Thursday, January 24, 2008

Come Back, Little Sheba on Broadway

William Inge was one of the notables of mid-20th-century American playwriting, often mentioned in the same breath as Williams and Miller, even though his relatively slimmer output garners him fewer words in history surveys (or might that be because he was gay?). After the success of his second play, Come Back, Little Sheba, on Broadway in 1950, Inge went on to write Picnic (1953), which won that year’s Pulitzer Prize, Bus Stop (1955), and Dark at the Top of the Stairs (1957). He won an Academy Award for his first screenplay, Splendor in the Grass (1960), which starred Natalie Wood and Warren Beatty. According to the Inge Center web site (, the playwright became depressed after two plays he wrote in the early 60s were unsuccessful. He left New York for LA, where he committed suicide in 1973.

This Manhattan Theatre Club-produced revival of Inge’s 1950s realist drama was first staged in Los Angeles at the Kirk Douglas Theatre (see The production opens on Broadway on January 24, 2008, starring S. Epatha Merkerson, affectionately known as Lt. Anita Van Buren on the long-running, original Law and Order television series. Merkerson plays Lola, the apparently desperate and deluded housewife whose attempt to keep her marriage intact and “normal” drives the plot.

Sheba is a conventional play, to the extent that it’s rife with all the tropes of realism: the “secrets” that sour its relationships; the repressed desires that wind up exploding and ruining its characters; the compromises that make the lives it portrays ones of rue and regret. But in this production, rather than providing a recipe for the obvious, director Michael Pressman and his leading woman find nuances and depths to these familiar stories that make Sheba vital and resonant.

James Noone’s soaring set quotes the claustrophobic domestic spaces that Jo Mielziner captured in his original 1949 design for Death of a Salesman. The home in which Lola’s unhappiness unfolds is a multi-level, multi-room space with doors and stairs and furniture backed up against imaginary walls, a physical embodiment of the porousness between a family’s private and public lives. Lola’s kitchen is a bright but strangely empty space, with none of the hominess usually ascribed to the nerve center of nurture and sustenance. The living room, at the opening curtain, is furnished with mis-matched pieces and a threadbare rug, and strewn with the detritus of careless lives: newspapers and magazines, fresh laundry and dirty clothes.

The boarder’s room off the living room is decorated in detail, as renter Marie’s love life is as central to the plot machinations as the room’s location suggests. Up the stairs, balanced precariously over the action, is the shared bath and master bedroom, suggested with doors but revealed by the bedroom’s lack of walls, where an always disheveled bed figures the entanglements of thwarted desire that thread through the story.

The set changes, which require reorienting props and pieces of the décor in between scenes, are directed as part of the play’s life. As stagehands come on to attend to various objects, the actors move around the set in character, making transitions in the play’s timescape. The dream-like simultaneity of the play’s action and the production’s logistical needs let you see the characters in even more of their quotidian reality as they move pensively from one room to the next in the half light.

The set suggests both the home’s solidity and its precariousness, just as Jennifer von Mayrhauser’s costumes lend the characters both dignity and disrepute. Merkerson wears the housedresses that encaged 1950s housewives, all ties and bows and cheap cloth wrapped around the loosening figures of female middle age. Doc (Steppenwolf’s Kevin Anderson) wears suspenders to hold up already high-waisted trousers tightly pulled over his expanding waist-line, foiling his attempt at style and leaving him slightly ridiculous looking. This is a couple playing at the conventions of 1950s domesticity, and failing, badly.

Shirley Booth originated Lola on Broadway and in the subsequent film version, for which she won an Academy Award. Her simpering, foolish flibbertigibbet of a woman haunts the character, and provides a sharp contrast for Merkerson’s reinterpretation. In the play’s first act, she puts her own spin on what appear to be Lola’s self-delusions about her relationship and her life, playing the woman as more languid and dreamy than Booth’s always bustling, high-pitched fussbudget.

But as the second act moves through its devastating unraveling, Merkerson reveals Lola as a surprisingly strong but trapped woman trying frantically to hold onto a marriage she knows was a mistake from the start, struggling to be a partner to a husband whose alcoholism destroys them both.

The secrets alluded to at the beginning find the harsh light of day at the end, as Doc’s hatred for the woman whose pregnancy trapped him into a loveless marriage explodes in violence. Lola’s attempt to hang on to the innocence that let her trust her young lover 25 years ago becomes more and more painful, as it’s clear their liaison produced only loss. The baby they inadvertently conceived died when they used a substandard doctor to attend to the delivery; their shotgun wedding was obviated by the disappearance of their progeny, its unhappiness exacerbated by the couple’s inability to bear another child. Lola calls Doc “Daddy,” underlining ironically (although she always says it earnestly) the emptiness of their union.

