[Originally published in Movietone News 32, June 1974]
FROM REVERENCE TO RAPE: The Treatment of Women in the Movies. By Molly Haskell. Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, Inc. 416 pages. $10.
Too often, one of the nicest things about having a Cause is that it provides cookie-cutter categorizations for almost every occasion. Human beings can be swiftly shuffled into suits of fascism, racism, male or female chauvinism, or whatever other convenient –ism lies at hand. Given the proper brand of cookie cutter, one can avoid confronting practically anything on its own terms—or in terms which stubbornly transcend or evade easy compartmentalization. The world becomes a neater place, less cluttered with complexities and nagging ambiguities when the brandished talisman of a single point of view sends all of disorderly reality scurrying into a series of carefully labeled cubbyholes.
Critics of the arts find cookie cutters particularly helpful in their craft. Art, you know, has that nasty habit of bursting the seams of the most rigorously contrived critical straitjackets—so much so that it’s still a sneaking suspicion of mine that the best response to a work of art is an eloquent silence. Film critics are not immune to the cookie-cutter syndrome—quite the contrary. The German film historian and theoretician Siegfried Kracauer was already drawing on a time-honored set of assumptions when he laced his tome on the cinema, Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality, with variations on a monolithic theme, that being the motion picture camera’s absolute lust for reality and concomitant abhorrence of the fantastic or surreal, anything but the bare, unvarnished Truth. (So much for Méliès and his successors!) It didn’t require much of a critical leap to arrive at the notion that the masses, the salt of the earth, had cornered the market on reality and truth. Social consciousness, documentary verity, became the sine qua non of the great film for many commentators.
Whatever the theory, the best kind of critic approaches a film with an open mind, a willingness to allow its reality to resist the framework of his critical parameters. The bad critic loves his cookie cutter more than that which it seeks to contain and will ruthlessly shape and name the work under discussion to fit the Procrustean bed of his theory. Example: Several years ago, in The New Yorker, Pauline Kael attacked four films—Dirty Harry, The Cowboys, Straw Dogs, Clockwork Orange—for their unwarranted and immoral use of violence. Once Kael started wielding that cookie cutter of hers, whole arms and legs of cinematic reality were amputated, discarded as irrelevant; plot and character were distorted, reshaped so as to support her point of view.* On the other side of the fence, auteurists are not always exempt from such solipsism: nondirectorial contributions to a film may be lopped off and ignored so that the lineaments of a distinct and all-encompassing directorial personality may emerge in highest relief. God knows it’s an ongoing battle to approach anything or anyone in that state of vulnerability and receptiveness that permits, even invites, the Other to operate autonomously, to surprise us with its own unique reality. So much safer to go armed with a quiver full of preconceptions with which the most recalcitrant of realities may be “fixed with a formulated phrase.”
Thus the current armaments of a rash of would-be film critics and/or historians: come at the movies from a peculiar angle that then can be used to characterize the whole film, its director, its genre, and even its time-frame. This method all too frequently precludes the necessity of knowing anything but the party line of one’s chosen political or sociological persuasion. Consider the ease with which film after film may be categorized if the focus of critical criteria is narrowed down to how blacks, or Indians, or Chicanos, or women, or the bourgeoisie, or the proletariat, or Seventh Day Adventists are portrayed. John Ford’s Judge Priest can be cookie-cutterized into oblivion by the presence of the mumbling, shambling Stepin Fetchit, his westerns can be characterized as one long Indian massacre, and Howard Hawks’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes slides nicely into the slot of rampant male chauvinism, as does any film by Peckinpah or Don Siegel or even Sergio Leone. Examples are a dime a dozen. The point is that such critical revisionism too often distorts and misrepresents in order to maintain the all-important thesis.
Three studies of women in cinema have recently been published: Molly Haskell’s From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies, Marjorie Rosen’s Popcorn Venus: Women, Movies and the American Dream, and Joan Mellen’s Women and Their Sexuality in the New Cinema. Each of these writers is committed to the concept (and cause) of liberated, whole women—a new kind of human being for whom the cookie-cutter definitions and degradations of the past will be irrelevant, merely evolutionary memories. Their assessments of the kind and quality of roles women have played in American and foreign films indicate the extent to which their vision is larger than their immediate subject, the extent to which they are women locked into a single point of view, or human beings with multiple vantage points from which to survey the world of film—the world in general. In my opinion, only Haskell consistently manages this last feat, although both Rosen and Mellen show themselves occasionally capable of transcending the self-imposed limitations of a one-way avenue into film.
