Thinking Through It Should Happen to You

In It Should Happen to You (dir. George Cukor, 1954), Judy Holliday plays Gladys Glover, a woman longing to stand out in the world. [Yes, I'm going to tell you the ending so consider this your spoiler warning.] Fired from her modeling job because her boss made a bad bet about her hip size, she has only the $1000 she has saved up and the drive to make something of herself. In walks Pete Sheppard (Jack Lemmon in his first film), hopeful documentary filmmaker, who finds himself romantically drawn to this woman while claiming not to understand her need for recognition. He recommends, several times in the film, that she enjoy being part of the crowd and stop trying to stand out. He is most baffled by her decision to spend $600 to rent a huge billboard on Columbus Circle for 3 months. On the sign all she puts is her name, in enormous letters. She thoroughly enjoys just looking at the sign, though Pete continues to fret over it, going so far as to refuse to make any real commitment to Gladys until her rental time is up. The sign, we might argue, represents (phallic) power that intimidates Pete.

That Pete is a filmmaker and, thus, wields the gaze, would suggest his need for power: to control the lens through which he and his audience (if anyone actually does see his films, which we don’t actually know) see the world. Why can he not understand what Gladys wants, knowing as he must the implications of his own career choice? Probably because he does not know himself as well as she does: he craves attention too, he just gets it less directly than she does, as she soars into appearing on television talk shows, being the Adams’ Soap girl, and having a fighter plane named after her.

Eventually, of course, the lovers commit to each other, thwarting the playboy antics of Evan Adams III (Peter Lawford) and ending Gladys’s shortlived career…sort of. Pete has been waiting for Gladys’s fame bubble to burst, and a powerful moment over her delicious homecooked dinner happens when she straightforwardly recommends to Pete that he not be the one to burst that bubble himself. He forces her hand when he decides to leave the apartment house where he rents Room 7 while she lives down the hall in Room 9. He makes a short film, ending their relationship, and, in a note, dictates the terms under which she should watch it (turn down the lights, sit, turn on projector, etc.). With his real self unable to control her actions, he uses the medium of film to hold her attention. Does this signify male impotence? The power of the gaze? The need to use mediated methods to control this media-gripped woman? In any case, the trick works, and she faces, through this mediated message, the “fact” that she has been too obsessed with her own image to keep this man. The film fails to critique Pete’s methods, melodramatic background music and Gladys’s tears attesting to the truth that a woman’s success/fame is hollow without a man beside her.

More broadly, the film argues that success/fame is hollow if you don’t “stand for something.” I’m not sure what Pete stands for, but the film seems confident he does. Perhaps the shorthand here is that documentary filmmaking is “real,” which is entertaining to find delivered as a message through a non-documentary film about “unreal” characters. (Of course, we know, all film is artificial, including documentaries, but I can’t quite tell if It Should Happen to You knows this or not.) When Gladys, in stilted prose, finally tells off her manager and ends her life in the limelight, she repeats Pete’s words, and it isn’t just his “stand for something” phrase, it’s five or six lines, verbatim, and though perhaps they are meant to ring true because she now is living them, there are other interpretations available. They ring hollowly because they are not her words, any more than is the ridiculous speech she broke down in the middle of presenting at the airbase where the plane was being named after her. She is mimicking men’s words and maybe we are meant to see both as equally inappropriate, even though Gladys does not seem to get it. She is a puppet of patriarchy, whether via a boyfriend or a PR manager. Women are scripted in romantic comedies and this scene points us to awareness of this. Hence, it is not surprising that her words sound stilted more than self-aware…Holliday does not let her character even pause with the standard “Oh my gosh, he was right” moment as she speaks. We can become aware at this moment that these are not her words but part of the Hollywood norm of women characters being scripted into dulling down their own lives to make room for men.

