Tuesday, March 11, 2008

"Punch-Drunk" Redemption

Paper Abstract:

Before there was blood, there was Punch-Drunk Love. Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson and released in 2002, Punch-Drunk Love pays homage to its cinematic heritage by reinventing preexisting genre archetypes. It is also a wonderful example of a “comedy of romance,” as opposed to the more traditional “romantic comedy.” In a comedy of romance, the complexities of characters and relationships are explored, whereas in a romantic comedy, the goal is for boy to inevitably get girl after encountering numerous obstacles that keep them apart. Punch-Drunk Love stars Adam Sandler as Barry Egan, a lonely, insecure, depressed, angry man, and the film follows Barry’s unconventional relationship with Lena. Anderson’s unique ode to love also recalls two other films from the romantic comedy genre, Preston Sturges’ Hail the Conquering Hero (1944) and Cameron Crowe’s Say Anything… (1989). By citing specific examples, this paper examines those three aspects of Punch-Drunk Love: its use of archetypes, its categorization as a comedy of romance, and its comparison to other films from the genre.

Paper Excerpts:

While romantic comedies today do not necessarily have easily identifiable archetypes, such as the spoiled heiress or working-class spitfire born of the Depression, they still very much exist. In Punch-Drunk Love, Barry Egan most obviously resembles the self-exploratory male. Barry is completely closed-off and rather socially awkward. He displays anxiety after his first meeting with Lena when she drops her car off to be repaired and gives her keys to him. After she leaves, he quickly retreats behind the nearest wall, completely out of breath and seeking solace in the dark. His entire existence can pretty much be summed up by his obsessive need to collect the frequent flyer miles offered by Healthy Choice. However, he has no plan to use them to go anywhere. He is totally complacent and does not possess any real initiative or motivation. His sisters constantly ridicule him, which helps explain his utter lack of self-esteem. He is also violently angry, and his rage erupts without any warning. Barry is the ultimate self-exploratory male without even realizing that he is in need of self-exploration.

Without a doubt, the relationship between Barry and Lena is the most significant. It is the perfect example of the attraction of complements. Barry desperately needs someone like Lena to treat him with some kindness, since he has never been treated kindly before. Lena needs a relationship to build a solid foundation on because she is constantly traveling for her work. They connect, deeply and immediately, and after he leaves her apartment after their first date, he chastises himself for his exit line: “And bye-bye, you stupid motherfucker.” Once downstairs, he gets a phone call from Lena, who sweetly and bravely tells him, “I just wanted you to know, wherever you’re going or whatever you’re doing right now, I want you to know that I wanted to kiss you just then.” He runs all the way back to her apartment, but Anderson subverts typical romantic expectations by having Barry get lost several times along the way. By the time he arrives at her door, he is completely out of breath. He kisses her and then proceeds to leave again. The fact that Lena does not find this odd in the least, and the fact that the viewer does not question it either, proves their compatibility. Anderson chooses to explore several different types of relationships in order to help the audience understand Barry, but also to challenge the viewer to seek personal connections and refuse to accept the interpersonal complacency that paralyzes Barry for most of the film.

More than anything, Punch-Drunk Love is about Barry’s perilous journey of self-discovery. At one point, he tells his brother-in-law, in a voice simultaneously sheepish, defeated, and apologetic, “I don’t like myself sometimes.” He continues, “I sometimes cry a lot, for no reason.” He then proceeds to burst into tears on the spot, making the viewer both chuckle and cringe. Like Todd Solondz, Anderson knows how to successfully walk the line between endearingly funny and pathetic or offensive. Barry inhabits a blue universe – he wears a blue suit, and his apartment is bathed in an eerie blue glow. He is constantly framed alone in the midst of a vast open space, like at the beginning of the film when his desk is shoved into the corner of the room at work. At his apartment, Anderson chooses to show Barry either on the very edge of the frame, like when he sits alone at the kitchen table opposite a gapingly empty chair, or to follow him around claustrophobically as he paces his home, anxious and uncomfortable in his own skin. He pleads with Lena to be patient with him and assures her, “I don’t freak out.” Yet Barry’s resolution proves that the film is a comedy of romance. He confronts Dean, fueled by his love for Lena, and says in the most confident voice he has used the entire film, “I have so much strength in me. You have no idea. I have a love in my life. It makes me stronger than you can imagine.” Barry is a different and better person at the end of the film, and that is what sets Punch-Drunk Love apart.

Yet even though this film is unquestionably a comedy of romance, when the film is romantic, it is overwhelmingly romantic. In fact, the romance is played very melodramatically. On a pay phone that is directly on a parade route in Hawaii, he calls Lena, and when she answers, the phone booth lights up magically, gold and radiant. They meet up in this utopian paradise of white and pink columns, surrounded by impossibly lush vegetation. Their bodies meet in silhouette, and they stand still and kiss as people walk back and forth in front of them. Finally, they rest their heads against each other, and the space in between them forms a heart. When they have sex for the first time, they engage in cannibalistic banter. She tells him, “I want to chew your face, and I want to scoop out your eyes, and I want to eat them.” But the way Sandler and Watson deliver the words Anderson wrote makes this horrific dialogue seem poetic and sweet. It is one of the most romantic scenes in one of the most unexpectedly romantic films in recent years. Anderson demonstrates that making a comedy of romance does not require the sacrifice of unabashed romanticism.

