June 6, 2011 § 1 Comment
Some books are just so indelibly etched in your mind, you’ll never forget when you first read them. I bought Valley of the Dolls in a British bookstore in Nerja, Spain, when I was 14, and devoured it on the train as the Mediterranean, the Alhambra, the aqueducts of Segovia passed by in the background. My connection to the book is so intense that, for years, I’ve had little interest in the movie. Its reputation as a horrendously campy cult classic didn’t help, but even had the movie been an Oscar-winner, I’d still be reluctant to have the Neely, Anne and Jennifer in my head replaced by the ones onscreen. I love the book so much that, despite its lack of literary merit, I get mad when people claim they don’t like the book. Prescription drug abuse, casting couches, Golden Age of Hollywood roman a clef–what’s not to like?
The plot, for the uninitiated, follows three young women who become friends over the course of their show-biz careers: the demure secretary-turned-model Anne, the spunky Broadway hoofer-turned-Hollywood star Neely, and the stunning chorus girl-turned-European “art” film actress Jennifer. Although Susann primarily focuses on their multiple engagements, marriages and sex lives, the thing that bonds these ladies together through the decades is their mutual dependence on “the dolls” (prescription pills) of the title. Jacqueline Susann was a minor actress in her youth, and at the time of the book’s release, it was well-known for being a thinly veiled portrait of several major stars she’d both worked and played with. Jennifer North is part Carole Landis, part Marilyn Monroe. Her husband, Tony Polar is a Dean Martin/Frank Sinatra hybrid. Neely O’Hara was a little bit Frances Farmer and a lot Judy Garland. The aging Broadway star Helen Lawson was based on Susann’s one-time lover, Ethel Merman. Anne, who hails from a small-town and is new to New York City itself, let alone the glittering world of the stars, is the only one without a real-life counterpart, and that’s mostly because she exists as a stand-in for the reader.
All of that art-imitating-life stuff made for a bestselling book (and in my opinion, an extremely compelling one, especially for anyone interested in Old Hollywood or Broadway). But it also makes for a terrible movie, because even if the script had been any good in the first place (which it isn’t), anybody who’s read the book can’t help but imagine how much better Garland, Landis, or Merman would have been in the roles.
Oddly enough, Sharon Tate as Jennifer comes closest to being actually well-cast in her part, even though she’s given the least to do. It’s hard to combine the two essential aspects of Jennifer’s personality–the Marilyn Monroe and the Grace Kelly, the kittenish sexiness with the European poise–but she manages it in a way that it’s hard to imagine many actresses of the period doing. But Patty Duke is no Judy Garland and thus no Neely O’Hara, and her overacting overwhelms the film’s second half. And while Barbara Parkins is miscast as Anne, the problems go beyond the casting to the writing–Anne is written as far warmer and perkier than she should be. Anne’s appeal is in her coolness, her levelheadedness, the way she slowly weighs one option against the other. We, the audience, are intended to like her specifically because she manages to resist the lifestyles the others succumb to (and that we already know will be their undoing).
The next mistake the director made with the movie was to update the timeline: instead of spanning the mid-’40s to the late ’50s, it only takes place in the mid-60s. This forced the screenwriters to cut plotlines, and it made the plots that they saved seem rushed–events that are supposed to unfold over the course of years do it in the span of months, which sort of butchers characterization when even the most deliberate, cautious characters seem to jump into bed together immediately or make decisions on a whim. But the more important aspect of this is that we lose the 1940s glamour. While a difference of ten or fifteen years might not have seemed like much at the time of filming, to a modern viewer it’s extremely jarring. The 1960s aesthetic is extremely present and totally absurd here–À Bout de Souffle pixie cuts, Annette Funicello flips and big Ronnie Spector-style falls are everywhere, as are shag carpeting and bizarrely patterned wallpaper. Everything looks a little tawdry–the musical that, theoretically, stars one of the biggest actresses on Broadway appears cheaper than a church basement production of Jesus Christ Superstar. Sticking to the original timeline and making this a period piece, as it was meant to be, would have left us with a far more aesthetically pleasing film, even if the writing and casting had remained the same.
