On Thanksgiving weekend, I’m thankful for my friend and colleague Joseph McBride: journalist, screenwriter, and film historian. Joe wrote the original script for Rock ‘n’ Roll High School, as well as classic biographies of such cinema greats as Frank Capra, John Ford, and Orson Welles. These days he’s a respected professor of cinema at San Francisco State University. I’m grateful to have swapped Roger Corman memories with Joe, and thankful for his many contributions to film study.
But Joe’s latest book has taught me I should be thankful indeed for not having an upbringing like his. His brand-new memoir, The Broken Places, makes me realize that although Joe and I have enjoyed similar careers, his pathway and mine have been nothing alike. I am fortunate to have grown up in a stable household, with loving parents and kindly teachers guiding my way forward. Joe’s mother and father loved him too, but his upbringing (as the eldest of seven kids in an Irish-Catholic brood) was marred by his parents’ alcoholism and vicious fights. He was educated in parochial schools, where some of his teachers were fools and others were closet sadists who used him as a scapegoat on whom to vent their anger at the world. His deep-seated need for high academic achievement was balanced by an obsession with sin that stunted his social and emotional growth. Then, at age seventeen, while urgently pulling every string that might get him into Harvard, Joe had a severe mental breakdown that left him institutionalized for many months.
All this is described in the memoir in harrowing detail. Somehow he pulled through. He credits his recuperation partly to mentors and family friends who stepped in to lend moral support. But the book’s central figure is a fellow mental patient: a young woman—as troubled as Joe himself—who upends Joe’s basic assumptions and teaches him what it means to love. Kathy Wolf, half-Native American, all-sexy, contains within her slender form a volatile blend of anger, tenderness, and desperation. She’s an astonishingly complex figure, one I can imagine seeing on a movie screen.
Every era tends to have its special movie about mental illness. I’m much too young for The Snake Pit and The Three Faces of Eve, but when I was growing up a little indie called David and Lisa (1962) seemed to speak volumes to my generation. This love story set in a mental ward struck us then as both exotic and disturbing, but Joe McBride’s true-life narrative has got it beat.
It’s fascinating to me how movies became another source of Joe’s salvation. Back when he was still suffering from severe sexual repression, he had sought an outlet in crudely erotic flicks like Russ Meyer’s Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! As he began to recover, he found encouragement in sumptuous films like My Fair Lady, which provided him with a romantic escape while also suggesting (through Eliza Doolittle’s evolution) the possibility of being transformed into a functioning social being. He reached an important personal milestone on the day that he, alone among all the congregants at a Sunday mass, refused to pledge support for the Catholic Church’s Legion of Decency. This powerful body condemned such popular movies as Baby Doll, Some Like It Hot, and Psycho, even objecting to Miracle on 34th Street, because it “reflects the acceptability of divorce” For Catholics, to defy the Legion's dictates was to commit a sin. By sitting with his arms folded while everyone else rose to take the pledge, Joe discovered in himself a passion that replaced religion with film as his true calling.
Happy Thanksgiving, Joe! And best wishes to all my readers as we head into the holiday season.