Saturday, November 7, 2020

Finding Her Own Way

Anya Taylor-Joy as a Chess Prodigy 

Beth Harmon. a child left to navigate her own life when her mother is killed in an auto accident and she is spared, is eight years old, bright but not outgoing, and on her own. Her story, a fiction so bizarre that it rings true, is the basis of the Netflix 7-part series The Queen's Gambit

The series presents her life in flashbacks and straight narrative as Beth grows from confused childhood to extraordinary fame as an expert in the prestigious, challenging, masculine milieu of a highly-rated chess player, with its own rules and boundaries. A Dickensian tale, set in Kentucky in the early 1960s and the larger world, the title refers to a chess move Beth masters early on. 

We see in flashbacks young Beth being coached to learn to live her life by herself, by a mother who even she senses is a little off, an angry recluse who knows her time with her daughter is going to end—and by her own devices. Beth learns to harden herself as she observes the dark world around her. She is in an orphanage, and the grownups in her orbit are not supportive (much less loving). She happens upon the janitor in the basement, where she has been sent to clean erasers, and this man is playing chess by himself, every spare moment he has.

Forced by circumstances to find her own way through life, almost magically Beth persuades him (in an excellent acting turn by Bill Camp, spot-on perfect for the role) to play the game with her. Mr. Shaibel is noncommital to the point of being stern, but it is clear he is well aware that his student is light years better at the game than anybody he has ever played.  

There is something very appealing about this stony child, and we are swept into her life as she makes big mistakes and little ones--meets fascinating people but is not taken in by them--and travels the world of the early 1960s, enlivening the once-esoteric sphere of chess championships and makes us feel a part of them. A very moving section of her story is when, as a young teenager, she is adopted away from the orphan home and into a somewhat typical American home of the day, and ends up bonding with her adoptive mother, a very convincing trapped 1960s housewife, played by Marielle Heller. This mother figure is clearly flawed, but a dear, lost human being as much in need of mentoring as her adopted daughter is. Beth as a child is portrayed by two different actresses, so like Ms. Taylor-Joy I had trouble believing she hadn't played all three.We watch the men who crack the shell of Beth Harmon,  chess masters all, and see her development as a full person by the end of the series. Actress Moses Ingram helped humanize Beth by being a friend to her, and in their individual ways so did Harry Melling, Joseph Fortune-Lloyd, and Thomas Brodie-Sangster. All these characters taught Beth something, even if it was not what they thought they were teaching her. 

But it's really all about Beth Harmon, a young woman who had to find her own guideposts and stumbling blocks, and with the outstanding actress Anya Taylor-Joy at the helm, The Queen's Gambit is a fine ride. Based on a novel by a man, Walter Tevis, and produced by two other men, Scott Frank  and Allan Scott, nevertheless I saw this as a woman's movie, life from the viewpoint of an empowered and brilliant woman, defining life on her own terms, and as that it was totally satisfying.

Saturday, September 12, 2020

Bananas Revisited

 

Once upon a time Woody Allen was a witty comic with a burning desire to live the life he'd seen in the movies, and also to make movies of the kind he'd seen and grown up with--sophisticated New York movies, with glittering people doing mysteriously sophisticated things and living magical lives made real on the screen. 

He scored a career in show business as a teenager by submitting one-liners to newspaper columnists who inhabited the world he dreamed of, and gradually met and worked with some of the storied names in that business, like Abe Burrows and Danny Simon. He wrote for television comedians and had a turn or two of his own in standup comedy, bringing down the house with the paradox of his own image--a homely little klutz with a brilliant mind and the clear yearning to appear debonair while tripping over the furniture. He could articulate this like no one else of his generation and it wasn't long, in show business years, before he was starring in movies he wrote for this character, this Hugh Hefner wannabe who unfortunately looked more like Arnold Stang. Bananas was one of the first movies he made, and even then, he thought of it as meaningless slapstick. He says in his memoir Apropos of Nothing that he was astonished it was taken as a political satire in Europe--writing that his intention was nothing more than to make people laugh. There are shades of the Marx Brothers, all three personified in Allen himself, and the movie, seen today, even foreshadows some of the serious work he was to produce later. There are leering male-chauvinist jokes (and no doubt Allen is a typical male chauvinist of his day--remember I said Hugh Hefner rather than Cary Grant), visual gags--I can't even explain to today's audiences why his J. Edgar Hoover in Bananas was one of the funniest images ever in the movies--a love story with the actress who was his muse for years (Louise Lasser, who projects an earnestness shining through her waif-like dependency), spoofs of television's obsession with sports, jokes about breasts, jokes about child molesters, and an irreverent attitude about everything. Allen was adroit in his movements, graceful even. He runs, jumps, falls into manholes--and in the trial scene toward the end, cross-examining himself as the witness and prosecutor, leaps back and forth, switching character while doing a brief dual role .