Marie, their boarder (Zoe Kazan), inflames an already fraught relationship with her flirtatious presence, taunting Doc with casual intimacies that quicken his step. When Marie flaunts 1950s propriety by sleeping with Turk, the young man with whom she cheats on her out-of-town boyfriend, Doc’s carefully manufactured moral code falls apart and knocks him off the wagon of sobriety he’s maintained for one uneasy year.

The language of Alcoholics Anonymous's 12-step program (still relatively new to American culture in 1950, and much more stigmatized than its commonplace presence today) to which Doc and Lola cling barely holds his bitterness and incipient rage in check. Even though he attends meetings and sponsors other alcoholics, helping them through brutal visits to the local hospital’s drunk tank, and even though Lola asks him to repeat his daily affirmation, neither Lola nor Doc truly believe his nature has changed. Director Pressman gradually builds the production’s impending doom, letting spectators recognize that what we see as Lola’s inanity is really her frantic attempt to shore up the façade of her relationship’s normalcy.

In 2008, that façade already seems cracked. The production suggests that the conventions of heterosexual marriage were already rotten in the 50s, even as American ideology worked so hard to construct the nuclear family living happily in the suburbs as the sine qua non of such relationships. Both Lola and Doc suffocate in the confines of their home, fabricating intimacy and performing normalcy as they suffer their emotional and social isolation.

Doc is jealous of Marie and Turk, and funnels his repressed desire into flirting with her under the guise of paternalism. Lola likes to watch the young couple’s romantic couplings; she openly admits that she spies on them. While the audience can read her voyeurism as benign longing for her own lost beauty and youth, her watching also reeks of sexual perversion, as though she’s doomed to lurk about the corners of other people’s passion, feeding her own desire vicariously.

Their neighbor, Mrs. Coffman (Brenda Wehle), who’s suspect enough that Lola first wonders if she has poisoned the missing old beloved dog, Sheba, becomes the play’s reproving Greek chorus, stepping into and out of their home and the action with her thin lips pinched, tsk tsking her way through their lives as she first judges Lola’s inadequate housekeeping and then pities her victimization.

Inge suggests that even those with the most in common—lonely housewives chained to deadening routines—must invest in appearances of decorum instead of reaching out to each other with sympathy and agency. When Mrs. Coffman inadvertently visits after Doc’s rampage, she wordlessly helps Lola right the overturned furniture and clean up broken glass, replacing the vestiges of her dignity without suggesting that Lola change anything.

The Marie/Turk subplot offers interesting feminist resonances. Temporarily separated from her socially upstanding boyfriend, Marie embarks on an affair with a man who’s all brawn and no brains, whose only option for social intercourse is sexual. Marie clearly feels something for Turk, but she tells Lola that he’s “not the marrying kind.” Inge neatly reverses the charge usually leveled against “loose” women, painting Marie as the sexual opportunist who knows she’ll soon settle down with a more appropriate man.

When her boyfriend Bruce appears at the house, he’s straitlaced, dull, and judgmental, impatient with Lola’s fussing and already puffed up by the obligations to which he’s carefully calibrated his life. His appearance on the scene underlines Marie’s compromises and Inge’s intimation that social propriety requires emotional and spiritual sacrifice.

Merkerson is a revelation as Lola. Casting an African American woman in the wife’s role without changing a word of the text and casting the rest of the characters as white (with the exception of one of Doc’s AA friends, played by African American actor Keith Randolph Smith) layers the play with racial nuances unavailable when a white woman performs the part. In many ways, Lola’s servitude is more readily apparent; in one key scene, when Lola’s made a fancy dinner for Marie and her visiting boyfriend to which Doc, out on a bender, fails to show, Lola announces that she won’t eat with the couple, but will be their “butler.”

Her declaration productively underlines Lola’s indentured servitude, as Merkerson’s race (and her maid-like adornments) suddenly becomes evident in ways it doesn’t through the rest of the production. This color-blind casting in fact underlines gender commonality across race. We’re no doubt meant to see this choice through a 21st century perspective, since in fact, a mixed-marriage in the 1950s would have been scandalous.