Preston Sturges’ contribution to the romantic comedy genre as a writer-director is incalculable. “Sturges’ brand of intelligence was not only sharp but wild and cynical as well” (Kendall 263). Hail the Conquering Hero, released in 1944, “was the last of Sturges’ Paramount films, and it’s among his densest, richest, most oddly beautiful works” (Harvey 633). It features Woodrow Lafayette Pershing Truesmith (Eddie Bracken), the son of a military hero who was discharged from the Marines for chronic hayfever and is too humiliated to return home.

At the beginning of the film, the camera tracks down a bar past all of the patrons, travels over a large, empty space, and finally lands on Woodrow sitting despondently at the end of the bar, a virtual chasm between him and the rest of humanity. Anderson utilizes this framing technique over and over again to emphasize Barry’s loneliness. When Woodrow encounters some actual Marines, they convince him to go home and then fabricate his heroism, leading to lots of adulation that he acquires fraudulently, causing him tremendous torment and exacerbating his preexisting identity confusion. Like Barry, he must ultimately confront his demons and find himself, which he does at the end of the film in a heartbreaking monologue formidably delivered by Bracken: “If I could have reached as high as my father’s shoestrings, my whole life would be justified and I would stand here proudly before you…instead of as the thief and coward that I am.” The town always accepted Woodrow, but at the end, he learns to accept himself. Also, on a purely comedic level, Punch-Drunk Love, full of broad physical humor, echoes Sturges’ propensity for pratfalls.

Whereas Hail the Conquering Hero ends fairly optimistically, if ironically, Say Anything… examines love from the perspective of pain. At the beginning of the film, when Lloyd Dobler (John Cusack) describes his desire to pursue Diane Court (Ione Skye) and gets warned against it, he professes, “I want to get hurt!” This rather grim declaration expresses the very simple fact that being in love requires insanity and a little masochism. Written and directed by Cameron Crowe, Say Anything…, released in 1989, bears striking similarities to Punch-Drunk Love. Lloyd basically is Barry, although not as self-destructive. Lloyd expresses his anger and frustration through kickboxing instead of busting patio doors or beating up bathrooms. He is insecure and feels inferior to brainy Diane, much like Barry undoubtedly feels with Lena. This is a true attraction of complements, because Lloyd teaches Diane to relax and have fun, and Diane makes him feel more confident. At one point, he states, “The girl made me trust myself.”

Like Barry and Woodrow, Lloyd’s future is uncertain, but he is honest with himself about it. When his teacher challenges him about making a decision, he counters, “But I know that I don’t know.” He must figure out what he wants to do with his life, and he decides that Diane is the answer. If they are together, he believes everything else will fall into place. Even though the ending leaves it up to the viewer, it appears that Lloyd is right. One other important issue that Cameron Crowe and Paul Thomas Anderson agree upon is the necessity of a grand romantic gesture. Say Anything… features certainly one of the most touching, powerful, and heartfelt gestures in the history of cinema. John Cusack standing outside of the window holding the boombox over his head while Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” fills the restless summer night air is simply unforgettable. Similarly, the montage of Barry traveling to Hawaii to find Lena, including the dramatic walk down the glowing white hallway to the plane and culminating in their silhouettes kissing amidst a colorful paradise, all while “He Needs Me” underscores the giddy romanticism, is just as grand and effective a gesture as the boombox. By examining other films with similar themes, it puts Punch-Drunk Love in perspective in the overall genre, but it also highlights and celebrates its uniqueness.

American Night Owls: Loneliness in Edward Hopper's "Nighthawks"

Paper Abstract:

This paper was written for a film class called Visual Analysis, but the assignment was to look outside of the world of cinema and select a work of art that could be viewed in person in order to analyze its aesthetic and thematic elements. Edward Hopper’s iconic 1942 American painting entitled Nighthawks is housed in the Art Institute of Chicago, and the technique, message, and social-historical context of the work are analyzed in this paper. Painted right after the United States entered World War II following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Nighthawks captures the loneliness, desperation, isolation, and hopelessness that Americans were feeling at the time. It definitely depicts the darker side of the war experience on the home front. This painting of a diner at night is especially intriguing because it looks like it could be a still out of a movie. It is very film noir in appearance and spirit, and this makes sense since that cinematic movement was just underway. While Norman Rockwell presented people with idealistic, hopeful images of Americana, Edward Hopper refused to ignore the stark reality gripping the United States, which is actually quite refreshing.

Paper Excerpts:

Since the use of color can convey a mood, it is not surprising that Hopper used muted hues in Nighthawks to convey despair. But even though the colors seem heavy, Hopper used them strategically to create remarkable contrasts. The street looks very gray and cold, which makes the fluorescent yellow of the diner even more striking. The woman’s red dress pops against all the darkness. The painting looks almost neon, like the figures are washed out under all that electricity. Hopper expertly manipulated tonalities to haunting effect. Nighthawks could be a frame out of a film noir, a genre that emerged right around this time. Light and dark areas alternate dramatically, and shadows abound. Warm light from the diner bathes the street outside, and one can practically hear the hum of the street lights. The whole painting glows with an unsettling greenish-blue glow, punctuated by the blazing yellow inside the diner. Both the colors and tonalities emphasize the cold, unfriendly mood.

