collab

I’m pretty sure this was taken on the set of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1962) — portraying two veteran actors often described as bitter rivals. Maybe that’s true. Maybe it’s just a cliché that two successful women, fading stars in their 50s, must be prone to catfights.

You know what? I don’t care about that rivalry stuff. There’s something so perfect about this image, crystallizing as it does a moment between two women with long careers as revered actors — professional women laughing together over drinks, cigarettes, and some forgotten joke. This is the laughing of two independent women (Bette had divorced husband #4 a couple of years earlier, while Joan’s husband #4 had died just a little earlier than that). This is the laughing of women who are in on the same joke. Don’t you wish you knew what it was?

Oh, if only I had a director’s chair with my name on it, written in just this font. Perched right next to another broad’s matching chair for drinking and laughing.

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I’ve done a piss-poor job of getting into the Halloween mood this year. Being so busy meant I was left to feel dejected by (and envious of) wonderful blog events like Dark Iris’s 31 Days of Horror, in which she writes about an absolutely terrific set of cheesy/scary films in her erudite and always good-humored voice.

Last night was the first time I had the chance to sit down and watch a scary film — TCM’s showing of the beautiful, weird, and scarily effective The Unknown, a silent starring Lon Chaney and a lovely, round-faced (almost unrecognizable) Joan Crawford. It’s directed by the cult director Tod Browning (most famous for Freaks [1932]).

I’ve said it before: silent films have a capacity to rub up against something primal in our psyches, rendering the best of them truly transfixing. Just take Sunrise (1927) or Diary of a Lost Girl (1929). If you let yourself fall into them — don’t let yourself multi-task or watch ironically — they touch something truly terrifying in us. I’m not exactly sure how this works, but I’m willing to wager that the best directors of the 1920s had smarts about the use of light and cameras that got lost in the shuffle toward sound later on.

The Unknown is a good example. Chaney stars as Alonzo, an armless circus performer whose dexterity with his feet made him a star; when he’s not lighting up cigarettes or holding a teacup with his toes, he uses his feet to throw knives at the luscious Crawford to an appreciative public. Secretly, however, this is all a ruse: an accomplished thief with a record, he binds up his arms in a corset when in public because his hands, which have a distinct deformity, would land him in prison.

At the same time, he loves the gamine Nanon (Crawford), and she displays a distinct affection for him, too. Especially because, as she explains, she’s so tired of having men try to paw her that she has developed a powerful antipathy to men’s hands. The circus’s strongman, Malabar, appears particularly clueless in that regard; his flirtation with her always seems to be going well until he reaches forward and Nanon backs away, horrified and traumatized by all those memories of men trying to get something from her.

No wonder she’s willing to pull herself toward Alonzo. He’s perfect: he has no hands. Which is why his secret is so devastating: he can never be with her and let her know the truth.

Watch the whole thing and tell me if this isn’t fascinating — and oh, that contrast of Chaney’s and Crawford’s faces. This is what the movies are all about.

Okay, you know me: I have the whole snarky thing down. I’ve never even seen Forrest Gump or Titanic. I can barely bring myself to watch a trailer for a film starring poor Katherine Heigl. I’d rather re-watch that 2-hour, grueling, and explicit film about illegal abortion in Romania — it was excellent — than submit myself to 30 minutes of the Julia Roberts feature, My Best Friend’s Wedding. So what’s the deal with my weakness for Practical Magic, which gets only a 20% approval rate on RottenTomatoes.com?

Confession: I’ve probably seen it 10 times.

I’ll grant you the obvious: this is not quality filmmaking or screenwriting. The list of goofs and continuity errors is long. The background music is annoyingly cheery and sentimental, even during scenes when it shouldn’t be. It claims to be set in a Salem, Massachusetts-type place but is obviously filmed using the dramatic coast and sunsets of the Pacific Northwest. The film keeps cycling back to themes of love and loss and longing, like any Katherine Heigl film. The resolution to the characters’ problems — an ancient curse on this family of witches — is completely inexplicable. I know. But it always gets past my radar, and I seem to keep coming back.

My latest viewing of it prompted me to wonder about guilty pleasure films.

Why should I feel so embarrassed and apologetic about liking this film? What is it about liking this unabashed chick flick that makes me feel sheepish to confess it? Why does liking this film make me wonder whether I might have some kind of tumor growing smack on my frontal lobe?

(Spoiler alert: at some point below I’m going to talk about That Great House. Also: if you’re eager to know my two favorite insights, get down to the last half of this post.)