Haskell’s introductory thesis posits the necessity of searching history for clues to the present and future of the liberated woman and suggests that film may be “one of the clearest and most accessible looking glasses into the past.” She is immediately aware of the pitfalls of revisionism, the dead-end result of imposing our present standards upon the past (the cookie-cutter syndrome) and thereby killing the very thing we seek to understand (and even appreciate) in its own context. Haskell makes herself eminently vulnerable to the blinkered feminists who have only one hobbyhorse to ride by revealing that she possesses multiple ways of seeing and cannot promise to squeeze reality into false frames of reference dictated by the party line:
“The fact that I consider myself a film critic first and a feminist second means that I feel an obligation to the wholeness and complexities of film history. It means that art will always take precedence over sociology, the unique over the general. Hence, I have tried to suggest films that deviate from, as well as those that conform to, the pattern: the dialectic between past and present that I see as the major theme of, and logical approach to, the treatment of women in the movies.”
Haskell applies a sort of auteurist concept to the quality of women’s roles in film; she notes that it’s a mistake “to assume that only in ‘male’ roles can women fulfill themselves … to take labels and conventions at face value … Although professions and plot synopses are important, they convey little of the sense of identity transmitted through personality.” If the tension between directorial personality and material is catalytic and productive (according to auteur critics like Andrew Sarris), so too is the tension between stereotyped roles and what an actress’s personality and charisma may make of them.
Inherent in such a theory is the caveat that films must be watched in order to make legitimate judgments about them: no mere plot summary could convey the phenomenon of personality in motion. (One remembers with disgust the pages and pages of The Only Good Indian containing list after list of films which the authors had categorized by the bare bones of content and plot, or even title—that is to say, by whether or not there were Indians in them.) Thus, when Haskell takes on D.W. Griffith’s quintessentially Victorian heroines, especially Lillian Gish, she is not content to casually write them off as epitomizing passive, asexual martyrs constantly menaced by lecherous male chauvinist swine. In one glowingly insightful sentence she manages to contain and elucidate many of the contradictions in Griffith and Gish, as well as Victorian mores themselves: “[Lillian Gish’s] movements—her agitated gestures and flutteriness—can be more erotic than the explicit semaphore of the vamp, since they suggest the energy of pent-up sexuality engaged in its own suppression.” Indeed, to go a step farther, at times Gish’s movements freeze into exaggerated jerks and halts as though the mechanics of suppression had locked gears and the woman were turning automaton before our very eyes. Haskell has room in her thesis for these complexities because she is interested in possibilities (clues) rather than piling up evidence against our unliberated past.
Her discussion of the misogyny she finds in Chaplin and, to a lesser extent, in Keaton is intriguing on a number of fronts. Just as the casual viewer of or writer about film might miss the suppressed sexuality of a super-chaste Lillian Gish, so might he or she see only wide-eyed adoration of and yearning after woman in these comic artists’ films (excluding Chaplin’s explicit Monsieur Verdoux). But as Haskell points out, this “excess of reverence” for women can only result in, indeed demands, disillusionment and subsequent contempt. Like the contained explosiveness of Gish’s gestures, this reverence that reeks of idolatry is another index to the complexity of Victorian morality.
The superficial strictures and outward forms of that morality held fast even in the flapper/flaming-youth films of the Twenties. For, as Haskell notes, the flapper merely flirts with sin, retreating into the proprieties when things threaten to get out of hand. She makes a telling comparison between the sexual bravado of the “It” girl, Clara Bow, and Jane Fonda’s ultramodern Bree Daniels in Klute: “It is the bravado … of a woman afraid of losing control, and there is not much difference between Clara Bow, who does it with no one, and [Bree], who does it with everyone; both are women going about the business of saving their fragile egos and both are in danger of losing their souls.”
Haskell is sensitive to the permutations of meaning that can arise from such a split between style and content: thus, she can see that Bree Daniels, by performing any act (she is an actress) her clients desire, remains spiritually, psychically as much a virgin as her flapper predecessor. Conversely, in an admirably concise commentary on Josef von Sternberg’s oeuvre, Haskell writes, “…it is man who is initially blind, who has separated style from content in the codes he lives by, and whose judgment is clouded by self-importance. The trappings of Sternbergian décor … conspire not to obscure, nor merely enhance, but to reveal, to expose, slowly and ironically, the nature of woman in whom style and sensibility, role and reality, are one.”
