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Film Essay

The Devil and Mr. Barrymore

“As in other creative fields, the term artist is carelessly used in the theatre. There are more turners over of old, exhausted earth than breakers of untouched soil. It was Barrymore’s complete devotion to creation that made him the true artist and, I believe, the only full grown theatre artist of our time. As applied to him the word towering had true meaning. He found the heights and there his banner will fly as long as there lives one whose shining eyes look up to it.”

– Arthur Hopkins

The youth of John Barrymore belonged to his feelings that he would become an artist. Despite an acting lineage that impressed on him every growing year his duty to claim a place among their ranks, Jack dedicated himself to the quieter artistic practice. It was in the younger years of this persuasion that Jack received notice from his superiors that his drawings within the walls of a Catholic boys’ school were too much of the macabre sort, concerningly so. At one time in his career at the convent school, Jack was handed Dante’s Inferno to read as a punishment, with illustrations by Gustave Doré that he took a great shine to. Jack soon began turning out his own haunting reproductions of monsters and the Devil, most unwelcome and unpopular in his education. “Why do you draw pictures of the Bad Man and monsters?” he was once asked by Sister Vincent of the convent school. Jack answered simply: “Because I see them in my sleep.”

A pair of sunken eyes, a gloss of permanent grey over what once might have been called deep blue, green-hazel, or what his brother referred to in later years as “bloodshot,” might have given away the otherwise elusive true age of a man, who retained much of his youthful abandon until the end of his days. On the marriage license to his third wife Dolores Costello, he gave the age of thirty-seven against his true forty-six. Thirty-seven, in fact, was the decided age of John Sidney Blyth for much of his adult life, and Barrymore the name he was given at birth, the exact time it was decided he would become an actor. Through a more comprehensive study, who the real John Barrymore was might be revealed, a full portrait of himself on willing display despite these and other constant diversions. His profession, too, might suggest a man who was constantly at odds with himself, but this, like much of his personal happenings, had never been concealed or made to cover the cracks in the surface. It is interesting his disaffection toward the facades of celebrity, neither embracing a persona nor rejecting the funny terms it had him carry out for public appeal; instead he kept the joke on the inside, where only he and a few lucky souls were allowed to sneer at. It’s true that Barrymore was a man of deep internal unrest, with a legacy that compliments this popular thought. But of course, that is only a half-truth. In his youth Jack would draw monsters from the depths of hell and perhaps those he imagined here on Earth, too. In his youth Jack would slip into deep dazes of intense thought, and as an adult he was known to enter London fogs and disappear for hours at a time. After he would enter these liminal spaces of contemplative existence, he would emerge unchanged. As a natural Byronism made him an actor, a good humor kept him sane, and so he would pretend with every performance that he was, just like his incredible ability to attach and detach himself with ease in life, unaffected. And indeed he was, all through his life, a great pretender.

***

Born in 1882, Jack was the youngest of the three Barrymore children, the first class of Barrymores to appear in motion pictures, and between his siblings Lionel and Ethel, was the last to join his family’s great legacy on the stage. Like Lionel, who was of the reluctant sort, too, Jack waded in less fantastic artistic waters for as long as possible, postponing but never rejecting the inevitable. As a young man of 18, Jack had a job as a political cartoonist for the Evening Journal, where his sketches of plenty were completed almost always in haste, and though showed promise of artistic skill, he lacked complete structure in the discipline. Perhaps more interesting to note in Jack’s short career as a published artist than his employment record, was one criticism he received for illustrations he submitted to Cosmopolitan in 1902. His drawings, “Despair,” “Unrest,” “Fear,” and “Jealousy” received note that “Barrymore would only achieve greatness when he flung away his vision of a man defeated to show a man triumphant.” The illustrations of Doré were manifest in Jack. An inability to capture the pleasures of man in his accessible artistic feats suggest he had decided to live tormented by the unseen haunts of the world, but that is looking too far into the mythos of Hamlet and the actor who would go on to portray him consummately. To understand why it is that his illustrations and his later goliath achievements as an actor were always overburdened by unrest, we must look to Jack in his fifteenth year. It was in this year that Jack had taken to the care of his beloved grandmother Louisa Lane Drew (“Mummum”), who had led him and his siblings with a ferocity of spirit not one of them would forget, but especially not Jack. Her death in 1897 was a devastation Jack would bear into his adulthood, clear through his last days. Also in his fifteenth year, there emerges the reputed story of Jack’s seduction by a thirty-two-year-old Mamie Floyd, his stepmother. This event is looked upon as formative in Jack’s development, especially by his friend and biographer Gene Fowler, who suggested this of the engagement:

“The strange circumstances attending this initiation of the adolescent dreamer, the impact of the event upon an imaginative mind, may provide the key to a better understanding of the emotional conflicts, the jealousies, the extreme behaviorisms that made a jigsaw puzzle of Barrymore’s later years. It may be that even his interpretation of Hamlet’s problem rested somewhat upon the consequences of Jack’s own debut in the bedroom of a young woman currently the loved one of Maurice Barrymore, his father.”

In accounting for the impressionable boy to whom this intimate adult interaction was forced upon, Fowler engages in this traumatic event from Jack’s childhood with an informed grasp on the older Barrymore, who would often lose his grips on his romantic relationships for elusive reasons. While Fowler does this, he also makes note of perhaps an early influence of Jack’s Hamlet. What is key here, and what is key in considering Jack’s life as an artist, is his perpetual Shakespearean association to a detriment; the harshest depths of his personal and professional upset would never escape comparison to his eminent Hamlet. We may observe that Barrymore could not endure so much in the name of art, that the trials of his fifteenth year bore much more insidious effects than what might be artistically considered the inspiration for his greatest theatrical triumph. This and all of his suffering he endured personally, his Hamlet and all of his peculiar and brilliant character demonstrations born out of something completely novel in the man himself. Perhaps out of his mind’s fog, or in the dreams where the Bad Man came to him.

John Barrymore as Hamlet. Photograph by Edward Steichen, c. 1922. Courtesy of the National Gallery of Australia.

There’s an idea of John Barrymore belonging to a class of theatre hams who did Shakespeare not only to say they conquered his lot, but to say they were called upon to do so by a great force beyond, they the great descendants of tragic kings adorning thorned crowns. This idea must be cast aside to instead consider Barrymore as a reluctant great; in truth, to cast all of Jack’s greatness upon his incarnation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet in Arthur Hopkins’s 1922 production, is to miss all the richness that existed in Jack from his own originality. Jack himself admitted that Hamlet was the easiest role he had ever played, his brother Lionel in full support—“You must take into account that when the Bard wrote Hamlet he had Jack in mind.” This is all to say that to call the afflictions of John Barrymore makers of his great Hamlet, what might be known as the greatest achievement of any actor if they are able to receive laurels as magnificent as his in the role, is to announce all his life a great tragedy. To borrow from the words of Fowler, his life was more comparable to that of a “variegated symphony, and, to some degree, an unfinished one,” implying his keen dramatic sense that was, above all, derived from a melodic and haunting something within, damned to be judged by the extremes in which he lived by. This is what I imagine Fowler meant by Jack’s life symphony, varied by his astronomical achievements and failures of plenty.

***

As his own affairs created for the stage and film a rich lot from which to draw from without limit, Barrymore continued to lampoon with an unbreakable devotion towards displacing as much of his true self from further speculation as possible. This, such as how he acted his Hamlet and made it seem as though the verse had been written with him in mind, was Jack’s unsung discipline: to take from and show as little of himself as possible while remaining vitally open to his craft and, as he continued to take uncharitable roles, to spare himself from bracing too many serious internal wounds. In the years nearer to his death, Jack would take on roles that were written about him, notably the Richard Aldrich stage production My Dear Children and Walter Lang’s horrible farce The Great Profile, but before he played these roles, principally to pay his many debts (literally), there was Twentieth Century. Directed by Howard Hawks, adapted by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur from their 1932 play of the same name (lifted from the unproduced Charles Bruce Millholland play Napoleon of Broadway), the story of an egomaniacal theatre producer (Barrymore) who makes a star out of a young actress (played consummately by Carole Lombard), who he turns away with his own domineering temperament then tries desperately to win back, seems to ride the line between lampoon and personal irony: the perfect Barrymore vehicle. It’s the impression I had the first, second, third, fourth time I watched the film that Barrymore’s character, Oscar Jaffe, was carved out of the mold of the man himself, but the more I understand about Barrymore and the more the film matures on me, I realize that the truth is much more complicated, Barrymore’s performance much more textured than meets the eye. For an obvious one, Jaffe is a theatrical producer, not an actor. Though Barrymore was many things in his life, not one of them was a producer. Then, his character is not by design a John Barrymore stand-in, but the bit pulls in much from his famous character as a theatre “ham,” as well as the more unknown sides of Barrymore that he plays fully (his extreme jealous tendencies in his relationships with women), in order to make it appear as so, and it works handsomely. Barrymore plays up his Svengali and the waves of actors he’s been brushed by, more than he plays up himself. And if anything must known about the temperament of John Barrymore, it’s that he was not by any metric an egoist.

It was once said of Barrymore by Richard Watts Jr., “Everything he did was in an epic way, and, even when he appeared to be making an embarrassing clown of himself, he did so on a grand and wholesale scale, coming apart with boisterous gargantuan humor and a sardonic air of self-criticism. For, be it noted among the characteristic traits of John Barrymore was a keen and invariably witty critical sense. He could afford to laugh at the world because he could always laugh at himself,” an observation that gives credence to his good-naturedness toward lampooning himself, for what he always found the humor in was what the public thought John Barrymore to be. These outfits where the caricature endures are where his wicked humor is most obvious, and in Twentieth Century, it is cast in sublime and tremendous terms. In a way, Twentieth Century is not only a magnificent departure from the matinee idol routine and the prestige pictures for which Barrymore had become infamous in Hollywood, it is the creation of character everyone thought they saw in Barrymore, an act so tactful that reveals more layers to what Twentieth Century confidently says about theatre folk: “We’re not people, we’re lithographs. We don’t know anything about love unless it’s written and rehearsed. We’re only real in between curtains.” Here, Barrymore is imitating the lithograph, creating a performance within a performance; the comedy is in watching everybody else try and rise to his hysteric, meteoric height.

***

When an actor can’t get their lines, often just one line, or in this case the correct pitch of a scream, everybody is made to weather the night in the theatre. Its atmosphere, like its long-suffering people, is born out of these nights that bleed into day, and when the chalk is drawn, the mania is afoot. This is how Twentieth Century, a film about the sprawling insanity of the stage and the people who thrive on the extremities of art, opens. This scene is only rehearsal, not as much for a literal play but for the one that takes shape aboard a train, the Twentieth Century Limited, where more than half the film remains. As Oscar Jaffe chases the hand of Lily Garland, there unravels a comedy in itself, which ends only as everything with actors ends: back on the rehearsal stage, gleaning from the rites of the theatre the best and most convincing ways to imitate life. Twentieth Century is a film so brilliant it deserves a complete overhaul on production details, a scene-by-scene breakdown, but there are book deals for that sort of endeavor; as I continue, know that it is my favorite of John Barrymore’s films, the one that let loose on my great fascination with him, and the film that we might look to as the central host of Barrymore’s greatest acting virtues. In the film he comes undone and John Barrymore as the truly unique artist can be found on the interiors of the Twentieth Century Limited, functionally a train but more importantly a stage.

Barrymore’s Oscar Jaffe lives out his histrionic impulses, and what one might call dreams, through those in his employ, only to be understood by shopgirl-turned-actress Lily Garland. Not an actor on stage, but one who can turn out performances of plenty in life: riotous and exaggerated but thoroughly convincing manipulations of reality that earn him the title of a ham though the footlights never once befell him. To call him a ham outright, though, as if to call Jaffe and Barrymore the same persuasion of man, is perhaps missing the larger picture. Jaffe makes hams of his actors, and from the pulse of the theater, he, producer and wing-dweller, has somehow become King Ham. He adopts all aspects of the theatrical mind into how he talks (in the exaggerated vibrato of a zealous Shakespeare disciple), how he acts (again, always as if he is the one on stage), how he thinks (like an actor, a mightily ungenerous one): for this, Oscar Jaffe is a ham. Barrymore does not play himself here, because as an actor and a man perceptive always to the weaknesses of his sex (that is to say the weaknesses he was overly familiar with in himself), he sees the true comedy in a producer who has fallen so far into the dwellings of the theatre that he can see no other version of himself as a man and a lover than in his own ability to imitate life. He, like all theatre folk, are doomed to become actors or half-actors. It is in his full-bodied characterization of an impresario who thrives on the responses from others, his cronies and his lover, that Barrymore arrives at a version of an artist disturbed that is so much of his own beast molded by the insanity called upon his life in the theatre, it is utterly inimitable. All at once he makes his contemporaries and onlookers appear as buffoons, who, gawk as they might, still fuel the performances of an unhinged impresario with their own stuffy parlance and hasty judgments of his character. Oscar Jaffe doesn’t survive on anybody’s illusions but his own, and with this, he finally becomes an extension of John Barrymore: the most honest man in the theatre.

Lily Garland, the former Mildred Plotka, is perhaps the only person to understand how Jaffe spins and abides by his own fantasies; as she’s observed, it is the only way to make it in the theatre, and to do so on a grand scale. Jaffe’s cronies Oliver (Walter Connolly) and Owen (Roscoe Karns) might be the most real people in his life (they even remind one of the true life friendships Barrymore maintained with MacArthur and Hecht, who once claimed that Jack had “burlesqued the gods of romance and good fortune as mere money lenders and pimps”), but they simply do not understand him on the level that Lombard’s Lily Garland does. We can only assume she’s the first person to call him a nut for making her stay up all night pacing an abundantly chalked stage and drawing out a scream to his liking, but we might also assume that she’s the first to truly appreciate him (she keeps the pin that he pricked her with to elicit that notorious scream in ridiculous, decorative casing, as if it were fine jewelry and not a common device she was once tortured by). While others humor Jaffe’s upsets, Lily is the only one who maintains the right to call his bluff as she can see exactly where he’s coming from. Wild spiels and impromptu monologues are the only ways they communicate with each other, how only they can communicate with one another: imitators imitating life to one another (“We’re not people, we’re lithographs…”). When Jaffe goes off on his own, a sharp eyebrow raise by Lombard signals to us exactly where the reality is that he’s trying to get across, so we too can be somewhat in on the joke; a keen touch by Lombard and an insight into how Twentieth Century creates a language of its own. The inside baseball of it all boldens the hysteria and sharpens the wit: the more you get it, the more you’re becoming like them. There’s artifice, then there’s Twentieth Century, which asserts that the glue which holds great artists together (and to each other) is their collective madness.

Oliver and Owen look on as Jaffe splashes paint upon theatrical posters advertising his latest play starring Lily Garland, cursing her name— “Anathema! Child of Satan!”—while destroying all evidence of her having existed in the theatre and in his life. He has just found out that Lily took a train to Hollywood, straight to the depths of hell, the lowest of lows a great theatrical star could sink (perhaps this is the real “final irony”). This is one of the only performances we see Jaffe conduct without his best audience, and to his onlookers, he appears to have completely lost his grips. They can’t see the great emotional turmoil underneath, a man in desperate need of being understood, they only see Jaffe as a madman let loose on a couple tins of paint. If we consider Oliver and Owen as Barrymore’s own Hecht and MacArthur, we might consider a man who, though surrounded by real, great minds, could appear to them a lost fool. Indeed, without the right crowd who could part from his delusions the workings of a wonderful mind, Barrymore might just be seen as a ham, a drunk, or a phony. Many will be content in doing just this, but as revealed in his Oscar Jaffe, an artist who folds himself into the frivolities of his craft to protect himself from outsiders must be dreadfully original indeed.

***

While he had been esteemed to act in the Arthur Hopkins productions of Liliom, Cyrano, and Richard II, Barrymore’s artistic eminence remained only in Richard III and Hamlet, and of course in Oscar Jaffe, flung up there with his inimitable greats. Like Jaffe, Barrymore maintained his own celebrity, his career on stage and in the movies, with constant acts of diversion: shielding himself with excesses so that the real, deep truths might not ever be touched upon or stolen from. Barrymore’s approach to acting often escapes definition, but as Hopkins once put it, “At all moments Barrymore was an artist. He created out of his own texture. He borrowed nothing. He copied nothing. His whole search was within himself. His wine was from his own vine. Whatever jewels adorned his final creation were brought from his own inner contact with the deep richness that is hidden in all men but found by so few. It is the finding that makes the true artist brother to all mankind. In revealing himself he reveals others to themselves.” His appearance in movies, like on the stage, belonged to a first generation, but Barrymore himself always belonged to a league of his own, even if his legacy wasn’t as long or as altogether spotless as one might expect. Perhaps with words he once committed to his first career as an artist, Barrymore best captured his attitude toward his life as an actor: “I might have been, but wasn’t.”