Now, there are lots of reasons to like this film. First: the cast. Stockard Channing and Dianne Wiest as the kooky old witch-aunts who raise the orphaned sisters Sally (Sandra Bullock) and Gilly (Nicole Kidman). Oh, to have aunts like Channing and Wiest!

Moving on, the men-folk are all superbly gorgeous and desirable: Aidan Quinn, Goran Visnjic (slurp!) as the bad boy, and the total mensch Mark Feuerstein as Sally’s short-lived husband. Even Sally’s little daughters (Evan Rachel Wood and Alexandra Artrip) manage to be believably appealing.

Also, no one should underestimate Sandra Bullock’s appeal. The critic David Thomson jokes that she’s been inducted into the Hall of Eternal Likeability. This induction occurred in 2009, Thomson quips, when Bullock won an Oscar for Best Actress (for The Blind Side) and a Golden Raspberry (aka “Razzie”) for Worst Actress (in All About Steve) — and she appeared to both ceremonies “with the same easygoing attitude that guesses she didn’t quite deserve either award but that knows her life has always been something of a gamble.”

I’ve always liked Bullock, and have a particular weakness for her skills in slight rom-coms (While You Were SleepingMiss Congeniality), again in spite of myself. How does someone possessed of such exceptional beauty seem to be someone I’d be friends with? How does she manage to seem convincingly the ugly duckling for even one second? How does she nevertheless seem to be at ease in her own skin?

Two things I always notice in Practical Magic: she goes bra-less in most of the scenes. And although she’s thin as a rail (of course), her body looks real — especially her big, strong legs. Who wouldn’t like a beautiful woman with healthy-looking thighs who skips the bra most of the time?

Okay, now that I say that out loud, I’m starting to see where some of my sheepishness comes from.

Just because I like all the actors is no guarantee I’ll like a film, however. Lots of good actors have appeared in terrible films. Remember my refusal to see Titanic despite the fact that it stars Kate Winslet, who’s in my Top 5 current favorite actors?

*****

In thinking about my perverse attachment to an ostensibly weak film led me to scour The Land of Blogs for insight, and here’s what I found: us ladies love that house. Love it.

This very fact makes me embarrassed … because I’ll admit I love that house too. Shouldn’t I feel like I’ve been manipulated?

Now, just because a girl confesses a propensity for nest-building and a weakness for a good kitchen should not make you presume she wants nothing but housework and a hubby who brings home the bacon. Virtually everyone I know has found themselves susceptible to the house porn shown to us on those real estate, cooking, and bedroom re-design shows on cable TV. And when I call this porn I fully admit to have had unholy desires for that one hunky handyman who seems to know his way around every power tool known to man. So yeah, I love this house — and I’m not the only one.
Entire websites appear to be dedicated to screen capture shots of the kitchen and/or attached greenhouse. I get it. Who wouldn’t want all that great tile, lots of cupboards, big central kitchen table, and that awesome stove?

There’s so much room here for those kinds of decorations you could never be bothered with because you’re a Busy And Important. Big wooden bowls of pears or round loaves of bread. Cunning little bottles of herbs and witches’ potions. Scattered potted plants that need to be kept alive somehow. This is not the kind of house I could manage (or clean) in real life.

But I think the reason why this kitchen/ greenhouse/ dining area has hit some kind of world-wide Lady G-Spot is because these rooms are the location for so much of the film’s drama. Just like in real life, except these settings are a lot more attractive than our cramped kitchens. Gilly and the little girls whip up a Go Away spell to put into the maple syrup; Gilly and Sally try to bring the terrifying Visnjic back to life (with a spray-can of whipped cream, I say as I shake my head woefully); Sally and the hunky Arizona investigator Aidan Quinn have a special moment in the sunroom/ greenhouse.

(Mental note: must procure sunroom/ greenhouse so I, too, can have special moments with Aidan Quinn.)

I’m joking, of course. Although some bloggers seem eager to transform their own homes into Practical Magic-style palaces, I say that sounds like too much work. In fact, this leads to my most important insight: no matter how appealing, that house doesn’t fill me with consumer desire — I like the idea of the house, and I like it for reasons other than the fact that it looks good. Another film might have used the same house and sunroom and still failed to capture people’s imaginations (i.e., mine).

*****

So here’s my big realization: this film gets me every time because it portrays such rich and important relationships among women, even when they’re flawed. The warmth of the house matters when Sally and Gilly lie under the covers together, healing one another’s wounds, or when they go to the kitchen to exorcise demons. Ultimately the reason I like the house is the fact that I am so impressed that the film takes for granted the intense connections amongst this group of women.