Watching Bananas, I can see why Woody Allen makes some women uneasy. Men of his generation were pretty frank about what they found attractive in the opposite sex, and Woody joked about it openly and sometimes in a vulgar way. A man who looks like that and seems to have a healthy sex drive (and doesn't mind verbalizing it) is automatically suspect, especially today. In Bananas there is a split-second on screen in which he, as the director of the film, spoofs that very concept. The character Allen is playing has managed to find and seduce a girl, and he's way more in love with her than she is with him. She's kicking him to the curb and he's angry about it. In the locker room with his male buddies, who are fairly good-looking guys, Allen fumes to a cohort, "Can you imagine a guy like me being dropped by a woman?" The set-up has both men looking at the camera, and Allen not seeing the look on the handsome face of the man behind him. It's the perfect example of a person looking askance. That Allen wrote the scene and directed it as he did speaks volumes. I'm sure he didn't have to tell the actor how to look at him. I laughed out loud--and, as I said, it was just a few seconds of screen time.

This movie came out at the beginning of his transition from standup comedy to a film career. He dismisses Bananas today as pointless comedy, but it was much cleverer than anything of its kind at the time, and it launched him as a movie actor, a writer, and a director. Looking at it now one cannot help but think of what a brilliant career he has had and regret that, although he is still producing films, they are not distributed in the United States. Now in his eighties, Woody is a pariah in Hollywood, because of what is to me a step too far in the "MeToo" movement. The story of his downfall is juicy, and he does not come off particularly well, but he deals with it all in detail in Apropos of Nothing. He made some mistakes, and no doubt some of them caused some pain--but his child molestation rap was fraudulent, and he has been happily married for some 20 years. The body of his work is equal to anything Hollywood has ever come up with. He continues to work on movies that get a good reception in Europe.

If you don't know Woody Allen's movies, or if like me you saw Bananas in 1971 but have little memory of it, it's a good way to discover the Woody Allen who used to keep us laughing. The list is long, and worth exploring.

Sunday, August 16, 2020

Hepburn Bends Gender: Sylvia Scarlett

 In 1935, elegant young star Katharine Hepburn was hot property. She chose challenging roles and on just about every front she conquered Hollywood. And then she made Sylvia Scarlett, a wacky mess of a movie that confused critics and audiences, but has held up over time and is still as confounding and delightful as it ever was. She and George Cukor, who directed it, said in an interview in the 1970s that it was the worst movie they'd ever done.

I beg to differ. I was in my 30s when I saw it--I had a place in my heart for the films of my parents' generation, and still do--and I was captivated. I recently saw it again and it still works. The concept is dubious; Hepburn and her father, (played by Edmund Gwynn) are broke, unprincipled, and down on their luck to the point of desperation. They decide as they are running from law, that their best bet is to have her, a nubile if naive beauty, disguise herself as a boy. Hepburn comes to life in drag, effervescent as usual, but liberated by having to suppress her feminine charm as much as possible. She look smashing in men's wear, but it takes some conscious suspending of disbelief to accept that she is getting away with it.

 

That, of course, is part of the fun. Another aspect of it is that the pair meet up with a successful confidence man, played by the young, athletic, energetic and acrobatic Cary Grant, who takes a shine to them and shows them the tricks of the trade. He is a cockney low life in this one, a bit of a charming rotter, and he plays it to the hilt. The chemistry between Hepburn and Grant is palpable and foreshadows their years of work together to come in more traditional material. 

