Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Jeanine Basinger Says “I Do”

 In late 2015, The Hollywood Reporter hosted a gathering of Hollywood insiders, all thirty-three of them former students and acolytes of Wesleyan cinema prof Jeanine Basinger. Such power figures as TV honcho Joss Whedon, action director Michael Bay, Oscar-winning screenwriter Akiva Goldsman, and  filmmaker Paul Weitz showed up promptly at the early-morning photo shoot, knowing full well that Professor Basinger would never tolerate late arrivals.

Basinger’s students benefit from her encyclopedic knowledge of film history. Actor Bradley Whitford has said, "Every time I'm in a meeting and it comes out that I went to Wesleyan, they ask the same question—how is it possible that so many successful people in Hollywood come out of such a tiny liberal arts school in Connecticut? The answer is Jeanine." And film critic A.O. Scott of the New York Times admits that "I took a job teaching at Wesleyan as an excuse to hang out and talk about movies with Jeanine. There's nothing she doesn't know."

Despite her busy teaching schedule, Basinger has found time to write nearly a dozen books, ranging from movie star biographies (Shirley Temple; Gene Kelly) to 1993’s A Woman's View: How Hollywood Spoke to Women 1930-1960. I just finished reading her most recent work: I Do and I Don't: A History of Marriage in the Movies (2013). Herself married for half a century, Basinger is understandably interested in how Hollywood movies portray an institution that some now feel is a thing of the past.

Basinger’s detailed account, which begins back in the silent era, makes the case that the film industry has traditionally been far less interested in the workings of a marriage than in getting its characters to the altar. At a time when sex outside of marriage was considered taboo, it was exciting to see how the leading characters overcame obstacles, prejudices, and misunderstandings in order to seal their relationship with a ring and a kiss. In Basinger’s own words, “Not being allowed to have sex created the essential frisson of the romantic comedy; the leading man and woman dying to make love, but unable to do so.”  Today, with most of us far more relaxed about sexuality, she’s convinced that what’s now called the “romcom” is struggling to find a modern equivalent for what kept the lovers apart in days of old.

As for movies that are about the marriage rather than the courtship, Basinger comes up with a number of nifty examples. I was particularly taken with her section on World War II, a time when husbands went off to war and lonely wives abounded. Male stars too enlisted in significant numbers, which meant that Hollywood’s ranks were full of talented women, both established celebrities and talented newcomers. It made total sense for Hollywood during the war years to cater to wives (many of them serving in the workforce) who longed for wholesome and uplifting entertainment. Movies like 1944’s Since You Went Away, starring an appealing Claudette Colbert along with the young Jennifer Jones and teenaged Shirley Temple, focused on the sacrifices made by women on the homefront, reminding them that they too were an integral part of the war effort.

In the post-war 1950s, marriage became the domain of television. Think I Love Lucy, Father Knows Best, and all those early sitcoms that moved between the living room and the kitchen. On the big screen, though, superheroes have long crowded out husbands and wives. And films showing marriage now generally play up its grimmer aspects. The lethal War of the Roses (1989) is an extreme example of what Basinger wryly calls today’s “nuclear marriage”films.

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