Merkerson slows Lola’s tempo, reading her lines with a drawling, southern-inflected cadence that points up her race more than trying to obscure it. Her voice is lovely and wistful, rich and warm, while her face seems frozen with her effort to make something nice out of a life wasted in a loveless lie of a relationship. Where Booth seemed convinced of her own revisionist history, Merkerson’s performance reveals the labor required to construct such stories, and the psychic and spiritual toll they take.

Instead of hiding her sadness behind relentless movement and meaningless domestic busyness, Merkerson’s Lola is almost indolent in her melancholy. When we first see her, she’s lying in bed in that upper room, wearing a cream-color full slip and staring quietly into space. There’s something erotic and charged about Merkerson’s lassitude; she could be a heroine from the steamier bloodlines of Williams’s oeuvre.

In another scene, left alone in the house, Lola turns on “Taboo,” a radio program that promises covert seductions to its lonely-hearted listeners. Lola drapes herself on the couch, preparing to luxuriate in some physical fantasy; her guilt is palpable when she’s startled by Doc’s unexpected return from work.

Merkerson’s performance is fully embodied and sexually charged. Her invitations to the milkman and the mailman and even to Mrs. Coffman to come sit, stay, have a cup of coffee, listen to a story, to just be with her, all have unsettling, slightly unseemly sexual overtones. And yet over the course of the play, the men who first reluctantly enter her home glancing at their watches and rolling their eyes gain affection and respect for Lola.

As her domestic strife becomes more obvious, they begin to see her as someone real, rather than a caricature of the happy housewife she once performed for them so aggressively. The mailman writes her a letter just so that she’ll get one, and the milkman proudly shows her his picture in a physique magazine (shadings of Inge’s homosexuality, as such rags were notorious as the gay porn of their time).

Although Mrs. Coffman would be a highly unlikely sexual liaison for Lola, Lola’s situation echoes that of the much more respectable middle-class housewife of the same era Julianna Moore plays in the film version of Michael Cunningham’s book The Hours. The emptiness and indignities of heterosexual domesticity fan Moore’s character’s lesbian longing and propel her out of the family nightmare.

No such redemption is possible for Lola. Her boredom is stultifying (Doc prevents her from going to work), and she’s utterly dependent on others in her version of house arrest. Her estranged family won’t take her back, now 25 years after her sexual indiscretion, even though her drunken husband has threatened her life, brandishing a machete in their living room, calling her names, and promising to “cut the fat off” of her with his weapon.

When drink lets Doc drop his mask, the audience sees the horror Lola has put up with for 25 years, and suddenly, her behavior makes a terrible kind of sense. She’s terrorized in her own home, with no way to escape. She has no means, no skills, nowhere else to go. Yet as Merkerson plays her, Lola’s unflinching resolve to survive outweighs her terror. When Doc returns, chastened, from his short rehabilitative hospital stay, he’s pink and pitiful, helpless as a mewling newborn, and begs Lola not to leave him.

With one look in response, Merkerson’s devastating expression takes in her present and her future, chained to a mercurial alcoholic who will descend into madness and claw his way back to temporary redemption again and again, leaving her to fend off his murderous rage and to soldier through a fake life. She walks Doc to their kitchen table and proceeds to cook for him as they glance at each other warily, pretending, again and always, that their suburban prison houses something real and nourishing.

Pressman’s wrenching production makes the realist conventions of Inge’s play critical of the very domestic story they structure. This revival is one of the most progressive realist dramas I’ve ever seen produced, not because the director deconstructed it, but because he and his cast fight their way to the horrible core of the situations it describes. They don’t blame their characters, regardless of their ethical or moral failings, but instead indict a culture that insists that heterosexual, coupled, suburban domesticity is the best way to live.

No wonder second wave American feminism asserted itself a decade after this play was first produced.

The Feminist Spectator

Thursday, January 17, 2008

THE L WORD: Season Five Begins

The L Word's fifth season began January 6th with a tepid episode full of exposition. Some of it explained the absence of last season’s key characters (the “manny” played by Dallas Roberts, now dumped and gone, who’d fallen in love with Kit and then summarily cheated on her with some low-life babysitter) and some of it didn’t (what happened to the sexually irrepressible Papi)? Written by Ilene Chaiken, the series’ creator and head producer but not its most talented scribe, the forgettable episode heralded a new low for the lesbian comic soap opera. (See the official show site at

Even director Angela Robinson, who usually brings a light touch and firm sense of humor to her vision of the show, couldn’t rescue the script from its burdensome task of resolving old issues and setting up new conflicts to drive this season forward. Jodi returned to LA with no explanation; Bette screwed up yet again, decorating Jodi’s new loft and demonstrating her infinite capacity to be controlling. In the show’s continuing campaign to beat Bette down, Jodi retaliated by blindfolding her lover and topping her sexually (in one of the least erotic interactions Jennifer Beals has ever performed on film).