It is only this rereading that makes palatable a scene that, taken straight, can seem to simply suggest that Gladys has come to her senses and will give up this wild public life for a nice guy she can cook for. Pete is not domineering in traditional ways, giving a whiny opinion but not insisting on anything. He seems more bent on performing masculinity than feeling comfortable in it, which would be pitiful if not for his effect on Gladys. Yet Gladys does speak her mind several times, quite pointedly, yelling at Pete and dumping Mr. Adams III not for making a pass at her but for doing it with so little emotion. I’m not saying her character doesn’t get nasty moments of comeuppance that a feminist perspective eschews, but there are gaps and fissures in the patriarchal armor of this film that are worth exploring.

And this gets us to the ending, where Gladys gives up a nationwide tour and the rest of her fame for Pete. Yet, as the two drive off together, they see a billboard for sale. Gladys stares at it, Pete freaks out and asks her what she’s staring at (using her gaze to reframe herself once more), and she says “nothing at all” or words to that effect, then lays her head on Pete's shoulder. The threat of her own control of her life and the fact that she (and actress Judy Holliday) shines so much brighter than wimpy Pete (and witty yet very secondary Jack Lemmon) are still present in the film and could re-erupt at any time.

I cannot help but think how sad it is that all that energy “erupted” for such a short time, as Ms. Holliday died of cancer after only a few more films at age 44. Yet you can feel, between Holliday's acting and Cukor's directing, a kind of feminist tension crackling throughout the film.

Note: I just learned that Judy Holliday’s given name was Tuvim and that she was Jewish! Moreover, her career was stunted not only by cancer but also by being brought in for questioning by McCarthy. Though not blacklisted, only a year after she won the Best Actress Oscar for Born Yesterday, this remarkable woman found it difficult to get good film roles. I will definitely need to read up on her relationship with Cukor, who cast her in four films: Adam’s Rib, Born Yesterday, The Marrying Kind, and It Should Happen to You. While I can’t make myself watch The Marrying Kind (yet) because Holliday’s character’s young son drowns in it (too hard to watch with a young son of my own), I have seen the other three and loved her in all of them.


Contemplating A Bill of Divorcement

My ongoing work on the films of George Cukor brings me to ever new films. In addition to films I already knew well (Sylvia Scarlett, Holiday, The Philadelphia Story, Born Yesterday, The Women, My Fair Lady), I’ve bought a bunch used on VHS or DVD (as available) through half.com, including some I’ve never heard of and found fascinating and flawed (A Woman’s Face, Heller in Pink Tights), never heard of and never want to see again (Two-Faced Woman), heard of and found much different than expected (A Bill of Divorcement, It Should Happen to You, A Double Life), or just enjoyed for the ride (Dinner at Eight). I’ve found themes of alcoholism and aging, the thrill of the theater and the melodrama of madness, queerness and heteronormativity – Cukor directed such a diverse lot of films that it’s impossible to pigeonhole him, but you can definitely see reiterated themes and a love of acting.

Today, I watched A Bill of Divorcement (1932) for the first time, knowing it was Hepburn’s first role. You can see what Cukor saw in the young actress: her long, lithe, angular form and her confident, controlled acting. She handled both the arrogance of youth and the trauma of tragedy well in this melodrama. But I so did not know or expect the plot. [spoiler warning!!]