In terms of their sexual lives, at least, the heroines of pre–Production Code years managed to pretty much close the gap between “style and sensibility.” Haskell calls that brief span in the early Thirties “one of the truly ‘liberated’ periods of cinema” and its stars—Garbo, Dietrich, Mae West and Jean Harlow—all “sensualists without guilt.” She sees Garbo and Dietrich, both characterized as essentially androgynous creatures, as incarnations of two distinct concepts of sexuality, one of which (Garbo’s) could be construed as peculiarly American in nature and the other (Dietrich’s) possessing more affinities with the European sensibility. Garbo’s sex verges on the religious: she asks for and offers transfiguring love, love that demands crucifixion into an eternity of spiritual bliss. Her suffering—and secondarily, almost irrelevantly, that of her lover—is as consecratedly voluptuous as that of Christian martyrs and mystics. Not by accident does she in film after film fall (like Mary Magdalene), perform pilgrimages and penance, and ultimately die of love. Haskell perceives that Garbo remains “from moment to redeemed moment, a spiritual virgin”; the blunter truth is that it’s impossible to believe she ever took the fall that eternally reiterates our mythic parents’ sin and the punitive mortality to which that sin condemned us.
Like Mae West and Jean Harlow, the heat and odor of Dietrich’s sexuality is carnal, human, and fallible. Dietrich refuses the lure of Garbo’s mystic innocence; she is too much a post-Edenic exile to believe that love immortalizes or even lasts a lifetime. She opts for the pleasures of the here and now, though she knows that the very act of sex may bring her and her lover that much closer to death. Though she is capable of raising sexual aesthetics to an acme of perfection, she is also perverse enough to expose the essential ludicrousness of making the beast with two backs, not to mention all of the brouhaha with which human beings approach and idealize the act. If Garbo implied that a grand passion might make gods of us all, Dietrich, with all of her rich beauty and carnal promise, rubs our noses in the interconnectedness of sex and death, and reminds us, in her taste for the sensual life, that the grave may be a fine and pleasant place, but none—she knows—do there embrace.
According to Haskell, the sex goddess in America has most often been “sanitized” and elevated into a realm of innocence that precludes the actualities and experience of real sexuality. America’s sex goddesses, forever young, forever antiseptically alluring, function as emblems of sexuality who are never—or hardly ever—called upon to deliver the goods. For “the goods” would serve to make men too painfully aware of woman’s “otherness,” her inherent involvement in the biological realities of birth and death. The terrible and destructive innocence American men require of their women was the subject of writers from the very beginning of the Great Experiment. In a short story called “The Birthmark” by Nathaniel Hawthorne, a scientist marries a young and beautiful girl whose only blemish is a rosy birthmark in the shape of a tiny hand on her cheek. The husband becomes obsessed with this mark, to the point of devising an operation to remove it. The girl, out of love, accedes to surgery and, inevitably, dies. What makes that birthmark intolerable to the perfectionist husband is its suggestiveness—in shape and coloration—of the girl’s (and by extension his) mortality, the inescapable biological realities of actual, unidealized women who menstruate, give birth, grow old and die. She dies because in attempting to make her a goddess he cuts her off from that which makes her human. Perhaps in this peculiarly American obsession (which is just another byproduct of the Edenic dream Americans have, from the very beginning, tried to impose on their brave new world), one can see the reasons for the communal castigation of Ingrid Bergman when she descended from that stake of luminous martyrdom in order to get herself with child—out of wedlock yet—and star in earthy Italian melodramas. Equally, though Marilyn Monroe’s breasts constantly threatened to fall out of her dress, though her nether regions were coyly exposed by convenient sidewalk updrafts, though all of her promised sex to poor little wimps like Tom Ewell and Charles Coburn, there never was a real roll in the hay in the offing—not until The Misfits, anyway, and then she was on the edge of death, after which she got reconsecrated as goddess all over again.
The majority of post–Production Code heroines—Katharine Hepburn, Rosalind Russell, Jean Arthur—fall outside, ‘way outside, the category of sex goddess. The Hays Office may have managed to suppress Mae West’s salty upfront sexuality, but sex and sexiness merely went underground, changed style to suit the occasion. Goddesses these women were not: they were down-to-earth types who held jobs, dressed functionally, and talked a blue streak. Their sexiness often resided in the grace and tough angularity of their wit and style, their expertise in the verbal parry and riposte. In the movies, at least, men were secure enough to share home ground with gutsy, competitive women like Irene Dunne (in The Awful Truth but not Penny Serenade) and Carole Lombard (Twentieth Century) who gave as good as they got. In Sylvia Scarlett, Brian Aherne (beskirted in a monk’s robe) confronts a coltish girl (Hepburn) instead of the graceful boy he had initially been attracted to. His undefensive and hilarious response: “I wondered why you made me feel so queer!” (Imagine what would have been made of such a sex reversal in the “liberated” Seventies.) Hepburn (again) acts as the anarchic agent of Cary Grant’s liberation from asexual superrationality in Bringing Up Baby (the title refers as much to Grant as to the leopard named Baby in the film), while Grant returns the favor in His Girl Friday by saving star reporter Rosalind Russell from a fate worse than death: suburban housewifery at the side of dull-witted insurance man Ralph Bellamy. However, not all Thirties heroines channeled their sexuality so creatively, Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett O’Hara, for instance, preferred to maternalize first the effeminately romantic Leslie Howard and then Tara, rather than succumb to the real passion Gable’s Rhett Butler might arouse in her. (Butler himself redirects his frustrated sexuality into affection for his daughter.) Like Clara Bow and Jane Fonda’s Bree Daniels, Scarlett fears loss of self, of power and control, in sex. All of Irene Dunne’s and Cary Grant’s initial sexual charm and intimacy dwindles into a sickly obsession with parenthood in Penny Serenade, so much so that they can hardly sustain their relationship without the mediation of a child’s presence.