In fact, most of the first episode’s relationships felt flat and perfunctory. Alice fretted about Tasha, watching images of the Iraq war on CNN with increasing distress, as she presumed her girlfriend had shipped out for her latest tour of duty. At the episode’s end, Tasha somehow appears at Alice’s door, still in LA, still alive, still ready and willing as Alice pulls her into the apartment, strips off her clothes, and lowers her to the floor for another desultory sex scene.

Shane immediately got into trouble, revving up this season’s sexual escapades with a realtor who had just shown her and her erstwhile girlfriend Paige a possible apartment. Shane’s inability to just say no to any pretty old thing, and her utter incapacity with the appropriately placed white lie (she can’t tell Paige she’s “in love” with her) infuriates Paige, so she sets Shane’s salon/skateboarding rink on fire. Noble, guilty, uninsured Shane refuses to press charges.

Meanwhile, Tina pined for Bette as they played house with their adorable little daughter, Angie, trying to get her enrolled in the best nursery school programs on the tony side of LA. Their pseudo-domestic moments stirred my nostalgia for the days when Bette and Tina really were a couple, flaws and all, but their tentatively rekindling interest in each other bodes well.

In one of the episode’s few highlights, Shane, Tina, and Alice visit poor Helena, who’s been thrown in jail because of her botched betting fiasco from last season. The visiting trio parade down the hall between the cells—a hilarious catwalk in which Shane flirts with the women behind bars, as though Clarice Starling had been played by an out Jodie Foster. When they meet Helena, to school her in appropriate prison decorum, the three warn her not to “drop the soap,” a tip she utterly fails to understand.

Pam Greer as Kit gets her own perp-style walk between the prison cells, doing her best Foxy Brown as she arrives to meet Helena in the visitors’ room. Kit’s instructions are more precise than the white girls’; she tells Helena to get a “daddy,” quick.

The best moment of the first episode comes as Jenny writes her screenplay for her ridiculous roman à clef, Les Girls. As Jenny rewrites history, Beals, Holloman, and Moennig act out her script in a fantasy sequence with perfect satirical irony, a winking campiness aimed directly at the viewer. The L Word itself has come to approximate Jenny’s bad writing, and the actresses seemed to be signaling that they know where it’s all headed through the flames of the show’s debacle.

But happily, Episode Two—directed by Jamie Babbit (of the lesbian films But I’m a Cheerleader and Itty Bitty Titty Committee fame, see—turned things around enough to make The L Word worth loving to hate again. The show even seemed to wink at its own self-seriousness; writer Cherien Dabis piled on rapid, richly obvious allusions to other filmic melodramas. Jenny’s new star-struck assistant, Adele, brings with her clear shades of All About Eve; it’ll be fun to watch as the obsequious side-kick develops into a threat to the entirely self-absorbed, profoundly insufferable, completely oblivious diva.

Likewise, Shane’s escapades at the wedding of the daughter of the unbelievably wealthy, fawning entrepreneur (played by Wallace Shawn, of all people) funding Jenny’s film echo with allusions to Warren Beatty’s Don Juan hairdresser in Shampoo. Shane arrives at the wedding to help put the bride’s locks in place, and winds up having sex with her, each of her bridesmaids, and finally, the mother of the bride, in a revolving door of farcical pre-matrimonial Sapphism.

Personally, I can’t see Shane’s appeal, and have to accept her as the resident lothario more on faith than on Moennig’s charisma. She’s supposed to be a hair stylist, but her own mop often looks like a rat’s nest. Moennig’s boyishness is appealing, but her flat, rail-thin body and her awkward sex scenes make her purported allure dubious. Shane goes through the sexual motions with each of her conquests in Episode Two, pumping their breasts without a hint of even fleeting desire. Then again, Warren Beatty wasn’t falling in love with his clients, either; he was servicing them, just like Shane.

Meanwhile, back in the prison showers, Helena does drop the soap and finds herself instantly accosted by two lumpy female inmates who press a knife to her beautiful long white neck. She’s saved by her cell mate, Dusty, whom Helena thinks is a vicious murderer (no doubt because the woman is butch, of color, inarticulate, and chows down the inedible prison food). Dusty thwarts the shower attack by claiming that Helena is “hers.”

