Tuesday, March 9, 2021

Mother Knows Best?: “Now, Voyager” and “Miss Juneteenth”

 In Now, Voyager, Bette Davis is displayed like a rare jewel. Dressed in sleek Orry-Kelly suits, fabulous face-framing hats, and shimmering evening gowns, she radiates sophisticated charm. But when we first meet her in this classic 1942 melodrama, she’s a dowdy spinster, wearing a drab housedress, thick glasses and a frightened look. She’s in this frumpy state because she’s in thrall to her dowager mother, a ferocious old tyrant played by Gladys Cooper. Mrs. Henry Vale, of the Boston Vales, is a wealthy, imperious snob, one who takes pride in the family’s lineage and feels there are few outsiders who can equal it. Daughter Charlotte (Davis’s character) is her late-in-life child, cursed with the obligation to be her mother’s companion and caregiver. For her efforts, she is constantly belittled, made to feel she’ll never measure up to the standards that previous Vales have set.

 Thankfully, a kindly psychiatrist sympathetic to Charlotte’s plight helps spring her from this house of horrors and convinces her of her own worth. She cultivates a sense of style and, on a “recuperative” South American cruise, discovers she’s capable of loving and being loved. Eventually, though, she must return to her mother’s house, where Mama expects her to fit back in to her old life. (There’s a bit of a twist at the ending, but let’s not spoil things.)

 I thought of Now, Voyager after having watched the 2020 Sundance hit, Miss Juneteenth. At first glance, the two flicks couldn’t be more different. Though Now, Voyager is set among Boston Brahmins, Miss Juneteenth takes place in a suburb of Fort Worth, Texas, where young African American girls vie to win the title of Miss Juneteenth, an honor that comes with a college scholarship and a full load of expectations. Turquoise Jones won the pageant in 2004, on the strength of her natural beauty, her smarts, and a dramatic reading of Maya Angelou’s poem, “Phenomenal Women.” Now she wants her daughter, 15-year-old Kai, to follow in her footsteps, even to the extent of reciting the very same inspirational poem. Kai, needless to say, is not exactly enthused. Both films, then, depict mothers pressuring their daughters to live up to their expectations, and to accept maternal standards as their own.

 Big difference, though: Miss Juneteenth is far less about a daughter’s muted rebellion than about why Mama is so desperate to lay down the law. Yes, Turquoise won that competition in 2004, but she has not gone on to the worldly success that the judges had predicted for her. Her future was derailed by love, and by an early-arriving baby. No, as a single parent, she works two jobs, as the manager of a local bar and as the cosmetician making up stiffs at the local black mortuary, so that her daughter can have a bright future of her own. Given her thwarted expectations, it’s no surprise that Turquoise dreams of better for Kai. Her determination that her little girl succeed at all cost, though, threatens to derail what has always been a close mother/daughter bond.

 In the Disney Princess version of this story, Kai would certainly be crowned Miss Juneteenth. (The title refers to the historic day -- June 19, 1865 – when news of Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation finally reached the state of Texas.) In this appealing indie, Kai makes her mother proud while essentially striking out on her own. But the movie belongs to Turquoise who, in its final moments, is finally on track to finding her own adult success. She’s not exactly the glamorous Bette Davis, but she too is reaching for the stars.



No comments:

Post a Comment