Sylvia become Sylvester, and although Cary Grant's character is suspicious, he goes along with it and the trio pair up with a lady who the old man is almost literally crazy about. Four con artists in a trailer, wreaking havoc wherever they go, and having a marvelous time until Sylvester realizes that he's really a woman and falls in love with a rascally artist (Brian Aherne)  who already has a woman or two or three. The plot gets very twisted as the movie goes on, but it doesn't lose its verve. I would recommend you watch this one--I'd like to see what a contemporary viewer would think, having little or no context for the complexity of the movies of the 1930s, and the inventiveness of young actors on their way to becoming movie stars when the medium itself was free and easy.

Thursday, July 23, 2020

A BOMBSHELL of a Movie

(Inset: Megyn Kelly), Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, (Inset: Gretchen Carlson




From a Feminist Viewpoint:

 

You see them in their saucy 5-inch heels and revealing tight skirts, the female icons of sex and sophistication, striding through the offices of big money-making corporations for industries like publishing, fashion, real estate, financial planning, broadcasting, and other high profile, high powered international businesses. Bombshell is a movie about such women, in the field of television broadcasting. 

It’s not an accident that the setting for the film is the offices of Fox News. I confess to have little knowledge of Fox News and just a faint awareness of the performers who inhabit the newsroom. It is not the kind of television that appeals to me because of its politics, but it is in the peripheral vision of any American with a television set. It is a propaganda outlet, spewing the venom that the Republican party has been generating for decades, and doing it successfully, largely by exploiting the sex appeal of its female stars.  Bombshell lets us get to know those females and observe them in their daily lives, which are pretty extraordinary, like it or not. 

The dazzling Chalize Theron plays the dazzling Megyn Kelly, who topped the Fox News lineup of beautiful, steely women pundits for more than a decade. Kelly herself could have come from Central Casting as a hard-headed, hard-hitting and opinionated bitch-on-wheels type in any movie, and Theron’s transformation is pretty dazzling too. She looks like her, and has mastered the rapid-fire delivery of lines employed by purveyors of broadcast news in the 21st century. The movie opens with a cozy walk around the newsroom with Kelly (Theron) as a sleek, informative guide, and she wins us over from that intro, which captures the newsroom vibe and sets the tone for an exciting ride. In the mix comes Nicole Kidmann as Gretchen Carlson, the former Miss America already hitting her peak at the network and beginning a shaky ride downward. 

Margot Robbie, a playing a pretty little thing, (and fictional character) has just gotten her dream job starting at the network, and reveals that she and her parents adore Fox News and that she is desperate to make it big. She shares a cubicle with Kate McKinnon playing an outlier, keeping as low a profile as she can at the network because she is a lesbian, not a beauty queen--and may actually be a Democrat. She takes a shine to the Robbie character and they have a touching bedroom scene that reveals the heart of the film.

John Lithgow, as Roger Ailes, founder and CEO of Fox, is appropriately repulsive, knowledgeable, (“It’s a visual medium,” he says to neophyte beauties as he undresses them with his eyes in initial interviews, and asks them to stand up and “twirl” for him). Lithgow comes over as unscrupulous as the villain in any piece must be. The formidable Lithgow plays it to the hilt.

It’s fun to watch actors portraying real-life people, as Richard Kind does a credible Rudy Guiliani, Allison Janney give us Susan Estrich, and the newsroom swarms with semi-familiar faces as the story moves forward. Holland Taylor, uncredited for some reason, does a convincing turn as Ailes’ keeper of secrets. There is one sympathetic male character, also fictional (a composite of several real men, we are told) played by the very interesting Rob Delaney. There is a moment or two of poignant revelation, as both he and McKinnon say, at different times in the picture, that if Fox News drops them or is itself brought down, there is nowhere else for them to go. “Nobody will hire us--because we worked for Fox News.” 