But more importantly, in the film, we lose the book’s big theme–the way show business chews women up and spits them out. What elevates this book above the level of similar potboilers designed solely to titillate is that Susann was trying to make a larger point about the nature of the fame game and how it destroys women. This use-’em’-up-throw-’em-away approach is true today, too, of course, but what people obsessed with The Golden Age of Hollywood often forget is that it was equally true back then. In fact, that was the major benefit of the studio system–you could force a star to bend to your every whim, and at the point where she’d passed the peak of your beauty or simply refused to comply with your demands, there was someone new, ready and waiting to take her place. In Valley of the Dolls, Jennifer receives everything she has–fame, love–on the basis of her incredible body and face, and yet when she grows older, she also begins to feel like she no longer deserves that fame or love because she’s in danger of losing the body that won them. Anne, too, despite having other good qualities (her intelligence, her loyalty) only ever gets anything–from her secretary job to her lovers–because she’s beautiful. Neely, on the other hand, truly does get where she is due to talent rather than looks, but when the Hollywood producers push her to lose weight, she embarks on a regimen of pills (uppers to lose weight and keep working hard, downers to relax and fall asleep) that will haunt her for the rest of her life. By the end of the book, each of the women ultimately relies on the pills to cope with the pressures of their chosen lifestyles, and the pills lead to their individual downfalls.
A common misreading of the book is that it’s anti-feminist, focused only on men-obsessed bimbos, pushing the idea that if you’re not pretty, you’re nothing–and that ultimately, the author punishes the protagonists for ever wanting anything beyond a small-town life with a husband and babies. In reality, though, the book seeks to condemn the anti-feminist culture in which it’s set. The women aren’t reduced to their looks because they want to be; they’re reduced to their looks because the men around them insist upon it, and the men are the ones who call the shots. This is true even in non-sexual situations–for example, Anne’s future boss is reluctant to hire her, although she’s a competent secretary, because she’s so attractive that he’s worried some man will instantly propose to her and he’ll have wasted all that training. Do the girls behave like men are the most important things in their lives? Yes–but that’s hardly surprising given that they were raised in a world that told them that their men were the most important things in their lives. Despite this, they do display surprising flashes of independence. Anne breaks away from her small-town upbringing (and likely husband-to-be) because she wants more out of life (including a career); later, she wants to stay in New York City so badly that she sacrifices the man she loves for it, when she could have kept him by moving home to the small town she grew up in. A theme that comes up multiple times is that the women lose their husbands and lovers because they end up being the breadwinners, and their men can’t cope–a legitimate fear for women in the 1940s and ’50s. And at the end of the story, the women aren’t punished because they wanted to “have it all.” They’re punished because the sexist world they lived in wouldn’t allow them to have it all. Their downfalls–all linked to the pills that allowed them to escape the pressure of their day-to-day lives–occur because they’re trapped in a society that attempts to thwart the realization of their dreams, not because Susann herself thought that they deserved to have their dreams thwarted.
The movie, however, loses this nuance. (As little as Jackie Susann was capable of nuance, director Mark Robson was even less so.) Robson’s camera lingers on the girls’ successive downward spirals with the intensity of a lover but the empathy of a stalker, which gets uncomfortable after about two minutes. Given that these crack-ups take up the better part of the movie’s second half, it’s secondhand-embarrassment overkill. His lack of comprehension extends to the final minutes: the film’s Anne, instead of staying in New York at all costs because that’s what she wants to do, ultimately returns home to her boring small-town life after her boyfriend cheats on her . . . and this is presented as a happy ending! Dear Mr. Robson, the point is somewhere in the vicinity of Mars; that’s how much you’ve missed it by.
So does that mean I couldn’t enjoy the film, even on the level of camp? It was that tedious? . . . Well, life is short and one must appreciate the opportunities to watch movies featuring sequined, flowered leisure suits and glittery caftans when they arise. Beyond that, though, in a word: yes.
June 1, 2011 § 1 Comment
Gone with the Wind is something of a cinematic Rorschach test, and its ability to be all things to all people is a part of its long-lasting appeal. It’s racist, except when it’s not: the horrors of slavery are glossed over, the semi-complexity of the novel’s characters is reduced to stereotypes in the film, and the black actors were treated poorly at the premiere and, on some occasions, on the set–but the film was one of the only ones of its time to actually give black actors something to do besides stand in the background and smile ingratiatingly, and it led to Hattie McDaniel’s famous first Best Supporting Actress win. The film is pro-Southern, except when it’s anti-Southern: the antebellum South is romanticized (knights and ladies fair, a dream remembered, et cetera) but it also very blatantly spells out the fact that the South failed because they were cocky, ignorant bastards who were too wrapped up in their ladies fair and their code of chivalry to see the forest for the trees. It’s sexist, except when it’s not: Scarlett and Melanie are extremely strong female characters in different molds, with Scarlett breaking all the confining conventions to which her gender is held, and the focus on how war affects women was quite revolutionary for its time–but there’s a definite Taming of the Shrew vibe, and demure Melanie is clearly set up as the ideal of Southern womanhood, with even Margaret Mitchell herself expressing wonderment (a little disingenuously, in my opinion) at why Scarlett turned out to be so well-loved by so many. And then there’s the little matter of that rape scene . . .