The house feels so warm and comfortable because that’s where the film portrays the most important plot points, bringing together the warmest of relations between the characters. It’s those moments in the film that get me every time. Scenes that convey the close communal and familial relations that encompass a kind of closeness that isn’t reducible to something as simplistic as “love.”

There’s a hard edge to some of this as well. Women who are very close to one another also piss each other off, or they say things that hit nerves even if they have no intention of hurting anyone. One of my favorite random scenes in the film, in which they all blend up some Midnight Margaritas and dance around the house (who hasn’t been there?) is immediately followed by a scary scene at the dinner table, when no matter how good their mood, none of them can keep from spewing bile at one another — and it takes a while for them to realize the ugliness of this weird moment.

Ah, the scene of female bonding and mutual support … and pissing each other off. Was there ever a time when I didn’t imagine growing old, living in a big house (or neighborhood) with my sister and a bunch of my best old-lady friends, all cooking and gardening and exercising together? I remember being stunned to learn that every single one of my friends has the same fantasy. It’s not that we don’t like men — some of us are partnered up with them, after all. It just seems so natural to have tight, mutually-constitutive relationships with women, especially as you grow older.

All the more eerie to find that this film explicitly imagines that scenario for its characters, too. “We’re gonna grow old together!” Gilly says to Sally when they’re teenagers, on the night when Gilly is about to run off with some guy, and the unglamorous Sally stands there in her awful bathrobe, stringy hair, and gigantic glasses. “It’s gonna be you and me, living in a big old house, these two old biddies with all these cats! I mean, I bet we even die on the same day!” Tell me, isn’t that your secret dream, too?

For Sally it is. “Do you swear?” she asks her sister.

In the end I think it is that female closeness that gets me about this film and which makes me slightly embarrassed to admit it — because I suspect that by using some kind of dark magic, the filmmakers cooked up a heady brew of fine men-folk, house porn, and scenes like Midnight Margaritas explicitly to fly under my critical radar and keep bringing me back. I fear my uncritical affection for this film because it feels manipulative to me, not a genuine dedication to women’s relationships and good houses above & beyond women’s relationship to men. I feel embarrassed that what I had long believed was an unrealistic and slightly embarrassing fantasy — that my friends and I would all grow old together — has been packaged into a very pretty filmic production for me to watch. Shouldn’t I feel all the more guilty about this pleasure?

*****

But there’s one other reading that works even better for me, and I lift this directly from the great documentary The Celluloid Closet. This insight goes something like this: I watch and appreciate Practical Magic not for what it is but for all that I read into it, all that speaks to me beyond the surface. I don’t see Midnight Margaritas as a throwaway scene or as instrumental for forcing Sally and Gilly to deal with their mistakes. I read into it a world of intense female closeness that I rarely get to see onscreen. What gives me pleasure in this film is what I imagine in between the lines of its essential mediocrity.

I remember so vividly Susie Bright, one of the commentators in The Celluloid Closet, describing how she spent her youth combing through old movies just to get to a single scene that seems a little bit queer. For LGBTQ persons who saw virtually no one who looked like them onscreen, “It’s amazing how, if you’re a gay audience and you’re accustomed to crumbs how you will watch an entire movie just to see a certain outfit that you think means that they’re a homosexual. The whole movie can be a dud, but you’re just sitting there waiting for Joan Crawford [in Johnny Guitar] to put on her black cowboy shirt again.”This is ultimately the reading that allows me to feel pleasure in watching this film without much guilt. It’s discouraging to realize that on some level, what I get from Practical Magic is what I don’t get very often onscreen: happy, complex, and intense relationships among women that aren’t just about appearing sexy and finding a man. I very seldom get to see onscreen relationships that look like the ones I enjoy with my friends and family. Sure, the movie concludes with a happy kiss between Sandra Bullock and Aidan Quinn — not that there’s anything wrong with that — but I’m arguing that the whole package sparks a happy endorphin rush for far different reasons.

And finally, let’s also not forget that this movie is about a family of witches. Witch being such a stand-in for bitch, as well as conveying all manner of notions about women’s powers, both dark and light. This film probably flies under my radar in part because it’s about women who possess powers that they can choose to use (or not). The false cheeriness of the music and the generally lame spells might well downplay as much as possible any sense of real danger — and probably seek to undermine objections from crazed evangelicals who might see this film as the work of the devil. Nevertheless, I’d argue that the subject matter can’t help but speak about power.