Despite the fact that the films of the Thirties were rife with potent women—whether healthily or neurotically preoccupied—Haskell notes that love was still seen as the ultimate goal of womanhood. She might engage in the most complex of verbal and/or professional duels with her men, but when the woman won, as she frequently did, the prize was still and always love and marriage. As Haskell comments, cinematic heroines, like their literary counterparts, rarely managed “to define their lives morally rather than romantically.” Nowhere is this more evident than in Haskell’s chapter titled “The Woman’s Film.”
The woman’s film as a genre is usually held in contempt by laymen and male critics alike: like “girl talk,” the preoccupations of these films are seen to be demeaning or irrelevant to the normal (read adolescent in this context) male. Haskell, having fairly noted that the genre, like any other, contains good and bad films, proceeds to suggest some of the recurring themes in the woman’s film, themes which reveal the limited territory in which women traditionally define themselves as moral beings:
* Sacrifice either herself for her children, her children for their own welfare, marriage for her lover, her career for love, love for her career;
* Affliction – the woman suffers from some incurable disease, her doctor-lover saves her or loses her, either way she behaves “finely and beautifully”;
* Choice – which suitor will the lady gift with her love?;
* Competition – battle for someone else’s husband, fiancé, lover.
In all of these categories, love or some mutation thereof is the motivating force for the bittersweet agony of moral choice. At times, even in the best of these films, one’s gorge rises and one wants to shake these victims into subversiveness. The sacrifices too often are clubs with which maternal martyr-tyrants beat their children into grateful submission or, worse yet, the ungrateful brats treat immolated mama to a perfect orgasm of suffering—which we are to buy as a convulsion of noble proportions. Haskell suspects too that the “constant inclusion [of children] in narratives where their presence is not required is compensation for women’s guilt, for the deep, inadmissible feelings of not wanting children, or not wanting them unreservedly…” Why does Joan Crawford’s Daisy Kenyon have to be locked into making a choice between Dana Andrews and Henry Fonda—who at times behave more like vultures than suitors? One wishes for the sweet reasonableness—and realism—of the Cooper–March–Hopkins ménage à trois in Ernst Lubitsch’s Design for Living. And in Dark Victory, isn’t Bette Davis the rebel, the driven, nearly alcoholic shrew, really more invigorating and believable than what her stolid, unimaginative doctor-husband finally makes of her: that insufferably noble dying swan planting his favorite flowers in the penultimate moments of her life? Early on, Davis is forced to admit that her life of ease isn’t really as important, as useful as that of George Brent’s brain surgeon. Only when her life is forfeit to brain cancer so that his love for her inspires him to brilliant research in the field does Davis become really “useful.” All too truly, in her flippant phase, did Davis refer to herself as Brent’s “guinea pig.” She gets to play either a sick little girl—”Father, I cannot tell a lie” (to Brent from her sickbed)—or beneficent mother to her childishly lost and brokenhearted best friend (Geraldine Fitzgerald) and husband—whom she betroths practically on her deathbed—but perhaps she is perversely most adult when she rebels against the knowledge of her own imminent death, behaving not “beautifully and finely,” but humanly.
Haskell maintains a fair and objective critical stance vis-à-vis these sometimes infuriating, sometimes transcendent films. Whether they too frequently confirmed woman in her role as quintessential victim or offered legitimate avenues of escape (if only into fantasies of perfect love), they did guarantee her center stage—a position she seldom attained on film or in life. As Haskell notes, these films remain an invaluable sociological record, if nothing else: “Because the woman’s film was designed for and tailored to a certain market, its recurrent themes represent the closest thing to an expression of the collective drives, conscious and unconscious, of American women, of their avowed obligations and their unconscious resistance.”
