January 18, 2009
I’m not thrilled about the lineup of 2008 motion pictures contending for the coveted Oscar statuette this year. I haven’t seen most of them: that’s how thrilled I’m not. Last year marked the first year I ever walked out of a movie in progress (Pride and Glory) owing to its abysmal condition.
That’s not to say I anticipate that the prestige films will be terrible. After all, even last year’s duds, per audiences and critics alike – such as The Women and The Happening – weren’t really that bad. I’m sure there’s good stuff out there. I am looking forward to Mickey Rourke’s comeback in The Wrestler, as well as the always intriguing Marisa Tomei. And I owe it to my proposed dissertation topic (“New England Suburban Macabre”) to endure the angst of Revolutionary Road – though I think it is prudent for me to read the acclaimed source novel first.
Positive standouts in 2008 – for me – include Pixar’s WALL-E and Werner Herzog’s documentary Encounters at the End of the World; neither of which should be mistaken for any kind of fluff filmmaking. In both cases, non-English-speaking creatures capture the viewers’ imaginations; but don’t think for a second that either of these films limits itself to cutesy storytelling devices. Both films contain severe, critical analysis of human behavior. Both examine our human propensity for self-destruction.
But where did all of the interesting women go? Where are the classic heroines like Jane Eyre? Where’s Elizabeth Bennet? Lily Bart?
This past year, I can think of only two films I’ve seen that have posed interesting fuel for discussion about women’s issues: Appaloosa and The Duchess. In the former, a western, a female drifter (Renee Zellweger) arrives in town by train with a single suitcase and finds a way to survive via the gun slinging roughnecks that exist in her path. She emotionally abuses men by telling them she loves them, and then, while they’re not looking, arranges other romantic alliances that will advance her social standing – not to mention her means for survival. Men fall for her because she is elegantly manicured, sweet-smelling and flattering. What an interesting paradox: a woman who works for a living, but doesn’t work for a living. She’s a glorified prostitute…but what other options would a woman in her position have?
For my reaction to The Duchess, check out https://femspotter.wordpress.com/2008/10/11/no-sympathy-for-the-duchess-of-discontent/.
When I can’t come up with an annual “top ten” movies, I start thinking about a larger list: top American narrative feature films of all time. The American Film Institute (AFI) has a comprehensive list, often referred to as the “definitive” list, circa 1998 and revamped in 2007. I would charge myself with writing a feminist rebuttal, but there certainly aren’t 100 female-centered films of sufficient calibre to make for a serious argument. That – in and of itself – is the argument. Many of the films AFI lists do not contain fully realized female characters at all, and yet – they are “great” American movies. And many of the films that have struck me as “feminist” over the years lack the production value or general appeal necessary to convince readers that they should be counted among the great American films – not to mention that so many of them aren’t American in the first place.
So here’s my list of the top ten narrative feature films – made in America – that offer up feminist food for thought; or, at the very least, involve female characters in significant ways. Alas, none were directed by women – neither were any of the AFI films.
As Liz Lemon (Tina Fey – 30 Rock) said in 2008: No one has it harder in this country today than women. It turns out we can’t be President, we can’t be network news anchors, Madonna’s arms look crazy. . .
Apparently, we can’t direct major motion pictures either! Only three women have ever been nominated for the Oscar in the directing category, and of those, one was American (Sofia Coppola – 2004). Since AFI accounts for awards recognition as one criterion for its list, naturally, women directors and their films have been excluded. My criteria are as follows: 1)American made, 2) something “fem” to talk about and 3) you won’t laugh at me…much!
- All About Eve (1950) – AFI #28
- The Manchurian Candidate (1962) – AFI #67, moved off the list in 2007
- Anatomy of a Murder (1959)
- Bambi (1942)
- In the Bedroom (2001)
- Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
- Shadow of a Doubt (1943)
- Sling Blade (1996)
- Terms of Endearment (1983)
- Fargo (1996) – AFI #84, moved off the list in 2007
Sticking to American masterworks, I have excluded some of my personal feminist favorites, like foreign gems The Piano and Muriel’s Wedding; as well as three American female-centered films The Dead Girl, Waitress and Secretary, ironically liberating despite their titles. But the list includes films I could use to launch discussion in a college class about women as the subject of narrative film, even though, in many cases, the women are peripheral to the central male figures.