I see it as metaphorical. This is about women’s power — and their power in numbers. I may be trying very hard here to stop feeling so guilty about my appreciation for this film, but this works for me:

  • terrific cast
  • eminently likeable lead
  • great range of attractive men-folk
  • fantastic house
  • rich portrayals of women’s relationships
  • the movie facilitates queer readings against and/or alongside its mainstream messages
  • it’s about women’s power, and their power in numbers

I welcome your thoughts, quibbles, and good-natured derision for my poor taste in film!

Look at her posture: I know how she feels. It’s been a hard week here for a lot of the same reasons why Mildred Pierce struggles in the early episodes — grief, triumph, exhaustion, anxiety, feeling a bit used & abused. (Yes, it’s Week 11 of a long, long semester = grading hell.) All the more reason to be riveted by Todd Haynes’ HBO miniseries, the 4th episode of which airs tomorrow night. What would you be willing to do to survive? How would you reconcile your sense of self-worth with the indignities of taking on demeaning work to feed your children?

When you watch Todd Haynes’ HBO miniseries, just set aside the Joan Crawford version and pay attention to how Kate Winslet navigates the precarious waters of self-respect and the conflicts between her own desires and her self-sacrificing impulses as a mother — and all within the context of having her livelihood threatened. This isn’t noir, it’s melodrama. In the end, it revolves around the topic of class: the conflicts between her pride and her willingness to sacrifice that pride to make ends meet and allow her children to grow up more “respectable” than she is. And who could embody those contrasts better than Kate Winslet? We see throughout how beautiful she is, but she carries that cross of unhappiness so obviously … even after her dreary brown outfits in the first episodes begin to transform into lovelier shades of color, the set of her mouth changes from fear to determination, and the lines on her face don’t seem so stark.

There are important assumptions we have to make when watching this series, the most important of which is that a mother will do anything during her own financial crisis to find ways to feed her family after her husband leaves them. Although she’d been baking pies and cakes on the side to sell to well-to-do housewives, it isn’t enough anymore; she now has trouble paying for groceries. What she doesn’t realize is that her absent husband has also left her with the designation of a grass widow — a woman whose absent husband automatically puts her morality up for question. Mildred doesn’t even want to wrangle with that assumption, seeing it as stupid and beneath her; but when her father’s shady business partner, Wally, invites her out for dinner, her neighbor Lucy (Melissa Leo) sets her straight.

“Baby. Baby. You go out with him and he buys you dinner and you get a little tight and you come home and something happens. Of course something will happen ... eventually. And when it happens it’s sin. It’s sin because you’re a grass widow and fast. And he’s all paid up because he bought you dinner. That makes it square.”

Instead, Lucy advises her that she can remain in control of her reputation as well as Wally if she cooks dinner for him and doesn’t allow him to pay for it:

“But if you bought his dinner and cooked it for him the way you do and just happened to look cute in that little apron and something just happened to happen … well, that’s just nature. Old Mother Nature, baby, and we all know she’s no bum. And Wally’s not paid up. Not even close.

Anyway. Last I heard you were up against it. Play your cards right and within a month he’ll be taking you shopping for a divorce.”

“Do you really think I want to be kept?” Mildred asks, shocked by the well-off Lucy knowing so much about the micro-politics of dating for divorcees, shocked by the indignities of her new life. “Yes,” Lucy responds; it’s hard to capture how pragmatic and friendly this line comes across. She’s right: something just happens to happen, and Mildred has to reconsider — again — what she’s doing. Sex isn’t a pleasure or an indulgence or an escape, but yet another burden of complex associations that she must negotiate with care lest they ruin her. When she succumbs, we feel relief and horror all at once.

I hope I’m conveying how dark and profound this show can be; it gets at a nexus of emotions I haven’t seen onscreen before, and it can be brutal. Haynes’ wonderful films are, perhaps, imperfect examples of the filmic art, but I couldn’t care less because they’re so invariably interesting. And the more I watch Mildred, the more I think Haynes is getting at someting important. She’s hopelessly boxed in between her need to protect her children’s futures and some nagging desires of her own — for sex or love, for personal success, for respect. She’s ambitious, even though everyone suggests she shouldn’t be. She’s a sexual being, though she seems to feel she shouldn’t be. Interviewed in the New York Times, Haynes highlights the class elements of this tale:

“The daughter’s ascension represents Mildred’s ultimate goals, but it guarantees that they will have nothing in common,” Mr. Haynes said. “She’s basically sacrificing her to a different class.”