When Helena and her new “daddy” wind up having sex soon after, Helena learns that Dusty’s doing time for tax fraud, not homicide, comically underlining Helena’s implicit racism. As silly as it all is, at least Rachel Shelley has settled into her performance, refining her comic timing every season. She’s given up the femme fatale role for the soubrette, and surprisingly, it works.

Bette and Jodi don’t quite make sense as a couple, but they do have art (and age) in common. As the more mature pair on The L Word, they dispense wistful, cheap wisdom. The clueless, eager Phyllis (toothsome, always game Cybill Sheperd) complains that her paramour, Joyce—played with a cocky old-fashioned butch strut by Jane Lynch—won’t get lost. Bette tells Phyllis patiently, “Some lesbians you have to break up with more than once.” Because Jodi’s deafness requires frequent translations, Bette and Jodi become The L Word's Greek chorus, commenting on the action with a eyes rolling and eyebrows arched.

There’s already plenty to be arch about this season. Tasha’s about to be investigated under the Army’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” for active homosexuality. Alice’s liberalism clashes with her girlfriend’s patriotism; that Tasha is played by the gorgeous African American actor Rose Rollins offers a hint of the racism through which the military is populated. (A recent article in The Progressive describes how high schools in East LA are targeted for military recruitment, while white, middle-class schools elsewhere in the city never host recruiters.)

But the politics of the war and the military’s policy on gay soldiers are addressed obliquely, as one of many loosely motivating subplots. The relationship between Tasha and Alice, while sightly (Rollins has gorgeous eyes), doesn’t generate a hint of chemistry. I miss the old days, when Erin Daniels and Leisha Hailey seemed to have so much good old erotic fun.

Likewise on the political front, Max, the transman, has so far this season been relegated to the wings. He decided not to have top surgery; in this episode, he offers Phyllis and Alice a pedagogical disquisition about how some transmen don’t need surgery to feel like guys. Phyllis’s earnest naiveté about lesbianism provides an excuse for The L Word’s many flat-footed explanations about queer girl life. (“U-hauling,” Phyllis murmurs, jotting the definition in her handy notebook of lesbian lore. “Transman,” she repeats, as Max tells his tale, as if she's listening to a Berlitz tape.) Where the show takes Max’s masculinity remains to be seen; for now, he’s only an adjunct to the main story.

Regardless of their titillation value, the photos I see of The L Word cast celebrating their new season and the plot teasers I read in Entertainment Weekly and People and other magazines thrill me. I still can’t get over that the show is mainstream enough to be widely noticed, even though its very popularity is what makes it pander to the lowest common (presumed) denominator of audience taste. From what I’ve read, a subplot about female Turkish oil wrestlers (whatever that means) is coming up soon.

Waiting with bated breath,
The Feminist Spectator

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Desert Hearts Forever

In a pique of nostalgia, I watched Donna Deitch’s lesbian classic Desert Hearts (1985) again the other night, then trolled on line to find out that it’s recently been re-released as a “vintage” DVD with additional footage and cast interviews. In fact, YouTube now features footage of Deitch shooting the film’s love scene (famous as the first on mainstream film to treat lesbian sexuality seriously). Various interviews with Deitch and stars Patricia Charbonneau and Helen Shaver are also available in short clips on line. And in an odd coincidence, the same evening I watched the DVD, I turned on a (thankfully) new episode of Law and Order: SVU to find that Charbonneau was among the guest stars and that Shaver had directed. A cosmic link indeed, and nice to see that they’re still working together after cooking up all that on-screen chemistry 23 years ago.

Meanwhile, the film itself holds up very well as the prototypical lesbian coming-out comedy/melodrama. Shaver plays Columbia English professor Vivian Bell, who arrives in Reno, Nevada, from New York for a no-fault divorce in 1959. She emerges slightly less than fresh off her train, wearing a glorious fitted 1950s-style suit that Shaver carries off, along with the rest of her costume wardrobe, with great style and beauty. Picked up by the alcoholic ranch-owner Frances (Audra Lindley, vivid as the inadvertently butch rancher), Bell reluctantly settles in to the slow cadence of life on the ranch as she waits the compulsory six weeks for her divorce to be final.

I’d forgotten how beautiful Reno appears in the film. The red soil, rolling hills, and desperately blue sky practically blind the bookish Vivian and immediately lure the viewer into the story. One of the film’s pleasures is watching Shaver open up to the environment, as well as to the idiosyncrasies of life on the ranch. While the other visiting divorcées wait for their paperwork by gossiping about their soon-to-be-exes, Vivian writes lectures at her desk and walks alone in the chaparral. Only Cay, Frances’s unofficially adopted daughter, draws her out of her head and introduces her to sensual pleasures unimagined in Vivian’s old life with her well-respected scholarly husband.