While artists like Norman Rockwell produced idealistic, utopian works that wildly differed from the harsh reality of the war years, Edward Hopper refused to ignore the pain gripping the country. Nighthawks definitively reflects its social and historical context by commenting on modern alienation. In spite of being right next to each other, all four figures are totally alone. They are the victims of a cruel, cold, apathetic world, dejected and resigned to hopelessness. Similarly, the city outside of the diner is totally empty, offering the people inside no comfort whatsoever, a true indictment of urban growth and detachment. The world has forgotten them, and they have lost themselves. These people appear to be trapped inside of their glass coffin, with no door to the outside visible to the viewer. There is no solace, and everyone must suffer alone. It is a bleak, honest, and uncompromising view of the world in the midst of a devastating war.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Example and Exile: The Life and Career of Jan Nemec

Paper Abstract:

The film movement known as the Czech New Wave (1963-1968) exploded as a reaction against years of Communist oppression. A small group of filmmakers started making films that dealt with social issues and criticized the current system. Some directors were able to adapt to the government’s censorship, but Jan Nemec was not. His films, which avoid linear storytelling and focus more on abstract emotions like other films of the period, are all scathing and subversive, but his most controversial film is Report on the Party and the Guests. It got banned and was the downfall of his career, and he was eventually forced out of Czechoslovakia for many years. Nemec’s films are also evaluated in the context of the movement at large. He only made four films (three features and one documentary) during the Czech New Wave, but his rebellious spirit still endures in his work.

Paper Excerpts:

A chilling depiction of the dangers of conformity and a clear metaphor for the political situation in Czechoslovakia, Report on the Party and the Guests killed his career. “Antonin Novotny, the president of Czechoslovakia, went ballistic and the film was banned. It was released for a short period during spring of 1968 and was then locked in a vault again for the next 20 years” (Buchar 11). The government felt threatened by his films and grew paranoid. They panicked when they could not figure out what Martyrs of Love was about. In fact, Martyrs of Love is a poetic celebration of love, as the title implies, and has nothing to do with politics. After the controversy surrounding these films, the government fired him, and he was bullied out of the country in 1974. He roamed around Europe and then lived in the United States for twelve years before coming home in 1989. Recently, he enjoyed some success with 2001’s Night Talks with Mother, and he currently instructs documentary at the Film Academy (Buchar 29).

All in all, Jan Nemec played a vital role in establishing and expanding the Czech New Wave. His career was very brief, but his films have endured over the years. “Nemec has described his film style as one of ‘dream realism,’ and despite some major differences, this term can be applied to all three of his Czech features” (Hames 199). In each of his films, Nemec wanted to create a separate, timeless universe, one that avoided any connections with reality. Sadly, he was not able to avoid the harsh reality of his own life or the censorship of his career.

Berthe Morisot: Beauty, Persistence, and Genius

Paper Abstract:

Written for a survey art history course covering the Renaissance to the present day, this paper analyzes a painting entitled Woman at Her Toilette (circa 1875), which was created by Berthe Morisot, a French female Impressionist. The paper assignment required the object of study to be one that could be viewed in person, and this painting is displayed in the Art Institute of Chicago. While Morisot worked with the other major Impressionists, like Monet, Renoir, and Degas, she has been tragically overlooked in most discussions of Impressionism. In her time, though, she was the most renowned female Impressionist, and one of the only. Morisot was born into wealth, but she never relied on her comfortable status. Instead, she exhibited tremendous ambition and fierce independence in pursuing her painting career. Most of her paintings were of upper class subjects, especially women. Woman at Her Toilette combines her unique skill and beautiful style with a sensitive, insightful examination of femininity and women in society. The painting is intricately discussed to examine its technique, content, and meaning. Finally, broader connections are made between Morisot’s career and issues of femininity and feminism. Berthe Morisot was truly a pioneer and a feminist before her time.

Note: The painting never seems to look quite the same, depending on where it is found, whether it is in a book or on the internet or on a gift shop postcard. The colors and tones always vary, sometimes very slightly and other times more drastically. In person, it looks different still. Two images of the painting are presented to show examples of the discrepancies and various incarnations that appear in different sources. The first is taken directly from the Art Institute of Chicago's website (and this even looks different than it did years ago when the paper was first written), and the second is from a different website.

When the viewer is privileged enough to stand right in front of it at the museum, the actual painting is somewhere in between these two color extremes. The real hues do not look quite as white-gray as the first, nor do they appear as greenish as the second. Actually, the tone is more blue than green, and the painting is slightly closer to the first picture overall.