References:

Fowler, Gene. Good Night, Sweet Prince: The Life and Times of John Barrymore. The Viking Press, 1944.

Peters, Margot. The House of Barrymore. A. A. Knopf, 1990.

Categories
Film Essay Judy Holliday

Judy Holliday, A Name for Herself

On the subway, someone is reading a magazine with an ad for soap taken out of the back. An attractive blonde woman smiles generously, modeling the soap, bubbles surrounding her figure. The print reads: “The average American girl Gladys Glover always uses Adams Soap.” It’s the name that seems to populate every advertisement space in New York City. Who is Gladys Glover, and why is she so special? Why, she’s the average American girl!

***

The film is It Should Happen to You (1954), and Judy Holliday is Gladys Glover, average American girl. Born Judith Tuvim to Abe and Helen Tuvim in New York City on June 21, 1921, today marks Holliday’s 100th birthday. The only child of a Russian-Jewish household, Holliday had early introductions to the arts and to social causes she would later associate herself with as an adult; her maternal relatives were brought up by their socialist mother, an education that certainly tracks for Holliday’s uncle, socialist journalist and author Joseph Gollumb. At the age of 10, Holliday scored a remarkable 172 on the Otis IQ test, qualifying her as a genius at a very early age, and she continued to pursue theatre and the arts into her young adulthood. In 1938, Holliday (then still Tuvim) joined Betty Comden, Adolph Green, Alvin Hammer, and John Frank in establishing a night-club act, The Revuers. Leftist slant characterized their comedic routines, often pasquinades of high society, performed for mixed-race working class audiences; in the Greenwich Village circuit, Holliday had found a niche for herself as a burgeoning comedienne in social satire, notably with people who had something sharp to say about the world, too. This formative time with The Revuers, that camaraderie in craft and pushing comedy to examine social issues, would stay with her for the rest of her career; regardless of her status as a Hollywood star, in spite of industry abuse and pressure to conform, a loyalty to her ideals had been formed out of upbringing and early-career experiences, and would not be shaken.

Following her time in The Revuers, Holliday pursued Hollywood briefly, where she was given the name Holliday in place of Tuvim, and received none of the returns in the way of a successful career in the pictures (at least not at that time). In 1945 and at the suggestion of her Revuers friend Adolph Green, Holliday starred in Herman Shumlin’s Kiss Them for Me on Broadway, her first experience on the legitimate stage. A year later and in a role originally written for Jean Arthur, Holliday made her Broadway debut as the character Billie Dawn in the “dumb blonde” type she would later become known for in Garson Kanin’s play Born Yesterday. Under the Pygmalion-esque tutelage of a journalist hired to make her wise to the world, Billie Dawn, like Judy Holliday in her immortal role, blossoms; Billie esteems her education by challenging her racketeering boyfriend’s business practices, liberating herself and interrupting cycles of common corruption in the process. From Billie Dawn, Holliday arrived at a short but remarkable film career, whose streak of starring roles out of a decade in American film history marked a fleeting moment in the industry’s intersection of politics, gender, and ethno-religious identification where the films of a big star were all, more or less, an extension of her steadfast progressive beliefs. Judy Holliday, almost always remembered aside Billie Dawn, borrowed from the expected qualities of the “dumb blonde” type to redefine the dynamics of womanhood in all of her characters thereafter, and in one vital instance, in a fight for her individual, inalienable rights.

With her centennial at the back of my mind this year, I’ve centered my focus refamiliarizing myself with Holliday, a woman whose life was brief but extraordinary, who I felt an immediate, life-affirming connection to years ago. Since her death in 1965, anecdotes from her colleagues, friends and family, as well as government records, have left much to retain the legacy of Judy Holliday as not just the characters she played, but the smart woman behind them. Holliday manipulated gendered expectations and a limited typecast to deliver affecting characterizations of modern women, marking her as one of the most perceptive comediennes in American film history, and more, a woman who found the humanity in every part she played.

***

In order of her starring roles—Born Yesterday, The Marrying Kind, It Should Happen to You, Phffft!, The Solid Gold Cadillac, Full of Life, and Bells are Ringing—as I’ve recently revisited them under the Criterion Channel’s wonderful “Starring Judy Holliday” collection, there is a clear dynamic mined between performance and deep internal conflict, creating a uniquely touching and exciting evolution of Holliday as an artist. There is an indescribable something that tracks through all of these films, brought to the screen by Holliday and never captured or imitated since. Though this enigmatic force is introduced with Holliday’s spectacular supporting turn in Adam’s Rib (1949) where she plays a woman who shoots her husband in defence of her marriage, Judy Holliday as a screen presence really started to develop a year later when she brought Billie Dawn to the screen in the unforgettable, brilliant Born Yesterday (1950).

Her squeaky-voiced ex-chorus girl Billie Dawn—an Oscar-winning turn that still invites controversy over 70 years later—is similarly unassuming to Holliday as a contender: in both of them, there’s an inexhaustible drive to be present in the conversation, a drive that ultimately comes and conquers. Holliday plays Billie Dawn as a perceptive woman, whose wit and worldliness (the famous gin rummy scene early in the film makes an excellent case for this) only becomes refined through traditional book learning over the course of the film; Billie is a sponge, understanding and presenting to others hard pills to swallow about the world they live in. One particularly precious piece of knowledge Billie receives is by word-of-mouth, her “teacher” Paul Verrall (William Holden): “The whole history of the world is the story between the selfish and the unselfish. All that’s bad around us is bred by selfishness. Sometimes selfishness can even get to be a cause, an organized force, even a government. And then it’s called fascism.” This she internalizes, and in one scene, a blow up between Billie and her boyfriend Harry, all of these world boil up in her mind and blister into a kind of venom to spit at him: “You big fascist!” These words are timeless, they catch. Born Yesterday picks up a steam at this moment, pointing the finger at the everyday menaces of society, the true harbingers of fascism. Though a lot of the lessons come from Paul Verrall, the person who really sends home the film’s message about the exploits of free-market capitalism is Billie Dawn: scathing criticism disguised as Billie’s “aha” moments. Born Yesterday is not only bold for exposing the everyday casualties of capitalism, but for treating its female protagonist, all of who she is, completely seriously. It was never this film that casted Judy Holliday as a “dumb blonde” (her natural sharpness and evolution into a learned individual is text), but the need for American industry to brand “I’m stupid and I like it” as a type. It was a way for the conservative press to not take her seriously, to equate a woman’s dynamic presence with her lack of distinction between performance and self, and more, to make a circus of her allegiance to communist-front organizations. This could not have been further from Holliday, both in how she embodied her characters and carried herself as a person, and it was this very assumption that she took and leaned into in order to stave off the House Un-American Activities Committee from further speculation into her political and personal associations.

On March 26, 1952, Holliday appeared as a witness before Senator Pat McCarran’s Senate Internal Security Subcommittee (SISS) in a closed hearing to assess the validity of her allegiance to communist-front organizations and whether or not she was a “threat” to American ideals. For Holliday, politics ran deep. Her whole family had been long-associated with socialist organizations and journalism; it was how she was raised and what she believed in. But of course, she wouldn’t confirm any of that to Senator Pat McCarran’s committee. She gave a testimony that assured to them that she had no idea what she had pledged allegiance to. To them, she was Billie Dawn. Withstanding persecution, Holliday remained in character, protecting her core beliefs, friends and family, and was dismissed from her hearing without further government inquiry (more on its intricacies and ramifications here). Though Holliday continued to be an active presence on the American screen and stage, her time on the (unofficial) Hollywood blacklist, the swells of civil harassment and targeting by right-wing organizations that came with the territory, informs us greatly about an industry’s fascistic desire to self-censor and the lengths it will go to oppress subversive thought. 

***

Following the prestige of Born Yesterday, Holliday appeared in The Marrying Kind (1952), also directed by George Cukor, and written by a team she was friendly and familiar with: Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon. The film is a proto-Kramer vs. Kramer divorce drama that examines the fissures of the American marriage and nuclear family with a surprising but welcome nuance. The Marrying Kind, certainly no Born Yesterday, was also likely the greatest dramatic material Holliday received during her film career, and it went right under the radar due to its release in April of 1952, not even a month after Holliday’s appearance before the SISS. If the Billie Dawn type had made an impression with Born Yesterday, then her SISS testimony, and the fact that nobody seemed to care about The Marrying Kind as a complete departure from that kind of role, made it seem like the type would stick forever. Not that Holliday ever needed to show her cards as anything but a fine comedienne, but for herself she wanted to prove dexterity, and to find something more human than the lot of scripts that were likely thrown her way. In 1953, Holliday announced in an interview with Bob Thomas of the Associated Press, “Oh, I get lots of comedies. But they were written for Billie Dawn. The writers of them think that all I have to do is talk in a funny voice and say dirty lines and that makes a hit comedy. They think I can go on playing the dumb blonde.” Reflecting on a career that was all too short, none of Holliday’s roles (not even Billie Dawn) read as replicating the “dumb blonde” stereotype in the way traditionally thought of, and this is all to Holliday’s credit; just the same, out of the films that she did make, not one of them stands out as an egregious misuse of her talent, all because Holliday could never let a movie sink her. Though there are notably weaker films compared to those made with her usual crowd—Born Yesterday, The Marrying Kind, and It Should Happen to You with Kanin and Cukor as well as Bells are Ringing with Comden and Green—Holliday was always the one who made the movie worth watching, even if it wasn’t a hit comedy.

Even in her comparably lesser vehicles Holliday is the definition of an artist elevating the text. Fluttered eyelids, taking her lines in unexpected places knowing the pay-off is seeing others catch up to her speed in real time, her full-speed-ahead stature, her arms carried slightly behind her shoulders when she really gets into a delivery, her reactions—though I’ve noticed all of these as staples in Holliday’s acting toolbox, they were never routine; character to character, film to film, there’s no telling how Holliday will choose to read a line, punch a syllable, storm a room. What pierces through each individual character, if not a comedic philosophy, is her loyalty to the thing she decides makes each character dynamic and, well, human. In Full of Life (1956), for example, she plays a woman navigating pregnancy and the anxieties of becoming a new mother with a script that’s as dry and unfeeling as the image of mid-century suburbia that it reflects on screen. Still, Holliday finds sentiment in this character, warming an impossible film up with her generous eyes, focused always on the person she’s maintaining a conversation with, and her incredibly earnest consistency in depicting the unpleasant lows and ecstatic highs of pregnancy. For her, the dynamic thing about this character is not just that she’s outwardly pregnant, but that she feels pregnant, she internalizes the pregnancy and all of its complications. There’s not much humor in the film, but somehow, Holliday finds the funny and the deeply relatable in moments like one where she decides on three slices of bologna instead of two. Quite simply, she gave everything to movies that didn’t deserve her, and she was consistently remarkable at transforming the text to find the humor and compassion in every film she starred in.

***

As Gladys Glover of It Should Happen to You (originally under the superior title A Name for Herself) Judy Holliday once again reinvents type she was best known for. It just so happened that It Should Happen to You was my introduction to Holliday, a great impression abiding; in the film, she presents her ditzy as an endearing quality, one an average American girl (says so on the soap ads!) might possess, and not be patronized for. In all of her films, Holliday pushes the type as far as she can go in order to assert herself in situations the average American girl doesn’t always have perfect access to. In It Should Happen to You it’s negotiating billboard space with advertising moguls to make herself famous; in The Solid Gold Cadillac it’s blowing up the conspiracies of corrupt stockholders; in Bells are Ringing it’s high society; in Born Yesterday it’s telling off an asshole boyfriend and sabotaging his business exploits; in all of her films, there’s that element of invading male-dominated spaces as if to invite the average American girl in, too.

***

In a small, down-to-earth scene in It Should Happen to You (a scene I’ve previously broken down at length as it captures the perfect dynamic between Judy Holliday and Jack Lemmon), Pete (Lemmon) plays the piano while Gladys sporadically sings along, lamenting the expiration date on her billboard-inspired celebrity. “Three days more,” she sulks at him. “Then I’m nobody again.” Though busied by the piano, Pete responds in earnest, “Yeah, but I’ll show you how to enjoy that.” It takes her some time but Gladys does eventually come around to asking herself, “What’s the good of tryin’ to be above the crowd all the time? What’s the matter with being part of the crowd?” More than the smoke and mirrors of fame and fortune, it’s how we believe in our lives and what we do, who we share them with, that matters. Gladys might not have known that outright, but certainly Judy did. 

In all of her films, it was never really about being above the crowd. In life, it was never about championing a cause for status or praise. Judy Holliday’s leftist politics and strong convictions, like her natural intelligence and ardor for acting as a form of communication, ran through her veins. Though no one word is enough, that thing that tracks through all of her films might be described as truth. Her presentation of the average American girl as intelligent and capable, that graceful quality of finding the honesty in every character, instills a lasting beauty in being a part of the crowd. 100 years on, while Holliday might have insisted on being one of the crowd, it’s undeniable that she was special.

References:

Barranger, Milly S. “Broadway’s Women on Trial: The McCarthy Years,” Journal of American Drama and Theatre, vol. 15, no. 3, 2003, pp. 1-37.

Carey, Gary. Judy Holliday: An Intimate Life Story. Robson Books Ltd., 1983.

Thomas, Bob. “Oscar Winner’s Life No Cinch, Says Judy.” Mirror News, 16 June 1953, p. 49.

Featured Image: Judy Holliday by Michou Simon. Paris, 1955.

Categories
Anne-Fare Film Essay

On the Seesaw

The role of Madame Trentoni in Clyde Fitch’s Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines gave Ethel Barrymore the first (likely best) star showcase of her stage career, a triumph of 1901 that boasted her unique comedic register as a compliment, not a distraction, to her natural, demure grace. This role would immortalize her as a first lady of the American stage, a star who was never entirely allowed to grow up and out of such charming roles, but it is also a role like Madame Trentoni (and an ambitious young performer like Barrymore), that admirably reminds one of the great Anne Bancroft in her first stage role. The good faith of playwright William Gibson, director Arthur Penn, and producer Fred Coe saw that she would be their lead in their two-person corker Two for the Seesaw, because they saw nobody else better-suited for the role of a woman “fresh and crazy and timid as a colt” than Anne Bancroft, who had just uprooted her entire life for the singular chance to become her own actress, on her own terms.

***

At a time in American film history where selling female star personas meant a decent amount of stability for a major studio’s interests, not having an identity as an actress meant little opportunity to develop inside of a typecast, and even less of an opportunity to develop outside of one. With an education at one of the nation’s finest acting schools and a sizeable television portfolio under her belt, a twenty-year-old Anne Bancroft signed her first film contract with Twentieth Century-Fox on October 12, 1951. Her luck in finding acting work right out of school (American Academy of Dramatic Arts, class of 1950) and a chance screentest manipulated in her favor might have promised Bancroft a long, enduring career in the movies with a running start; only, in 1951, major Hollywood studios, especially the “Big Five” studio she had just signed with, were beginning to buckle under the financial pressure of producing and releasing only a select few movies a year (after block booking was made illegal and Century-Fox was forced to sell their theater chains), and her star-making campaign was of little concern to studio brass. For Bancroft and any actor or actress signed to the studio around that time (to name one: Farley Granger, with whom Bancroft bonded over such thankless luck during the filming of the 1955 film The Naked Street), a diversity in (quality) roles were only reserved for established stars who maintained consistent, positive reception at the box office. After her two-year contract with Century-Fox, freelancing, too, presented its own host of challenges: job instability was crippling for an actress without a name or a niche anybody was familiar with at a time when making a movie for a major studio was a risk, an expensive one at that.

20-year-old Anne Bancroft approving her first film contract with Twentieth Century-Fox, Nov. 1951. Bancroft had initially signed the contract the previous month while watching the Italian Heritage Parade in her home state of New York.

In tandem, an uneven palette of roles in thankless films (the patient wife of an impresario in Tonight We Sing, second to a man in a gorilla suit in Gorilla at Large, a disturbed murderess in The Girl in Black Stockings) kept Bancroft at a career plateau, devastating for an actress who showed early signs of earnest ability and elasticity in craft: Bancroft soon learned that her formal education and a diversity of experience in television before she had even reached Hollywood meant next to nothing for an industry whose investment choices were as fickle as their audiences, and whose preoccupations in restoring business interests sidelined some of its greatest potential talents. Much too rare a case for a woman to exercise movement in her own acting personality and have major studios protect her best interests to ruminate on in respect to Anne Bancroft, what is worth consideration is the fact that Hollywood could not even manage assigning her a type to perfect, which proved to fail the interests of both its internal industry (who would see her greatest merits refined and restored in the coming years, both on stage and back in film) as well as a promising, adaptive young actress. Louella Parsons once made note of Bancroft in those years as “just another pretty girl with high movie hopes, not too distinguishable from hundreds of similar young actresses playing routine leading lady roles”; though this might have been the case, and though Bancroft did eventually prove this observation erroneous, none of how Hollywood treated a young woman with the temperament and skill of a giant, is to be called the fault of her own. There were women in Hollywood who were able to operate under a typecast, to manipulate their circumstance to inform people of the woman behind the persona (Judy Holliday and Carole Lombard come to mind), but there were also those who were never given the chance to evolve in the first place, such was the case with Anne Bancroft. 