Intrigue abounds as we see what’s under the rock once it’s moved. I found myself moved at the point in the story when the women at the network are speaking out about Ailes and his treatment of them. Robbie’s character calls her one friend, Jess (McKinnon) in tears because she’s talking with a lawyer about Ailes’ demands. This is a very convincing and heart-rending scene, superbly acted, yet I found myself thinking, “Why do I sympathize with this character? I don’t like women like this…” and then I realized that it was really what the movie was about.  

Its basic axe to grind is not the reprehensible behavior of Roger Ailes. It is about what happens to beauty queens when they achieve their goals. Practically all the female characters have spent their lives grooming themselves for the ultimate position they desire. Intelligent, pretty, ambitious, they have molded themselves into the kind of women who succeed, yet, at the pinnacle, they are shown the reality that the power they may have desired is going to be doled out in small portions by old white men who have their own prurient interests in mind. That dynamic is never on the screen, but it is clear who is participating, who is looking the other way, and why. 

The film was ably written by Charles Randolph and directed by Jay Roach, both males clearly with a hypersensitivity to the plight of women. It is snappily paced, superbly performed, and slick as a whistle. Its surface is glossy, yet for all its glitz it tells a tale of the ultimate betrayal of women in the workplace.  

Sunday, July 12, 2020

Dirty John and His Women


Connie Britton and Eric Bana in Dirty John

From a Feminist Viewpoint:

John Meehan was a charmer. You could tell by looking there was something a little off about him, but if you were a vulnerable woman that "something" was easy to overlook--he was an accomplished spellbinder with a sordid past that he papered over quite deftly. He regarded the women he conned as projects, and he had the skills to pull off his myriad games until his ultimate comeuppance, which, in the Dirty John true-crime anthology now available on Netflix, feels inevitable but the series keeps the viewer on the edge.

For all the fascination of the creature at the center of this, the series is really about women. It's mother-daughter relationships, man-woman relationships, and the navigating of women's roles in the contemporary world. Eric Bana as John sashays into the life of the sophisticated interior designer Debra Newell, played by Connie Britton. The actors could not have been better in their roles--Bana, playing Meehan as manipulative and subtle, and Britton, playing his prey as calm, thoughtful, and just a bit dim. This Debra has the quality so many women have in the area of relationships: she trusts too much and needs too much--exactly what makes her a target for a manipulative and sly person. Basically competent and strong, she thinks she has it right, but she does not. She has been married four times and is actively dating men she meets at online sites. Her two daughters see through Meehan at once, and despise him, just as he, knowing they are onto him, casts them as his enemy as he worms his way into the affections of their mother. Debra confides in her mother, played to perfection by Jean Smart as kindly and forgiving--a Christian ideal of a mother--giving bad advice all around as she mistakenly falls for any man who gives her daughters the time of day. The interaction of this brood, revolving around a toxic man, tells volumes about the psychology of women raised in the 20th century living out their lives in the 21st. Debra and her mother are putty in the hands of a sociopath.

I recommend watching all the series, so I won't give away any spoilers. Much of it is fairly easy to see coming, but there are ups and downs and sideways twists. As in most narratives these days, the story is told through flashbacks and flashes forward so there are scenes that give backstory long after we'd given up on learning it. It's well written and believable and it's easy to see that there are a number of women at the helm. I would think a man watching it might say, "I hope they don't think all men are like that," but I'm pretty sure we've all, male and female, known this behavior in lesser degrees in real people. Dirty John is the beginning of a long-overdue conversation, and will prompt (I hope) more evaluation of personality types and more cautious behavior all around.

The second entry in the series is The Betty Broderick Story, which came to an end in July.  The next season will begin with more episodes about Broderick, whose tale is ongoing. She too had the wrong idea about a man being her salvation, but she is the toxic one in the relationship--and her thinking is baffling and sociopathic. Trying to redeem herself in the public's eye she is probably not a bad subject for contemplation of just how twisted a mind can be--and how cleverly such a mind can manipulate others.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

The Fascination of Betty Broderick


From a Feminist Viewpoint:

In the middle of the night in 1989, she made her way to the bedroom of her ex-husband and his new wife and killed both of them in their sleep. She never denied having done it. The question all these years has been "What is wrong with her?"