But, look at these two pictures together and imagine a middle ground in between them, color-wise, and that is what it really is. That is the authentic painting. It is unfortunate that the images out there fail to capture the real colors and tonalities, because the painting as intended is stunning, and a painting should always be viewed as it was meant to be. Regardless, these images still capture the remarkable beauty of Morisot's work. No matter what, Woman at Her Toilette is breathtakingly gorgeous.

Paper Excerpts:

“Berthe Morisot became a painter despite being a woman. She painted the way she did because she was a woman” (Higonnet, Images 1). Indeed, since artists first started signing their works in order to get recognition and even in the anonymous years before that, men have dominated the art world. Even if female artists received the slightest bit of appreciation, their accomplishments were waved off as silly feminine whims, and since men set the rules, women were certainly never worthy of the effusive title of “master.” Society, especially in the 1800s, expected women to behave in a certain way, with the utmost propriety, and any deviation was condemned. As a member of the Impressionist movement, Berthe Morisot transcended these obstacles and excelled as an artist, connecting in an unprecedented way with a feminine audience. “As she brought stylistic, iconographic, and conceptual aspects of feminine visual culture to painting, and as she concentrated on those aspects of painting that could accommodate what she brought, she changed painting” (Higonnet, Images 5). Throughout her life, Berthe Morisot challenged social conventions and enjoyed professional and personal success, produced one of her most intimate and significant works with Woman at Her Toilette, and addressed issues of femininity and feminism in a male-dominated culture.

At the beginning of 1874, Morisot received a devastating blow with the death of her father. Yet at the same time, his death encouraged her to continue along her “radical” artistic path. “Edme Tiburce Morisot’s death left his daughter freer to pursue her own interests. She could, for instance, worry less about adverse publicity surrounding the forthcoming exhibition” (Higonnet, Berthe 110-111). This show, the legendary first Impressionist exhibition, was launched in April of 1874 by a revolutionary group of all men, with the notable exception of Berthe Morisot (Higonnet, Berthe 111). Despite mixed reactions, Impressionism asserted its forceful presence, and the art world took notice. Morisot emerged as one of the group’s true leaders, receiving unparalleled attention and success for a woman of the time.

With no clear light source acting upon the painting, Woman at Her Toilette seems to radiate with an ethereal glow from within. But the most striking visual element of the painting is Morisot’s skillful use of color, used to heighten the calm tone. In a dazzling kaleidoscopic display, multiple shades of blue, pink, white, and silvery-gray combine to produce a beautiful and feathery pastel feast. The woman’s dress sparkles in a brilliant shade of angelic white, her blonde hair blazes, the otherwise empty right side is filled with flecks of color, and the pink and yellow flowers jump out. Overall, Woman at Her Toilette evokes a peaceful mood and plays on the emotions with its subtle, breathtaking beauty. But the reflection of the objects in the mirror and not the woman poses a different interpretation, perhaps a comment on material excess, superficial preoccupations, and life’s fleeting nature, a mild critique of the very society of which Morisot herself was a part.

Despite being in the right place at the right time, when European society showed the slightest sign of cracking that would allow a woman to excel, Morisot’s tremendous success was by no means the result of luck. Her ambition pushed her to take risks. Even though Morisot did not paint the more scandalous subjects of her male contemporaries, she understood the limitations of her status. “By choosing safely feminine themes, Morisot made it possible to cling tenaciously to an extremely daring unfeminine career while making minimal personal sacrifices” (Higonnet, Berthe 102). Instead of more blatant social commentary, Morisot subtly subverted the system with her fierce persistence. And she managed to make her own statements about femininity that bordered on feminist, especially in Woman at Her Toilette. While acknowledging the required standards of beauty in her society, Morisot also challenged them. “Since the woman is turned away from us, since her mirror reflects only the cosmetics and the flower, and since those objects are so much more literally prominent than anything else in the painting, we are given to understand that feminine beauty resides materially in the objects…” (Higonnet, Images 155). In her own quiet way, Morisot expressed a powerful message about the conflict between the desire to conform to ideals of feminine beauty and the need to break free of its shackles.

Along with the questions of femininity posed by Woman at Her Toilette, the painting also alludes to issues of domesticity and motherhood, both considered to be women’s duties at the time. Actually, while much progress has been made as far as women’s rights since Morisot’s time, this prejudice still exists in today’s society. Berthe Morisot had to reconcile concerns about social expectations with professional aspirations, but she certainly embraced the concepts of domesticity and motherhood. As a woman and an artist, the birth of her daughter Julie presented her with her greatest joy and challenge. “From her birth Julie became the centre of her mother’s passionate attention” (Shennan 196). But she soon realized that her identity as a mother was inextricably linked with her identity as an artist, and she rose to the occasion enthusiastically. “Maternity changed Morisot’s art profoundly, altering her subject matter and encouraging her to experiment both stylistically and intellectually…” (Higonnet, Images 3). During her life and career, Berthe Morisot proved it was possible to find a symbiotic balance between being feminine and being a feminist, to meet social expectations while also confronting them on her own terms, and her revolutionary example paved the way for future women artists.

"Mildred Pierce" and the World War II American Woman: Rosie the Riveter or Housewife?