Haskell’s discussion of films in the Forties is predicated on her apprehension of the decade’s persuasive pessimism “whether explicit in the films noirs or suggested in the suppressed hysteria and emotional disproportion of the sentimental films…” Women, empedestaled in the Twenties, on somewhat equal ground in the Thirties, frequently seemed to have come straight from Hell in the Forties. The sexual dueling, the love games of near-equals, of the previous decade turned murderous in films like The Lady from Shanghai, Out of the Past, Double Indemnity, The Maltese Falcon, and Scarlet Street. Haskell sees treacherously seductive “dames” like Rita Hayworth, Veronica Lake, Jane Greer, Mary Astor et al. as figures out of a masculine fantasy, their destructive power “a projection of man’s feeling of impotence.” Perhaps so, but why that particular fantasy, and at that particular time? Had the war so unmanned American males that women seemed just another way to die? Did the emergence of women as a viable working force during the war so threaten the male ego that in revenge he gave unconscious birth to paragons of venality like Jane Greer and Mary Astor? Or were these fantasies always latent in the masculine psyche? Was this darkly predatory and aggressive figure that which men had always tried to exorcise by turning their women into clinging children or long-suffering mothers? Did the aura of apocalypse and postwar disillusionment set her free in men’s psyches? Haskell remarks that even the patient Griseldas of the war years exuded an odor of emotional instability, so that their endless fortitude became as suspect as the overt prevarication and disloyalty of a Brigid O’Shaughnessy.
Haskell’s assessment, in this chapter and elsewhere, of women’s roles and treatment in the films of Howard Hawks is almost always provocative and interesting. However, although I may be reading too much into her exegesis, she seems at times to be somewhat ambivalent, even apologetic, in her appreciation of Hawks’s work—almost as though she admires him, his world, in spite of herself, in spite of what she perhaps feels she ought to think as at least a nominal member of the liberal Eastern critical establishment. I attribute the implications of the following statement to that suspected split between head and heart: “…one feels behind Hawks’ world the influence of a specific social context: American W.A.S.P. upper-middle-class, cleancut, genuinely athletic.” Well, maybe so … if you discount a great portion of the psychological content of these films. Hawks’s groups are too obsessed with darkness and death, with a fatalistic apprehension of chance and existential absurdities to be (only) American Adams; it’s not by accident that the French tuned in to what Hawks was about long before homegrown critics did.
As Haskell herself has pointed our, Americans have a profound distaste for the odor of death—thus, their tendency to “sanitize, to euphemize its reality whenever and wherever possible.” The athletics in Hawks, like the verbal gymnastics, are a way to keep in motion, to avoid being a sitting duck for whatever death is in the neighborhood, and to preserve dignity—like Hemingway’s people who “behave well” in the face of nada, his old men who are “in despair” but drink quietly and courteously in clean well-lighted bars. The Hawksian fellowship, far from being a kind of adolescent fraternity replete with secret codes and a male buddy system, is nearly religious in character: the men and women who compose such groups have devised (after rigorous training) a means of living ethically, even nobly, in spite of their bedrock sense of being ultimately expendable not at the hand of some Christian god who will then pack them into Heaven, but as the chance casualties of whatever force or agency death arbitrarily chooses to employ. Death falls where it wishes, but it falls with finality. Hawks’s people verbally disguise the important ways of being, seeing, loving in metaphor, wisecracks, and innocuous little words like “good” so that even meaning stays on the move, never residing too long, too weightily in one place for fear of inviting its own destruction. The Metaphysical poets of the 17th century had much the same sense of linguistic drama used to dance one’s mortality, one’s death to a temporary truce. It is this sensibility that Haskell speaks to when she writes, “In Hawks’ best films, there is a sense of playacting for real, of men and women thrusting themselves ironically at each other, auditioning for acceptance, but finding out in the process who they really are.”
This is very fine. So fine, in fact, that Haskell does herself as well as Hawks a disservice when she glibly (and inaccurately) characterizes Jean Arthur’s role in Only Angels Have Wings in the following manner: “…Jean Arthur provides an alternative to the all-male world of stoical camaraderie on the one hand, and to the destructive femininity represented by Rita Hayworth on the other, but what an alternative! A man dies trying to land a plane in a storm in time for a date with her, she breaks down in defiance of the prevailing stiff-upper-lip ethic, and thereafter she hangs around like a puppy dog waiting for Cary Grant to fall in love with her.”