Perhaps linking it in my mind with her next films, Morning Glory and Christopher Strong (both 1933), I thought the plot was something about a young woman who fell in love with a married man and insisted he divorce, hence the title. Instead, I got a melodrama with John Barrymore (that superb thespian's thespian) and Billie Burke (voice always aquiver but admirably restrained, given the character). At the heart of the film is the impact of mental illness on a family, as Barrymore’s Hilary Fairfield returns to his family after 15+ years in a mental institution. Shell shock, the film argues, triggered a genetic predisposition to some form of delusional schizophrenia, and after 15 years, wife Meg (Burke) gets a divorce so she can move on with her life, can marry her lawyer, Gray Meredith (Paul Cavanagh), a warm yet patriarchal type. When the veil lifts one day, Hilary heads home and is devastated to find he has lost so many years and no longer fits into his home or wife’s life. He is at turns sad and abusive, pensive and calm. Barrymore is over the top at times, but such is the role. Wonderful is his daughter, Sidney, played by Hepburn: a girl on the verge of adulthood and marriage, confident and optimistic, yet soon brought down by her father’s pain and her knowledge that it is her “place” to care for him. She never knew her father, yet she is immediately drawn to him and to caring for him. Knowing the insanity is genetic, Sidney opts to break off her engagement with handsome and loving young Kit Humphreys (David Manners). (One of Hilary’s sisters, we are told, was also institutionalized for a time; his other sister, Hester (Elizabeth Patterson), is a determined spinster—in every sexist sense of the word.) Hepburn is at her heart-breaking best as Sidney marshals her strength and ends the relationship, knowing she and Kit can never have children and, worse, she might herself become mentally unstable and force Kit to suffer for years as her mother did.

What surprised me most about the film was where it ended. Melodramatic excess was everywhere, but I fully expected the unstable and childishly clinging yet also generous and wise Hilary to let his daughter go, as he did with his wife. Though he suffered for it, he did let Meg go, realizing that he did not truly know her anymore—if he ever did—and she deserved a life of love and happiness without him. Yet, when Kit returns one last time to whistle at the window (as the lovers romantically did early in the film) to see if Sidney will marry and go away with him, she closes the curtains and sits down with her father at the piano as the two play Hilary’s unfinished sonata (begun before his illness) with increasing (hysterical) gaiety. Fade to black.

It is a tidy film, neatly directed by Cukor, who can sometimes sacrifice cohesiveness for the sake of particular scenes or actors. But I’m astonished by this ending. Shall I read it as a tragedy? Hilary Fairfield is too emotionally unstable to do the right thing for his daughter, even if he could do it for his wife? Sidney is a generous soul who takes over her mother’s burden so the middle-aged woman (who married a soldier she did not love because that is just how things were at wartime) can at last have a few year’s happiness? Those with mental illness in the genes truly shouldn’t have children or even marry? (How popular a scientific thesis was inherited mental illness at this time?) Is the film simply about how well melodrama sells, regardless of specifics? Or perhaps a larger subject is being considered here: Is the film perhaps about a culture wrestling with the subject of divorce? Is it a study in masculinity-in-crisis?

Ultimately, I’m not sure what the film is arguing through its ending, but I know I feel trapped by it. Particularly remarkable is that the young daughter is trapped before even achieving adult independence while the mother, the older generation, is freed. Perhaps not only masculinity in some abstract sense is challenged here but also the price paid by succeeding generations for the wars and marriage traditions of their fathers (and mothers). If something does not change, the film might be said to argue, the ills of the older generation will destroy the younger? All I can say for certain is that I would not be contemplating these larger (political) themes if our heroine simply married her young man and they went off into the sunset together.


Why I Am Loving the First Season of Inuyasha on DVD

1. Creativity: The demons may be relatively known to Japanese audiences (hair demon, enchanted blood-ink that brings forth demons from Japanese images of hell) but all are new and amazing-creepy to me. I also like the focus on reincarnation; makes a wonderful change from Judeo-Christian notions of life/death, good/evil, and our generic demons.

2. Well-handled Quest Motif: always good for retaining audience attention. I also like that episodes alternate between finding jewel shards and character development/cast building – and some episodes have both. Definitely keeps me watching—several episodes at a time.

3. Subtitles (vs. Dubbing): You can watch all the DVD episodes in Japanese, and it’s been enlightening. Not only are the translations sometimes more cultural than literal but characters names are different in pronunciation (for example, it's "Kah-go-may," with no emphasis on any syllable, not "Kuh-GO-may"). Also, the voice for Inuyasha is more menacing in the original Japanese. Are Americans incapable/undesirous of grasping the cute-sexy-evil triple threat? See point 4.