Paper Abstract:

During World War II, American women went to work in record numbers. They took over jobs traditionally held by men, experienced unprecedented financial and personal freedom, and kept the war machine and economy running with their invaluable contributions. Once the war was over, they were unceremoniously asked to give the men their jobs back and return to the home, where society deemed they belonged. Mildred Pierce, directed by Michael Curtiz, was released in 1945 and thus coincided with the end of the war. The film is a virtual time capsule of American society during World War II, perfectly capturing the freedom and the grim aftermath of the female experience. Joan Crawford stars as Mildred, a single mother and wartime Everywoman who attains substantial success in the business world but loses her femininity along the way. The consequences of Mildred having a career are blown way out of proportion to emphasize the inequity women faced during this period. This paper discusses the role of the American woman during and after World War II and examines the film’s ramifications in its social-historical context.

Paper Excerpts:

While pursuing her career, Mildred attains great success, at the expense of her femininity. Similarly, the country that asked the women for help also told them that working made them less feminine. Mildred trades love for her career, because women could not possibly have both. Yet even though Mildred achieves relative financial freedom, Monte and Wally own shares of her business, so she never really escapes the control of men. Like many American women, her career ends abruptly. “When the war ended, the nation welcomed the men home and began enforcing the promise the women workers had made – or the country had decided they had made – to give up their jobs for the returning soldiers” (Collins 394). In the final moments of the film, women are forced back into domesticity, indicated by the two women washing the floor and Mildred’s unemotional reunion with Bert. Finally, order is restored, at least according to society.

All in all, Mildred Pierce portrays the two extremely conflicting sides of women’s involvement in World War II. Success and sacrifice are inextricably linked in a world with no hope of balance. Michael Curtiz and the other filmmakers denounced the social conditions facing women by equating a career with incest, death, bankruptcy, and murder. They depicted the constantly changing, unrealistic demands placed upon women. By articulating their message so overtly and exaggerating the extreme and incongruous ramifications of Mildred’s alleged transgressions, the filmmakers challenged the very foundation of American society in the 1940s.

Aging Gracefully

Paper Abstract:

The contemporary preoccupation with youth, especially in Hollywood, is not a new phenomenon. The 1950s was by far the most oppressive decade for American women. They were expected to know their domestic roles, and they also had to conform to new and unrealistic standards of beauty. Old models were replaced by younger and bustier ones. How else could Cary Grant, for all his greatness, be allowed to play a dashing romantic lead over the course of four decades? During the 1950s, female characters were predominantly sexpots (Marilyn Monroe) or innocents (Audrey Hepburn). What they had in common, though, was youth.

So, where did middle-aged women fit into this new world order? This paper examines the plight of the middle-aged woman on film in the 1950s by analyzing five middle-aged roles by older actresses: Lana Turner as Connie MacKenzie in Peyton Place (1957), Katharine Hepburn as Jane Hudson in Summertime (1955), Jane Wyman as Cary Scott in All That Heaven Allows (1955), Bette Davis as Margo Channing in All About Eve (1950), and Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard (1950). They were positively over-the-hill by Hollywood standards, but these actresses were hardly old. They were mature and fabulous. When they played these roles, Turner was only 36, Hepburn was 48, Wyman was 41, Davis was 42, and Swanson was 53. The characters are widely varied, but they still have a lot in common, like fear and loneliness. They also shed much-needed light on the status of middle-aged women by reflecting and criticizing the youth-obsessed societies of the 1950s and today. The characters are distinct products of the 1950s, but the qualities and problems they represent for women are timeless. Careful examinations of the characters are combined with discussions of femininity, biographical information about the actresses, and social-historical research for contextualization.

Paper Excerpts:

As a middle-aged woman and mother, Connie faces the harsh reality of what happens when her child grows up and needs her less. “Pregnancy – motherhood – could present itself as the answer to questions about one’s identity” (Harvey 96). Without that, many women in the 1950s felt helpless or worthless, and today’s society still assumes motherhood is the final destination for most women. When Connie’s overprotectiveness pushes Allison away, it makes her realize how empty her life is outside of her daughter. In a dynamic scene in Connie’s kitchen at night, Michael prods her and tries to make her accept her innate sexuality. Connie backs up against the kitchen sink, her posture defensive and accusatory. He fires, “It isn’t sex you’re afraid of. You can say yes or no to that. It’s love. That’s what you can’t handle.” Connie retorts, her voice growing more strained and angry, pushing his arms away from her violently, “And that’s what you’re offering me, with your hands all over me?” As the scene concludes, Connie answers Michael’s declaration of love by meeting his gaze and stating defiantly, “I have my standards…and my pride.” For her at this point, respectability means more than happiness.