Some films that you might consider to be obviously missing – like Another Woman, Boys Don’t Cry, The Color Purple, The Miracle Worker and Sophie’s Choice (AFI #91) – contain great performances, even though they aren’t great films. But that’s a blog for another day.
It really is a man’s business: making movies!
1. All About Eve (1950)
The title suggests that this story will be “all about Eve” Harrington (Anne Baxter); but the truth of the matter is that this witty and enduring film set in the New York stage scene of the 1940’s is all about Margo Channing, the aging actress. In a culture that validates mainly youth and beauty in women, Channing – fabulously portrayed by the aging Bette Davis (age 42), in her comeback role, with every relevant chuckle and sneer – forgets, that while she’s reaping the benefits of fame and fortune, there’s always someone younger and hungrier waiting in the wings to usurp the throne. There’s perhaps not a more relevant topic to women in every walk of life in every era: the feeling of becoming obsolete as we age and lose the sparkle of our youth. Men don’t get older…they become distinguished. Sean Connery will never be “old;” he’s “noble,” “stately” and “refined.” Men don’t age as much as they accrue wisdom and experience.
Apparently, women just get old…or they get fake. Just ask plastic surgery casualty Joan Rivers!
2. The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
Speaking of age, Angela Lansbury was 36 years-old when she played the proverbial corruption of motherhood in this taut thriller, just three years older than Laurence Harvey who played her son. Mrs. Iselin – the brain behind her oaf of a husband, Senator Iselin, as he makes a bid for President – is one of the most ruthless, yet memorable women of American cinema history. While most parents of our literary and cinematic tradition wish the quality of life of their children to exceed their own, Iselin uses and abuses her son for her own advancement. Power-hungry and stealthy (a traditionally masculine combination), Iselin is as delicious as she is appalling. We applaud the woman who makes her own rules, and hate the mother who makes a mess of her son’s psyche. Iselin has many layers to her personality, while other female characters have few or only just one.
3. Anatomy of a Murder (1959)
The pleasure derived from any serious courtroom drama that delights in analyzing women’s undergarments is immeasurably increased by George C. Scott acrimoniously shouting the word “panties” through clenched teeth; and that’s just what happens in this Otto Preminger classic. The reason for designating the word is so that the court of law – all male and held in great esteem – can determine whether or not the premeditated murder of an alleged rapist was warranted. The rape victim, wife to the murderer, is known for her sexual promiscuity, and so the film broaches the additional question: was the rape warranted?
Sexuality is tricky and has historically been suspect in women. Men often fear women who exhibit a desire for physical love. Can this desire be controlled? Will it unleash the unfathomable male appetite for sensual sin? I’m sure we can all agree that women have the right to safety…even when their attire is less than modest. Well…all of us, except Barney Quill who raped a flirtatious woman and now lies dead in his grave.
4. Bambi (1942)
“Your mother can’t be with you anymore.” This is unarguably one of the most crushing statements ever uttered on film. Often, in the animal kingdom, motherhood is an all-inclusive parenthood. This is the case with most mammals that engage in polygamous unions. The male often lives alone, fathering offspring as the occasion arises. The female nurtures her babies until they are able to forge their own lives equipped with the knowledge of how best to survive. Mom did it this way, so they do it the same way. Father was nowhere to be found.
“The Great Prince of the Forest” – also known as the stag who knocked up Bambi’s nameless mother – levies this heavy verdict upon Bambi after his mother is shot by hunters. She (“Mother”) represents the bravest and most self-sacrificing maternal figure on this list. We have: corrupt mother (2), jilted mother (5), betrayed mother (6), pathetic mother (7), helpless mother (8), insecure, overbearing mother (9), and hardworking expectant mother (10). But Bambi’s mother transcends mundane maternity and reaches iconic status as one of the first of many murdered (or just plain dead) mothers in family cinema history. Experts tell us that little children feel more secure in their home environments when they’re exposed to a little scary fiction. There’s nothing scarier than a dead mother to a 3, 4, 5 or 6 year-old. That’s why Disney repeated this same motif again – hesitantly at first, and why classic short stories are full of wicked stepmothers. If mother is everything (both parents and all hope for survival), then the fear that she could cease to be entirely is overwhelming to viewers. In the case of Bambi, mother is all or nothing: she exists as the perfect model of female evolution in her species, or she is dead. And that’s what makes the other mothers on this list so interesting: they will never be perfect mothers. Neither will we…there’s no such person!