Down the line, not so. Jean Arthur is not somehow to blame for the pilot’s death as Haskell implies. No more so than “Dutchy” for hiring him, Grant for sending him up, the fog or the tree for being there, as Grant explains to Arthur when she is on the edge of a destructive mea culpa trip (“Forget it unless you want the honor”). Responsibility for his death rests with the pilot himself (he just wasn’t “good enough,” in Hawksian terms); it cannot be shifted to the circumstances which surrounded the death. As for breaking down, it’s Arthur’s timing, not her grief, that’s criticized: she wants to engage in a communal crying jag, and such a group retains its sanity, its courage, by adhering to certain forms, one of which is that grief is private, individual, while a “good” face must be worn in public for the sake of morale. Grant, Thomas Mitchell, and “Sparks” the radio man all break down, weep, at one time or another (“Sparks” tells Arthur he behaved exactly as she did when he first arrived), but even Mitchell’s dying must be endure d alone. As for hanging around like a puppy dog, Arthur is no more guilty of this than is Grant’s beloved sidekick Kid (Mitchell), who’s been grounded due to failing vision. The simple fact is she doesn’t fly and that’s what’s done a lot around the joint (although these fliers, like all Hawks people, gab away for dear life—and the garrulous Arthur is no hanger-on in these sorting-out sessions). What does the distrusted and despised Richard Barthelmess do but hang around like a pariah nobody wants except for jobs no one else will take? He, like Arthur, is getting tested, honed, trained to become a full-fledged member of the Hawksian circle.
Since Haskell is usually so scrupulous in avoiding generalizations that subvert complexities, this lapse is all the more glaring. Arthur may not be in the same class with Lauren Bacall’s “Slim” (To Have and Have Not) and Angie Dickinson’s “Feathers” (Rio Bravo), but she isn’t the (to borrow a Frank Capra phrase) “goop” she’s made out to be in Angels when Haskell goes so far as to term her the “sobbing stone around the collective neck of civil aviation.”
But onward, if not upward, into the era of “breast fetishism and Lolita lechery”—the films of the Fifties. Haskell is right to read these preoccupations as retrograde in nature, as an attempt to recover a lost, if rather dubious, sexual innocence. When sexiness resides exclusively in oversized mammaries and pubescent girls, then you can bet that men are beating a hasty retreat from grownup, real, live sex back into the non-threatening arms of Mama or Papa’s little girl who never puts out, whose allure is all the more titillating for being forbidden.
Mama, Papa’s little girl, and the ubiquitous girl next door (“professional virgins” like Debbie Reynolds and, despite Haskell, Doris Day) represented the good guys of Fifties sexual fantasies. The villain in the piece, not surprisingly, was a woman who was not really a woman, but a projection of man’s own homosexual or heterosexual insecurities and fears. To some extent, she is the same old fantasy of woman as receptacle of those biological verities American men (and women, too) seem to want to excise from reality. Men may turn vain, narcissistic, in their fear of physical decay and death, but as Haskell points out, it is in the nature of things that women must act out these concerns because only they are permitted such self-absorption and “immaturity.” Age cannot wither nor custom stale Mama, Papa’s little girl, and the girl next door; they are thrust outside time to live in a kind of sexual bell jar, images of untouched, unchanging eroticism—eroticism born of a lust for permanence, immortality. Men work off the necessary underside of such a fantasy in movies like Sunset Blvd and All about Eve, in which Gloria Swanson and Bette Davis are shape-changers not only in their vulnerability to age but also in their profession as actresses. Haskell suggests that distrust of the actress in Fifties films grew out of “a split between woman and persona,” and that role-playing came to mean lying, and “lying is a woman’s game.” Back to the paranoid Forties and Brigid O’Shaughnessy, the most expert shape-changer in the book—or rather, in the movies.
The punishment for resisting typecasting, the deepfreeze of imposed roles in which one wears only one mask, one costume, is to be laughed off the stage, pitied out of the theater—the play is cancelled due to age. For such women are forced to behave as though the advent of one’s fortieth—or even thirtieth—birthday signals obligatory withdrawal into an old folks’ home. In All about Eve, and in the less well-known Old Acquaintance, Bette Davis, maturely beautiful woman that she is, has got to go around agonizing over her age, her fears of being sexually over-the-hill, ridiculous, in respect to her (somewhat) younger lovers. The truly sensual Anne Bancroft is made to come on like a child-molesting pervert in The Graduate nearly raping the nervously virginal Benjamin, practically psychopathic in her menopausal jealousy of her daughter. In America, older (and old) men—but not women—are fit consorts for the nubile young. On the other hand, in France the older woman is handy to have around for sexual initiation—even Mother can do the trick (v. Murmur of the Heart)—but ultimately she serves only as a steppingstone to a lasting arrangement with a younger woman. American filmmakers have recently imported this theme, but characteristically not before they had “sanitized” it by having ripe old ladies like Jacqueline Bisset (The First Time) and Jennifer O’Neill (Summer of ’42) bed down with barely post-adolescent boys, their sexual encounters as erotic as a beddy-byes lullaby. (Perhaps not such an apt simile: Dietrich, in Blonde Venus, made singing a lullaby to her son Dickie Moore a pretty sexy affair!) Maybe the land of the free just isn’t ready for moving pictures about women yet; one sometimes suspects that its collective mentality has been mesmerized by a daguerreotype image of an eternally smiling, forever fair … Barbie doll.