At the beginning of Summertime, Jane Hudson arrives alone in Venice full of excitement. She is feisty and independent, much like the actress playing her. Jane jokes around constantly in an attempt to conceal her loneliness. After relating the story of a woman she met on the boat on her way to Europe, the woman in charge of her hotel, Signora Fiorini (Isa Miranda), questions the woman’s motives. Jane thoughtfully replies, “Beats me. I guess to find what she’d been missing all her life.” Hepburn reveals Jane’s deep longing for purpose and meaning by delicately trailing off, pausing, and looking away wistfully before recovering with a quip. Jane consciously refers to her age: “Nobody’s older than me.” Signora Fiorini assures her, “I am, and in Italy, age is an asset.” Jane rolls her eyes and laughs self-deprecatingly, countering, “Well, if it is, I’m loaded.” She pretends to be comfortable with her age and her lack of a relationship, but she obviously suffers from society’s neglect. “Older women’s main problem may be one of invisibility” (Canetto 197). As Jane sadly drifts around Venice alone, this seems to be the case.

Once she vows to enjoy her time with Renato, Jane appears calm, content, and almost giddy, which Hepburn communicates as adeptly as previous scenes of tortured melancholy. Finally, she decides she must leave Venice. She becomes choked up as she utters, with a pained smile, “It’s the happiest time I’ve had in my whole life.” Jane understands the implausibility of their situation and matures by accepting reality. She somberly sums up, wiping away furtive tears, “You know, all my life, I’ve stayed at parties too long because I didn’t know when to go. Now, with you, I’ve grown up. I think I do know when to.” Andrew Britton, in Katharine Hepburn: Star as Feminist, offers a bleak interpretation of the film: “Summertime asserts not only that the heroine’s life is worthless without men, but also that, through some subtle flaw of her own (the flaw involved, presumably, in having become a middle-aged spinster), a life with men is impossible anyway” (220). While the film certainly reflects a distinctly 1950s view of women needing male validation, the final shot of Jane on the train leaving Venice shows a wiser, more confident, and more liberated woman. Hepburn’s face, a mixture of pride, sadness, and contentment, encapsulates Jane’s journey as an older woman.

Immediately following the devastating and despicable reactions of her children, Cary and Ron attend a disastrous cocktail party. People nastily whisper about the age difference, but Jo-Ann (Leigh Snowden) actually says something to her face: “Course I guess it is more unusual when someone your age gets married.” Wyman makes Cary incredibly sympathetic, and Cary is such a kind, sweet, tolerant person that it seems inconceivable that anyone would be so vicious to her. She gets carried away by a society that expects too much of her. She gives up Ron, and her reward is Sara’s reassurance that “everyone will welcome you back to the fold.” After Ron gets seriously injured, she finally commits to him. She shamefully admits, “I feel like such a coward. I was so frightened I listened to other people. I let others make my decisions.” The two tenderly reunite at the end. But whether or not this is a happy ending is debatable. She is living with Ron on his terms. And the constant framing and reflection of Cary throughout the film, trapped in windows, the television set, and the piano, represents her prison. Cary crouches next to Ron at the end against the backdrop of a huge window, perhaps just a new prison, reiterated by the image of the innocent and unsuspecting deer romping in the snow outside. Regardless, Cary evolves as a person throughout the film and boldly accepts her status as a middle-aged woman.

In the history of film, there are few performances as iconic as Bette Davis in All About Eve. As Margo Channing, Davis totally commands the screen. When the film was released in 1950, Davis was 42 and kicking. Margo is a temperamental diva, not unlike Davis, who is very worried about growing older. Certainly, Davis could relate to that concern. Rather than making Margo a caricature, Davis infuses her with humanity by drawing on personal experiences. “Davis brought to the role of Margo Channing all her seasoned discipline and charisma, as well as the wisdom she had accumulated about matters of the heart. Like Margo, Davis had had her full share of disillusionment, in love, in career, with people, and with life in general” (Quirk, Fasten 333). As Davis grew older, she adapted and embraced the role of middle-aged woman, which is why she maintained such a long career when so many others failed.

As Eve entrenches herself in Margo’s life, Margo grows increasingly suspicious, which turns into uncontrollable jealousy when it comes to Bill. Margo fears that Bill will leave her for Eve because she is younger. When Bill compliments Eve, Margo launches a tantrum, “So you’ve pointed out so often. So many qualities so often – her loyalty, efficiency, devotion, warmth, and affection, and so young. So young and so fair.” Davis plays this scene brilliantly, seething as Bill attacks her, tapping her fingers on the table and finally eats a piece of candy that she had been eyeing, chewing it violently. Bill furiously insists, “Eve Harrington has never by word, look, thought, or suggestion indicated anything to me but her adoration for you and her happiness at our being in love, and to intimate anything else doesn’t spell jealousy to me, it spells a paranoiac insecurity that you should be ashamed of.” With these last words, Margo widens her eyes and flinches as if he had slapped her. Basically, when a woman gets jealous, a man unfairly questions her sanity. At the party, Margo confesses her true age, 40, to Lloyd (Hugh Marlowe). She believes her life and career are over.

