After a fairly routine, and understandably dated, forty minutes this film gets into its stride as a portrayal of middle class prejudice and the damage it can do to people’s lives. Rarely have I seen a more convincing rendition of the destruction of lives through unsubstantiated gossip that is fed by prejudice, in this case, homophobia. It’s success is built on Lillian Hellman’s 1934 play( previously filmed by this film’s director William Wyler); Wyler’s brilliant direction; the fabulous performances of all the protagonists.
It must have been brave of Hollywood stars Garner, Hepburn and MacLaine to appear in such a controversial ‘social problem’ picture. Although the word ‘lesbian’ is not used, which may have been to avoid Production Code censure, the film is open in its portrayal of MacLaine’s Martha as homosexual. Her own turmoil in being unable to acknowledge her sexuality, to others and herself, due to the mores of the time, is painfully shown.
I mentioned the film was dated, this referred to the film’s pacing, and milieux: slow by contemporary standards; an upper middle class milieux not often the subject of films now. However I don’t think the film’s message is at all dated, even if we might (smugly) feel we are less prejudiced these days; John Browne and David Laws would probably disagree. The destruction of the the lives of all the characters, accuser and accused, is brilliantly demonstrated particularly when a character realises her error; the mesh veil she wears is lit so as to make her face appear to be at least 100 years old – a coup de theatre by Wyler and his cinematographer, Franz Planer.
Wyler’s direction is also dated in that he favours deep focus at moments of high drama; contemporary cinema tends to use long lenses that flattens the mise en scene and reduces the possibility of expressiveness. This style is perfect for melodrama as all the protagonists can be incorporated in the frame (as celebrated by Andre Bazin) whether in the fore or background (see above), and so allow the audience time to absorb the drama rather than having to reorientate themselves after the edit. Wyler was responsible for some great melodramas during Hollywood’s ‘classical’ period including The Letter (1940) and another Lillian Hellman play The Little Foxes (1941); none of these are available on DVD in UK!
I’m going to teach this film with A Single Man; the comparisons should be fascinating. Although the films are thematically different, the recent film focuses on grief not prejudice, it will be interesting to consider their respective portrayals of homosexuality.
Bechdel test: Pass! (2 fail/1 pass)