Thursday, July 27, 2023

Parsing Passion in “The French Lieutenant’s Woman”

As an English major working on my doctorate in contemporary fiction, I was not impressed by the work of British novelist John Fowles. My profs and classmates struggled to convince me of the literary daring of Fowles’ 1969 novel, The French Lieutenant’s Woman¸ seeing it as boldly venturing into post-modernism by taking a Victorian-style narrative and then figuratively wringing its neck.  The novel’s passionately romantic story line is constantly interrupted by an intrusive narrator, who then provides not one but two very different (though equally plausible) endings. The question: how would a motion picture handle this tricky balance between past and present, between Victorian stylistics and the more skeptical approach of the 20th century?

 Until now, I had stayed clear of the film, even though it was well received, earning 5 Academy Awards nominations as well as some Golden Globe and BAFTA awards. Predictably, a lot of the attention went to leading lady Meryl Streep. By 1981, when The French Lieutenant’s Woman was released in theatres, Streep had already won an Supporting Actress Oscar for Kramer vs. Kramer. And she would be named Best Actress in the following year, for Sophie’s Choice. Even though the production of The French Lieutenant’s Woman was otherwise British all the way, Streep’s ear for accents coupled with her unrivaled dramatic powers made her a strong choice for a character who essentially throws away her life to satisfy her passions, that being a far cry from the moral codes of Victorian England. Her motivations throughout the film remain mysterious, in contrast to the young scientist (Jeremy Irons) willing to throw everything away for love of her.

 And how did director Karel Reisz and his team handle Fowles’ literary gamesmanship? Reisz, whose short but intense British filmography includes Sixties gems Morgan and Isadora, worked closely on this project with one of England’s most formidable playwrights, Harold Pinter. This future Nobel laureate—whose own stage work is known for its stripped-down dialogue and ambiguous sense of menace—also wrote a long string of screenplays, many but not all of them adapting his own plays. Pinter chose to adapt Fowles’ novel by adding to its story an element that is specifically post-modern. To be clear, he adds to the original plotting a second key relationship that took me totally by surprise.

 I didn’t realize this when I sat down to watch the film. I just knew that there was Streep, in the black cloak and hood of the enigmatic Sarah, brooding high above the swirling seas of Lyme Regis. And suddenly there was a 20th century crew member checking Streep’s makeup, and letting the actress examine it for herself in a very contemporary-looking mirror. Films don’t usually commence with a reminder that they are full of fakery, so I waited impatiently to see how this modern touch paid off. And suddenly, a few scenes later, Jeremy Irons’ character rolled over in bed and picked up what looked to be the receiver of a 1980s telephone. Say what? 

As I was soon to discover, this screen version of Fowles’ novel contains two parallel stories, that of a Victorian man and woman drawn together by mysterious emotional forces and that of an actor and actress on location, playing these roles for the camera while negotiating their own tangled love affair. Since the two performers are not themselves Victorian, they have fewer social boundaries to negotiate. So they can easily succumb to sexual temptation (something that often prevails on a movie set). But this hardly stops them from butting up against complications that challenge  their 20th century “post-modern” affair.


Tuesday, July 25, 2023

Spoiler Alert: Seeing The Last of Mrs. Maisel

Well, Midge Maisel has gone to her reward, which seems to involve lounging on a couch in a mansion, watching Jeopardy with still-buddy Susie. It’s not the ending I would have chosen for the final season of this memorable sitcom. But wrap-ups are hard. All the emotion we’ve put into watching the evolution of the often fractious Maisel/Weissman clan  over five years of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is supposed to pay off in the final episodes. But for me, the fifth season turned out to be a hodgepodge of scrambled stories, skipping back and forth through time in an effort to sum up everyone’s situation. I would have been content to see Midge—the affluent late  Fifties housewife who was dumped by her Nice Jewish Boy husband, only to discover her natural gift for stand-up comedy—go out either a winner or a loser. But the writers seemed to want to have it both ways. Midge scores the TV gig that makes everyone, both family and the viewing public, adore her.  Hooray! But then we have to endure the painful disintegration of her friend, Lenny Bruce, and several additional mordant moments  before that couch scene (featuring Susie in a mop of a grey wig and a caftan) with its final fadeout.