***

In early 1957, Anne Bancroft was twenty-five, out of work and an unhappy marriage (to studying lawyer Martin May, a union that officially lasted from 1953 to 1957, though the couple separated in 1955), and Hollywood. Though she might not have intended her first career pivot to be so close to home, an unlikely team of three had a role, “the key to unlock a lifetime of talent,” waiting for her in New York. The opportunity to become a better actress, Anne Bancroft, and a better version of herself, Anna Italiano, came on a subway ride to Fred Coe’s office, who was then looking for a female lead in the play he was currently producing: Two for the Seesaw.

A three-act, two-character play, Two for the Seesaw, centers the May-December romance between divorced, middle-aged attorney Jerry Ryan and earthy, eccentric, hemorrhage-prone dancer Gittel Mosca (short for Moscowitz): it’s a sweet, smoldering, unorthodox love affair. Both people learn something about what it means to give and take in love, maturing both parties into better, fuller people by the end of their fleeting romance. Seesaw is a smart, adult play that has the unique appeal of playing to the sympathies of the woman over the man; sure enough, from its out of town try-outs to its modest 750 performance run, the most frequent critique of the play was how the writing very obviously favored the female character, underdeveloped on the man’s side (this fact was also an ardent issue for Henry Fonda, but more on that later). With a fresh, twenty-first century pair of eyes, it’s obvious that the man is not as underdeveloped as much as he is purposefully the blank canvas, the joke setter-upper of Seesaw, who is not much a personality compared to the woman, who does not need to be her every match or competition, because the modern feel of the play begs of its audience to consider that unbalanced seesaw for what it is. (One might even suggest that Gibson was ahead of his time for this.) Seesaw’s hard-won success as a two-character play, its favor of the woman over the man (Annie over Hank), its ultimate estrangement from its author and the peace to be made by that, inform us about a changing theater landscape, and more, the beginning of a beautiful friendship: Anne Bancroft and the American stage.

Bancroft received word of Seesaw from Richard Basehart, with whom she had recently played opposite in the Playhouse 90 program “So Soon to Die”, and read over the script as she arrived in New York for her sister Phyllis’s wedding. Basehart had read for the part of Jerry Ryan, too, and was the strongest lead the part had at that point in time; he put in a good word for Bancroft and Coe agreed to see her first, as the television adaptation of Gibson’s The Miracle Worker (to be directed by Penn) took them both to California. Beyond the family obligation that had brought Bancroft back east, though, her state of career-wise discontent encouraged her to take this role seriously, and she was in town, after all. On her first interaction with Coe, Bancroft recalled: “I made sure he found me with one shoe off, scratching my foot, and when I got inside of his office, the first thing I said was, ‘Where’s the john?’ It was just the sort of thing Gittel would have said. I didn’t have to go, really, but I went. He asked me to come back the next day.” To a thinly-spread producer who, with his writer and director, had spent the previous several months sending scripts to actresses across the country only to receive little in the way of prospects, the spitting-image of Gittel Mosca blowing in to his office on a whim likely seemed to him nothing short of a miracle. Gibson too came to hold similar reservations about this obscure little actress—‘the best Gittel yet’—once she auditioned for them, too. In his words: “She was a dark, quick, not pretty but vitally attractive girl with a sidewalk voice that greeted me instantly with, ‘How was the coast, lousy, huh?’ and my mind blinked; she could have walked off my pages.” Though Coe and Gibson had made up their minds about Bancroft, their decision went to bed with Penn, the last to see her; Bancroft dazzled, and Penn not only phoned in his opinion on her as ‘Gittel on the hoof,’ but he hired her for his next Playhouse 90 program on the spot. Bancroft would continue to tease up that line between Gittel and the real Anne to impress and awe, to stay afloat in her own development as an actress and person. It seemed that this seesaw, if you will, between character and actress was already obvious to William Gibson when Bancroft first made his acquaintance, recalling, “I felt we had fallen into a diamond-in-the-rough mine. But telling a story minutes later she slid into an elegant characterization, and I perceived she was not a type, but a talent.” Gibson, and also Penn and Coe, seemed to understand that Bancroft was starting completely from square one, and they humored her as she humored them, scrambling to make a small, out-of-favor show work in earnest. If she was willing to pour her all into being and becoming Gittel Mosca, then they were willing to endow her with the greatest gift any friendship in the industry could buy: an audience.

***

Compelling and clear-minded in prose, playwright William Gibson is always on-the-level about the human experience. As one reads The Seesaw Log, the published production notes on his original play Two for the Seesaw, they might expect to be equal parts inspired and nauseated; the amount of rewrites, working on “the man” as he would recall too many times over to count, and rebuffs from his team are enough to dishearten those of us who would be content writing even half as good at half his pace. The beauty of The Seesaw Log is that it really brings you to the level of anxiety, heavy stress and discord that Gibson was imaginably operating under during the time in which these notes were being written (as in chicken scratch on whatever paper source was available). The process of writing and rewriting was just the half of it though—nobody ever told Gibson that in his Broadway debut as a playwright, most of the heavy lifting on his side would have to do with human relations. A lot of The Seesaw Log chronicles Gibson’s difficulty in trying to reach or please Henry Fonda, without whom there would be no play; notably, though, his notes are never pointed or hostile towards any given person (which might be owed to his self-censorship, apparently the truth was “much worse”), they are just symptomatic of the larger pressures of mid-twentieth century Broadway networking and star politics. Gibson is figuring out just how taxing and convoluted a job writing a play and seeing it to Broadway fame is at the same time we are, and it’s that very intimacy that allows for a completely honest insight into a business that’s foreign to most of us. Gibson’s account of Seesaw from its inception to opening night gives the impression of a writer at his wit’s end, who couldn’t care less about his words disturbing Broadway mythos: this is the American theatre at its best and worst, and you don’t have to love how Gibson puts it in order to get the picture.

In the way of show business, Henry Fonda was the reason why Seesaw went into production. When Bancroft auditioned and landed the role of Gittel almost immediately, Gibson, Penn, and Coe were settling on Richard Basehart for the role of Jerry Ryan. Basehart, however a commendable addition to Seesaw’s history both as an actor and one of the only few men sent the script who actually expressed interest in reading, did not carry a name like Henry Fonda. Only Henry Fonda held that honor. And he also happened to be one of the only other men who liked the script enough to agree to a read-through. In mid-June of 1957, Gibson met in Fonda’s home in New York’s east seventies to supervise a read of the first act between Bancroft and Fonda. The two performed on the seesaw that afternoon, reading through the entire three acts of the play, to which Gibson recalled in grimace: “Nothing could have borne in upon me so uncomfortably the inequality of the roles as hanging this on the spectacle of this renowned star, wearing horn-rimmed glasses and lankily slumped on his couch, waiting patiently all afternoon for his next line, and each time coming up with a monosyllable.” Throughout the rest of that summer and into its August, Gibson, Penn, Coe—once referred to in a 1959 Time magazine article as “like three bears, but platonic” a moniker which will be used to describe them hereafter—and Bancroft awaited Fonda’s response while making themselves comfortable with Basehart’s absence (whose elusivity had since distanced him from the production); Fonda’s words, which came by cable—“Start it rolling, I am yours”—were the harbinger of Seesaw’s production, and from that point on, the play would continue to fall out of Gibson’s humor, to a detriment that might be owed to the omnipresent struggle of trying to please everyone all at once.

From TIME magazine (Dec. 21, 1959): “Who is Stanislavsky?”

It must be said that Henry Fonda’s sense of tradition in his profession (that it was just that, a profession, a man reading the lines someone gave him to a camera or to a live audience), never allowed him to give an inch. Anne Bancroft, who was just learning the ropes of the Actors Studio, Stanislavsky and Berghof, was all giving; she confessed to and relished in knowing nothing, and from this, approached Seesaw and the whole of acting with such passion and verve that Fonda seemed not only out of place in her wake, but entirely alien. The parallels between Bancroft and Fonda and their Seesaw characters is perhaps what gives this play an abundant, living feeling that endures as both a work of fiction and a meditation on the crossroads of acting parlance in the mid-twentieth century. These were two people completely at odds with each other, whose clashes of varied exposures to American theatre and acting at large inform the characters in which they were playing: A woman who gives everything and a man who gives only a little, enough to fade into something grand in memory. What’s more is that Fonda and Bancroft never spoke much to each other during the production or of each other after, regardless of how much it appears the two provided such a perfect contrast of each other with the power to reveal some real truths of craft and character. Two people who once came together with such vital purpose, like Gittel and Jerry, were able to depart and disappear from each other’s lives just the same. 

Anne Bancroft and Henry Fonda during a rehearsal for Two for the Seesaw. This photograph by Arthur Cantor is from my personal collection.

With Fonda in the production, the requirement to rewrite, rewrite, rewrite the part of the man, while not always demanded of Gibson, was always there. During that first mid-June read in 1957, Gibson made one key insight—“If we got Fonda all other difficulties would vanish, and getting him now depended on no one but me. It meant dropping the novel, it meant drowning again in the collaborative gluepot of the theater, and worst of all, it meant rewriting once more to capture what had eluded me for two and a half years, a full-bodied character in the man”—that would act as a specter for the duration of the play’s production: Gibson would never go on to write a version of the man that Fonda was pleased with, and Fonda would never perform a version of the man that Gibson was contented by. The only sure thing to the three bears was their investment in Anne Bancroft, who had since been evolving under their tutelage and responding remarkably in the form of a perfect Gittel, one who Bancroft even started to breathe a life of her own into. It would be too convenient a truth to say that Fonda was jealous of the attention poured into Bancroft during Seesaw’s production (and of its reception); the truth was likely closer to that of a pair of mismatched forces, an anxiety-ridden, aiming-to-please writer with no Broadway experience and a seasoned star, who needed his part to be a hero or nothing at all, who just didn’t and couldn’t understand each other. This is not to say that Fonda was a detriment to the play or that he was in any way incapable of delivering what some critics at the time considered to be a career best performance. In all transparency, he took a big financial and professional risk lending himself to the production, one obligation that he remained good on until his six-month contract expired. Then he was gone. But Gibson might have told you that he was gone long before that. 

***

In the film Stage Struck, released the same year as Seesaw opened on Broadway and by an incredible coincidence also starring Henry Fonda, one bold young actress makes of a singular opportunity to act on the Broadway stage a lifetime worth of applause. The climactic moment of the film sees this actress, played by Susan Strasberg, delivering an off-screen performance that dazzles all of those who dared to believe in her and engages all in that irrepressible human desire—rarely felt but often pined after—to watch lightning strike. On January 16, 1958 at the Booth Theatre in New York, this actress was Anne Bancroft, who had just given the first performance of the rest of her life. Wrote critic Walter Kerr: “Arriving in Broadway with no very impressive television or Hollywood credits, this straggle-haired, slightly moon-faced urchin clattered down a couple of steps in a green sweater and black cotton stockings, let her mouth hang open as she gaped at the unnecessary problems men make for themselves, rolled her eyes upward as though they were floating question marks, flung her right hand to the heavens in baffled dismissal of everything in sight, and just plain conquered.” Conquer she did, and until she began her unforgettable crusade in The Miracle Worker in the fall of 1959, Anne Bancroft was professionally (and personally) known as Gittel Mosca.

The character’s personal brand of admirable slobbishness, a kind of “take me or leave me” earnestness, came to be synonymous with Bancroft, whose one key role on Broadway did what Hollywood had failed to do all those years before: she finally had a “type.” Around the zenith of Seesaw’s success, Bancroft gave interviews which leaned into this character, a personal crutch that might have been used to brace any possible fall from public favor (which never happened, at least not to Bancroft, but surely to many an actress in any comparable kind of limelight). It is also worth noting how Gittel Mosca was written as a Jewish woman, while Bancroft was herself not Jewish, but Italian. William Gibson himself wasn’t even sure of her ethnic background when she landed the role—“We had the one actress in captivity who had been born—a mile from me in the Bronx, and surely Jewish, though she turned out Italian—to play this girl”—and this confusion of identity between Gittel and the real Bancroft endured. Such descriptions that favor her appearance, surroundings, and mood—“Dark hair tousled, as it is in the play, and wearing a pale-green smock, Miss Bancroft finished tucking in the sheets and blankets, poured herself some coffee…” by Douglas Watt of the Daily News ; “Miss Bancroft, nee Anna Maria Italiano, is a dark-haired, brown-eyed woman of 27 whose quick speech and manner hint of an inner restlessness. Her personality is, in a way, reflected in her clothes, which are obviously chosen for comfort all the way. Her tastes run to sweaters, skirts, and black woolen stockings” by Don Nelson of the Daily News—refer more to Gittel than her, a credit to the uncreative and unwilling minds from a time where women were meant to exist only in convenient spaces with convenient personalities. 

A desire to conflate Bancroft to her character gives way to a bigger, much more dubious trend in the world of American film and theatre alike: a type, for a woman, is who they are, both in the public and in private, but a type for a man is only a decorative term for limited range. Women with types, referring back to the earlier mentioned Judy Holliday and Carole Lombard, were not the dizzy, vacuous women they often portrayed on screen, but those types still endure to this day. This is all to say that Anne Bancroft, who received her first “type”, a Tony award-winning one at that, with Gittel Mosca, by her own admission was too new to the nuances of method acting that she folded all of who she was into this one character, which created for her a sense of false identity in which she never should have needed to maintain in order for her talents to have been accepted. Bancroft herself, and those three bears that saw who she was and what she was capable of from the start, might have been all too precious for an industry that makes and disposes of female identities at the turn of every season.

***

Interestingly, the film adaptation of Two for the Seesaw, released in 1962, four years after the play had opened on Broadway, actually engages well with its subject matter, making its New York spaces, both personal and of the public plenty, complimentary to the love story it houses within its walls. Much more interesting a discussion to be had about the film adaptation, though, is its place in this mid-century intersection of film and theatre, where it performs a version of its misogynistic custom to a different audience, one who went to the movies instead of the theater.

As it goes: The Mirisch Company paid $350,000 for the rights the play in 1959, as Elizabeth Taylor had expressed early interest in the role of Gittel Mosca; in the context of The Seesaw Log, Gibson was likely perfectly content selling the rights of the play to Mirisch and never contributing creatively to the story ever again. If one is versed in Hollywood history at this point in time, another Taylor production might have come to mind; Cleopatra, Twentieth Century-Fox’s mammoth studio blow-out, went into negotiations in 1958, and by 1961, was still in an overrun, over-expensed, infamously painful production. Elizabeth Taylor bowed out of her wayward commitment to Seesaw, and a much different star-on-the-rise was ushered into the part. Shirley MacLaine, who had met her greatest career triumph thus far just a year prior in The Apartment, might have seemed almost too perfect for the role of a punchy, overly-giving young bohemian, but the role was hers. Anne Bancroft was hardly a consideration for the role in the film adaptation because, as time has told, stage success often exists in a New York microcosm; what is the toast of Broadway is the smoke of Hollywood. Bancroft, as evidenced by her thankless fifteen-film run in Hollywood, lacked the star power to carry a film that she carried on Broadway, and Shirley MacLaine checked all the right boxes that Bancroft had yet to even be made aware of in California. As creative control lapsed into the hands of people who couldn’t understand the power of novelty that made the play the original triumph it was, missing was the key to unlock the story’s greatest virtues: Anne Bancroft.

***

Shirley MacLaine is a wonderfully gifted actress, but on her own merits; I once described her unique and perceptive knack for tragicomedy with “her funny is always heartwarming, her heartwarming is always funny.” Though what she aims to do as Gittel Mosca is not without earnest, MacLaine suffered the horrible ill of being cast in a role that did nothing to play to her strengths. One of the most serious blows that the film adaptation takes is, unfortunately, due to the casting of Shirley MacLaine in a role that, to the untrained eye, so closely mirrors her previous, unforgettable triumph in The Apartment. As aforementioned, indeed the similarities are there: spunky young city girl gets involved in a long, somewhat agonizing relationship with an older man, and she takes sick in bed for a good amount of the screentime in both films. Because the similarities are so obvious, all of the weaknesses of Seesaw are more noticeable through her character, and it’s easy to mark The Apartment as the superior Shirley MacLaine film (which, yes, that’s the correct position to take. Most films pale in comparison to The Apartment.) The film’s problems (which share most of the problems of the play: the part of the man, staginess, etc.) are not the fault of MacLaine, rather the fault of an industry that fails to see women as more complicated and able than the type of roles they play, but they are more obvious through her character, because we know MacLaine, we know what she is capable of, and Seesaw just isn’t the best case for that. I hardly think that the problems with the film would be solved entirely if Anne Bancroft resumed her role as Gittel Mosca, they would just be eclipsed by her take on the character much more efficiently; that is perhaps the one thing that might have been true on both the stage and in film.