4. Badboys so Cute You Can Eat 'Em with a Spoon: Could anything be cuter than Inyasha? Those dog ears, long silver hair, tiny pointed nose, big amber eyes – could make anyone go Furry. Then there’s Sesshomaru: evil incarnate yet beautifully, ornately feminine. What is it that makes beautiful evil so alluring? Why don't Americans get it (without hysterical homophobia)? The Japanese are unmatched in blending cute, sexy, and evil. That odd childlike cuteness factor is just bizarre to me, and it works. (I will add, though, that I also used to have a crush on Rayek from Elfquest!)

5. Working Through Issues with Kag
ome: Though I like the cute-sexy in the adult male characters (esp. those delicious demons), I have issues with the schoolgirl thing the Japanese seem to groove on. Though there are no sex scenes and she varies between child and adolescent as she should, I feel I’m supposed to see Kagome as sex object and, well, bleh. Admittedly, we’ve been made so culturally paranoid about any thoughts/feelings that might in any way be at all linked with sexualizing anything under 18 that it’s positively a knee-jerk response to feel weird about Kagome and her insanely long legs and her link to the very-adult priestess Kikyo, whose soul is reincarnated within her. (I feel driven to add my frustration about this: Dammit, teens sexualize themselves constantly—and even pre-teens: those damn Kids Bop kids singing along to adult-themed sex/relationship songs...Bratz dolls and the whole pre-teen-girl-as-Diva craze…What the hell kinds of double-messages and double-standards are we giving kids—especially girls—and adults??)

(Next episode: Elyce Saves Money to Afford the Boxed Set of Season 2! See you next time!)


Moment of Being

Some moments in life are so simultaneously filled with the best and worst of life one, apparently, just has to blog about it.

Yesterday morning I was driving around campus, trying to find the ever-elusive mid-day parking space. I was listening to my new RCA Lyra (a less expensive, not-white iPod), having just uploaded a variety of tunes meant to gently wake me to the day’s labor. I included The Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun” and “Across the Universe,” “Frank Mills,” “Aquarius,” and “Let the Sunshine In” from Hair, and John Lennon’s “Imagine,” among others.

So, I’m pulling into a lucky space not too terribly far from my office as “Imagine” is concluding and I’m thinking about how I’d love to share the song with so many people, but the “no religion too” would make them call it a radical Commie song still (presuming they listened to the lyrics, of course), and feeling upset that the Right has so shifted discourse in this country that even mild peacenik anthems are linked to terrorism and the destruction of all morality. And then the opening words of “Let the Sunshine In” add fodder to my mood…

We starve-look
At one another
Short of breath
Walking proudly in our winter coats
Wearing smells from laboratories
Facing a dying nation
Of moving paper fantasy
Listening for the new told lies
With supreme visions of lonely tunes

…and I’m getting out of my car walking to the beat and trying, through outdated rock musical soulfood by well-meaning white boys, to purge the thought that that Dick Cheney and those who share his perspective and any fragment of his power are all shooting us collectively in the face and how can you keep the birdshot out of your heart…

...when what should pass me on the sidewalk but a line of ROTC college students in full fatigues, carrying (fake?) rifles and marching, single-file, staunchly forward and out of time to my music.

I shook my head, disbelieving this could be happening right after John Lennon and during the climactic "Let the sunshine, Let the sunshine in, the suuuuuuuuunshine iiiiiiiiiiiiin" ending of the song...

But it did happen, and at least I had the protection of Ragni and Rado and thoughts of my pacifist and otherwise radical friends and family to sustain me: especially Sunfrog/Anu and his tireless activism and Kate Aulbach who saw the 1979 film version of Hair with me and we lived in the soundtrack for months, wishing we were hippies rather than stuck in the late 1970s—where we did have Rocky Horror but not a lot else—except things did get so much worse—and how could we have known?