 The fifth season has been like that from start to finish. Several episodes begin, at first bafflingly, with flash-forwards to Midge’s now-adult children. I liked the possibilities of a full-grown Ethan picking vegetables and studying rabbinics on an Israeli kibbutz, though Midge suddenly landing in a helicopter to check out him and his cranky Sabra bride seems a pretty lame joke. As for daughter Esther, previously seen only as tiny child, it took me a while to figure out that SHE had grown up to be the brilliant young scientist discussing family with her shrink in this season’s opening episode. There is also a wacky suggestion that Midge is at one point about to marry novelist Philip Roth in a lavish Hawaiian ceremony. This brief plot strand—enlivened by parents Rose and Abe’s predictable hysteria—quickly disappears both from the series and from the characters’ psyches, as do some of the key relationships from previous seasons. Case in point: ex-husband Joel’s feisty Chinese-American spouse-to-be, along with their impending child. (Actress Stephanie Hsu who played Mei Lin,  has done very well for herself lately, nabbing an Oscar nomination for Everything Everywhere All at Once. So perhaps she had to be surgically removed from Joel’s and the viewer’s mind.)

 Why was I a fan of this series? Perhaps because it was such a funny and familiar take on ethnic tribalism, along with an acknowledgment of what young women faced in the Mad Men era Two of my favorite characters were Midge’s parents, played by Marin Hinkle and the invaluable Tony Shalhoub. Their obsessions with style (her) and intellectualism (him) always rang true, and their relationship with one another had the hilarious push-and-pull of many a marriage. Their firm grasp of their Jewish social and religious values were, to me at least, funny but never insulting. My very favorite season was the one in which the whole family group decamps to a legendary resort in the Catskills (read: Grossinger’s). Later, when the resort’s beloved social director opens a play on Broadway, Abe is put in the terrible position having to review this stinker for the Village Voice. Quickly he pays the price, as an entire congregation of his peers audibly shames him during High Holiday services for betraying one of their own. It’s uproariously funny, and it sure feels real.


Friday, July 21, 2023

Not Hedley but HEDY Lamarr: Screen Siren and Science Whiz

French poster for "Ecstasy"
 Hedy Lamarr? I’ve never seen Ecstasy, the 1933 Czech film (with certain similarities to Lady Chatterley’s Lover) in which she swam naked and allowed her face to suggest the joys of an orgasmic encounter. The film of course met resistance in many nations, including the U.S., where it was denied the seal of the all-important Hays office. That’s why its American release was limited to a few independent art houses.

 Back then Lamarr was still billed as Hedy Kiesler, the name with which she was born in 1914 Vienna. The only child of Jewish parents (though her mother apparently adopted Christianity early on), she quickly showed she had brains as well as beauty. Her father, who adored her, enjoyed talking to young Hedy about technology. But once she developed a passion for acting, she devoted her energies to advancing her stage and screen career. At 18, while playing the youthful Empress Elisabeth in a highly regarded Vienna theatre production, she attracted scores of admirers. One was 33-year-old Friedrich Mandl, a hugely wealthy munitions manufacturer with close ties to Mussolini                                                                        and later to Hitler.

Why exactly did she marry this domineering man, who made her give up her acting career in order to play the part of a dutiful wife? A 2019 historical novel, Marie Benedict’s The Only Woman in the Room, claims her father encouraged her in the marriage, as a way of potentially saving herself and her family from a rising tide of anti-Semitism. I have no faith in Benedict as an in-depth researcher, but she also posits that much of Lamarr’s later life in Hollywood was marked by her guilt over the fact that she was aware of, but had no way to stop, Hitler’s murderous plot against Europe’s Jews.

 But the marriage itself soon turned dangerous, with Hedy being treated by her spouse as a prisoner in her own home (by which I mean a castle or two).  She escaped to England, where she quickly cozied up to Louis B. Mayer, who was abroad looking for new talent. It was he and his MGM colleagues who gave her a new last name, promoted her as the “world’s most beautiful woman,” and starred her in exotic vehicles like 1938’s Algiers with Charles Boyer. The role of an exotic seductress became her specialty, in films such as White Cargo (1942) and Samson and Delilah (1949).

 The most unlikely aspect of Lamarr’s biography is the fact that, at the height of World War II, she joined with avant-garde composer George Antheil to support the anti-Nazi cause by developing a radio guidance system for Allied torpedoes. Her invention, which was patented but never accepted by the U.S. military, “used spread spectrum and frequency-hopping technology to defeat the threat of jamming by the Axis powers.  (I’m quoting here from the evcr-useful Wikipedia, but I have no idea what I’m saying.)  Apparently their discovery has now contributed hugely to the rise of cellphones, so I’m not sure if we should be grateful or not.

 Meanwhile, as an American movie star of the Golden Age, Lamarr accepted the fact that her main function was to be beautiful. Though her invention didn’t help win the war, she sold a whole lot of war bonds by guaranteeing to kiss young soldiers if enough money was raised on the spot. But personal happiness remained elusive.  After six failed marriages, she lived most of her later life in seclusion. One oddity: her 1976 lawsuit claiming that the comic use of the name Hedley Lamarr for Harvey Korman’s character in Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles violated her right of privacy.