Robert Mitchum and Shirley MacLaine during the production of Robert Wise’s Two for the Seesaw (1962).

Robert Mitchum, who plays Jerry Ryan in the film, takes a thoughtful approach to the character, considering his flaws and playing up to them, offering an insight into what perfect casting might have looked like for the part of the man. To his credit, Mitchum played flawed men with all the seasoned grace that Henry Fonda played heroes of the collective American consciousness. His Jerry Ryan is stiff but sexy, brooding but loving, and to all the virtues of this character that Gibson tried to help Fonda see, never cowers in the face of his own worst qualities: he embraces them, and even tries to change. Gittel Mosca is a wonderfully complex character, and Jerry Ryan is a stuffed shirt trying to figure out his new role as a freshly-divorced middle-aged man in a new city. Both of these characters are, ultimately, touchingly human, but bringing the man’s role to life wasn’t as difficult as the woman’s, though Henry Fonda might have begged to differ. This said, it is much easier for the man to be celebrated than the woman, simply because his job is much harder to nitpick to the average viewer, and the woman’s job is not just to act a part, but to perform up to a collective public opinion that ceaselessly aims to judge and put her into a box. 

***

By the time Bancroft finished her obligation to Two for the Seesaw in mid-1959 rehearsals for The Miracle Worker began; older with experience, she focused on breaking down that Gittel headspace so that could best sink into a new character, one who she refused to become completely (though that didn’t stop the media from refining that abrasive Gittel Mosca charm into that of a “serious” and “intense” type with the likes of Annie Sullivan). Bancroft would continue to refuse this patronization for the rest of her career, especially after her winning turn as Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate when she refused any projects that saw her to this typecast, resulting in a five-year break from films completely.

In an interview with Lydia Lane from 1960, at twenty-nine years old, Bancroft expressed a breadth of understanding regarding the course of her career thus far: “In becoming an individual, you have to find out what you enjoy, not what you think you enjoy. All kinds of conflicts arise from not really knowing what you want. You have to train yourself to be aware, to examine the activity in your life and eliminate as much as possible what does not bring you joy. Getting to know yourself, facing yourself with honesty, means you have to adjust to reality.” At a time where women were given and expected to maintain personas if not to be completely at the mercy of a landscape that was never made to benefit them, Anne Bancroft recognized and began to reject these statutes; in turn, she arrived at a better version of herself. This role of Gittel Mosca in Two for the Seesaw, while not existing on the same cultural plane as her turns in The Miracle Worker and The Graduate, was a watershed moment in Bancroft’s development as a self-preserving actress, one who dedicated an entire career thereafter to the art of balance.

References:

Daniel, Douglass K. Anne Bancroft: A Life. University Press of Kentucky, 2017.

Gibson, William. The Seesaw Log with the text of ‘Two for the Seesaw’. A. A. Knopf, 1959.

Kerr, Walter. “Broadway Hails Lively ‘Seesaw.’” The Philadelphia Inquirer, 26 January 1958, p. 59.

Lane, Lydia. “Anne Bancroft Tells Her Secret.” The Spokesman-Review, 18 December 1960, p. 40.

Nelson, Don. “One the Serious Side.” Daily News, 20 April 1958, p. 816.

Parsons, Louella. “Anne Bancroft: Aiming for Opera.” San Francisco Examiner, 17 June 1962, p. 126.

Peters, Margot. The House of Barrymore. A. A. Knopf, 1990.

“‘Two for the Seesaw’ for United Artists.” Brooklyn Daily, 23 November 1959, p. 17.

Watt, Douglas. “New Girl in Town and She’s Got a Village Flat.” Daily News, 18 March 1958, p. 486.

“Who is Stanislavsky?” Time, 21 December 1959, pp. 46-52.

Featured Image: Two for the Seesaw by William Auerbach-Levy, 1958. Accessed from the New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Categories
Film Essay Judy Holliday

Being Billie Dawn

Though the American film industry has been profoundly influenced by the minds of Jewish immigrants, anti-Semitism in the U.S. during and after the second World War worked to malign the accomplishments of Jewish performers in the entertainment industry, a sentiment that was very often corroborated with a fear of communism/socialism. Anti-Semitism in America, like all forms of racist/religious discrimination, is not a one-off prejudice harbored by waves of uneducated people who “don’t know any better.” It’s a sentiment held and has a long history of being held by American politicians, lawmakers, police, barons of industry; it didn’t start nor did it end with America’s interference in WWII. But when Cold War anxieties began to blister over American culture, what are now commonly referred to as “McCarthyist witch-hunts” did discriminately target Jews in the entertainment industry, wherein the monolith of “Eastern European heritage” was treated as a harbinger of the left-leaning ideologies that America was, at the time, at “war” with.

The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), an anti-communist investigative committee dispatched by the House of Representatives in 1938, was at the height of its power and influence from the years 1950-1954. Under the tutelage of Senator Joseph McCarthy, the HUAC tightened its aim on the entertainment industry, long-speculated to be the country’s foremost agent of communist influence; that the film industry, in particular, was founded by the likes of Carl Laemmle, Adolph Zukor, William Fox, Louis B. Mayer, and Benjamin Warner (Helford 157), all Jewish immigrants, the pointed association of Jewish heritage with communist influence was acutely obvious. It was during these accursed Red Scare years that Garson Kanin’s 1946 play Born Yesterday was adapted for the screen. Released in 1950, the film’s condemnation of corrupt free-market capitalism received backlash from the McCarthy administration and shouldered Kanin and the film’s star, Judy Holliday, both of Jewish descent, into further investigations for “un-American” conduct. Concerning female agency, the importance of education as a weapon against ignorance, and the corruption of democracy, Born Yesterday gives credence to ideals that directly challenged those of the HUAC and emboldened the causes of Jewish/communist-leaning American citizens during a time of hardline marginalization. Moreover, the short-lived legacy of Judy Holliday, collaborator in her friend Garson Kanin’s affronts against bigotry, is that of a Jewish woman of intelligence and fortitude, whose smart grasp on persona saved her from succumbing to everything she believed a person shouldn’t have to stand for.

Born Yesterday, while not the most radical piece of mainstream American media from the 1950s, was concerned with pushing the envelope: Saying the quiet parts of lucrative business practices out loud. The film centers a corrupt businessman, Harry Brock (Broderick Crawford) who hires a journalist named Paul Verrall (William Holden) to educate his aloof girlfriend, Billie Dawn (Judy Holliday), on the basic facts of life; Dawn unexpectedly flourishes under his education, uncovering the corruption of Brock’s business dealings and liberating herself from ignorance in the process. Central to the interpretation of Born Yesterday in its historical context is the ethnic heritage of Judy Holliday, Garson Kanin and director George Cukor (though Cukor did not face the same McCarthyist scrutiny as Holliday and Kanin), who were all Jewish. Because Cukor had been working in Hollywood for decades, directing predominantly apolitical women’s pictures, by the time he joined the production of Born Yesterday, his legacy was not conflated with the fact that he was Jewish. In short: Cukor was uncontroversial, but Born Yesterday was not, and this meant trouble for Kanin and Holliday, who spearheaded the project. In 1950, the same year Born Yesterday saw its release, Holliday’s name was listed with ten citations in Red Channels, a pamphlet reporting alleged communists in radio in television; the actress was then pinned by Senator Pat McCarran’s Senate Internal Security Subcommittee (SISS) as a threat to American ideals, as “her celebrity status on Broadway and in Hollywood guaranteed headlines, and, she was a descendant of East European Jewish immigrants” (Barranger 11).

Judy Holliday’s citations in Red Channels (1950), pp. 78-79.

Holliday’s portrayal of Billie Dawn, who asserts her agency as a sovereign woman in both her relationships with men as well as in business, challenges the statutes of mid-century expectations of women, placing a woman of Jewish descent in a central position of power and control; this position of power, gleaned from the acquisition of knowledge, gave credence to the McCarthyist witch-hunts which “disproportionately aimed at attacking Hollywood for its alleged communist influence, an attack that was bound up with antisemitism” (Barranger 11). Dawn’s revolution of thought, even telling her boyfriend Harry Brock, “I used to think you were a big man, Harry. I’m beginning to see you’re not. All through history there’s been bigger men than you, and better” is progressive in text, and as the film asserts the dangers in being unquestioning of the powers that be —“When it gets down to what should be the laws and what shouldn’t, is Harry more important than anyone else?”— the defiance of capitalist thought is obvious, and, by the standards of the SISS, objectionable. Written by a Jewish man and embodied by a Jewish woman, Born Yesterday’s epitomization of a woman liberated through education signifies a watershed moment American film as a weapon of political agenda.

Born Yesterday suggests that while education changes the part of people that makes them blind to their personal injustices and those around them, it does not change so much of who they are. Holliday’s quick and high cadence of speech is never abandoned for something deeper, maybe slower (she does not need to slow down her pattern of speech to signify thoughtfulness, her whip-smart ways are even more indicative of how fast her mind works, pumping out an endlessly smart stream of thought without the regard for how other people might misinterpret her), her bleach-blond updo is never switched out for something natural, more polished or refined, her words which once worked to embarrass Harry in front of others because of her lack of intelligence, later embarrass him for his refusal to know more, to be a better person. The film posits the basics of self-liberation, essentializing education as the means to an end of ignorance. What Judy Holliday brings to Born Yesterday is a remarkable ability to be both smart and human at the same time. It’s something that can be understood by audiences from 1950 and 2021 alike, a perfect authenticity that compliments a story that makes of American mythos something that is all at once accessible, unique, and incendiary.

Moreover, Billie Dawn’s transformation from a “dumb blonde” to a realized woman who learns to stand up for herself inside of her domestic sphere represents a transition that many American women in a post-World War II landscape were making at the time. In one high-tension scene between Dawn and Brock, she asserts, “You don’t own me. Nobody can own anybody. There’s a law that says!” To which Brock retorts, “What do I care what the law says? If I was scared of the law I wouldn’t be where I am.” Dawn’s agency in this moment is supported by her acquisition of knowledge, which the film posits as the demise of all ignorance and corruption: By the end of Born Yesterday, Brock is left penniless without Dawn as his clueless racketeering cohort because she now understands and rejects his treatment of her as his inferior as well as his crooked business practices, asserting, “I just know I hate my life. There’s a better cut, I know it. And if you read some of these books, you’d know it too.” The education of Billie Dawn is placed in such a powerful position in Born Yesterday as it reflects a paradigm shift in government trust as well as female liberation. As “the clash of progressive and regressive forces would produce a reevaluation of cultural understandings and interactions regarding race, gender, and ethnicity, including attitudes toward Jewishness,” (Helford 158) the film weaponizes knowledge against ignorance, and the fact that this was railed against by the HUAC speaks to the aims of the committee as a powerful engineer of censorship.

Garson Kanin’s citations in Red Channels (1950), pp. 90-91.

Born Yesterday takes a strong position against the aggressive racketeering practices often overlooked or permitted by the American government through direct condemnation. As the film positions Harry Brock as a corrupt government lampoon stand-in, his actions are directly castigated by the film’s text; in one scene, Paul Verrall tells Dawn, “The whole history of the world is the story of the struggle between the selfish and unselfish. All that’s bad around us is bred by selfishness. Sometimes selfishness can even get to be a cause, an organized force, even a government. And then it’s called fascism,” implying that Brock has manipulated democratic principles into his own philosophy of personal gain, running directly adjacent to a fascist ideology. That the character of Harry Brock is aligned with the American government, this further qualification of his fascist principles draws a comparison between the goals of free-market capitalism and its corruption of operation — as Verrall notes, “For all I know there’s an undiscovered murder committed everyday. And what does that prove? All this undercover pressure, this bribery, this government between friends”— discriminately assigning power to only a few individuals. Garson Kanin, Born Yesterday’s writer, was, like Holliday, listed in Red Channels and called by the HUAC to testify; the targeting of film’s creative team, specifically Holliday and Kanin, by the HUAC, is an insight into a legislative committee’s goals to censor subversive thought, often voiced by minority groups (in this case, Jewish immigrants) who openly expressed their concerns with the corruptions of American industry. How Born Yesterday treats a state of “yellowing democracy” as something that can be changed if we recognize where ignorance comes from, and how to usher people out of it, is remarkably sincere, maybe too authentic a message to be completely driven home in its time. Though Kanin and Holliday believed in a world that could be bettered by liberating people from ignorance, achieved somewhere between the American stage and Hollywood, their attempt with Born Yesterday was remarkably short-changed. It was the last explicitly political film Holliday would make, and it was one of the last times we would see something so earnest in its deliveries of progressive rhetoric from a creative team working in studio-era Hollywood.

Everybody can love Billie Dawn. She’s unapologetically herself, her working class roots and her Jean Louis ensembles, who is full of bright spiels and plays the most entertaining hand in Gin Rummy possibly ever. She’s the hero of a story that is not as much radical as it is a reframing of American mythos to essentialize the journey from ignorance to education. Dawn is fortunate to receive an education, but it’s one that’s unconventional, it’s one that comes later in her life, one that’s assumed as something she didn’t have access to growing up. Kanin and Holliday tell us that this is how we can break the cycle of corruption, ignorance, discrimination; that it’s never too late to learn, but that Billie Dawn was one of the lucky ones. Not all children or adults like Dawn can receive something as important as an education for an umbrella of reasons that have nothing to do with agency or motivation. Born Yesterday isn’t so revolutionary in its approach to criticism of government corruption, but it is likely the most important studio film from the 1950s that challenges the common narrative of ignorance, that it comes from a single place of miseducation and laziness, with a situation that’s not so unlike those of ordinary people, both in mid-century America and today: A woman is manipulated by a man (who manipulates the government to earn his living) into believing that she doesn’t need an education in order to get by, so long as she’s with him (literally—one of the first things we hear from Dawn is that she’s stupid and she likes it). Manipulation is chief here, putting forth the idea that ignorance should be treated as an issue on a spectrum, that some people don’t choose to be ignorant (but then, some people, the Harry Brocks of the world, do), they are penniless/pressured/stripped of all other resources and ushered into a small and scary world where nothing is their choice. Education, when it is made accessible, should not be feared, it should be welcomed: It’s something that can make you a better person. When Billie Dawn realizes this, her intelligence (that of which is obvious to us as she plays and wins the smartest game of Gin Rummy ever put to film) blossoms, and we can understand just how much this would not have been possible if not for Dawn’s ability to see herself as a whole person who is deserving of something as vital as an education.

Born Yesterday’s explicitly critical view of American capitalism and industry gave rise to anti-communist and anti-Semitic rhetoric against writer Garson Kanin and the film’s star, Judy Holliday during the zenith of the HUAC’s political influence. Denunciation of the film’s themes — the importance of education, female agency, and the condemnation of capitalistic power structures — by a legislative committee signifies how powerful a political weapon filmmaking is, and further, how Jews and communist-leaning American citizens were struck down with censure in the mid-twentieth century. During her closed hearing conducted by the McCarran committee, Judy Holliday was famously coached by her public relations agent, Robert L. Green, to play up her Billie Dawn character. What resulted was perhaps the most convincing acting performance of her career: Holliday remained steadfast to her political advocacy, communist-front associations, union membership, and sentiments against religious persecution without admitting names which would have jeopardized herself, her family and her peers. When asked by Richard Arens, counsel of the committee and former aid to Senator McCarthy, “What is it that you abhor about Communism?” Holliday dutifully responded, “I hate the idea that you are dictated to in what should be the freedom of your own life; that you are told how to think and what to think and that you are policed in your thoughts. I hate the idea that they try to make everybody like everybody else and that the state comes first and that the individual doesn’t matter for anything” (Barranger 17). Judy Holliday, who put up the good fight, who never sacrificed herself or other people for the statutes that she chose to challenge, made of one character a vision of integrity to endure forever in the intersection of politics and film history: An act of selflessness against aggression to be eternally admired. To recognize Judy Holliday as a truly brilliant actress, extending this role into spaces of her personal life that one might never be expected to, is to recognize all of what made Judy Holliday, or the real Judith Tuvim, great.

References:

American Business Consultants, and Counterattack (Organization). Red Channels: The Report of Communist Influence in Radio and Television. American Business Consultants, 1950, pp. 78, 90.

Barranger, Milly S. “Broadway’s Women on Trial: The McCarthy Years,” Journal of American Drama and Theatre, vol. 15, no. 3, 2003, pp. 1-37.