Charles Wolfe: Rest in Peace and Rock the Beyond

Charles Wolfe, a brilliant man and wonderful colleague and friend, has moved on. But he will live on in 15 books and many other writings on country and folk music, in compiled CDs, in documentaries, and in the minds and hearts of those of us lucky enough to have known and worked with him. Go see what you think: read A Good Natured Riot: The Birth of the Grand Old Opry or The Legend of Leadbelly.

Hope to meet you again in a future life, Charles. Thanks for being there for me so many times when I needed someone to talk to in this one.


Weight Watchers Confessional

Let’s talk (the cultural politics of) Weight Watchers, shall we?

Chad reviewed Consumer Reports’ study of diets and diet organizations, and found that Weight Watchers (WW) is the only diet/plan that has a proven track record of helping people actually lose weight and keep it off. No other diet or plan has as good a record, and even WW can only boast a 20-lb. loss for the average member.

Now, Chad is in good health and looks great, and I am not obese. Yet, we both felt we wanted to lose some weight (around 20-25 lbs. for me, about 15 for Chad) and have control over it. I have never lost weight…almost literally never. Maybe 5 lbs. then gain it back, that kind of thing. The few times I did shed those 5 lbs., it was due to illness or a miserable attempt to eat no sweets and fiercely fight hunger. Anything called a diet made me miserable just to hear about it. But also, I’d have guilt when I ate a candy bar or 4th slice of pizza, so dieting or not I wasn’t wildly comfy about food issues.

When you couple this with my feminism and a politics of anti-weightism (anti-fatism), frankly, you get a mental mess. We absolutely live in a weight-obsessed culture. We pretend to work against anorexia and bulimia, but we also cultivate a climate that not only encourages but champions these illnesses. The media saturates us with messages that thinness equals beauty equals love and romance and wealth and happiness for a woman. How many big fat female CEOs do you see on prime-time drama? For every (admittedly sexist) brief “Baby’s Got Back” message, there are a dozen competing direct and indirect messages encouraging diets, creams, and surgeries to remove your back, your front, and your sides. Except your breasts, of course, which should be increased and raised to point skyward.

So, I can’t ever be this unqualified champion of WW, even if it has helped me responsibly and relatively painlessly lose more than 10 lbs. to date while feeling healthier (yeay fiber and exercise). It’s a very logical plan, involving reduction of consumption of high-fat, high-calorie foods in favor of low-fat, high-fiber foods. You need to eat 5 fruits and veggies a day, 6 glasses of water, exercise as much as possible, plus keep to a certain number of “points” worth of food (based on combination of calories, fat, and fiber). So far so good. Logical, reasonable, and good for your health. (And you can even eat a donut every day, if you’re willing to “pay” for it out of your points.)

Now, you can follow this plan by reading up on it online and never joining WW, but Chad and I felt we needed motivation and responsibility to make sure we stay on it. Enter WW meetings, where you weigh in and then get a little talk about staying on track over the holidays or how to find exercise in unexpected places or how to cut fat in recipes. From anagrams to carrying around a little bell over the holidays (so when it jingles you remember not to eat), this is really kitschy stuff. Moreover, the talks often smack of something between corporate retreat and cult religion. Go team go! This comes with the price of membership (around $30) plus $11 a week, which must be paid each week (you can't come and go and skip without repaying the initial membership fee). Yet, even as I cringe at the worst of this very very capitalist program, I have lost the weight without anguish and the meetings are part of the success.

I know I’m probably going to find out worse any day, like the WW Founder is a neo-Nazi or donates all his money to the Republican party or has three anorexic, sexually-abused daughters. But right now, I live with a precarious balance of healthy cynicism and sincere pleasure in knowing my pants fit and that I’ll likely get a cleaner bill of health on my cholesterol level from the doctor. I’ll deal further with the politics and repercussions of my deflating belly skin (tummy tuck, anyone?) another day.