone.
Amusingly, the most confounding sequence for Kirkland to shoot didn’t involve nudity, but her character’s reciting random streams of numbers.
“I flunked math, I didn’t go to college and I’m sitting here trying to remember what fucking number comes next!” she chuckled. “That angst that you saw me have on-screen was real!”
For the film, which was shot in a brisk twenty-six days in New York City and upstate New York, both director and star drew somewhat on personal experiences with Alzheimer’s and dementia.
“My mother had some aging confusion episodes,” recalled Greytak. “I didn’t want the audience to sit back in a passive way and see this frail, elderly person disintegrating. It’s easier to make a tearjerker and feel superior to this poor character. But I was more interested in having a strong, functioning person starting to have these episodes, where time and space are no longer predictable.”
“I’m an ordained minister in the Church of the Movement of Spiritual Inner Awareness and I was a caretaker for one Alzheimer’s patient,” said Kirkland. “I was with the dying a lot, often the last person they saw, doing last rites. I got to study the symptoms, not recognizing people, not recognizing objects, having emotional rages, going into their own world. I did a short that won me nine awards called ‘Posey’ where I also had Alzheimer’s.”
But Kirkland’s frighteningly effective work here isn’t simply the result of Method acting-related research on the afflicted. She often demanded that rehearsals be filmed, so that her first, freshest take on a scene was recorded. And to bring out the heaviest emotions, she reflected on a variety of painful or bittersweet memories.
“My eighteen year-old dog was dying when I made that film,” said Kirkland. “I would hold the dog in my arms and pet him, and pretty soon the tears would come. I had a love affair with Bob Dylan back in the day, so I used that for [my lusting over] James Murtaugh’s character.”
“I’ve been in three mental hospitals, when I was a kid,” she added. “I’ve had my breakdowns, which is great for these roles.”
Greytak is hoping that audiences witness “something that’s daring in its story, something revealing a world of dementia that we haven’t seen in that way. The last thing I wanted to do was make a gentle story of a very sad situation.”
Kirkland, beyond seeking to stir up compassion for those with dementia, wants viewers to come away with a desire for the elderly to be treated with more dignity.
“In Europe, the elders are revered. They’re the ones that the young learn from. In this country, they’re thrown away,” she said. “And frankly I want to make a statement about assisted living. I hope I never have to live there, thank you very much! I’ve been living alone my entire life. I’ve been married a couple of times, love affairs, but basically I’m a loner. There’s no way that anyone will ever put me away.”