To sum up the Fifties, at least in part: Marilyn Monroe’s curvilinear body reclining in permanently suspended animation, calendar art that chronicles no seasons, only an eternal, inviolate here and now.
Haskell suggests that many European filmmakers contain their portraits of women within even more limited frames of reference than do their American counterparts. Because they have traditionally exerted more conscious artistic control over their work, often writing their own screenplays or coming up with seminal ideas for their films, the women they create are creatures of an individual (male) imagination, limned in from very personal preoccupations (which may stem from specific artistic interest in certain themes, but may also be contaminated by extra-filmic involvement: consider the art/life collaborations of Godard and Anna Karina, Vadim and Bardot, Vadim and Fonda, Chabrol and Stéphane Audran, Truffaut and Deneuve, Fellini and Giulietta Masina, Rossellini and Ingrid Bergman, Antonioni and Monica Vitti, Bergman and Liv Ullmann, et al.). Add to this the cultural mindset of many Europeans that polarizes women into two camps, the madonna or the whore, and the cinematic climate is ripe for a veneration—or contempt—that can kill or, at best, immobilize. Thus, Haskell feels that, in general, the American woman “can more easily invent herself … strike back” against the mighty male cookie cutter. To the extent, of course, that certain European directors possess wide-ranging, humanistic (rather than chauvinistic) imaginations, their conceptions of women are moving pictures of (semi-)autonomous beings. These women still do not, for the most part, define themselves morally, but they are often afforded considerably more latitude in which to explore their romantic or, more accurately in this context, their sensual identities.
Jeanne Moreau may be an anti-liberationist, but she’s been able to embody some of the most truly sensual moments the screen has had to offer; she is allowed the sort of grownup sexuality that American actresses like Anne Bancroft are denied. Stéphane Audran, for all the middle-class perversity which pervades Chabrol’s films, for all that she has been labeled “predatory” lesbian in Les Biches, can still make the small hairs rise when she purrs Jacqueline Sassard’s name, can display a poise, a self-containment American women lost after the Thirties and Forties as she saunters down a provincial village street in Le Boucher. As compared to women like Moreau, Audran, and Liv Ullmann, a self-styled sensualist like the pouting, puppyish Maria Schneider comes off a poor second, so that Last Tango in Paris—for me—lacks the eroticism (on the distaff side, at least) that Haskell attributes to Bertolucci’s study in the “de-repression of a woman.” Europe’s Barbie dolls have only a slight edge on America’s in matters sexual.
Meanwhile, back in America, the last decade, according to Haskell—and I couldn’t agree more—hasn’t had much to offer in the way of choice film roles for women. The Sixties and Seventies look—so far—like a grab-bag of previous cinematic themes and preoccupations gone sour, got up in drag, or done to death. Mama is more harpy than madonna, Papa’s little girl has turned “malevolent minx … waiting to lure a man to his ruin,” and the girl next door is more often than not a man. “Androgynous” actors like Peter Fonda, Marlon Brando, Bob Dylan, Richard Chamberlain, Michael York, Ryan O’Neal, Al Pacino—Haskell lists many more—”have [morally and aesthetically] appropriated characteristics that once attached to movie heroines: the glamour, the sensitivity, the coyness, the narcissism, the purity, the passivity, the self-pity.” Richard Lester’s The Three Musketeers genially celebrates the beauty and charm of young men (among other things); York, Chamberlain, Reed, and Simon Ward constitute the romantic focal points, not Raquel Welch who is gently tweaked at every turn for her clumsy femininity, not Faye Dunaway whose Milady is a restrained, more appealing version of the castrating bitch who haunts homosexual (and heterosexual) fantasies. No one who goes to movies at all these days can fail to notice the recent proliferation of “male buddy” films, in which women are mostly peripheral, irrelevant, or intrusive. The quality of these films varies, as in any other genre—the question here is why so many and why now? How come the guys are ganging up, taking a powder from the heterosexual arena (by which I don’t necessarily mean they’ve turned queer)? On the one side of the fence, the boys are dressing up like gangsters, cops, sailors, doctors, backpackers and cowboys (real and New York Times Square style)—no girls allowed. Meanwhile, what women there are in the movies can’t seem to find any game to play, with or without the guys. In desperation they take lovers, seek therapy, consider suicide—withdraw into catatonic despair.
In Klute, Jane Fonda’s Bree Daniels eschews the conflict altogether by girding herself in the armor of the actress, changing face to suit whatever masculine fantasy gets laid on her. Not for Bree, vulnerability, loss of control: she is the ultimate noli me tangere girl—touching, being touched, equals pain. If men define her according to their limited erotic ideals, she can always one-up them in the knowledge of her conscious control of any number of masks—behind which her identity remains inviolate, her own.