Elizabeth Ann Broderick clearly had something wrong with her. She had been a beauty and an A student in high school, married a promising medical student she adored and put him through med school and then law school, bore him children, and lived the picture-perfect married life as expected of children born in the post-WWII baby boom. He rose in his profession, the family vacationed in Aspen--and she had all the money in the world she wanted.  She was charming and beautiful, if a bit of a drama queen, and swore that all she had ever wanted to be was a "mommy."

There were cracks in the marriage all along, and nothing either she or her high-powered lawyer husband Dan did much of anything to resolve issues. Buying something, having another baby, moving to a more prestigious neighborhood--none of the traditional solutions did anything but fan the flames of her discontent.

Watching The Betty Broderick Story series, a part of the Dirty John on USA Network, I was thrust back to the 1992 series A Woman Scorned, starring Meredith Baxter-Birney as Betty Broderick. The earlier series did not give much time to Dan Broderick, but focused on Betty, and portrayed her as irrational, on the surface almost as much as deep down. Baxter-Birney's rage burned through the small screen, and her ability to display a cool exterior whenever it was needed was extraordinary acting indeed. The new series shows us that Dan was no paragon of mental health either, but at least balanced enough to see that his home situation was getting out of hand. He tried to limit the children's exposure to her, the more violent her moods and language became, and it would seem he hoped that at best one day she would leave them and him alone. Betty was unpredictable; Dan was rock-hard but at least better at human transactions.

In 2020, with the tightly-wound Amanda Peet playing Betty Broderick, we see a young couple working hard to fulfill the American fantasy of married life, and it takes a while before the picture becomes a horror movie with the ring of truth. Betty is a Jekyll-Hyde character, female 1980s version, who cannot sleep at night and feasts on the rage she holds for her husband. She goes to their former home, yanks his expensive clothes out of the closet, and burns them in the backyard. She drives her car into the front of his new house. She calls him hundreds of times, leaving obscene messages on his answering machine, and when talking to her children on the phone uses vile language about their father and his fiancée relentlessly, all the while they, in tears, beg her to stop.

This is more than a story of the worst marriage known in U.S. history. It is more than a story of a woman becoming unhinged at losing her husband and children. It is more than a story of what Betty Friedan called "the problem that has no name," a woman  who bought the myth of marriage being the most rewarding career she might have and finding herself depressed and unfulfilled. These factors are all part of it but is something else here--two people living out the same madness, a folie a deux, feeding each other's mental illness in the only way they can understand. She fears losing him and she drives him away. But it's more than that; he acts out her fears by having an affair with a younger, more desirable version of her. In the real-life story, Betty gained weight and her anger made her physically unattractive--how they will achieve that in this nuanced reimagining of the earlier series I do not know. (The final episode on Season 1 airs tonight, July 14, and the series will continue with her story next season.)

Betty's illness is at the heart of the story. She becomes a different person through her mental deterioration. She cannot accept her part in Dan's inevitable choice to leave her. From the 2020 vantage point one cannot help wondering why this woman did not get help sooner--even though we do know that the personality disorders (Wikipedia says narcissism and histrionic personality disorder) she had are not exactly curable. Today there are anxiety drugs and antidepressants that probably would have helped, and maybe a brain scan and a few months at a rehab-spa would have done some good. As it was, she rejected therapy and chose to indulge her obsession with her own anger, fear, and hatred until it won out, once and for all.

We don't understand all we know about the tawdry tale, but it will fascinate us until the day we are able to put a name to it.

Saturday, June 6, 2020

What Is a Male Chauvinist?

From a Feminist Viewpoint:

Whether or not you ever heard of a male chauvinist, you do need to know about them. The phrase has been all but replaced, but it still rises to the surface occasionally.

Nicolas Chauvin was a legendary soldier in the First Army of the French Republic and in the Grand Armee de Napoleon. He is said to have been wounded in battle 17 times, resulting in considerable maiming and disfigurement.  A noble fellow, Chauvin adored his commander and loved his homeland even more--if that were possible--so much so that Napoleon personally granted him a Sabre of Honor and a pension of a few hundred francs. He is thought to have served in the Old Guard at the Battle of Waterloo, and to have shouted "The Old Guard dies but does not surrender!" implying that ultimate blind and unquestioned devotion to one's country was not only a good thing, but the expected thing.