5. In the Bedroom (2001)
Indulge me on this one. I originally had it placed in the number 1 spot because I think it is the greatest American drama ever made. I’m fascinated by contemporary stories of New England families and how these stories are rooted in – and often times retelling – the great American literary classics that were spawned during more primitive stages of the American lifespan in geographic areas where this county found its genesis. This film takes a look at an American family identity (military identity; New England identity; affluent, white, educated identity). When it comes to women and our issues, In the Bedroom shows us how difficult it is for an educated, working mother (Sissy Spacek) to relax her influence over her only child as he grows into adulthood. She is rigid and has designed a list of unspoken rules for him. She shuts him out emotionally, rarely showing him love through words or gestures. Women who share this pathology with Spacek’s character might know that such underhanded manipulation often backfires. The son – in what Freud would deem an Oedipal tendency – lusts after an altogether different matriarchal figure (Marisa Tomei), one who doesn’t seek to control or pressure but instead encourages and listens to her own children. I don’t want to betray every plot detail, but I will say that I appreciate the scrutiny that the film employs to examine the way such a manipulative woman is able to control her malleable husband. This is not a caricature but a sharply observed and evenly rendered character study.
I know real women just like this one.
6. Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
In the last five films, motherhood is repeatedly examined. Unlike the case of the villainous mother in The Manchurian Candidate, these mothers are well-intentioned, if somewhat flawed, human beings (aren’t we all?). They are (respectively) duped, weak, helpless, competitive and critical, and finally distracted. In the case of Rosemary, viewers adopt her perspective because director Roman Polanski’s makes clever use of sound. Being inside Rosemary’s apartment in New York City is like being inside her head, with “Fur Elise” playing in one corner of her mind and doorbells ringing in another. The film also stages two disorienting dream sequences shown from her perspective. Viewers are appalled by the betrayal made by her self-centered, fame-hungry husband because we have looked through Rosemary’s eyes when he (as the hairy incarnation of Satan) rapes her. Were we not manipulated to take on Rosemary’s perspective, we might not experience such a visceral reaction to the things that she endures.
7. Shadow of a Doubt (1943)
This film also places a naïve young woman at the feet of a despicable male character, and it is a difficult challenge for this woman to build a barrier between this vile man (the murderer of wealthy widows) and her unsuspecting mother. In fact, this Alfred Hitchcock classic presents quite the opposite of a feminist perspective and, in doing so, forces viewers to argue back. The killer’s rationale for killing women is as follows:
The cities are full of women, middle-aged widows, husbands, dead, husbands who’ve spent their lives making fortunes, working and working. And then they die and leave their money to their wives, their silly wives. And what do the wives do, these useless women? You see them in the hotels, the best hotels, every day by the thousands, drinking the money, eating the money, losing the money at bridge, playing all day and all night, smelling of money, proud of their jewelry but of nothing else, horrible, faded, fat, greedy women… Are they human or are they fat, wheezing animals, hmm? And what happens to animals when they get too fat and too old?
The young female protagonist points out that these women he resents are human beings. We, the audience, nod. “Are they?” he asks us. Yes!
8. Sling Blade (1996)
Sling Blade gives us the male perspective of a mentally handicapped drifter named Karl, who, as a child, had murdered his mother because she was having sex with someone other than his father, but who learns to appreciate the pitiable position of another mother and subsequently rescinds his earlier insistence that the murder was warranted. Why? He changes his mind because he realizes that in the cases of both women, angry men control (or controlled) their lives and they have few, if any, alternatives to breaking propriety.
The portrait of a working class mother in this film demonstrates her limitations (mental, emotional, financial, etc.) while exposing her grace and kindness. In fact, this entire film is a celebration of kindness; and the aforementioned mother is heroically kind in the face of her own personal tragedy (the suicide of her husband) and the violence of her hateful new beau. She even makes Karl biscuits from scratch in the middle of the night, with less than a few hours to sleep before going to work as a clerk in a dollar store. Additionally, she is the only person in this rural Southern (United States) town to befriend homosexuals.
9. Terms of Endearment (1983)
Terms of Endearment is an accurate portrait of the relationship between a controlling mother and her daughter, who consistently falls beneath her mother’s expectations. Aurora wants Emma to be happy and successful, but not for Emma’s own happiness’ sake, for her mother’s. Aurora measures her own success, as a woman and mother, by the success of her daughter. I believe this type of competitive relationship, where a mother resents her daughter’s limitations as reflections on her lack of maternal competency, to be common in our American culture, which validates success in sports and beauty in strictly pass/fail or win/lose terms. American cinema has yet to fully reflect this dynamic in women much beyond Terms of Endearment. Classic American works like Death of a Salesman, might have you believe that parents only want the best for their children for their children’s sake. In truth, parents often want the best for their children to measure their own success as parents. Aurora questions and critiques every one of Emma’s choices because they are less than the best in Aurora’s estimation.
