Torvald Helmer Is an Idiot, Or

the Foul-up of Mercer and Warner

     In Joseph Losey's 1873 version of Ibsen's 1879 opus A Doll's House, the character Torvald Helmer is transformed from a complex individual into a brute with a one-track mind. This marvelous transformation is due to the efforts of screenwriter David Mercer and actor David Warner, who played Torvald. Losey also lent a hand, as did Jane Fonda in the part of Nora.

     The Torvald Helmer discovered by the reader in Ibsen is a man driven, to be sure. He wants desperately to succeed in his new position, and if some familial duty is neglected in the process, so be it. Torvald is not, however, fully business-minded. He is not a cold, Hitlerian patriarch. He cares about his wife and children and does not forget them in his attempt at the top.

     The lines of Mercer's Torvald are basically the same as Ibsen's. The character produced on film, though, is a far different creature. I do not quite know whom to thank for this, Losey or Warner--or Fonda, for that matter. I am aware that 1973 was a year in Fonda's "I am Woman, hear me Roar" period. Perhaps she needed a beastly Torvald to provide a counterpoint for her mini-metamorphosis into NORA, Nymph of Rising Anger! Anyway, this Torvald is a jerk.

     Torvald's on-screen presence reminded me of same-period Rob Reiner, but even Meathead was a pretty nice guy. Warner stiffs his way around the screen with Heathcliff-like menace. Ibsen's misguided Norwegian is translated into Brontė's souped-up hate machine. I mean, if I were Nora, I would have left the "guy" a long time ago. In the play, I would have debated it a little.

     In the play, Torvald would likely kiss Nora after calling her his little squirrel. It would not surprise me if Warner's would spit on her. It is not surprising to see Torvald snap when he reads Krogstad's letter. He never led one to believe he would do otherwise.

     David Warner went on to have a mediocre film and TV career. I guess the film types could overlook a shoddy performance in a piece of quasi-feminist performance art. Or maybe it is me.

Jared R. Nelson

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