Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Molly Haskell, Wonder Woman at the Movies

To my mind, Molly Haskell is a feminist icon. Haskell—author, teacher, film critic—is also a gracious individual, and I’ve enjoyed chatting with her over the years about movies and life. (Yes, she wrote a fabulous blurb for my Seduced by Mrs. Robinson: How The Graduate Became the Touchstone of a Generation.) Haskell has published books about everything from Gone With the Wind to the career of Steven Spielberg to her brother’s late-in-life transformation into her sister. But her best-known book is still her first. From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies. First published in 1974, it was updated in 1987, and then reissued in a beautiful paperback edition in 2016.

Haskell’s thesis, presented in lively prose, is that female characters—who were once at the very center of Hollywood screen scenarios—have been increasingly marginalized. Whereas there  used to be heroines of stature, more recent films have regarded women as villains or victims, or else basically non-existent. Haskell’s study ends in the eighties, but has much to say to today’s moviegoers. A Wonder Woman or an Ocean’s Eight notwithstanding, just think of all those Hollywood hits that are essentially all male, with a few bimbos and wives-back-home added as set decoration.

Haskell is uniquely sensitive to the part played by movie stars in Golden Age Hollywood. She regards stars like Garbo, Bette Davis, and Katharine Hepburn as auteurs in their own right, casting their larger-than-life shadows over all of their roles. She also finds a particular fascination in the so-called Woman’s Film, the once hugely-popular genre in which a female star faces (and often triumphs by way of) heartache. Her book contains so many provocative thoughts that it’s hard to corral even a few of them, but here, as she discusses the Woman’s  Film, is her take on child-bearing and child-rearing: “Children are an obsession in American movies—sacrifice of and for children, the use of children as justification for all manner of sacrifice—in marked contrast to European films about love and romantic intrigue, where children rarely appear at all and are almost never the instruments of judgment they are in American films.”

Such Haskell pronouncements led me to compare two classic films about mother love, Stella Dallas (1937) and Mildred Pierce (1941). Both contain powerful central performances by genuine Hollywood stars: Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Crawford. Crawford, as Mildred, claws her way up the food chain in order to provide all the finer things for her social-climbing daughter, Veda. Ultimately, after years of being rebuffed by the ungrateful Veda, Mildred finds herself trying to save her daughter from a murder rap. In Stella Dallas, Stanwyck plays a high-spirited young woman from the wrong side of the tracks. We see her woo and win a man who’s her social better, and their marriage—doomed from the start—produces a charming young daughter named Laurel. Stella works hard to give Laurel every social advantage, but mother and daughter are snubbed by Laurel’s prissy schoolmates and their parents. Finally, in the name of mother-love, Stella pretends to reject Laurel, turning her over to her father for a more genteel upbringing. The final scene shows Stanwyck standing in the rain, spying through the window of a mansion on her daughter’s fairytale society wedding. 

Molly once told me that “you find what you need in movies.” Her affection for Doris Day in films like Lover Come Back stems from her own youthful desire to move to New York (from her home in Richmond, Virginia) and become a working woman. At that she has succeeded magnificently.

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