There’s only one small problem with that: there is no rape scene in Gone with the Wind–and whenever anybody describes the staircase scene as such, I have to fight the urge to tear my hair out, weep, beat my chest, et cetera. To be fair to them, it’s easy to mistake the staircase scene for a rape scene when Rhett carries Scarlett kicking and screaming up the stairs–but to be fair to the movie’s directors, too, there’s not much more they could have done with the source material to make the scene clear, short of slapping a voice-over on it. It’s a scene that essentially requires you to be in the heroine’s head in order to parse what’s going on–and thus it’s one of the few scenes in the book that doesn’t translate well to the screen. Here’s Mitchell in that deliciously purple scene:
“Up the stairs, he went in utter darkness, up, up, and she was wild with fear. He was a mad stranger and this was a black darkness she did not know, darker than death. He was like death, carrying her away in arms that hurt. She screamed, stifled against him and he stopped suddenly on the landing and, turning her swiftly in his arms, bent over her and kissed her with a savagery and a completeness that wiped out everything from her mind but the dark into which she was sinking and the lips on hers. . . . She was darkness and he was darkness and there had never been anything before this time, only darkness and his lips upon her. She tried to speak and his mouth was over hers again. Suddenly she had a wild thrill such as she had never known; joy, fear, madness, excitement, surrender to arms that were too strong, lips too bruising, fate that moved too fast. For the first time in her life she had met someone, something stronger than she, someone she could neither bully nor break, someone who was bullying and breaking her. Somehow, her arms were around his neck and her lips trembling beneath his and they were going up, up into the darkness again, a darkness that was soft and swirling and all enveloping.”
And then, of course, the infamous morning after:
“Oh, she should be ashamed, should shrink from the very memory of the hot swirling darkness! A lady, a real lady, could never hold up her head after such a night. But, stronger than shame, was the memory of rapture, of the ecstasy of surrender. For the first time in her life she had felt alive, felt passion as sweeping and primitive as the fear she had known the night she fled Atlanta, as dizzy sweet as the cold hate when she had shot the Yankee. . . . When she thought of meeting him again, face to face in the sober light of day, a nervous tingling embarrassment that carried with it an exciting pleasure enveloped her.
‘I’m nervous as a bride,’ she thought. ‘And about Rhett!’ And, at the idea she fell to giggling foolishly.”
That’s not a rape. In fact, that this scene is not a rape illustrates the entire point of the 700-page story: that Rhett is Scarlett’s perfect match specifically because he’s the only one that can meet her on her level, beat her at her own game, turn her darkness into light. Does the scene start ugly? Definitely–and the altercation leading up to it, where (in the film), Rhett tells Scarlett to “observe my hands, my dear. I could tear you to pieces with them, and I’d do it if it’d take Ashley out of your mind forever. But it wouldn’t. So I’ll remove him from your mind forever this way. I’ll put my hands so–one on each side of your head–and I’ll smash your skull between them like a walnut, and that’ll block him out” . . . is, in my opinion, even uglier. But an ugly, nasty scene though it is, it’s not a rape scene. Is Rhett a bastard and a half here? Yes–a drunk, emotionally abusive bastard, but not a rapist. Nobody has sex against their will in this scene. Scarlett is carried up the stairs against her will, but carrying someone up the stairs against their will isn’t rape, and she’s happily succumbed to the idea of sex long before they get to the top step.
While we’re on the subject of forgotten tropes, here’s another one: the forced seduction. While most common in romance novels, it enjoyed its heyday in movies, too, and Gone with the Wind is its prime example. Forced seduction stemmed from the pre-sexual revolution days when Good Girls Didn’t, which, for writers, raised the question of how to get a good girl (or, in Scarlett’s case, a wildly independent one) into bed with the leading man when she had no logical reason to be there. The admittedly imperfect solution they came up with? Have the leading man force himself on her. Of course, he can’t actually force her to have sex, as a real hero, no matter how unchivalrous, would never have to resort to forcing women to have sex with him–so a forced seduction is something that starts as a rape but transforms into consensual sex at some point before penetration. This was intended to take just enough culpability off the woman that her reputation remained undamaged, while still allowing the man to cling to the shards of his respectability–and whatever plot point needed to be fulfilled by the two characters coming together could still play out. This trope became mostly unnecessary after the sexual revolution and basically died off in the film world after that, although–oddly–it lasted well into the 1980s in the realm of romance novels.