Cay Rivers offered Charbonneau her first film role, and it shows. Although she’s physically stunning, with rich dark hair that frames a gamin face, and a lithe, athletic figure she shows off to seductive effect, Charbonneau’s acting is earnest but two-dimensional. Sometimes, her naiveté works for the role; she’s supposed to be 25, ten years younger than Shaver’s Vivian, and that puppy-dog panting affect she adopts to chase after the older woman comes off convincingly. In the more serious scenes, Charbonneau’s acting deficits cost the film more; her line readings, especially in that infamous sex scene, only underline the film’s melodrama.

Shaver, on the other hand, finds deeper levels and more subtle, nuanced emotional responses in Vivian Bell, developing a portrayal of pain, confusion, and longing that makes the actress herself irresistibly sexy. When the film was released in the mid-80s, some of my lesbian friends laughed off the film’s sex as unrealistic and too “straight.” But I continue to think that Shaver and Deitch (and Charbonneau) achieved a moving understanding of Vivian’s sexual awakening with Cay. Shaver’s face registers the slightest shivers of desire, and fear mingled with excitement shudder through her at Cay’s touch. Cay’s coltish advances land awkwardly, but Shaver as Vivian feels each one as a physical tremor of Richter scale import.

Even in more mundane scenes, Shaver peels off Vivian’s protective layers in impeccable emotional detail. Deitch shoots montages of Vivian’s life on Frances’s ranch and her growing attraction to Cay. The first time she smiles in the film, Shaver’s beauty is sudden and shocking. Although the professor who lets down her hair is a narrative stereotype, in Desert Hearts Shaver makes it fresh and somehow true. Trying on western-style clothing with Cay becomes an occasion for hilarity; rolling dice in the casino establishes new horizons of chance and luck. Shaver moves through it all with an affecting wonder, her beauty looser and more unwittingly seductive in each scene. Watching Shaver open Vivian to her future continues to offer real viewing pleasure.

Desert Hearts documents some of mainstream films’ first strong female friendships, in addition to its first lesbian affair, which makes it as remarkable for its feminism as it is for its sexuality. Deitch recreates Reno in 1959 as a woman-centered world. Cay’s friend Silver (Andra Akers), who works with her at the casino where Cay is a change-girl, is a failed singer turned card dealer about to marry a good Italian man from New Jersey. Silver is both strong and fragile as she embarks on her own romance, and her friendship with Cay is full of real warmth, affection, and respect. A bathtub scene, in which Cay and Silver loll together in bubbles while Silver’s fiancée brings them martinis, evokes girlfriends’ physical closeness and the erotic connections that bubble between them, even when they remain platonic.

Likewise, Cay and Frances’s relationship rides its own complicated erotic currents. Cay’s father was Frances’s married lover; when he died, and Cay’s mother abandoned the girl, Frances took her in, making Cay both a surrogate daughter and a constant reminder of her doomed romantic affair. Frances loves Cay for how she inspires her memories, but her jealousy over Cay’s sex life keeps their relationship tense. Still, the two women talk in bed like girlfriends, and enact the intensity of their relationship through a casual but volatile physical intimacy.

Nancy Cooper’s script portrays Vivian as a stereotypically aloof, abstract, intellectual whom the other women both envy and scorn. Cay is a sculptor, the most physical of artists, who molds things (clay and obviously women) with her hands. Vivian’s and Cay’s orbits would barely intersect outside the bedroom in which they find solace in each other, and Reno is worlds apart from Manhattan. But Desert Heart’s utopian fantasy is that these two can make a go of it romantically; perhaps the film remains a perennial favorite because Deitch makes just that leap of faith.

Rather than chalking her experience up to divorce-inspired madness, Vivian invites Cay to come to New York, to try out a different way of life, to test the potential of escaping from a Nevada in which she’s singular and illegible as a lesbian (one of the ranch hands, watching various women come and go from Cay’s cottage, mutters, “I don’t know how you get all that traffic without no equipment”).

Cay’s free-spirited generosity lets her laugh off such comments, and her courage, as a lesbian in 1950s rural northwest America before Stonewall, is palpable as she moves through the film as out as she can possibly be in such an environment at such an historical moment. But Vivian invites her to escape, to come to a city where together, they could participate in the crucible of feminist and lesbian sexual revolution in the decade just ahead. Vivian’s 11th hour offer, made from the steps of a moving train, gives not only Cay but the film a glowing sense of hope and possibility.