Helford, Elyce Rae. What Price Hollywood?: Gender and Sex in the Films of George Cukor. University Press of Kentucky, 2020, pp. 157-183.

“Testimony of Judy Holliday (26 March 1952),” Hearings Before the Subcommittee to Investigate the Administration of the Internal Security Act and Other Internal Security Laws of the Committee on the Judiciary United States Senate, Eighty-Second Congress, Second Session on Subversive Infiltration of Radio, Television, and the Entertainment Industry, United States Government Printing Office, 1952, pp. 141-186.

Categories
Film Essay

Grief and Jack Lemmon

What does it mean to save the tiger? Scale your hurt and loss with things you can help, knowing that somewhere out there, you’ve done something that matters. Or is it the promise that you’ve done something that matters that supersedes the results?

***

 The first time Jack Lemmon won an Oscar was for his supporting role in Mister Roberts (which still isn’t even remembered as much as his other big films), the second for his leading role in Save the Tiger. In both films, he’s not paired with his usual stock, he’s almost alone. No Tony Curtis, no Walter Matthau, no Judy Holliday, no Shirley MacLaine. It’s no mistake that most of the films you remember Jack Lemmon by also star any of his frequent collaborators, but his Oscar wins eschew this great legacy, his ability to collaborate so generously with others, in favor of his isolated talent. Of course he could stand on his own, but that’s not what made Jack Lemmon great, or what we remember him by.

When you think about Jack Lemmon, Save the Tiger is not the first film that comes to mind. The Apartment, Some Like it Hot, The Odd Couple, Grumpy Old Men (one or two), or if you’re like me: The Prisoner of Second Avenue, It Should Happen to You, Days of Wine and Roses, The Great Race. When you think about Jack Lemmon, you think about Billy Wilder, or if you’re like me: Richard Quine and Blake Edwards. When you think about Jack Lemmon, you think of an old pro, a master, one they just don’t make like anymore. Or if you’re like me: a confidant, a kind man, a friend.

***

My cousin died two weeks ago. We were never exactly close, but growing up I always lived about fifteen minutes from my uncle’s, her father’s house. She was thirteen when I was born, and I’ve only ever seen a few photos of me as a baby and her as a young teenager, together. After that it was random Thanksgivings, maybe a few Christmases when both of us were younger. Then it was my mom and my brothers and I taking care of her child. Then it was her memorial service. I’ve never known anyone in my family to die before, and I almost didn’t go to her service. I asked my dad if he needed me to be there, as it was his older brother who’d lost his child, and he said yes. So I went.

One of those photos from me as a baby, her as a young teenager, was shown in a slideshow, accompanied by one of those modern worship songs. “Hosanna, Hosanna, Hosanna in the highest”— it’s our new house in Colorado, it’s my brother and I as kids, it’s mom and dad as thirty-somethings, it’s our old dogs, it’s my aunts and my uncle, it’s my cousins who I never see anymore (or haven’t since the day that photo was taken). “Hosanna, Hosanna, Hosanna in the highest” — it’s my younger brothers, now three of them, on the couch with her. “Lord, we lift up your name, with our hearts full of praise” — it’s a her thick eyeliner and flat-ironed blonde hair that makes her look like Evan Rachel Wood, a photo that was surely used for her MySpace profile back in the day. “Be exalted, O Lord, my God” — it’s her with her child, who is beautiful, smart, and bright, who just stopped bouncing up and down on the stage to pick at the fake flowers and watch these photos of his mommy come and go. “Hosanna in the highest!” — it’s a photo of my uncle, who has always reminded me of Spencer Tracy, feeding her a bottle on his lap as a baby. I’ve gotten all of these photos out of order, they really just came chronologically, but this is how I remember my cousin. I didn’t know her as a person, ever, I only knew her through my uncle and my aunt, my brothers, my mom, my dad, the dogs who have all come to pass throughout our family and theirs. Her baby. I didn’t think I needed to go to her memorial service because I didn’t know her, and closer to what I now know as the end, it looked more and more like I never would. But I did need to go, not just because of her, but because of the effort both of our families made in keeping her alive. I don’t need to know the roads she took in her life, why she isolated herself, why I never knew her, because I can see just how much she affected those around her, the weight of her sudden and sad death on my family members who I’d never seen cry until yesterday. It always rocks my world to see the men in my life, sans my three younger brothers, cry. The devastating way Spencer Tracy goes into that good night in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner—that’s what it was like seeing the men in my life cry. It turns your insides to hot mush and fogs up your glasses because you’re breathing through the tears inside of your mask. It makes you want to never leave these people, to prove that you can be good, you can live through them, make them never know loss again. But of course you can never anticipate the ways a life can be cruel, so you just stay by their side, and promise that you’ll live one.

***

Life just doesn’t go right back to normal after you’re in a room with crying, hurt, grieving people. I didn’t try to do anything but stay with my mom and dad yesterday after the service. We struggled to find something to do or watch, but as my mom and I like to joke when we can never settle on a movie: “Let’s just watch Some Like it Hot! Tony Curtis hops from one identity to another, from his impenetrable pursed lips as the respectable “Josephine” to a spot-on Cary Grant accent in ridiculous stolen coke-bottle glasses and sailor suit, faux-millionaire style. Marilyn Monroe is glamorous but soft, with a sparkling vulnerability that melts hearts and moves mountains. Jack Lemmon is lawless, his “Daphne” persona completely eclipses his male ego in the most wonderful, non-threatening and endearing proportions. Fashioning this Daphne after his mother, Jack Lemmon as a woman is insightful and fun, a complete abandon of himself and an homage to a great woman in his life, that’s not exactly profound in presentation, but exciting in its novelty and recklessness. Jack Lemmon was never afraid to jump the shark, and Some Like it Hot is the first real time he fully commits to escalating a role for the sake of our laughter (to Curtis’s question: “Why would a guy wanna marry a guy?” he answers, unwaveringly, “For security!”). There’s also no perfect spectrum of femininity presented by the film, so while Lemmon and Curtis are always somewhat floundering in their female personas, they are never attacking what it means to be a woman, they are simply figuring it out. To me, this is more refreshing than anything. Ultimately, though, lives (their lives) are at stake throughout the film, and while there is so much fun that fills the space in between, once George Raft and his troupe show up at the Hotel del Coronado, there’s that oh shit moment of remembering that these men are on the run for their lives, after all. And of course there’s the bombastic get-away, the reveals, that perfect last line. This trio of fun and mobility, the starry high-life and rush of the 1920s, lends to the wild chase that Some Like it Hot is, and always will be for me. My mom loves it in the way I do, too (she once turned to me while we were watching this film to say, “You know Jack Lemmon is actually kind of a handsome guy”), but it wasn’t the movie we landed on. While Some Like it Hot is a showy escape from an immediate reality, it’s just not an exoneration from blame and the excruciating rat-race of being a person. The film we were looking for? The Great Race.

***

Dedicated to Laurel and Hardy, the magic of The Great Race is its ability to recognize and honor what makes comedy the best medicine. Vaudevillian gags with comic heroes, villains, and stooges are all played out by the hottest stars of the mid-60s: Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis, Natalie Wood, and Peter Falk pre-Columbo. There’s absolutely no reality to the film. Sure Natalie Wood’s character is a suffragette, sure the film fills the space of a historical event (the real 1908 New York to Paris Race), but Jack Lemmon is a cartoon villain with painted eyebrows and mustache, Peter Falk is his comically persistent henchman who accepts the blame for all of his shortcomings, Tony Curtis is never not wearing white and his eyes and teeth sparkle (literally) in front of the camera. Against all of this, there are constant, unending callbacks to masters of slapstick and famous gags that fill the film with so much frivolity, it’s hard to place any of it in any kind of reality whatsoever. With flimsy rivalries, this cast of characters race from New York to Paris and endure events throughout that force each pairing (Natalie Wood with Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon with Peter Falk) to switch around and come together in the most marvelous ways to champion their circumstances, wherein the goal of finishing the race first doesn’t seem to surface until the very end (when, even as it happens, doesn’t matter much—the real great race is the friends we made along the way). A rematch is demanded because Jack Lemmon’s Professor Fate can’t accept that he won the race under false pretenses, and there is a return to the ridiculous. But was there ever really a break from it, though?

Lemmon and Curtis as Professor Fate and The Great Leslie.

In Some Like it Hot, the break from the ridiculous manifests itself in showers of bullets and terrifying, powerful men. In The Great Race, the break from the ridiculous actually never happens—even before the race starts, the rivalry between Curtis’s Great Leslie and Lemmon’s Professor Fate and Falk’s loyal Max sinks you into this obvious hero-villain tug-of-war, with Wood’s “emancipated woman” Maggie DuBois challenging and entangling the two for her own professional gain. The conflict is silly. Inconsequential, even. As the race itself ends, Lemmon is shouting “I won!” (Falk is echoing “We won!”) and Curtis and Wood embrace in a long-awaited kiss just before the finish line. What even was the race for, then, if not to be won fair-and-square? Between these ends, there’s the travel from New York to the Wild West to the Bering Strait to a fantasy Russian kingdom to Paris, wherein each character is double-crossed, their plans foiled, their bodies thrown around the room, with pie soiling each of their carefully-curated outfits (except for Curtis, who in his crisp white trappings, is immune to it all). Each actor is thrown into a comedy style that continued to become less and less relevant, certainly not what any of them had experience in before. But the remarkable thing? Everyone rises to the occasion. Wood emotes with silent film sensibility, Falk becomes a slapstick maestro, Curtis, like in Some Like it Hot, fastens himself to a machismo persona and never sheds it, and Lemmon, well he does and tries everything. He whips is body around in bizarre cadence, plays the dual role of a boozing prince with remarkable sharpness, and never lets up on his focused, albeit short-sighted goals of destroying The Great Leslie. He’s a character. He’s Professor Fate, not Daphne or Jerry, not Jack Lemmon. He’s the villain of the story who lives in a comically dark, spider-webbed mansion, who has all these resources to create and inevitably destroy wacky contraptions to try and thwart his make-believe enemy, who can’t be grounded in his modern world like all of his other characters, because in The Great Race, reality is second to the race. The forward motion of all of these characters lets the world around them match their chaos, and not the other way around. Their reality is a vaudevillian, silent film-scape, wherein every wrench in their race from one dot on the map to another, is just for laughs. You can choose whether or not you buy it, but it’s much more fun if you do. The perfect film to watch when all you need to do, when all you can do is laugh.

The Great Race is technically a Lemmon-Curtis joint, but it’s really the four-way pairing at the heart of the film that sells its non-reality and vaudevillian homage. It was also his fourth time working with Blake Edwards, who had previously been credited as a writer on Operation Mad Ball, My Sister Eileen, and The Notorious Landlady and had directed Lemmon in Days of Wine and Roses a couple years prior. With his repeat costars, directors, and writers, it doesn’t take much to understand just how much of a team player Jack Lemmon was. Throughout his film career, though, Lemmon never played anyone like Professor Fate before or after The Great Race (you might make a case for his character in Irma La Douce, but I certainly wouldn’t); perhaps his greatest anomaly? Maybe. He looks happy to play a character who is not grounded by his own comic, worldly sensibilities; The Great Race was a break for him from often-taxing characters he played, who always required a bit of him, who always drew from something personal inside of the real Jack Lemmon. It’s tiring to be so much of a person all the time. Professor Fate and The Great Race are a break from all that. For almost three hours, it’s Jack and I who get to live inside of this ridiculous play-world, where nothing is ever so bad that can’t be fixed, cleaned up, or lived through. 

***

In thinking about Save the Tiger, I also think of Days of Wine and Roses. Maybe you would consider The Apartment as Jack Lemmon’s biggest dramatic role, but I always think of Days of Wine and Roses. It’s just different. There’s promise at the end of The Apartment, that you can shut up and deal your way through life, new relationships, new people and jobs. There’s no such promise at the end of Days of Wine and Roses. It’s a story about addiction. I don’t want to, or maybe I can’t, talk about addiction because of my family. But it does mean something to see Jack Lemmon’s character in that film, Joe Clay, champion his addiction, even though it has nasty side effects in the way of destroying his wife, played brilliantly by Lee Remick. He does try to help her, but it’s messy and it’s hard. I won’t talk any more about Days of Wine and Roses, but knowing that that was a film that he did, that he was proud of, means a lot.

To save the tiger means to literally save the tigers. It’s a petition that Jack Lemmon’s character signs during the movie. Tigers and other animals in the wild will return to places of remembered beauty to die, and that’s what Lemmon does throughout Save the Tiger. Tossing that slogan around in my head enough, I’ve bended it into odd iterations of how I remember that movie (which I now can see is very little), and how I think about life. So for me, saving the tiger means to stay alive regardless of how terrible things get. In the film, Jack Lemmon’s character doesn’t commit arson or kill himself or do any of these drastic things he’s (maybe) planned for. (He just sleeps with a younger woman, which is still weird to see Jack Lemmon do, but I digress.) It’s hard to see the men in your life cry. Jack Lemmon isn’t an extension of Spencer Tracy—that hard-to-crack decency that characterizes a lot of good men—like the way uncle and my dad are, he’s a completely singular man in my life. I don’t actually remember if he cries in Save the Tiger, but I know that Jack Lemmon can cry, and he’s on the brink of crying in complete exhaust the entirety of that film. It’s enough to register as strange, to turn my insides into hot mush, to make me cry, too. 

I do hope my cousin is in a better place, and I know that my brothers and I will do damn near anything to make sure her child grows up healthy and strong. So really, saving the tiger is not just a sign, a promise or an effort, but it’s the results, too. Only most of the time, you never live to see the results play out completely. Jack Lemmon died just a little over a month after I was born. What he is to me is all the results, all the proof of what it’s worth to save the tiger. It’s not just about making ‘em laugh, it’s about doing and being something good for other people. Jack Lemmon has championed my grief by showing both integrity and humor in human weakness, living proof that he could be both in it and above it. His navigation is my own, and it’s nice to have a friend.

Categories
Anne-Fare Film Essay

We Should All Love Anne Bancroft: Revisiting “The Graduate”

I’ve let two years, almost two whole ones from my undergraduate career go by before writing about The Graduate again. The last time I touched the film in any kind of retrospective, I was only slightly aware of the kind of life I would have as a working Anne Bancroft scholar, I wasn’t sure of where I would be going to college, I hadn’t even graduated high school yet. Between seventeen and nineteen, I’ve held the running joke with myself that I would never watch this film again if my life depended on it, with all the misgivings and dreams deterred that have occupied that space in between. That running joke had to expire, though, because The Graduate is my favorite film after all, and like most favorite films, it is a bit painful and sobering to watch again; however, I can decidedly put my hurt feelings aside to write about The Graduate on its 53rd anniversary. Upon its release in 1967, film critic George McKinnon wrote for The Boston Globe, “The movie is not only extremely funny, but it is also touching and searingly acrid, sometimes all at the same time” (McKinnon 24); hold your favorite film close to your heart, and it will burn you indubitably in the end.

Like the great breed of American filmmaking to arrive by the end of the decade, The Graduate reaches towards abrasive storytelling guided by the assured hands of newcomers and hopefuls. Mike Nichols, half of Nichols and May, comedy team to the gods, was attracted to the project by the eagerness of producer (and The Graduate flagship) Lawrence Turman, who had acquisitioned the rights to Charles Webb’s 1963 novel, The Graduate, in 1964 for $1,000. Established producer Joseph E. Levine joined the project (with an executive producer credit in tow) as he was eager to bet on Nichols to direct a winning outfit for Embassy Pictures. Levine, famous for his campaigning prowess, had faith in Nichols, who hadn’t even directed a feature film by the time he was signed on to the project; Nichols’ experience as an up-and-coming theater director with gravitas, with such 60s tentpole productions as Barefoot in the Park (1963), Luv (1964), and The Odd Couple (1965) under his belt before he even set foot into the Hollywood directing arena (and that’s not even to mention his credits in the legendarily popular An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May, which ran during the 1960-61 Broadway season), made him a hot name in Hollywood by the mid-60s. As for the subject matter of Charles Webb’s book that Turman was so clearly willing to go to bat for, Levine could take it or leave it; he really just wanted to distribute a film with Nichols’ name attached to it. But before Nichols could jump into a project as half-baked as The Graduate, he directed the much-celebrated, acerbic adaptation of Edward Albee’s play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? as his feature film debut; Virginia Woolf? fossilized him as a leading dark horse of New Hollywood direction. While Nichols was shooting his first feature film, Turman signed on Calder Willingham to write what essentially became a rough first draft of the screenplay. Neither Turman nor Nichols were particular fond of Willingham’s script, so at Nichols’ discretion, the team turned to a young comedian working as a television writer, Buck Henry; even this early on, all signs pointed to Anne Bancroft’s casting as Mrs. Robinson, as Buck Henry’s most significant credits at the time were on the TV show Get Smart, which he co-created and wrote with Mel Brooks, Bancroft’s husband. Henry, unlike Willingham, shared the same understanding and excitement for The Graduate as Turman and Nichols, which was clearly reflected in his script. Willingham sued for credit, which is genuinely hysterical, considering Turman actually called his script “vulgar” (Kashner). Willingham ultimately receives top billing for the film, but credit for the final script adapting Charles Webb’s novel, the script that was actually used for the film, rests entirely on the shoulders of the great Buck Henry. When Nichols departed from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which earned him an Academy nod for Best Director and was already on its way to becoming an American classic, he devoted himself fully to the production of The Graduate, and casting was the next minefield.

