Friday, July 24, 2020

Rising While Seated: The Surprising Career of Nell Blaine

It’s an old Hollywood cliché: someone is felled by a tragic illness or accident, but still rises (literally or figuratively) to have a satisfying life. I’m thinking of such schmaltzy films as 1959’s semi-biographical The Five Pennies, in which the little daughter of bandleader Red Nichols (Danny Kaye). contracts polio and loses the use of her legs. Her disability throws her dad into such despair that he throws his beloved trumpet into San Francisco Bay. Years later she persuades him to resume making music, and at last he’s rewarded by seeing her discard her cane to dance with him. Something similar happens in Disney’s 1960 Pollyanna. In this screen adaptation of a popular 1913 novel, a hyper-cheerful youngster (Hayley Mills) loses her spunk when her legs are paralyzed in an accident. Happily, she’s helped by loving neighbors to regain her high spirits in time for an operation that will restore her to good health.

In a more realistic vein are several war-related films showing disabled veterans who—though permanently affected by injuries—still find room in their lives for emotional satisfaction. In Coming Home (1978), the soldier played by Oscar-winner Jon Voigt returns from Vietnam a paraplegic, but his bitterness dissipates when he embarks on a passionate affair with a VA hospital volunteer played by Jane Fonda. Born on the Fourth of July, the 1989 film based on Ron Kovic’s autobiography, shows how a Marine sergeant who has returned from Vietnam in a wheelchair finds new purpose in his life through active support of the anti-war movement. In Forrest Gump (1994), Lt. Dan (played by Gary Sinise) recoils from his “cripple” status after losing both legs in a Vietnam ambush, but is helped by Forrest to recover his will to live. By the end of the film, he’s found both wealth and love.

Then there are the multiple versions of Love Affair (also known in its 1957 Cary Grant/Deborah Kerr iteration as An Affair to Remember). Charles Boyer and Irene Dunne had starred in the 1932 Love Affair, which was remade with Annette Bening and Warren Beatty in 1994. All three films showcase a shipboard romance between a man and a woman who have other romantic commitments awaiting them on shore. They vow to reunite months later at the top of the Empire State Building if their love has a chance to move forward, but the woman—seriously injured in a traffic accident—fails to keep the rendezvous. It’s only by happenstance that the man discovers what has kept his beloved from his side. Of course, though she can no longer walk, there’s a happy romantic fadeout.

All of which adds perspective to Alive Still, my colleague Cathy Curtis’s well-wrought new  biography of 20th century American painter Nell Blaine (1922-1996). In 1959, Blaine, already a rising American artist, saved up to take a dream trip to the island of Mykonos. The Greek landscape and dazzling light enthralled her, but it was there she contracted polio. After surviving a long stint in an iron lung, she recovered enough to resume painting. Alas, her right arm no longer had its prior strength. Nothing daunted, she trained herself to paint left-handed when she worked with oils. For watercolors, she could rely on her right hand, but only by using her left hand for support. Curtis’s book makes clear how very difficult it is to navigate daily New York life from a wheelchair. Staircases? Taxis? Small apartments with tiny bathrooms? But, steadily resisting the urge to ask for public sympathy, Blaine rose to greater artistic heights than ever before. Brava, truly!

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