In one of the film’s most poignant scenes, and an example of Davis’ genius, Margo confides in Karen (Celeste Holm). She apologizes for treating everyone so horribly and explains why she acts up: “Funny business, a woman’s career. The things you drop on your way up the ladder so you can move faster, you forget you’ll need them again when you get back to being a woman.” She does not know who she is without her star persona, and she believes she has lost her femininity. She has everything, but she is unhappy and lonely. Finally, in a truly grim and sexist assessment, indicative of the 1950s, she concludes, “And in the last analysis, nothing’s any good unless you can…look up just before dinner or turn around in bed, and there he is. Without that, you’re not a woman.” Davis’ heartbreaking monologue almost makes the viewer overlook that disturbing statement, but not quite. At the end, Margo accepts her age by refusing to play parts that are too young. Margo and Bill also decide to get married, and they still have their friends, Karen and Lloyd, even after all the damage Eve did. In one of the greatest exit lines ever, Margo coldly spits at Eve, “Nice speech, Eve. But I wouldn’t worry too much about your heart. You can always put that award where your heart ought to be.” Margo gets the last word, a happy ending, and a newfound acceptance and appreciation of her age.

If Bette Davis as Margo Channing is one of the most indelible performances in the history of cinema, then certainly Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard ranks right up there with it. At the time of the film’s release in 1950, Swanson was 53, by far the oldest actress of the group, and her performance is arguably the most risky and courageous, not just because of the sheer enormity of the character, but because of the striking parallels to her own life. Like Norma, Swanson was an aging star from the silent era, in many ways forgotten until her triumphant comeback in this film. However, unlike Norma, her decision to leave the business was a choice. “Never at home in Hollywood, Swanson stuck around as long as she could stand it, then moved east. Not because she couldn’t make the changeover – she quickly starred in half a dozen talkies – but rather because she didn’t much like the parts offered her” (Staggs 49). Swanson did not fear her age at all, but she worried about the resemblance to her own life, stating “that I would have to use all my past experience for props, and that this picture should be a very revealing one to make, something akin to analysis” (Swanson 481). Certainly, Swanson’s fearless performance as Norma paved the way for older actresses and women to express themselves comfortably without reservation.

For Norma, age, or what she perceives age to be, is everything. She lives in the past; the past is her present. She wants to always be young. Joe tries to tell Norma the truth about her life, “Norma, you’re a woman of 50, now grow up. There’s nothing tragic about being 50, not unless you try to be 25.” After Norma kills Joe, she remains oblivious, leaning up against a column, hand to her forehead, posing. She whispers madly, “The stars are ageless, aren’t they?” Norma is the victim of a youth-obsessed society, a society that still exists. She fails to meet society’s expectations. In a tragic and unforgettable final scene, her loyal servant Max (Erich von Stroheim) convinces her that the media covering the murder is really a film crew there for her big scene. As Joe’s voiceover concludes, “The dream she had clung to so desperately had enfolded her.” She descends the staircase and delivers a final, chilling line, “All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.” Norma Desmond is gone forever, but she is where she wants to be, on the screen in her mind. Tragically, she does not receive the happy ending afforded the other four characters, and she represents the dark side of the middle-aged woman.

All in all, Constance MacKenzie, Jane Hudson, Cary Scott, Margo Channing, and Norma Desmond symbolize various incarnations of the middle-aged woman. Older women tend to get overlooked in society for younger and more vibrant models. These characters all spoke to the women in the 1950s, and they still provide astute viewers today with the guidelines for self-examination. More than that, they indicate the flaws still present in today’s society regarding the treatment of women. While they appear wildly different at first glance, these five characters all learn valuable lessons about love and relationships, and most of them triumph. They are connected by desperation, oppression (both external and self-inflicted), fear, insecurity and, most of all, loneliness. Even though they are all middle-aged women, those are feelings that everyone has experienced, and they have nothing to do with age.

Society, Sex, and "The Long, Hot Summer"

Paper Abstract:

Released in 1958 and directed by Martin Ritt, The Long, Hot Summer is a heaving melodrama starring Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, and Orson Welles as members of a Southern town smothered by the oppression of society and smoldering with either untapped or unbridled sexuality. The best melodramas utilize a loud, overt text to cover up a rich, subversive subtext (they can get away with a lot more than other genres in this way), and The Long, Hot Summer is a brilliant example because of the way it scathingly criticizes 1950s American society. The film explicitly deals with issues of conformity, consumerism, marriage, imposed domesticity, and stifled sexuality that were rampant in the 1950s by focusing on one obscenely rich family and their exploits in a small Southern town. Historical information about the 1950s provides a foundation for a detailed discussion of the film and how it coincides with the decade’s ideals, and then dismisses them. One scene in particular between Clara Varner (Woodward) and her father (Welles) highlights the problems plaguing society, and the use of female archetypes emphasizes and attacks the sexual conflicts facing American women in the 1950s and the unreasonable expectations placed upon them by a patriarchal society.

Paper Excerpts:

At the end of The Long, Hot Summer, patriarch Will Varner joyfully proclaims to his soon-to-be wife, “I like life, Minnie. I like it so much, I might just live forever.” However, this cheerful attitude only appears after nearly two hours of serious family dysfunction and confusion. Released in 1958, the film’s chaotic journey to an ultimately peaceful and positive resolution indicates the social climate of America in the 1950s through its exploration of controversial and relevant issues. Emerging from World War II, Americans were far from na├»ve, but the media persisted in promoting the illusion of innocence. The decade witnessed Cold War terror and the spread of a conformist ideology, rampant consumerism, an all-encompassing emphasis on marriage, domesticity, and family, and sexual repression, all themes addressed by The Long, Hot Summer. An important scene in which Will Varner pressures his daughter Clara to get married directly deals with many of these topics. Furthermore, the film’s female archetypes explicitly articulate the conflicts and contradictions concerning sexuality that plagued American women in the 1950s. The Long, Hot Summer consciously reflects its distinct historical context, and it boldly confronts and criticizes American society in the 1950s, specifically through the scene between Will and Clara Varner discussing marriage and the use of female archetypes.