The same year that The Graduate went into production, Dustin Hoffman was considered for the role of Leo Bloom in Mel Brooks’ feature film debut The Producers (1967), a role that eventually went to the late genius Gene Wilder. Plenty now-recognizable names looking for their first (or next) big break auditioned for the role of Benjamin Braddock before New York-native Dustin Hoffman scored the part. At a screening of The Graduate at the Director’s Guild of America Theatre in New York in 2003, Mike Nichols told the now-famous anecdote of Robert Redford’s audition, giving voice to the struggle he and Turman faced in casting the part of a pedestrian young man who could pull a believably astute performance but remain sympathetic with audiences: “I said, ‘You can’t play it. You can never play a loser.’ And Redford said, ‘What do you mean? Of course I can play a loser.’ And I said, ‘O.K., have you ever struck out with a girl?’ and he said, ‘What do you mean?’ And he wasn’t joking” (Kashner). Hoffman was legendarily awkward in his audition tape (which you can now view in part as a featurette in the Criterion Collection’s re-release of The Graduate), crossing the line into sexual assault, pinching Katharine Ross’ behind as a way for him to “alleviate tension” (of course this wouldn’t be his first offense in the name of awkwardness, as he touches Bancroft’s breast without consent in their first intimate scene together; that scene makes the final cut of the film). In fact, Hoffman was so incredibly awkward throughout the production of The Graduate, the little “hmph” noises he makes as Benjamin were birthed out of uneasiness, but Nichols bought into this character quirk so much, he encouraged Hoffman to keep the bit going. Benjamin Braddock is just about one of the most original American film characters of all time, and Hoffman is about as incredibly sincere and naive as they come in his portrayal; Benjamin is a perfect reflection of Hoffman’s own anxieties about being a screen newcomer in a role that was intended for a recognizable name of a WASP-type leading man. He was the exact opposite of how Benjamin was written, but the kind of life and disturbed heroism he brings to the part perhaps pioneered a new era of opportunities for young Jewish actors; he is seen as desirable but rounded by insecurities all the same: he is, above all, touchingly human. Ultimately, Hoffman was perfect for the part of Benjamin, a “delightful film hero of our generation” (Alpert 66), but I can never, in good faith, lionize him beyond that. His behavior on the set of The Graduate was inappropriate, and an unfortunate reminder that the greatest heroes of film are capable of acting wildly off-color in the name of their artistic whims.

The casting of Anne Bancroft and Katharine Ross looked different than the process which landed Hoffman as Benjamin Braddock. The original shortlist of young actresses considered to play Elaine Robinson, Mrs. Robinson’s sought-after daughter (who could still maintain the less-than-ten-year-age-difference between herself and actress playing her mother) included Natalie Wood, Jane Fonda, Caroll Baker, Sue Lyon, Lee Remick, Hayley Mills, Patty Duke, etc. While Patty Duke would have certainly been an interesting choice considering Anne Bancroft as Mrs. Robinson, which would have reunited The Miracle Worker pairing in a far departure from their teacher-student roles, the cast was all but set when Katharine Ross auditioned with Dustin Hoffman. As aforementioned, the chemistry of their audition together was compromising on Ross’ behalf, but the uncomfortable air between them all but bowled Nichols over. Katharine Ross, whose sanguine disposition as Elaine Robinson ultimately traps her in a hell of a love triangle, is not to be dismissed as a key player in The Graduate. Nichols even insisted that Ross bring her own wardrobe to the shooting dates for scenes at UC Berkeley (which were actually shot at the University of Southern California), as she carried such a natural pitch of a contemporary graduate student. Ross underscores the emotional turmoil brought upon by both Benjamin and her mother, and the expectations of marrying appropriately that obscure her, with a kind of bubbling anger that bursts in small moments of heavy distress; the screech as Benjamin refutes the story she’s been fed about him and her mother brings Elaine’s tension up to Ben’s level momentarily, then it pipes down in a matter of seconds. She is just as confused and astringent as he is, only, she’s better at hiding it in sweet, unassuming mannerisms. 

The casting process of Mrs. Robinson cuts in much of the post-studio system pandemonium; who was old enough but still sexy enough to play Mrs. Robinson? Who was looking for a job, or who needed a vehicle for relevance in a new age of American filmmaking? Famed names like Ava Gardner, Doris Day, Jeanne Moreau, and Ingrid Bergman dominate interest in the “what could have been” conversation about The Graduate’s production (personally, I find more interest in the “what could have been” regarding Patty Duke’s casting as Elaine Robinson, but I digress); all of these women were actually considered for the role of Mrs. Robinson, but Anne Bancroft was the only actress who was officially offered the part by both Nichols and Turman. Mel Brooks, Bancroft’s husband, ushered her into the project, as it was written by his friend and Get Smart colleague Buck Henry, and after slight hesitation, Bancroft accepted (Daniel 142); if you were previously unaware of the hand Mel Brooks played in The Graduate, I suppose now you are. Bancroft was payed a healthy $200,000 for the part, and marked the experience of filming with a conflicted tone. Bancroft was never exactly comfortable with the kind of physical intimacy a role like Mrs. Robinson demanded of her, and she had never played a role with as much sacrifice of her bodily autonomy previously; a Broadway mainstay by 1967, Bancroft was much more familiar with and comfortable with roles that required intimacy of the heart over her body, starring in gritty productions like The Miracle Worker (1959), Mother Courage and Her Children (1963), and The Devils (1965), all with scant seductive tones. The role originally called for nudity, which likely gives credence to her reluctance towards accepting the job in the first place, but Bancroft, like every role she had previously acted in, was confident in giving her all. However, on the day the nude scenes were set to be filmed, she later recalled, “I just couldn’t do it. And, of course, that sort of left Mike [Nichols] up a creek” (2000). So, a double was brought in for the flashy shots of Mrs. Robinson’s naked body; similarly, while I hate to be the first one to tell you if I am, that wasn’t actually Anne Bancroft’s leg on the film’s poster, it was then-unknown model Linda Gray’s leg. Physicality was not the only emotionally strenuous term Bancroft would have to champion while filming The Graduate; she was playing a character who was canonically ten years older than her actual age, and the actor playing her junior was only six years her junior. While Anne Bancroft was, of course, a consummate professional more than capable of turning out a top shelf performance, her external points of stress were more than daunting, and should be considered with her legendary turn as Mrs. Robinson.

When Bancroft was preparing for her first largely unfamiliar role, Gittel Mosca of Two for the Seesaw, she saw to the great task of bringing an eccentric, grating character to fruition with sensibility enough the punctuate her sympathetic draws; she worked under the leadership of acting teacher Herbert Berghof, introducing her the teachings of Stanislavsky, coaching her to draw from her innermost conflict in order to connect with her character. Her strengths were honed for the first real time in her acting career, and she was allowed a space to exercise plenty of new tricks for a team who was rooting for her. She was the newcomer who got all the attention during Two for the Seesaw, a fare which would reverse itself during the filming of The Graduate; Bancroft was the largest acting name associated with the picture, as other major roles filled out with Murray Hamilton as Mr. Robinson, William Daniels as Mr. Braddock, and Elizabeth Wilson as Mrs. Braddock, and there was a certain expectation that she would be the dovetailing force of the acting side of the production.

Soundstage rehearsals at Paramount studios. Photograph by Bob Willoughby.

As filming began in March 1967, much of the film’s scheduling was allotted for rehearsals, where Bancroft could truly begin to understand Mrs. Robinson, how she should play her, and what she could draw upon within herself to add clarity to an otherwise unsympathetic, maligned role. Mike Nichols was perhaps her greatest champion on set, a man who had thoroughly considered the hang-ups and misgivings of Mrs. Robinson before Bancroft even had the chance to fill such exhaustive terms; though reminiscent of her time at the HB Studio and her formative lessons of the Method, Mike Nichols was increasingly novel in his approaches to culling great, nuanced performances from his actors. Nichols encouraged his stock of actors to consider the intricacies of the Braddocks and the Robinsons, both in conflict and as separate entities, in order to understand exactly the kind of people they would be portraying, an approach very similar to Berghof and Stanislavsky. He also encouraged his actors to consider the “theme of empty consumerism that had marked Mrs. Robinson’s life and now threatened Benjamin’s future” in creating a life for their characters (Daniel 144). Where Nichols differed, however, from the increasingly pedantic terms of method acting, was within his familiar comedy routine of calculated improvisation. A review of the film from 1967 noted how, “Sometimes it seems as if Nichols had just discovered the camera and is delighting in the freedom of the film medium over his more familiar stage” (McKinnon 24). He encouraged improvisation in both character study and blocking, inspiring Hoffman’s infamous and grossly inappropriate handling in the first scene where Benjamin and Mrs. Robinson are alone in a hotel room together; as the story goes, Bancroft was unaware of the advances he would make to touch her breast but acted along professionally, and to smother his laughter, Hoffman turned to the nearest wall and started banging his head. Nichols was reportedly in tears by the end of the scene and his sexual assault made the final cut of the film. To anyone unaware of the scene’s context, this routine reads as characteristic to Benjamin’s self-sabotaging whim, blocked with enough awkwardness to guarantee audience laughs and at least a few winces out of relatability.

Improvisation crossed the line in that scene, and luckily a stunt like that wasn’t pulled again by Hoffman or encouraged by Nichols, because as the production wore on, the latter party became increasingly aware of how uncomfortable Bancroft was with being Mrs. Robinson. In addition to this strain of uncomfortable physical endurances, Bancroft caught pneumonia while filming and fainted while outside of the United Methodist Church where the last scene of The Graduate was being shot. Much of that sympathy Nichols had for her shows up in the film, as he later expressed, “‘Part of Annie’s genius is that you’re sort of on Mrs. Robinson’s side, partly because she’s so much fun and partly because…I don’t know. She’s a beautiful woman and I feel for her” (Daniel 145). Bancroft and Nichols are quite the collaboration for the books, certainly my books, and he was likely the greatest thing, creatively, to come out of The Graduate for her. The two appreciated each other’s company so much, Anne signed on to a Broadway production of The Little Foxes, with Nichols directing, shortly after The Graduate wrapped shooting; the production ran from October 26 to December 16 at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre, and from December 19, just days before The Graduate was released in U.S. theaters, to January 20, 1968 at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, closing after a modest run of 100 performances. Affectionately remembering her staggering performance in the 40th anniversary DVD commentary track for The Graduate, Nichols made the sharp observation that, “Everything she does is perfect.” It certainly seems so.

Call it her professionalism, her honest calling as an actor, because Bancroft gives an unsparing, gorgeous performance as Mrs. Robinson, all tensions considered. Bancroft spent much of her time on The Graduate considering each and every strain that Mrs. Robinson was acting under, and as the role became more and more synonymous with her name as an actress, her creative process was pulled further into the limelight than any of her prior afamed roles had been before. Bancroft later revealed to Charlie Rose where her sympathies aligned in her performance as Mrs. Robinson: “I think she had dreams. She had dreams and the dreams could not be fulfilled because of things that had happened, and so she spent a very conventional life with this conventional man in a conventional house, you know. Even though it was Beverly Hills, it was still a very conventional life. And meantime, all the dreams that she had had for herself, you know, and the talent–she probably was a gifted artist you know. I thought that she was. And none of that could happen anymore” (2000). Bancroft was careful and focused on the intentions of Mrs. Robinson, never mincing words about her character that would open the film up for further speculation of what was already done, behind her, and obviously perfected; she never divulged detail about Mrs. Robinson that hadn’t already been confirmed by her performance in the film itself: “‘There was such a delicate balance in The Graduate that I had to keep a straight line. If I took one step away from that line I would make her a caricature. And if I stepped the other way I would have made her a tragic character” (Daniel 145). I have a heart full of sympathy for Bancroft’s cause, and the complicated legacy Mrs. Robinson bestowed on her; she didn’t watch the film for nearly twenty-five years after its release, as she was entering her sixties. She took a five-year break from film before she embarked on her next project, Young Winston, in 1972; though this break did not spare her from public heckling and interview fodder, it certainly did separate her mind and body from Mrs. Robinson, a taxing role she never wanted to serve as her typecast. The Graduate and Mrs. Robinson are what first introduced me to Anne Bancroft, and though I’m grateful, I don’t consider either/or to be the crux of why I love Anne or why I love The Graduate; rather, I believe that Anne Bancroft is what makes The Graduate great. While I have been able to separate the legacy of Mrs. Robinson from Anne Bancroft, I realize that this is not nor has it ever been the agreed-upon expectation of American art; she is Mrs. Robinson, and sometimes she is just Mrs. Robinson to others, and though I can save a case with my research, I cannot expect everyone to disparage the conditions that American filmmaking requires of its greatest legends. Anne Bancroft graciously accepted the terms, even though she never should have needed to.

When I started to look beyond the obvious voice of The Graduate–Benjamin and his incongruous identity–I began to understand the film as more than a personal reflection, something so selfish I strongly held myself to, that was stealing away from the greatest pleasures of the film. To claim the obvious that was not so obvious to me until very recently, the film is riotously funny. My younger brother, now sixteen, watched the film with me not so long ago, and there was hardly a moment where we could stop laughing from sight gags, Hoffman’s disturbed mannerisms, the droning of Simon and Garfunkel, or simply just as a response to the increasing hilarity of the film’s events, from one absurd proposition to its ridiculous solution. Of course, we found different things funny. The scene where Hoffman and Buck Henry battle for dominance over the hotel lobby bell absolutely broke me up, but my brother could hardly spare a sympathetic chuckle, even after I rewound the scene just to make sure he caught just how good it was (“that was a classic Nichols bit,” I prodded). Before this, I could never escape a viewing of The Graduate without crying, receding maniacally into cycles of despair, hurt, guilt, all in vain: what was I actually crying for? I think I had that expectation of myself, but maybe a few of those tears were actually sincere; I don’t think it’s worth much to poke around guessing. I never let myself fully enjoy the keen comedic pitch The Graduate has, because as a teenager, I was so obsessed with the minutiae of the film: what was this film trying to say about the milieu of its time, and further, what did my connection to it say about my life and relation to my surroundings? Trying to diagnose why this film meant something to me from so early on has proven to be an exercise in futility, such as the case of Benjamin, such as the case of anything when you focus aim so hard on prescribing a meaning that is your own, that you miss the true greatness of that thing. No, I do not think I missed the beauty of The Graduate entirely, because it certainly did influence my writing, even landing me an acceptance from my dream school, apropos of my first screenplay, though I did not end up attending (and if I recall correctly, a college essay for that school was written about The Graduate and what it means to me as a writer. Embarrassing, but likely true). So at least I understood what made the writing great, even if I did not know how or why it mattered so much. The Graduate also struck me as something completely novel from the get, and I have always known just how special it was for me to recognize that movies can be so confusing but recognizably great, from as young as fourteen; I’ve always known that The Graduate is a great film, even when I could not understand it in simple terms, even when I could not understand it in the terms I decided it would have. I have stopped trying to align identity, meaning, and significance to The Graduate in such discernable terms; these statutes are instead completely arbitrary, but they are cyclically made up by me, and only me, as I get older. Benjamin might have wanted to say the same about the rules governing his own life, too.

Anne Bancroft is the best thing about The Graduate. In the essay I wrote about the film when I was seventeen, all I wanted to do was discuss the scene that has always moved me the most. This is the last scene Benjamin and Mrs. Robinson share in bed together, and it is a meticulously blocked, perfectly acted, painful scene that centers the true tragedy of the film: “you live in a world of objects you become an object” (Douglas 144).  That was the first scene, likely in any movie, where I was truly stopped in my tracks by a performance from an actor I was never previously aware of. The very clear and very frightening contention that this scene operates on is the working conversation that builds both Benjamin and Mrs. Robinson up to the point where they are both able to recognize that what they are doing to each other is misguided and cruel.

“I’m not good enough for her to associate with, am I? I’m not good enough to even talk about her, am I?”

“Let’s drop it.”

“We’re not dropping it. I’m good enough for you, but I’m not good enough for your daughter. I’m good enough for you, but I’m not good enough to associate with your daughter. That’s it, isn’t it? Isn’t it?”

“Yes.”

“You go to hell. You go straight to hell, Mrs. Robinson. Do you think I’m proud of myself? Do you think I’m proud of this?”