10. Fargo (1996)
Motherhood is a pervasive theme to examine in my ten, but it is Frances McDormand’s portrayal of pregnant Police Chief Marge Gunderson in Fargo that makes a great cap to this list and finds feminists divided on the issue of motherhood and whether or not it should be a self-sacrificing pursuit. Some might argue that Marge is the pinnacle of what feminists should aspire to: a strong, working woman in a professional position of authority. And she can have it all, they say: a career, a loving husband, a comfortable home and a child to call her own. Other feminists who view motherhood as a pursuit worthy of total focus might argue that Marge is selfish in her professional function where she may be shot and killed, her baby along with her, at any moment. The issue is polarizing. If you’re a feminist like me, you have yet to side with either group. Whatever you believe, Fargo is a great film to see if – for no other reason – you want to bask in one of the great cinematic performances by an American actress.
The reason for compiling a list of this type is to encourage people to view and discuss these works. (There’s certainly more that can be written about each one of these films.) AFI wants you to watch and consider Citizen Kane and Raging Bull, etc. As a feminist film critic, I want you to see these and other motion pictures with an open mind. With so few feminist film critics working in the mainstream media, you may not have considered these and other films in this way before. Maybe you have and perhaps you even have ideas about other films that warrant a fresh look at the way they too challenge phallocentrism in cinema. The more we watch and the more we raise our voices in forums like this, the greater the chance becomes to change the way Hollywood understands and portrays women, and the more plentiful the opportunities for women as creators of cinema will become.
October 11, 2008
What strikes me about the lukewarm critical reaction to The Duchess – starring Keira Knightley and Ralph Fiennes – is neither the objection to the acting, of which there is some and with which I disagree, nor the disappointment with the filmmakers’ methods of storytelling; but instead the lack of sympathy for the unhappy central figure. For whether the Duchess of Devonshire was a man or a woman living in any era, she was a very unhappy person. And whatever time and place you, the onlookers, live in, you should be able to appreciate the value of personal satisfaction. Shouldn’t you?
Manohla Dargis, film critic for The New York Times, called the film “an overstuffed, intellectually underbaked portrait of a poor little rich girl.” She went on to say:
Like most costume dramas of this distaff sort, The Duchess wants you to pity Georgiana while also indulging in every luscious detail of her captivity. She may have a pimp for a mother and a bore for a husband, but just look at those verdant landscapes dotted with grazing sheep (no grubbing peasants), the fabulously ornamented gowns, leaning towers of wigs, palatial digs and troops of silent servants. (It’s period-lifestyle pornography.)
For me, the real triumph of the movie is its ability to master both the elements of taste (landscapes, costumes, etc.) as well as the elements of distaste (rape, infidelity, uncomfortable sexuality). Because the former aspects are balanced with the latter, I find myself saying, “Gee, I’d love to wear those beautiful dresses, but I wouldn’t trade places with Georgiana Spencer for the world.”
Kyle Smith, New York Post critic, wrote that “Knightley is a paper doll around whom the movie wraps hoop skirts and 21st century victimology.” He’s right. Our 21st century perspective views Georgiana’s situation as pathetic. She marries an unloving, violent man unwittingly, thinking she’s gaining power, prestige and happiness too. She understands that in exchange, all she need do is conceive and birth a male heir. When she does so, she’ll be rewarded with a cash bonus. This type of marriage was perfectly commonplace in 1777 England, certainly less so today. Naturally, we see this as somewhat queer.
But just as we are naive about what lies in store for the heroine behind the sepulchral gates of her new estate, so too was Georgiana. (We expect a little hanky-panky behind closed doors right from the start of the film, for instance, but we don’t expect violence and inhumanity.) She didn’t know that she’d be obliged to raise her husband’s illegitimate child as her own. She didn’t understand that she’d have absolutely no control over the natural sex of her offspring. How could she have predicted that her best friend would become her husband’s live-in mistress and that the three would function normally as a menage a trois? And when she agreed to accept the interloper without complaint in exchange for similar extramarital immunity, how could she have suspected that her husband, the great and powerful Duke, would rape her and then threaten to take away her children if she continued her affair with the man she truly, passionately loved?