God knows I’d pay to watch Kate Winslet darn a sock, and I love watching her play this role. There’s even a back story in the LA Times about how she filmed it during the darkest days of her divorce from Sam Mendes that may also color my sympathy for her in this part. It’s a very different interpretation of the role than Crawford’s (for that matter, Crawford’s own back story of growing up impoverished and under-educated in Texas and Oklahoma is affecting for very different reasons) and, knowing that earlier film a little, I struggled to reconcile the harried-looking Winslet with the determinedly elegant-looking Crawford during the earliest episodes. See what I mean? You’ve got to set Crawford aside.

It’s worth it. For me, Winslet’s great talent lies in playing women with strong emotions and unpredictable, even eccentric proclivities — I still maintain that her Clementine in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) has to be one of my all-time favorite characters. I also can’t forget her first role in the magnificent Heavenly Creatures (1994) as an alienated teenager with a dark, highly sexualized, malevolent streak; it contrasts so well with her turn as Marianne in Sense and Sensibility (1995) or as Rose in the ridiculous Titanic (1997). She’s revived her interest in the dark side more recently with The Reader (2008) and Little Children (2006). As Mildred, Winslet expresses her emotions by showing how hard it’s been to repress them. Those early episodes illustrate her with serious lines on her face, her hair askew. Even her voice, pitched low, seems to exemplify the effort of keeping her emotions under an artifical control. When her business begins to triumph, we can almost feel in her posture how she’s given herself just a little bit of permission to feel some pride.

The LA Times article speaks at length about Winslet’s refusal to enhance herself (Botox, a boob job, etc.), and she’s been outspoken about her refusal to drop to a stick-figure weight. It’s a bleak fact of Hollywood that 25-year-old actresses are regularly instructed to enhance. No one can watch Winslet as Mildred without noting her curves: she has a woman’s body, a real woman’s arms, and she’s breathtaking — I respond to these images not just by feeling simultaneous bursts of desire for her and extraordinary sympathy and recognition.

We know Mildred Pierce can’t end well. In the very first episode, Mildred has returned from her first day of work as a waitress in a diner, which she confesses to her neighbor Lucy. In fact, the realization of what she’d doing for money is so dispiriting that she races to the toilet to vomit. She demands this news be kept a secret from her daughter Veda — she’s just too ashamed. Lucy responds, voicing an opinion we already share about the snooty little prig of a girl: “Veda, if you ask me, has some funny ideas.” Mildred fires back, “You don’t understand her, Lucy: I know she has something in her that I thought I had and now find I don’t — pride, or nobility, or whatever it is.” Oh Mildred, that sentiment is going to bite you.

Mothers and daughters. Pride, nobility, debasement. Wow. I’m riveted — and I’m finding this melodrama deeply cathartic during this, the darkest part of the semester.

Norma Shearer’s nose

19 February 2011

Norma Shearer is a hard actor to like. She always seemed a bit smug, like that popular girl who never knew what it felt like to be on the outside. Together with her pale, hooded eyes, she combined a sense of superiority, confidence, maybe at times maternal condescension. Even when she played a scene with other women, she had a knack for positioning herself as their queen. It’s a quality that makes her role in The Women (1939) all the more touching, as she discovers early in the film that her husband is having an affair with Joan Crawford; suddenly she must come to grips with being spurned.

But oh, that nose. It was long and aquiline and highlighted her deep-set, pale blue eyes. Combined with a sleek 1930s ‘do, pushed back from her face and permed within an inch of its life to float up from the back of her neck, Shearer’s nose help lift her into the stratosphere of famous actors of her day.

I just watched The Divorcee (1930), a pre-Code film about the sexual double standard that took her from girl-next-door parts to a new level of sex appeal. She plays Jerry, a woman who is at first crushed by her husband’s infidelity. They’d gotten married with a promise to keep everything equal between them — this film’s earliest scenes offer great mini-feminist moments for the 1930s — so she responds to her husband’s affair by having one herself. “I’ve balanced our accounts,” she tells him frankly, seriously. He then behaves like a cad, insisting that her infidelity is different than his, and presses for a divorce. This fight is so bitter that she finally explodes at him: “From now on, you’re the only man in the world my door is closed to!”

No wonder those pre-Code movies were so scandalous: the elegant, girl-next-door Shearer sleeping around? Damn. The Divorcee may not have been a great film — and its ultimate message about the sexual double standard is, in the end, completely ambiguous — yet somehow with that lilt of her chin and that long, elegant nose, Norma Shearer makes lack of chastity look downright appealing.