This is the first scene where it is obvious that Mrs. Robinson is a person, she is a parent. She is always cool and distant, a direct contrast to Benjamin’s constant unease, but not in this scene, not when the stakes are raised, where she fears the ramifications. She fears her daughter will become like her, but not just because of Benjamin, but because he stands for nothing she could’ve prepared herself for. She wants Elaine to go to graduate school, grow up, curate her own passions and interests on her own terms, a chance that she never had; Elaine has access to all of these things because of her mother and her great sacrifice, but the fruits of Mrs. Robinson’s labor are perpetually being threatened by anyone who might inspire dissent or discomfort, and Benjamin is that very threat. Only, she has no idea what to make of his intentions. Mrs. Robinson protects her efforts with enduring might and antagonistic fronts, but the generation her daughter and Benjamin belong to inevitably have plans that reject her sympathies and aim for the same disastrous fate that she once came into. It’s only under the idiosyncratic terms of liberation that that these things happen. Never once is there a moment spent in The Graduate where anyone thinks about the consequences of their actions, so these things happen.

Mrs. Robinson is a woman who champions her own hurtful losses by intricately stacking the cards in favor of her daughter who might do more, be better than her, all while allowing herself pleasure amid the pain. Anne Bancroft pulls a performance that has not only immortalized the maligned conflicts of grown women, but brings to Mrs. Robinson a scope of vulnerabilities that do not completely mark her as an embittered adversary. Anne Bancroft being both thirty-five and forty-five as Mrs. Robinson qualifies a kind of ambiguous identification, aligning her with those who do not entirely understand the blight that drives Benjamin and Elaine to their demise, nor do they relate to their parent generation; she is the dreams deferred, those who have carefully planned against others who threaten to attack their defenses, but she is also the face of a generation who might understand the terms that their parents operated under, because she is not without her sympathies. And most are willing to understand someone who is as beautiful and communicative as Anne Bancroft. I know that I was.

References:

Alpert, Hollis. “‘Mike Nichols Has Made the Freshest, Funniest, and Most Touching Film of the Year.’” Daily News, 22 December 1967, p. 66.

Daniel, Douglass K. Anne Bancroft: A Life. University Press of Kentucky, 2017.

McKinnon, George. “Nichols, Hoffman Score With ‘Graduate.’” The Boston Globe, 22 December 1967, p. 24.

Kashner, Sam. “Here’s to You, Mr. Nichols: The Making of ‘The Graduate.’” Vanity Fair, 25 February 2008.

Rose, Charlie. Interview with Anne Bancroft. Charlie Rose Show, 25 April 2000.

When I was sixteen and seventeen, respectively, I wrote about The Graduate, and I have published those personal works on here. You are more than welcome to read those short essays in accompaniment.

Categories
Anne-Fare Film Essay

From the Vault: “The Graduate” at Seventeen

I always thought I would hate Simon and Garfunkel, but I don’t anymore. I always thought of Benjamin, how he is restless and everything is so terminal for him, how I used to think of myself: knowing all too much about things that evanesce each growing year, shedding my external convictions and trading them for new, polished luggage each season. But I don’t anymore. That brings us to today: we got lost somewhere on the outskirts of Wyoming, and it took us an hour to find the interstate. My brothers stopped for ice cream and I waited in the car; we were supposed to watch The Graduate at the beginning of the trip, but it was the second to last film we watched, driving back home. My oldest brother does not watch movies, and he got a concussion the night before, but he watched the whole thing, start to finish. My other brothers, at thirteen and eleven, are far too young to watch The Graduate, but I was fourteen when I first watched it, so I figured I’d get them started early. This September has come with a fruitful kind of grace, and how I always used to think about Benjamin, I find myself thinking more of Mrs. Robinson nowadays; for the ending of a summer I wished would be drowned by an eminent rainstorm or a blinding drought, I think I have come to know Mrs. Robinson like the courage of that last long summer: everything matters until it doesn’t and all the people I’ve loved become faces from a time of innocence. And for the first time, it seems like someone is singing my song.

Almost unavoidable, I’ve found myself in a fish tank season lately, and I’m a senior in high school now, so I have an excuse to be this suffocated. I finally understand. I thought that I knew everything about how The Graduate was made, but I don’t, and I’m still learning. I do know that its intentions were so scattered at the beginning, with uncertainty revolving around how well a pulpy novel would make for an adequate screenplay; nonetheless, producer Lawrence Turman, with a small dream of seeing this unpopular little novel to the screen, found someone to actually write it in a dignified light and took a chance on a newcomer, fresh off Broadway, to direct. A shoddy little production full of industry newcomers and the glorious Anne Bancroft, who, at that point, was most-known for her sobering portrayal of Annie Sullivan, the teacher of a young Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker, ended up defining a whole generation of Benjamin Braddocks and their respective Mrs. Robinsons.

Benjamin asks Mrs. Robinson what her major was in college. She tells him that it doesn’t matter, that they should get to bed, but Benjamin pries, and she tells him: art. She had lost interest in it over time, or she had to. The conversation escalates from uncomfortable pillow talk to an unwelcome characterization of what it’s like to love someone for every wrong reason. But Benjamin wants Mrs. Robinson to stay, so she does. We have to imagine it’s their last time in bed together. Mrs. Robinson sees Benjamin as a justification for how long she has gone unloved, and Benjamin sees nothing in Mrs. Robinson except for a mistake; when the stakes are raised beyond a childhood grasp at innocence needing to be lost, the weight of the universe finds itself within new love and knowing that though it might not be right, it isn’t as wrong as sleeping with someone you’ve known for your whole life. The subtleties of Anne Bancroft’s performance bring to fruition a woman who knows herself so little, she can only promise herself temporary salvation for the endless hurt of going so long without love or fulfillment within illicit affairs. Perhaps Benjamin wasn’t the first, but he is likely to be the last. By framing Mrs. Robinson against everyone else in The Graduate, there is this whole new and tender narrative that estranges everything that I thought I knew about the film; Mrs. Robinson’s smirk in the left-hand frame, nursing a cigarette back to life, as she answers her husband’s question of whether or not Benjamin looks like he’s a ladies’ man was enough to throw me for a loop (more like a massive orbit). Because I find Mrs. Robinson this beautiful, conniving but misunderstood, too, I know that this is not the same film to me as it was when I was fourteen or sixteen. I would hope not.

I’ve been reading more about Anne Bancroft recently, and she reminds me of a teacher that I had my freshman year of high school. This woman was all too kind for me to even know, and I was always inexplicably drawn to her. Cut to sophomore year when she had bleached her hair; she dressed in long-sleeves in the dreary back-to-school heat and had a habit of never keeping her hair down for more than five minutes, tying it into a knot and stabilizing the collection with a pencil. Just like the movies. She doesn’t teach at my school anymore, and maybe that’s for the better; things are only good when they’re good. I come to think about her now that she is gone, now that I wrap her laugh and sturdy person around the indentations of my heart that talked myself down from ever saying too much to her. I know now why that image of her has stuck with me for so long, because she reminds me of Mrs. Robinson; alluring and impenetrable, some heartache that permeates softly if you’re really listening, if you’re really watching. She was the collateral beauty of growing up. She isn’t someone who I think of so often that it hurts, in a way, I imagine, it hurt Mrs. Robinson to chase after Benjamin in the pouring rain, knowing the end before it came. She was one of my life’s great teachers, not nearly as tragic as Mrs. Robinson. Still, I call The Graduate home in every timetable, in every little pocket of my life before it becomes too hard and too painful to remember these small moments and great people with this much heart, with this much intention. As I’m set to be a graduate myself soon, I’ll always remember my life here and now, like how I’ll always remember Mrs. Robinson.

I know just how self-referential The Graduate is for me, in my relationships with most people and with myself in this season. My penniless allowances for pleasure, love, trying, and doing are all measures of that time where it means everything. I finally feel like I have changed my tune, and I finally feel like the warm hum of “April Come She Will” no longer sounds like a droning whine, but a hurting, beautiful tune I can enjoy in small doses; I think finally know, but if I don’t and my imbalances turn into landslides of potential washed down the drain, I know that The Graduate sings my song, and it knows every word. Maybe messing up a lyric or two.

Categories
Anne-Fare Film Essay

From the Vault: “The Graduate” at Sixteen

My mom hates Simon & Garfunkel. I neglected telling her that they make up whole soundtrack until we started the movie. I mean, I really just wanted her to watch it. I haven’t seen The Graduate in almost two years, and I’d like to think that within those two years, I’ve sorted myself out a little bit. Since this was my mom’s first time watching, I guess it was mutually my first time. Maybe trying something over again has its benefits, because I know that for the life of me, I could not understand The Graduate at fourteen years old. In this world of “pretty sure” to the resulting “I don’t know,” I think I have a better idea. Actually, I think I have a firm grasp.

It was written that a film like this was weird for its time. But I’ve resolved that it was, as the great contrarian I am, perfect for its time. I am, however, not so jaded to think that this is a film that everybody needs to see, because it really isn’t. But it was and still is a great movie to be taken with its nothing-ness, its lackadaisical dreariness of that purgatory of a life. I think what made this whole narrative resonate very sweetly with me this time around is the working of reflection in its execution: where Ben sees his parents or his surroundings moving, talking to him, but within that pool season of your life, there’s nothing really to say that’s worth its while. Waiting is profound but dreadful, and there’s a lot of it in The Graduate: Ben’s parents are waiting on his decision for the future, Mrs. Robinson is waiting on Ben for the room number, we’re waiting on Elaine to make up her mind on Ben, but Ben is just waiting for this whole bubble to pop. Then there’s a lot of rushing towards the end, towards the climax of Ben stealing away Elaine from her wedding; all too suddenly, everything seems so urgent and screaming for attention, for action, for anything to be done. I get it, I’m not a graduate. The only thing I’ve graduated from is middle school, but still, it’s not very hard to imagine myself in that that pool season, in that fish tank, in that hotel room of my life. And in that regard, I’m sure that this film still retains its resonance and nostalgic legend with that notion that we’re all a graduate of something and after that graduation, there’s a great waiting room to look forward to.

I find my reception of a movie more warm when the movie isn’t trying to be bigger than what it is. Really, I think that the purpose of this movie isn’t what makes it remarkable; because it was such a mediator, that’s why this film is still remembered and why it’s still applicable. There’s no calling for why or how or what a film will be remembered for. Maybe it’s safe to say that 50 years later, this film still rings true to audiences because it reminds us that being in a middle season is okay, that being young and impulsive is okay, and that not knowing is okay, it’s all okay. In such a transformative period of everything in America, this movie is so revolutionary because it wasn’t revolutionary. That’s beauty of euphemism: where understatement in The Graduate means a whole lot more generationally than it would’ve if it were to have been a self-indulgent commentary on the current ethical climate of America. In some ways, however, this is a film of plenty social commentary, but more on the individual level, affecting those who cared to see it most: the graduates.

To be young and willing, that’s where a whole lot of everything and a whole lot of nothing happen. I’m glad this was made. I’ll probably show it to my kids one day. Or maybe I’ll let them show it to me. I’ll tell them how much I hate Simon and Garfunkel, too.

Categories
Film Essay

Film Noir for the Innocent: “They Live By Night”

You only love once.

When I was fifteen (maybe sixteen), my brother gifted me a DVD set of James Dean’s three films on Christmas Eve. At that point, I had only seen East of Eden (1955), but even with that formative education, I was completely smitten with the idea of Dean. A few hours after receiving the gift, I watched Rebel Without a Cause (1955) for the first time. I will never forget that it was on a Christmas Eve, on a holiday, when I could have been involved more in my family’s affairs but favored the teenage wasteland of a kind of Hollywood movie I had never seen before; afterwards, the film became a living, breathing part of my teenage zeitgeist, sharing the unfortunate fare of being an expression of my unequivocal angst with the likes of The Graduate (1967). I never looked at people my age or movies about people my age quite the same way again after watching Rebel Without a Cause; it all seemed so futile, to care as much to be sensitive to new love when it was all but fleeting and tragic. But at the same time, it encouraged me to be more of a teenager, more romantic and less achingly aware of myself. Rebel Without a Cause, to this day, carries a conflicted tone and memories for me: missed chances, teenage love I never experienced, my dignified insistence on being “above it all” even though I wasn’t, a penalizing reminder of how being young and tragic looks better on James Dean, Natalie Wood, and Sal Mineo than those from around my block. Nicholas Ray is perhaps best remembered for his seminal work on Rebel Without a Cause, a puzzling figure of Hollywood pratfalls and distinguished sincerity, now only remembered in his art. Rebel Without a Cause blends everything that makes They Live By Night aesthetically significant and affecting, down to the prepossessing casting of both pictures. But where Rebel Without a Cause is a flagship for all past seasons and their hauntings, They Live By Night is distinctly current: you must act on this love/chance/escape now, or you won’t live to see the daylight. 

Farley Granger and Cathy O’Donnell in They Live By Night (1948).

Adapted from the 1937 novel by Edward Anderson, Thieves Like Us, They Live By Night was originally intended to be released under the same name; however, this title was discouraged, anticipating the misinterpretation:  “Thieves Like Us.” That was Howard Hughes’ suggestion, and a sordid reminder of the stifling nature of Hollywood filmmaking during the golden age, even for something so simple. In fact, Hughes’ involvement, discouraging artistic choices and shelving the picture in a great RKO takeover fumble, ensured that They Live By Night would not see a fortuitous American release, despite its distinctly American context. Deviating from its source text a generous amount, They Live By Night tells the story of a young Arthur “Bowie” Bowers (Farley Granger) who, with two seasoned bank robbers Chickamaw (Howard Da Silva) and T-Dub (Jay C. Flippen), escapes from prison amid the rural south during the Great Depression. Planning their next move, the three outlaws hide away with Chickamaw’s brother at his service station, where Bowie meets Catherine “Keechie” Mobley (Cathy O’Donnell), Chickamaw’s sullen niece. Cold and attuned to indifference, Keechie takes a quiet, genuine interest in Bowie, who seems to be a decent young man that simply got mixed up in the wrong trade. On a whim, the two run away together, swiftly marry at a drive-by chapel, and hide out in a mountain cabin while Bowie’s name makes its rounds in local papers as the wrongly-accused shepherd of the robbery he, Chickamaw, and T-Dub committed earlier in the film. Still indebted to the men who helped spring him from jail, Bowie agrees to help pull off one last robbery, much to Keechie’s chagrin. The robbery goes awry, tensions rise between Bowie and Keechie, and the two flee from their hideout as the authorities continue to name Bowie as the ringleader in the now string of robberies. All too quickly, the two young lovers become pinned against the world.

I think I knew my month would veer into unexpected territory a couple scenes into They Live by Night. Having nothing but introductions between them, Bowie watches Keechie light her cigarette against the night. He watches her too intently, his hand slips from against the wall, rattling chains and startling Keechie, thrusting them into terse conversation: their first. Farley Granger is so beautiful in that scene, a kind of beauty that you might take for granted in any other one of his films, but here it’s special because it’s so unprecedented. He’s a rare case of prepossessing, pure of heart, and outlawed all at the same time. Cathy O’Donnell, too, turns on a sunken world-weariness that might come with women from the side streets of the rural country, but she’s a rare case in that she’s so young and already so sad. As their conversation deepens, Keechie learns that Bowie has spent seven years in the can for a murder plot he was mistakenly involved in. Though he’s done time and flies with a crowd like Chickamaw and T-Dub, Keechie responds kindly to him, thinking him different. Decent. There’s never anything smoldering or burning between them, not even in their first few conversations, only a quiet understanding that comes when you truly know someone; a kind of connection that goes beyond dialogue or physical touch. It’s innocence. It’s quite literally spelled out for us:

“This boy…and this girl…were never properly introduced to the world we live in…To tell their story…”

To wax poetic about this film, Romeo and Juliet each taking the poison in the greatest dramatic irony known to literature, Bowie and Keechie never have the fortune of being star-crossed; they come together in the most desperate of circumstances that would otherwise prove their romance hasty and colorless, if not for the tender interference of being one another’s teacher. They attach to each other and learn to know the world, though limited and grey, through the eyes of another. Though they live their days of splendor in the grass, glory in the flower, it’s with the constant accompaniment of fear and desperation. Though they live, it’s only from dusk till dawn.

They Live By Night is rhapsodic and devastating, completely stealing away from the polished romances of Hollywood film noir by paying mind to the unbridled matters of the heart. Nicholas Ray, with his softness towards human calamity and sympathy for the youth of the then-present, considers the stakes in every thought, action, and fear between our two young lovers and measures them out accordingly, with an assured sense of reality. Same is the case in his tenderness towards the teenagers of Rebel Without a Cause: everything is so important because it is. In They Live By Night, the exigency is recognizable, but the subtlety of Bowie and Keechie’s shy resolve till the end of time completes the narrative. They become adults by the end of the line, only it’s too late to enjoy the fruits of their labor. A reserved portrait of romance amid suffering, love against corruption, They Live By Night accounts for those who had that one person who taught them everything.