These circumstances may have been perfectly ordinary in the 1770’s, but hopefully have been eradicated through suffrage and subsequent women’s liberation movements. For Dargis – A WOMAN – to sarcastically call the Duchess a “poor little rich girl,” it means that Dargis is ignoring her 21st century feminism in favor of contempt or worse: indifference.
Maybe she isn’t a feminist. What bothers me about her review of the film is her unsympathetic assessment of this intelligent, passionate and ultimately compassionate woman of an earlier era. Dargis is perfectly within her right to critique the film – I found it entertaining and compelling myself, as evidenced by my laughter and tears – but I find it thoroughly unacceptable that her disdain for the film should hinder her sympathy for the Duchess. You can’t judge a woman by today’s standards when she doesn’t have today’s rights and privileges. Is she a poor little rich girl? In other words, is she receiving pity while basking in luxury? Certainly NOT! We don’t mourn her ups; only her downs.
The film is shot with a 21st century lens for a 21st century audience. An 18th century perspective would not be sympathetic and an 18th century audience probably wouldn’t care. Today, we get to look this woman square in the face and lament all of the great things she might have done but didn’t, with her political prowess and her humor were she blessed with a set of hairy balls…or a different birthday (say, 250 years in the future).
“(N)ot enough of (the film) is about how transgressive a character Georgiana must have been, holding forth at her husband’s dinner table on politics, going alone to political rallies,” wrote Newark, New Jersey’s Star-Ledger critic Stephen Whitty. “(T)here’s none of the messiness of life. And that’s a shame.”
I agree wholeheartedly with this assessment. Reportedly, Georgiana Spencer – who died young like her ancestor Lady Diana Spencer, at the age of 48 from what has been perceived to be a liver disease – drank excessively and gambled all of her money away. She died in debt. It’s possible that these actions were the result of her mismatched union. What’s tragic is that the film gives us a glimpse of these side-effects of unhappiness rather than an whole picture of them. Perhaps the filmmakers were afraid that our 21st century sympathy and esteem would be lost on a woman who decays rather than flourishes after accepting her fate.
Film and literature are full of unhappy male characters who gamble and drink…and remain sympathetic and simultaneously heroic: Paul Newman’s Frank Galvin in The Verdict (another great film starring the luminous Charlotte Rampling) is one such character. He occasionally climbs out of a bottle of Scotch long enough to punish a hospital and its smug lawyer for a doctor’s negligent involvement in the death of patient. We adore Galvin. But if Frank had been Frances, she probably would have been pitiable and loathsome rather than sympathetic and heroic.
I would have liked more nudity in The Duchess, not only for the guilty pleasure of watching an authentic bodice-ripper but also for the vicarious, visceral experience of dry vaginal intercourse (as the newlyweds’ first carnal encounter is depicted) contrasted with the sensual, orgasmic lovemaking of Georgiana’s extramarital affair with Charles Grey. My husband, who galantly agreed to accompany me to this “women’s movie” – and disliked almost every minute of it, told me that he was disgusted more by the coldness of Georgiana’s wedding night than he was disturbed by her subsequent rape. As Whitty noted, the film is afraid to let us see the mess in lives lived by the Duke’s design. Let us see (experience) uncomfortable sexuality in all its tainted glory.
When we consider some of the morally compromised female characters of film and literature – the ones who lie, cheat, steal and even kill to escape unhappiness in life and marriage – we must judge them by the standards of their day. A woman in 1850, for instance, had few opportunities to earn a living (governess, retail worker, prostitute) other than marriage. And in that period, in England, there were twice as many women seeking marriage as there were men offering it. Women sometimes had to resort to foul measures to survive.
What’s so wonderful about the Duchess is that she doesn’t resort to much of anything that damages people other than herself. In the end, she sacrifices any glimmer of happiness she might have once beheld for the sanctity of her awful marriage and the vitality of her children. I admire her. Clearly, Dargis does not.
That’s okay. But where is the sympathy?
“She wasn’t scrubbing chamber pots for her keep, but she did have to endure her husband’s dalliances,” Dargis wrote, belying the more severe elements of torture inflicted upon this wife and mother of four.
As I said before, the film is successful because viewers know that they wouldn’t trade places with the Duchess even if they could. A life spent scrubbing chamber pots probably was a life spent with more integrity.