I’m certainly not arguing that the story doesn’t showcase sexism in other ways, or even that the staircase scene isn’t plenty sexist in its own right–but it’s not rape. Blindly worshiping Gone with the Wind displays a lack of brain power, but roundly condemning it is just as easy, and often, just as wrong. Margaret Mitchell’s magnum opus, and the movie based on it, are two of the most morally ambiguous pieces of pop culture the 20th century produced. A little deeper digging is in order here.
April 4, 2011 § 2 Comments
I’ve discovered a new mid-century film subgenre! For the time being, let’s call it Jungle Love. (No, not that kind of jungle love. Given that the title of this blog includes the word “sex,” though, I have plenty of kinky Google searches leading to it. Might as well add to it!) This subgenre I’ve discovered combines elements of the romance, adventure, and melodrama genres into one entirely new fusion. Here are the essential elements:
- Pretty white people. Often, a 25-year-old actress paired with a 50-year-old leading man.
- An exotic, tropical setting largely populated by brown people. Often a plantation. India or Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) is the most common, but the rest of Asia, Africa, or even the Caribbean can substitute in a pinch. (For some reason South America is vastly underused for this purpose–maybe because the Brits never owned it.)
- Romantic Complications. Usually this takes the form of a love triangle, but it can also consist of double love triangles (whoa!), love quadrangles, or simply one of those classic I-love-you-I-hate-you, back-and-forth pairings.
- The interference of nature: generally a natural disaster, a plague, or a wild animal attack. Some ambitious films (I’m looking at you, Rains of Ranchipur) manage to cram in all three. This interference is generally meant to up the emotional stakes for the romantic leads (and maybe even kill off the unchosen party of a love triangle), but to a post-colonial viewer, just highlights the extreme self-centeredness of the protagonists, who keep blathering about their love lives even as thousands of “natives” die off in the background shots.
Bonus points awarded for:
- Minor royalty.
- Prostitutes/”good time girls”/”companions” (if we’re in the Hays Code era).
- Blackface. Or yellowface . . . in most cases, literally orangeface, as the 1950s Hollywood attempt at making white characters look Indian was to spray them with a particularly garish, neon shade of self-tanner.
Need examples? Keep reading.
December 6, 2010 § Leave a comment
Few movies manage to visually capture a Midwest winter quite like the opening moments of Where the Boys Are. Our heroines converge outside of their college lecture hall, sneezing and sniffling, slipping on the ice. Snow piles up around them; snowflakes the size of quarters whip around their hooded heads. Merritt isn’t sure that she’ll be able to go on their spring break trip–she has too much schoolwork and is on the verge of failing out of school, despite an IQ of 138–but finally takes a look around her and declares, “If I see one more inch of snow, just one more flake, I’m going to absolutely barf!” And thus our group is on the road to Fort Lauderdale.
Storytelling wisdom holds that if you have a quartet of girls or women as your main characters, they must fall into the following stereotypes:
- the naive sweetheart (or, taking this to its extreme, the bimbo/goofball)
- the sexpot/the flirt
- the ball-buster/the tomboy
- the smart, normal one that we’re supposed to relate to
See: Little Women, Sex and the City, Golden Girls, the original Baby-Sitters Club, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, Living Single, Now and Then. Where the Boys Are is no exception to this four-woman pack of stereotypes, and here we get:
- Paula Prentiss as the goofy Tuggle, who wants nothing more than to become “a walking, talking baby factory”
- Yvette Mimieux as beautiful Melanie, who’s desperate to hook up with an Ivy Leaguer
- Connie Francis as “captain of the girls’ hockey team” Angie, who has no luck with men
- Dorores Hart as Merritt, our practical narrator, who’s trying to find a balance between love and sex
The four of them descend upon Florida with one collective goal: to be where the boys are. Tuggle immediately meets a goofy Michigan State student who introduces himself as T.V., and the two of them spend most of the film tug-of-warring over their conflicting desires: sex (his) versus marriage (hers). Angie struggles to attract any boys whatsoever, eventually settling for a bespectacled jazz musician who’s the only one to express interest. Melanie finds the Ivy Leaguer of her heart, but quickly gets in over her head with him. And Merritt, least interested in sex of them all, stumbles upon her dream date without even trying.