It wouldn’t be a month of spectacular reconsideration for a genre I’d long neglected if it wasn’t for this film that knows its conventions so well that it breaks them, creating something that is not boastful or demonizing, but compassionate and sincere. It’s noir that does not fear the ultimately kind and tender. It’s Farley Granger when he was young and demure. It’s Nicholas Ray when he held the courage of his convictions. On the last page of his script, Ray handwrote:

“This is a love story, it is also a morality tale in the rhythm of its time.”

Categories
Film Essay

Second Chances Are Fighting Chances: “Wanda” & “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore”

Wanda walks among piles of coal in a landscape shot of eastern Pennsylvania that lingers for almost two minutes. Her hair pinned in rollers, dressed in all white, she is the only vision in a terrestrial matter of darkness. She moves forward on a track that is unknown and undisturbed, for the while being; she knows just as well as the audience knows where she is going: nowhere. This doesn’t seem to matter.

Alice is solipsistic in the way many a small girl lives: playing Dorothy in her own private Wizard of Oz. This scene of fiction is suddenly disrupted by an arid Socorro, New Mexico, where Alice is now 35 years old, no longer an actress in her own world, now with people to answer to. Her face pink and her movements rigid, she is exhausted by routine: her personal liberties are dead in the water, so she obliges. She’s tired, and the American housewife is, too.

***

In 1970, Barbara Loden, acclaimed theater actress who had only appeared on screen briefly in the works of her partner, then-husband, Elia Kazan, premiered her first, and only, writing and directing feature, Wanda, at the 31st Venice Film Festival. She won the International Critics’ Circle award for her film and she was, at the time, the only woman to earn the Pasinetti Award for Best Foreign Film. Before Wanda, Loden was a pin-up girl, model, and Copacabana dancer in New York City by the age of sixteen. In 1957, Loden made her theater debut in Compulsion, appearing in The Highest Tree and Night Circus the same year; with the aid of her first husband, Larry Joachim, Loden landed her first screen-role in the Ernie Kovacs Show, as the titular character’s promiscuous sidekick (a position in which she was initially denied if not for Joachim’s influence as a television producer). Maturing from her odd-jobs in the entertainment realm, Loden ushered in her life’s “Kazan era.” With the condemned director Elia Kazan, who in 1952 had offered the names of several colleagues associated with the Communist Party to the House Un-American Activities Committee in an act of gross self-service, Barbara Loden began a professional and romantic relationship. In Kazan’s Wild River she played a small, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it role and in Splendor in the Grass, a slightly larger part where, with her bare-bones character, she gracefully, poignantly elevates the film’s tragedy.

Barbara Loden as Ginny Stamper in Splendor in the Grass (1961), a devastating scene.

It was, however, during the Broadway production of After the Fall in 1964, starring Loden and directed by Kazan, that both Loden’s knack for portraying a certain type of tragic blonde bombshell and her romantic relationship with Kazan became fossilized. After the Fall, written by Arthur Miller, is a semi-autobiographical critique of Miller’s own life and relationship with former wife, Marilyn Monroe, in which her thinly-veiled character write-in, Maggie, was played by Barbara Loden. Vapid and unnervingly starved of attention and love, Loden’s Maggie not only piqued the interest and acclaim of critics, the performance winning her a Tony award for best actress, but also dangerously mirrored Loden’s own personal history of bereavement.

***

Loden was born in 1932 to a poor household in Asheville, North Carolina. After her parents divorced early in her childhood, Loden spent the better part of her adolescent years living with her grandparents in the rural Marion, North Carolina. Loden held little reservations, later in life, lamenting the emotional vagrancy of her childhood, reflecting that much of her artistic process in the creation of Wanda was the consequence of both her upbringing and her place as a woman, married to such a powerful and domineering man for a significant amount of time in her short life. In Katja Raganelli’s 1991 documentary, filmed in 1980, on Barbara Loden entitled I Am Wanda, Loden acknowledged that, “Whether it’s good or bad, that’s all we have to draw on: our life experience…I accept what I am. I was born in a very small town in North Carolina, called Marion, and I lived out in the country in a rural area. My mother and father were separated and my mother worked in another town and my father worked in town, so I lived with my maternal grandparents. I remember I was very lonely.” In the same sit-down conversation with Loden in Raganelli’s documentary, she broadcasted, “When I was very little I used to sit behind the kitchen stove all the time. I didn’t know who I was or what I was doing there–I wasn’t that conscience of it–but looking back I know, really, what must’ve been going on unconsciously was, ‘What am I doing here? How did I get into this place?’ So you might’ve said I had a little identity problem there, and it’s taken me many years to find out who I am and what I’m about. I’m not that clear, still, but I’m a little bit more.” Within this small concession, Loden discerns that not only were there certain ramifications of her lonely childhood upon her development as an adult, but also as a woman who rose to a stage of morally eclipsing proportions that she, herself, never expected.

Barbara Loden in I Am Wanda (1991).

The process of making Wanda came first with Loden’s inspiration to write a screenplay as prompted by her friend, Harry Shuster, who, in 1966, offered her $100,000 to make her own movie; loosely inspired by a true account of a woman who became involved with a bank robbery turned awry, Wanda‘s original script was also somewhat based upon her own volition as a wandering woman. Finalizing her script, Loden struggled to pitch her story to any production company, as she came to find that any resource available to her (limited to begin with) would rob her creative control, so she opted to tell her story upon her own distinction. Shot on 16 mm stock with a skeleton crew of four and a script that was hardly referred to during shooting, Wanda became rubricked as the prophetic story of Barbara Loden’s own fare, as Loden told her documentarian, “Wanda was a woman who was ill-equipped to deal with life. She had no preparation for life, she had hardly any education, she was not particularly bright, she came from very poor, working-class people, and she could hardly function even as a working person. She married very young and had several children, there again she was hardly what would be called a ‘good housekeeper,’ or even a good mother.” The definitive lines between character and actress, story and director, are so thinly guarded by the inhibited affairs of Wanda’s life and Barbara Loden’s own mistrust in why she was born into life at all. Shortly after the documentary was filmed, Loden passed away from breast cancer on September 5, 1980, at 48 years old. If you have seen Wanda, but have never accompanied the film with Katja Raganelli’s sensitive and affecting documentary, I highly suggest you do. Wanda, in every way Loden tells it, is more than a solipsistic portrait of a woman’s life, void of the pleasantries of human connection or even kindness in small: it is a capture of self that Loden had the liberty of creating on her own terms, to canonize the uniqueness of her experience as a woman with touchstones of remarkable empathy.

***

In 1972, Ellen Burstyn earned her first Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress in The Last Picture Show, a category she would familiarize herself with in coming years, once again nominated in 1973 for her supporting role in The Exorcist. With two nominations under her belt and a stage career that had prompted her snowball success as an actress, Burstyn’s growing esteem would lend beautifully to the impact of and acclaim for her turn as Alice Wyatt in 1974’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. The same year that Burstyn would win Best Actress for Alice, she also won a Tony award originating the role of Doris in Same Time, Next Year (for which she would earn another Best Actress nomination in 1978’s film adaptation), and became a member of the American Film Institute Directing Workshop for Women’s first graduating class. Needless to say, 1975 was a big year for Burstyn; she planted seeds in many places as a newly-minted Academy favorite. In tandem, the subject matter of the film was as timely as the road to Alice’s success; as Barbara Loden was the dovetailing force for the making of Wanda, Ellen Burstyn was such the vehicle for the production of Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.

In lieu of her Academy nomination for The Last Picture Show and her wild success in The Exorcist, Burstyn had “earned” the autonomy to become more selective with scripts, and after finding nothing of considerable merit for a while, recalling in a 2004 mini-documentary entitled, Second Chances: The Making of Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, that, “All of the women’s parts were the wife, the mother, or the whore: the three standard roles for women. But they were all in relation to the man: the man’s story, the woman was the assistant,” she happened upon first-time screenwriter Robert Getchell’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. Confident that this was the film she wanted to bring to fruition on screen, as it reflected her own rite as a woman at that certain point in her life, Burstyn was asked if she wanted to direct the picture as well as act. In 2014, she reflected on this proposal, “Back in the 70s, the idea of a woman directing was pretty unheard of…when I brought Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore to John Calley at Warner Bros, he asked me, then, if I wanted to direct it. I said I didn’t feel I was ready to act and direct at the same time. AFI made me more confident, but somehow it never came together and I never got asked again the way that John had asked me.” Even an assured woman like Burstyn could not be confident that a directorial debut would be impressive or successful enough to nullify the conversation of gender and let the nuance of the film speak for itself with no accommodations or special reservations, simply as a field equal.

***

Perhaps an intelligent (though unfortunate) maneuver to drop the prospect of directing, Burstyn began scouting an up-and-coming director with a gutsy prowess. She was pointed in the direction of a young Martin Scorsese, who, at the time, had only a few feature-length films to his name. One of these films was the 1973 crime-drama, Mean Streets, an early exercise in a genre that would later find itself a staple in his directorial body of work. Burstyn watched and fell in love with the film. It’s no secret that Scorsese is not exactly known for his canon of female characters, but Alice was his first significant female-centric picture, and Burstyn enclosed his occupation as director under his earnest concession of knowing next-to-nothing about women with a willingness to learn from Alice, and that the crew of the film would be predominantly female. Scorsese agreed: Toby Carr Rafelson (then director Bob Rafelson’s wife) was hired as a production designer, Marcia Lucas (married to director-producer George Lucas at the time) as the film’s editor, Audrey Maas a producer, and Sandra Weintraub an assistant producer. In the early days of his already-promising career, Scorsese was completely sincere about bringing the realized woman to film, letting Ellen Burstyn call the shots while guiding with the confidence of hand that Burstyn already loved and knew she could trust. Interestingly, as much as the film is a pivot from Scorsese’s usual scene, it does not fasten itself completely in his body of work; Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore exists somewhere outside of his personal canon, inhabited fully by the vital life that Ellen Burstyn not only sources from Alice Wyatt, but within every pull of the film’s reality.

Ellen Burstyn in a scene from Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974).

There is no mistaking Alice to end tied nicely with a bow, but it is the kind of familiar portrait of the American woman trying to make ends meet, who, for better or worse, does, that consolidates the taxing go-at-things women were really registering at the time; Alice was to be a story of fiction that could be as dangerous as Harvey Keitel’s flippant violence or promising as Kris Kristofferson’s gentle companionship, flexible to fit the ever-changing mold of what it meant to be a woman in the 1970s. As Burstyn put it, “The point was to have Alice go through the transformation that so many of us were going through at the time: to start out in the place of the wife who was there to assist the husband, and then, for whatever reason, in Alice’s case it was the death of her husband, in my case it was the divorce, to be on her own. And to discover a sense of self, that there was more to life than planning dinner and doing the dishes afterwards. Perhaps she could be living the life that was meaningful to her, taking pride in the tips she got and the responsibilities she was taking on and taking care of her son. And it was working out.” Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore had a very specific tone upon its release: “this is a story about the kind of tough-as-nails woman who has already been provided, through economic or racial means, to repurpose herself as a woman outside of a domestic ecosystem.” Though there are beats of Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore that are remarkably understanding of the unique struggle of being a woman widowed, divorced, or stuck in an unhappy marriage, that relate Alice’s processing of why or how the picture could be different, or better, to the average American woman, Alice was, and still is, a film that rings very sympathetically for a very specific audience: white women in the process of estranging themselves from a certain paradigm of unfulfillment, whether it becomes their choice or not, with the kind of stock that allows them to do so intermittently. Alice Wyatt is an attractive, educated American white woman living in the 1970s whose husband unexpectedly dies under these unforeseen circumstances, has to pack up her stationary life and make a living for reasons concerned only with her son at first. The difficulty of making a living soon infiltrates her well-being, welcoming reconciliation with how unhappy she was in her past and married life. Because Alice checks all of these boxes—white, educated, and attractive—she is allowed to be the principal of her own story, not about her whiteness or the privilege this necessitates, but the kind of rubric of struggle that only white women were allowed to endure, and, in effect, champion. 

***

Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore is not a kind of universal story of staggering womanhood, but rather a secular feminist touchstone: the kind of story a white, god fearing nation was willing to, and could, digest about a white woman who subverts expectations of herself and her environment, but doesn’t challenge or reject the society in which she lives. Because, ultimately, this society is able to throw her some crumbs, when Black women or women of color were (and still are) pardoned none the same. As a film, Alice isn’t completely universal; a story told by white people, it exists in only a universe of white people. There are stories as simple as Alice’s that aren’t built upon an advantaged whiteness, and just the same, there are audiences that merit stories of redemption, rooted in reality, but bookended by satisfying fiction. Though Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore is transparent about the topical pressures and anxieties that Alice piles through, and though it does ultimately feel more like Ellen Burstyn’s film than Martin Scorsese’s, it is still small picture, eclipsed by bigger, perhaps more influential/disconcerting films about women or of Scorsese’s filmography in whole. It is the willingness by men to take a back seat in the process that ultimately makes Alice a narrative remembered for its triumph; still a process that not every woman has the privilege to, those who cannot be the champion of their own story.

***

Barbara Loden is talked about in certain circles to be the female counterpart of John Cassavetes; both filmmakers organically defended and captured the female experience, both died tragically young: Cassavetes at 59, Loden at 48. Both were prophets of an audience that registered the bizarre, disruptive, and melancholy stories of the human experience, opposed to those hyper, or even tangible, stories of fiction. When Gena Rowlands gave her touchstone, perhaps career-defining, and certainly most recognizable performance in Cassavetes’ 1974 picture, A Woman Under the Influence, it was Ellen Burstyn who went toe-to-toe with her in both an awards race, and in a polar canon, wherein both hers’ and Rowlands’ defined how women felt, or were beginning to feel, during the third quarter of the 20th century. Really, Rowlands and Burstyn are like comparing apples to oranges, in terms of career-defining performances (both coincidentally given the same year) and bodies of work in full. The fares of both women and the characters that they portrayed in 1974 are products of two types of experimental filmmaking that were beginning to cement themselves in the post-studio system climate of American cinema: Alice Wyatt of Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore is a product of realism polished by fulfilled fantasy or expectation while Mabel Longhetti of A Woman Under the Influence is a product of realism scuffed by the sharp edges of life that do not promise goodness to be sealed within hardship and misfortune. The trials and mistruths engulfed by Gena Rowlands as Mabel Longhetti discover themselves quickly to be at the comparative end of Barbara Loden’s Wanda; she is a sound prophet to the way in which John Cassavetes captured women in his films (who were, more often than not, his wife Gena Rowlands), but completely accomplished on her own practice.

John Cassavetes directing Gena Rowlands in a scene from A Woman Under the Influence (1974).

The story that Loden tells with Wanda is not of a woman departed from her first life to be born again with the wishful divination of a second chance, because this is not a life given to Wanda to be born again with plentiful opportunity for her to become more or better, but a story of a woman who has no choice but to live, as she can’t fully comprehend why she’s alive at all, or even how she could bring an end to things. How Cassavetes and Scorsese told, with their acute world-building, the fortune of second chances, though lined with hiccups, are an optimistic vision of what Loden builds with Wanda; she is a woman upended by Loden at different points of her life, and it is through the unnerving portrait of Wanda’s life, Wanda’s America, Wanda’s relationship with men and people, that we can understand Barbara Loden as a person, much more the haunting marginalization of women who are never given a chance to become, at all. It is interesting to know the artist behind the art, much more if they are a vision of a begone time or movement, much less if their horrific anxieties of personhood plague their art and inflict violence or calamity on their female characters. Barbara Loden was a woman who came with her characters, whoever they were: she eulogized them completely; more or less, it was all she knew, purely her own visage and wanting to become a person of substance. What’s more, is that Wanda tells us that she was.

***

We can only begin to understand the stage on which women perform if we are able to see them, organically. Time has only known certain women on film to be impoverished, starved of humility, or received by copious amounts of it; there are compartments by which women are allowed to exist, and if they’re lucky, exercise movement in. Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and Wanda examine how flexible a narrative can be as a product of a time’s relation to filmmaking fads, much more how its women are tokenized and given a fighting chance. Works of fiction can register just as well as a work of almost complete linear realism: Alice and Wanda are stakeholders in that truth, and staples of canons that seek to eulogize the chances that some women will never have.

References:

Fleming, Mike Jr. “Emmy Nominee Ellen Burstyn Sets Long-Awaited Feature Directorial Debut.” Deadline, 25 August, 2014.

I Am Wanda. Directed by Katja Raganelli, Diorama Film Munich GmBH, 1991.

Second Chances: The Making of Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Automat Pictures, 2004.