With this scene, the filmmakers exposed the American preoccupation with appearances and conformity created by the Cold War. The only thing that matters to Will is having lots of male grandchildren to carry on the family name, and he does not care how he gets them, even if it means forcing Clara to marry someone she does not love. He seems possessed when he psychotically shouts, “Varners! That’s what I want. Varners. And more Varners. And more Varners still. Enough Varners to infest the countryside.” At this point, it is clear that Will values the idea of grandchildren more than the actual human beings, and he worries that not having any grandchildren will reflect poorly on him. Also, since society expects someone of Clara’s age and status to get married and have a family, Will preys on Clara’s insecurity at still being single. Like women in American society, Clara is expected to fall in line and assume her feminine duties. Will’s verbally abusive tirade emphasizes the ridiculous need of people in the 1950s to conform to unrealistic ideals, and his willingness to sacrifice love and decency to secure his reputation makes a powerful statement that appearances ultimately mean nothing.

For the target female audience, the film offered two opposite examples of older women. Agnes Stewart’s mother is the only female character that acted as a cautionary statement. Extremely manipulative and possessive of her son, she represents everything a mother should not be by smothering Alan to the point of impotence. “She is hanging on to him, keeping him from a normal sex life and marriage so that he will remain the man in her own life” (Basinger 40). For her, sex is immoral, and her obsession with Alan showed women that her ideas about sex were wrong. On the other hand, Minnie Littlejohn deeply loves Will Varner, and her devotion to such an obstinate man displays tremendous character. Also, she is open about her sexuality. When Will tries to reject marriage, she retorts, “Look, honey, it’s no good you trying to tell me you’re too old. I happen to be in a position to deny it.” Her sweet and cheerful disposition, as well as a comfort with her sexuality that directly contradicted the social norm, provided women in the 1950s with a positive role model and the reassurance that sex was a natural part of life.

Married to Clara Varner’s brother, Jody, Eula Varner fills the stereotype of the beautiful and sexually charged woman. Jody wants sex from her all the time, and she obliges. The local boys holler at her all night, and she finds it amusing. Even though everything seems to point to her as a mindless, materialistic sex object, she reveals depth and emotion. She is sensitive to Jody’s depression about his relationship with his father, but she also takes charge of her own sexuality. Finally fed up with Jody’s demands, she tells him, “I sure do wish you’d find yourself some other form of recreation.” At the end, her marriage to Jody reaches a mature level with both of them as equal partners. She is similar to Minnie, because they “end up with what they want by being strong enough to redefine their sexual roles on their own terms” (Basinger 40). The vivacious Eula Varner showed the female audience of the 1950s that it was possible to embrace sexuality and make sex a healthy and enjoyable part of life and marriage.

Out of all the female archetypes in The Long, Hot Summer, Clara Varner is the most complex. While she displays certain stereotypical qualities, such as her identity as a virginal teacher, she breaks the stereotype by showing vulnerability. She is independent and defiant, but she also desperately wants a husband and family. When she meets Ben Quick, he challenges her attitudes about sex. Before he kisses her, he tempts her, “You please me, and I’ll please you.” She slaps him, but then quickly succumbs to his kiss. She is torn between what society expects of her and what she wants. She unconvincingly insists, “I am no trembling little rabbit full of smoldering, unsatisfied desires.” Clearly, she must become comfortable with herself before she can begin a loving and sexual relationship. The film’s ending, which finds Clara finally accepting herself and Ben, was shocking for the time. It boldly states that Clara “ought to free herself from repression and accept sex with a man openly and freely, for pleasure and not just for procreation or marital duty…” (Basinger 40). By presenting the audience with such a strong, intelligent, and relatable character in Clara and showing women their options, the filmmakers expressed their vehement opposition to the sexual repression of the 1950s.

All in all, the filmmakers of The Long, Hot Summer subtly subverted the repressive social climate of the 1950s and proved that many layers existed beneath the surface. Yet despite the biting social commentary, the film ends very optimistically. Eula and Jody mature and understand each other on a deeper level, Will commits to Minnie and also accepts Jody and sees him as a man for the first time, and Clara embraces a healthy sexual relationship with Ben. At the end, all of the characters have transcended their flaws and vices. The film’s theme, celebrating sexual freedom, life, love, and family and denouncing wealth and conformity, definitively rejects the prevailing attitudes of the 1950s. Yet at the same time, it highlights the positive aspects of that society, such as the importance of family. For the audience watching it in the 1950s, The Long, Hot Summer provided insight into their society and even criticized it, but it also gave them a happy ending and hope for a better future.