It helps, of course, that Patsy Cline and other country western crooners grace the Desert Hearts sound track. Schmaltzy doesn’t begin to describe the film, but Deitch manages to both embrace and transcend the romantic style by choosing background ballads like Cline’s “Crazy,” then tempering it with satirical visual details like the rodeo scenes sewn into Frances’s leather couch.

The director respects the kitschy charms of 1950s Reno, dignifies her female characters’ ambivalence and heartache, shades them all with the steely resolve necessary to be strong women before Second Wave American feminism, directs a steamy lesbian sex scene, and persuades us that this odd couple of misfit artist/intellectuals might have a chance to be happy together.

Prior to the 1980s, lesbians in film typically committed suicide or, if they stayed alive, ended their narrative trajectories humiliated and alone. A short 23 years ago, Desert Hearts broke important new ground. I remember seeing the film for the first time in 1985 on the Upper West Side of New York when it opened, amazed at what it felt like to follow the travails of a lesbian character, and Cay and Vivian’s dawning attraction, and their consummated sexuality in a widely marketed, Sundance-sanctioned film at a mainstream cinema. Every critical faculty I’d ever exercised waited for me at the popcorn stand while I watched, completely cathected, jaw dropped, eyes misted.

When my then-partner and I had a drag down fight some days later, I ran back to the theatre by myself to watch the movie again, as I could think of no better way to make myself feel less alone. Just like many other women I’ve now watched online attest, Desert Hearts meant the world to me then, and captures my heart even now.

For a classic film in which same sex attraction and love propels women toward each other and into new lives of greater social and emotional potential, Desert Hearts remains unparalleled.

Here’s to the late, great, lesbian novelist Jane Rule for first telling the story,
The Feminist Spectator

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Juno: Teen Feminism

Juno is a refreshingly smart movie about an articulate, precocious young person with a clear sense of herself and her nascent place in the world. Written by the also precocious new screenwriter Diablo Cody, the film stands as a corrective to all the mass-marketed teen movies that engage the tired, ideologically destructive story of girls’ inhumanity to girls. Cody paints instead a portrait of a kid at a young age whose bon mots stand with the best of them, offering an ironic but warm, wise but not at all weary view of her world’s minor calamities and major achievements (see

Juno resembles My So-Called Life for the 21st century, as Juno (the multiple awards-nominated Ellen Page, delivering a brilliant, witty, unself-conscious performance as the calm and collected 16-year-old) comments in a sophisticated-beyond-her-years voice-over on her inadvertent pregnancy and her plan to give the baby to a childless yuppie couple she finds in the local penny-saver circular. The slightly off-kilter situations (who, after all, would arrange to find her offspring adoptive parents in the small-town equivalent of deliver an affectionate, respectful view of the travails of a rather ordinary (if extremely wry, kind, and generous) cobbled-together family coming to terms with the indiscretions of their oldest child.

When Juno delivers the news to her father and step-mother, instead of reacting with the disapprobation popular culture has lead us to expect of conventional parents, the couple resign themselves to helping Juno follow through on her plan without judgment. Her father is played with great warmth, forgiveness, and verve by J.K. Simmons, a terrific character actor who’s turned in detailed, knowing, and realistic portraits on everything from HBO’s Oz—as a fascist inmate—and Law and Order: SVU—as the observant police shrink—to The Closer—as Brenda’s rather hapless superior and one-time lover. The sublime Allison Janney plays Juno’s dog-loving step-mom with sardonic wit and empathy (this role is a happy corrective to the catatonic wife/mother she played in Alan Ball’s American Beauty some years back). She delivers one of the film’s best monologues when she berates the prim, judgmental ultra-sound technician who comments on Juno’s pregnancy. Although the two aren’t happy about it (after her confession, they privately admit that they’d been hoping she was on hard drugs or had been expelled from school), and although they wonder why she’s chosen not to have an abortion, they’re willing to support Juno’s choice.

The politics of choice in Juno are rather complicated. While the movie’s less conventional take on teenagers works very well, Cody and Reitman could be more progressive in how they address abortion. Juno plans an abortion first thing, but on her way into the clinic, a mopey school friend holding a lonely picket sign and demonstrating alone in the parking lot informs her in passing that her embryo has fingernails. The image resonates too loudly for Juno to go through with the procedure. Her reconsideration seems a bit too easy, and lets the film avoid a frank confrontation with abortion as a real choice.