 

There is some doubt the real Nicolas Chauvin ever existed, but is, rather, a folk hero emblematic of a kind of fanatic patriotism whose zealotry bordered on a personality disorder rather than genuine heroism. The French word Chauviniste was coined to cover extreme patriotism, but, as Bonaparte fell from favor, the term evolved to mean a mindless bias on almost any topic.

 

It was not until the late 19th century that chauvinism took on the meaning "excessive or prejudiced support for one's own cause" and came to used in contexts other than nationalism. As the Women's Liberation movement grew in the early 1960s in the United States, the phrase "male chauvinist" was born. A man who patronized, disparaged, or otherwise denigrated females in the belief that they were inferior to males and thus deserving of less than equal treatment or benefit was termed a male chauvinist by women who were in the vanguard of the fight for women's rights. The word "pig" was added to the phrase, as more people used the word pig to describe a group perceived as the enemy--as the counterculture of the day used the term pig to characterize brutal police. 

 

Now, rather than male chauvinist, we're more likely to use the word misogynist, which means a man who hates women. A male chauvinist was likely to deny he hated women--frequently responding that, to the contrary, he "loved women too much," which indicated an extremely skewed definition of the word love.  If they, as healthy heterosexuals did, participated in sex with women, such men equated the act with love, in spite of the fact that the two are hardly one and the same. Misogyny manifests in numerous ways, including sex discrimination, overt hostility,  patriarchy, male privilege, the belittling of women, the disenfranchisement of women, violence against women, and the sexual objectification of women. This behavior had been rampant in the 20th century, and women's objections to it came as a total surprise to the men who were criticized for it as women began to revolt in mid-century. In the 1950s and carrying over to the 1960s and 70s, women were portrayed in advertising and pop culture as objects, playthings, and obedient mental deficients. We were either overtly sexual objects or happy housewives. Billboards and bus cards used images of women to sell all manner of items, from wine ("Had Any Lately?") to automobiles. Throughout the 60s many of those ads were critiqued by graffiti saying THIS INSULTS WOMEN. If an attractive female office worker in a major city walked past a construction site on her way to the office, she was likely to be bombarded with catcalls and profanity by the macho men operating shovels and heavy machinery. They were male chauvinists, all--exercising their right to exert their masculine impulses. The fight for women's rights and the subsequent movement against male domination and exploitation was sometimes confusing.  

 

Society has made great strides since then. However, male chauvinism is not dead; it's not even asleep. It survives in many guises, and the exposure of more of its facets does boggle the mind. We've lifted the stone to uncover sex trafficking (known in the days of the Feminism of the 19th century as "white slavery," yet not spoken about much for almost a century.) We are pondering the value of pornography. We know about the psychological grooming of young girls--and boys--and the exploitation of them by their teachers and priests. Today we can examine the phenomenon scientifically. But at the root of it all is the acceptance of male supremacy and power. This stems from the prevailing Victorian attitude of male superiority, which we are bound to find out is a baseless concept that has been allowed credence for a couple of centuries too long. 

 

We are inundated with new names for things. New phrases for old behavior pepper our conversations. Machismo has become toxic masculinity, simple courtesy and civility ia now known as political correctness, and is not seen as a good thing. 

 

Things have changed somewhat, and at least we are talking about them differently. We are offended by the overt exploitation of women for the pleasure of men. We cringe at the portrayal of women as merely sex objects in the films of the 1950s and 60s. The man of those days was almost invariably a male chauvinist, and who could blame him? Hugh Hefner was a hero to them, and young women actually vied for places in Playboy Magazine. An examination of this phenomenon is still ahead of us, as strip clubs abound, the porn industry is thriving, and plastic surgery has become an art of body reconstruction.    

Too much emphasis on physical appeal has led us to this. We human beings are naturally sexual creatures. But that is not all we are. One gender is not superior to the other and it does not require force to support the idea that it is. If there is a battle of the sexes, there will not be a victor. The Old Guard may have to surrender, or at least compromise.