To modern eyes, Where the Boys Are can’t seem to make up its mind: it comes in as a sex comedy, flounders in the middle, and goes out like a sexual morality tale. This film was actually a forerunner to the entire genre of teen sex comedies–the parallels to later films like Fast Times at Ridgemont High or American Pie are obvious in the way the girls joke about sex in jaded tones. But as Merritt points out later, it’s “all talk.” All of the girls are virgins going in, and the only one who no longer is at the film’s close ends up regretting it. For all its debate about sex in its opening scenes, where Merritt argues with her professor that telling girls to stay virgins until marriage is unrealistic, Where the Boys Are serves up a moral that’s ultimately sexually conservative. Melanie is severely punished for losing her virginity: a rumor goes around that she’s easy, and she is subsequently raped, the trauma from which leaves her mentally disturbed, wandering through traffic in a daze. After not sleeping with the men they’re dating, the other girls are rewarded with boyfriends (albeit some of questionable merit), and Merritt, in particular, wins out: her man, Ryder, turns out to be an unbelievably wealthy, intelligent Ivy Leaguer who wants to continue dating her after they leave Florida.
Although it reflects the values of the early ’60s–its depiction of the Fort Lauderdale spring break culture of that era is practically an anthropological study–the film has aged remarkably well. Its debates about “hook-up culture,” when to sleep together, and whether abstinence-only education is realistic seem surprisingly modern, and help to raise it above the average ’60s beach party flick. Still, a more nuanced ending might have helped. Instead, we get this takeaway: put out and you will get raped and go insane, stay pure and you’ll be rewarded with all your wildest dreams come true.
August 29, 2010 § Leave a comment
The Letter begins with a literal bang–or rather, six of them. The opening shot, panning over the dreamy, moonlit grounds of a Malayan rubber plantation, is interrupted by Leslie Crosbie (Bette Davis) emptying a revolver into Geoffrey Hammond. The plantation workers rush over. Someone runs off to find Davis’s husband and the police. Once they arrive, she reluctantly recounts the whole sordid story for them: Hammond attempted to rape her; she shot only in self-defense. Though her account is pitch-perfect, punctuated by the appropriate stagy sobs and adoring glances at her husband, we know right off the bat that something’s just a little bit . . . off. Her lawyer, Howard Joyce (James Stephenson) isn’t fully convinced, either. When the officer notes that the corpse was “just riddled with bullets,” you can see the gears beginning to shift in Joyce’s brain. All of this occurs in the film’s first fifteen minutes–and then we’re off and running alongside Joyce as he starts to unravel the web Leslie weaves.
The British colonies, be they Asian, American or African, are some of my favorite film settings. Any story with a colonial setting will work, but especially the Brits–I love the palpable danger you sense as they pull this paper-thin veneer of white linen and garden parties across a culture that’s about to bubble over with heat and oppression. Even the otherwise most run-of-the-mill pictures, the ones that were ignored when they were released, offer plenty for the modern viewer to dissect if they’re placed within a colonial frame. The racial tension and stereotyping of “the natives” are a given. But with a richly drawn movie like The Letter, the white characters give us plenty to analyze, too. Far from home, they’re allowed to act in ways that would never have been allowed in the panopticon of British society. This is especially true for the ladies, any one of whom may be the only white woman for miles, surrounded by plenty of intelligent, ambitious white men making their fortunes on the plantations . . .
And so it plays out in The Letter. Interestingly enough, the two characters who hold the most power are the women: Leslie Crosbie, and Mr. Hammond’s Anglo-Asian widow (played by the very white Gale Sondergaard, naturally). The movie’s men are all pawns, go-betweens, and dupes. The only time men hold even a parody of power is when the all-male jury is allowed to vote on Leslie’s innocence or guilt–but even then, it’s she who manipulated their decision. Not only are women the ones with the power, but in a further twist, it’s Mrs. Hammond–the “Eurasian,” the outsider, the supposed inferior–who holds the upper hand over Leslie. Throughout the movie, all the things that Leslie wants belong to her, and both of them know it. But the audience doesn’t . . . until Leslie goes to see her in the Chinese section of Singapore to acquire the titular letter. The camera lingers on the “exotic” decor, emphasizing that we’ve passed beyond the borders of Leslie’s territory. It’s Mrs. Hammond and her associates who give the orders here–and in a scene that provides both Joyce and the audience with a visceral aha! moment, Mrs. Hammond drops the letter to the floor and forces Leslie to kneel before her in order to pick it up. Leslie slowly stoops to retrieve it, without comment. Now we see–like the women–who’s been pulling the strings all along.
Of course, none of this is real power: the white men still run the companies, the police headquarters, the law offices. But for a movie that’s so blatantly racist on the surface–Gale Sondergaard in yellowface, Wily Oriental and Dragon Lady stereotypes galore–it’s a fascinating turn.