In 1968 Joanne Woodward starred in Rachel. Rachel, a film centered around a lonely schoolteacher's last fling before the autumn of her life. She won the New York Critic's Award for Best Actress that year. Stewart Stern, who adapted Rachel, Rachel from a novel by Margaret Laurence, wrote Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams as an original screenplay for Joanne Woodward. Gilbert Cates, known for his talents in overseeing highly personal drama (I Never Sang For My Father), is director of this film.
Rita Walden (Joanne Woodward) is a middle-aged New York housewife whose two children have grown up and left home. In the opening scene of the film, she is in the throes of a nightmare about an airplane crash. Subconsciously Rita has hidden feelings of impending doom. She feels insecure in her role as mother, especially in regard to her son who is gay and living in Amsterdam. Things just aren't right for her. Even on a physical level, her eyes are failing. It is no wonder that she feels disconnected from her own mother (Sylvia Sidney). At lunch they talk of food and banalities. Rita asks: "Are we just two ladies who go to lunch once a week and complain about lemon?"
Rita is on the verge of an emotional breakdown. She floats through the day in a daze. On the way to a Bergman film, her mother begins to feel chest pains. During the movie Rita falls asleep; she is awakened as the people seated next to her are desperately trying to revive her mother who has been stricken by a heart attack. Almost as if Rita were dreaming it, her mother dies. In a state of shock, Rita goes to an art exhibition. She only returns home when the museum closes.
After a bitter argument with her sister at the cemetery over an inherited farm, Rita nostalgically travels in her mind to the past a time of safety when her grandmother read to her and she was in love with a young farmhand. Her husband Henry (Martin Balsam) realizes the depth of her mental depression and suggests that she accompany him to London for a professional meeting. Yet not even the beauty of Kensington Gardens can relieve her angst. In a surreal and very moving scene, Rita has a vision of her own death on a crowded escalator in the London underground. Later that evening, Henry tries to buoy her up but is turned away when he attempts to express his love to her physically.
They then travel to Belgium where in 1944 Henry shot three Germans in the Battle of the Bulge. In a very touching sequence, he relives the event and tells Rita of his vow from that moment on to never waste a moment of his life. Witnessing her husband's courage to summon and face the past, Rita finally realizes that she must muster the courage to express her love for Henry and let her son live his own life: "You have the courage to fight a whole war and it practically takes a Mack truck for me even to hold your hand."
The first-rate performances in Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams combined with the genuine personal nature of the story made this remarkable film one of the best in 1973.