Perhaps machismo is a man’s defense against the same fear of intimacy, the opening up of one’s self to the Other—an act of faith that too often diminishes, rather than enlarges. Haskell rightly quotes The Godfather and Clockwork Orange as prime examples of the macho mentality, rightly suggests that such machismo represents the hard-on response to self-doubt, sexual insecurity, but wrongly, and too casually, writes Sam Peckinpah off as just another one of the boys: “What is alarming is not that an old geezer like Sam Peckinpah should wish to bathe his twilight years in the blood of ‘macho’ fantasies like Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, but that young college-grad writers like Rudolph Wurlitzer (Pat Garrett) and John Milius (screenwriter of Jeremiah Johnson, director-writer of Dillinger), who are even farther removed from the myths of the Old West and the ‘pioneer’ mentality, should take up the sexist cudgel so enthusiastically…” Putdown (and rather purple) rhetoric like this doesn’t adequately take on Peckinpah—even if he really was what Haskell thinks he is. And what’s the nearly buried implication of that “college grad”? I suspect that it has to do with that old New York liberal/intellectual syndrome and, further, that what Haskell has against Peckinpah is what occasionally makes her balk at Hawks, with whom the “old geezer” has much in common. More of that in a moment, but first, shouldn’t Haskell make some critical distinctions here between good and mediocre movies (surely she must see that Pat Garrett isn’t in the same class with films like Dillinger, Jeremiah Johnson), between Peckinpah’s larger themes and Milius’s adolescent notions about guns and going back to nature, between a director who’s truly one of the “poets of violence” (Haskell’s phrase) and one who pretty much just likes to kill people? I mean, aside from who’s carrying the sexist cudgel and all that. Haskell is, after all, by her own admission, a film critic first, a feminist second—and here, by juxtaposition, she implies that Wurlitzer and Milius are in the same league, thematically and stylistically, with Peckinpah—an equation I can’t believe that even Peckinpah’s worst critics would buy.
I have my own quarrel with some of Peckinpah’s women (and his frequent exclusion of them); but that quarrel has never prevented me from appreciating his men in some of the same ways I’ve empathized with Hawksian heroes—or even Kurosawa’s seven samurai with whom Peckinpah’s left-over lawmen also have much in common. In Pat Garrett, Peckinpah’s men have lived out of their time and context, have become superfluous, must either live ignobly on or find a way to die with dignity. They are of the same breed as Cable Hogue, the Wild Bunch, Gil Westrum and Steven Judd before them, but in Pat Garrett Peckinpah works a variation on the theme: his men give each other death out of love and mutual respect. This love between men—expressed frequently in antagonistic modes—this respect for professionalism as a form of integrity, and lastly, the preoccupation with the “fabulous melancholy” of strong men growing old and out of joint with their times—these are all Hawksian, as well as Peckinpavian, themes (v. Red River, Rio Bravo, and especially El Dorado). I suppose James Fenimore Cooper might be considered a macho artist, too: his Deerslayer rather preferred Chingachgook to the ladies—but Peckinpah always makes me think of Deerslayer, grown old, steadily moving west so that he may die with his back turned on encroaching civilization, his eyes closing on all that’s left of the American frontier.
After my first viewing of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, I dropped in on a party composed mainly of academic types. I got into one of those intense conversations with a couple of women there, trying to explain how moved I’d been by Peckinpah’s concept of friendship, by the notion of a shared professionalism that could bind men together in dependable loyalty and love. My inquiries as to whether they’d ever wished for such friendship, ever wondered why only men seemed to achieve it, elicited some polite noises, blank faces, and finally talk turned back to babies and dissertations (really). I imagine that Ms. Haskell might take exception to my concluding an appreciation of her book on a Peckinpavian note. But perhaps she would appreciate the spirit, if not the source, for she closes From Reverence to Rape with the following plaint: “Where, oh where, is the camaraderie, the much-vaunted mutual support among women? It was there, without advertising itself, in the twenties: among Griffith’s women, with Clara Bow and her college pals; in the thirties, among the gold diggers, with Kay Francis and Aline MacMahon and Eve Arden, and in the advice and support of older women like Binnie Barnes and Billie Burke; in the forties, with Bette Davis and her female costars; even in the fifties, with Marilyn Monroe and her millionaire-hunting friends. But where, in the movies and out, are their modern equivalents?”
[To be continued in MTN 33]
* See Kathleen Murphy’s “O Kael Can You See by the Screen’s Glimm’ring Light,” MTN 13.
Copyright © 1974 by Kathleen Murphy