On the other hand, before she backs out, Juno finds the abortion clinic front desk staffed by an extremely pierced young woman whose apathy and attitude renders it common-place instead of controversial. The receptionist’s response to Juno’s appearance makes going for an abortion as mundane as picking up a packet of birth control pills. Juno chooses to deliver her baby not from some religiously inspired moral epiphany, but because she just can’t shake the image of those growing fingernails on the tadpole she carries.

Where other teen girl flicks set up obvious conflicts between the cool kids and the nerds, Juno forgoes the obvious to imagine high school life on a more level playing field, in which even the heterosexual gender tensions are more humor-filled than angst-ridden. Controlled by her hormones and teenage curiosity, Juno seduces her best friend Bleeker (Michael Cera), distracting him from running practice and track events. Neither kid is conventionally cool; Juno is wordy and ironic without being nihilist or superior, and Bleeker is inarticulate but sweet, masking his feelings with the armor of his color-coordinated, team-branded running shorts and sweat bands.

Loving her with a hang-dog, puppy-eyed sweetness and vulnerable innocence, he haplessly follows Juno’s lead and her advice, never questioning that her choice about the baby (or their relationship) are hers alone to make. Girls rule, but boys don’t drool here—they’re thoughtful, kind, and supportive (underlining, perhaps, the film’s fairy-tale effect).

Juno’s best friend, Leah (Olivia Thirlby), also thwarts teen-flick conventions. Leah is a cheerleader, but rather than hanging with jocks (who make virtually no appearance in Juno), Leah crushes out on her teachers (including a dowdy male English teacher). She’s Juno’s stalwart companion, by her side when Juno tells her parents she’s pregnant, and holding her hand through her ultra-sound and her delivery. Leah plays Pancho to Juno’s Quixote, admiring her plans, eager to help, along for the ride. Leah might be pretty and athletic and Juno might be artsy and intellectual, but in this film, their differences don’t prevent a fast friendship.

The yuppie couple Juno chooses to raise her child live in an anonymous, cookie-cutter subdivision dripping with wealth and privilege, which intimidates Juno and her heat-and-cooling-system-maintenance-man father not at all. They drive their outmoded royal blue van into the yuppie couple’s driveway and march to the door for their first meeting, in which Juno proceeds to set the terms of arrangement to the couple’s surprised and rattled lawyer.

The Lorings (Vanessa, played by a radiant and sad Jennifer Garner, and Mark, played by an ambivalent and sad Jason Bateman) worry that Juno will back out of the deal, an idea that never occurs to Juno (in another of the film’s refusals to follow traditional narrative tracks). Instead, their own tenuous bond breaks during Juno’s pregnancy, as Mark decides to follow his own dreams instead of supporting his wife’s romantic race toward her nesting destiny.

Juno could have resolved in a number of conservative ways, and could have painted the baby’s potential futures in several colors of moral judgment. Instead, the screenplay resists tradition and follows its complexly-drawn main character’s nuanced heart, arriving at the more progressive of possible endings without sacrificing the edgy, humor-tinged realism in which it trades.

Director Jason Reitman films Juno with the same wry comic touch that infuses the screenplay, selecting details in each scene that complement screenwriter Cody’s fusillade of smart words. Critics have unanimously remarked on Juno’s hamburger phone, with which she calls Leah and the abortion clinic. But the film is also littered with other visual comments and treats, like the pictures of beloved dogs that Juno’s step-mom cuts out of magazines; the ballerina outfit Juno’s step-sister “Liberty Belle” wears out of the house when the family rushes to the hospital after Juno’s water breaks; the complex piece of machinery on which her father works, spread out across the kitchen table; the dessert-named paint colors Vanessa experiments with on the walls of the baby’s nursery; the guitars and sound equipment that litter Mark’s room, his chaotic sanctuary from the ordered but empty, monied adult world his wife so meticulously creates; and even the gold- and rust-colored running outfits that adorn the long-distance boys running team, decorated with their “Dancing Elks” team name, all of which lend Juno its warmth and richly observed character.

For all Juno’s smart bravado, she’s ultimately still a teenager, a state of bliss (if not innocence) captured in the film’s last scene, when she flies out of her house onto her bicycle with a guitar strapped to her back to pedal off to visit her friend.

A movie like this gives me hope that popular culture can deliver more complicated stories about choice, about girls, and about the ethical ways we choose to live, without sacrificing humor and depth. Some critics call Juno post-feminist; I’d just call it feminist.

The Feminist Spectator