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.
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 naïve, 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.