Movie depictions have a subliminal effect upon the way men and women interact in reality; the mainstream media both reflects and effects society’s expectations according to gender. As a jaded optimist who believes that bad things like sexism, racism, and inequality tend to take on different tones and rhetoric over time rather than disappearing, I can foresee a wave ahead in which a few more women make the creative decisions in Hollywood, leading to more female characters who do amazing and unexpected things. (Like Wonder Woman saving her leading man’s life.)
At the very least, I can imagine a period of enlightenment in which the men who make movies recognize that it’s bad for verisimilitude, box office, and possibly their own careers to have any woman character: 1) ask her male sidekick “what should we do now?” 2) fall in love with a man who points a gun at her, rapes her, or thinks he’s smarter than she is, or 3) jump into bed with someone she barely knows or doesn’t especially like just because the script wants her to be naked.
Then there might be a backlash. The path of art, presidential elections, and female movie characters has always zigzagged. Norma Shearer played a woman who liberated herself in The Divorcee (1930) and again in Strangers May Kiss (1931), and there were plenty of hilarious wise-cracking gals (Myrna Loy, Katherine Hepburn, Rosalind Russell, the early Ginger Rogers and Jean Harlow) around the same time Shearer played the role she’s best remembered for, the sappy cheated-on society wife in The Women (1939) who just wants her husband back.
So, I started thinking about setting some things right while the woman’s point of view has Hollywood’s eyes and ears.
There are so many beloved classics that live on, timeless in their overall view of humanity except for the parts that we might shrug off as products of their times--but please, let’s not. Someone should have known better. Was Gone with the Wind a product of 1930s racism? Of course, but just a few years before Margaret Mitchell wrote the novel that immortalized the South as it never actually was, Fannie Hurst wrote Imitation of Life, a novel that became 1930s Hollywood’s only remembered sensitive portrayal of racism, or at least the only one among “white” movies. And then Alice Randall’s 2001 novel The Wind Done Gone retold the story from the perspective of Cynara, who starts out as a slave at Tara and makes her way to Reconstruction era Washington D.C.
Why not give a Wind Done Gone retelling to other classics? Not an update, just a different point of view. If, say, you retold Woody Allen’s Manhattan as 17-year-old Tracy’s story, she’d see her shrink three days a week after school and finally realize that her father fixation is neither healthy nor legal. Then someday, when it’s 2018 and she’s a famous actress, she tells the New York Times about how Isaac (Woody Allen) pursued an affair with her when she was underage, and his career as a television writer is finished.
There are many more, but when I think of classics that live on in the Oscar pantheon and I wish I could love entirely, here are three others that are especially overdue for a Wind Done Gone-style retelling.
Casablanca (1942). I’ve never met a straight man who didn’t think this was the ultimate romantic movie. (“Here’s looking at you, kid.”) Perhaps that’s because there will never be anything so trivial as domestic bliss between Rick (Humphrey Bogart) and Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman); the real romance lies in Rick’s reluctant commitment to heroism itself. But why, why, why is Ilsa so muddleheaded over whether she wants Rick or her Resistance hero husband, Victor? She doesn’t know what's right anymore, she tells Rick. “You have to think for both of us." And he’s only too willing to treat her like a child with no mind of her own.
The retell: That Rick Blaine, thinks Ilsa. That charming gadabout she met in Paris, who was so eager to shut out the world and just have fun, with her and with some of the pretty boys who came to hear Sam play the piano at Rick’s club. Rick and his frolicsome threesomes cheered her up when she thought Victor was dead. And now, she and Victor have arrived in Casablanca, trying to keep one step ahead of the Nazis, and of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, they’ve walked into Rick’s.
Time has weighed him down, but he’s still got it. “Rick is a very handsome man. If I were a woman...” Captain Louis Renault, the corrupt Vichy prefect, tells Ilsa, with a gleam in his eye. But she must get down to business. She and Victor must find passage to Lisbon and then America if they’re to continue their work with the Resistance in some form. And word is out that Rick is in possession of two illicitly-gained sets of transit papers.
These are desperate times, so she asks Sam to play their old song, seduces Rick, then begs him for the letters of transit. She tells him she loves him but must stay with Victor because they are saving lives and “the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.”
Rick says I’ll give you the letters of transit if you’ll run off with me. What to do? Seems her only option is the Mata Hari card; she tells Rick she’ll run off with him. What she doesn’t know is that while she’s dallying with Rick that night, the German officer Major Strasser and his soldiers have arrested Victor. Nor does she witness Rick’s epiphany the next day, when he turns double-agent himself, pleading with Louis to release Victor and promising he can arrest him later on a more serious charge of stolen letters of transit--but then when they’re about to take off for the airport and Louis arrives to arrest Victor and Ilsa, Rick points a gun at Louis.
At the airport, Ilsa spots a car headed toward the tarmac -- the unmistakable car of Major Strasser. In a split second she has her own epiphany--and reveals that she has her own conveniently hidden gun, which she points at Louis. Make out the transit letters for Victor Laszlo and Rick Blaine, she tells him.
“What?!” her husband and lover both cry out.
“You’re in trouble now-- you double crossed the Germans,” Ilsa tells Rick, as the camera closes in on her misty tears and a tender look that says it all: she has seen that Rick is a hero underneath the suave bravado and fallen deeply for him. “You have important work to do, and if you don’t you'll regret it. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life.”
Major Strasser arrives and just as he’s about to stop the plane from taking off, Ilsa shoots him. “Round up the usual suspects,” Louis tells the police, after which he throws out a bottle of Vichy water in disgust, signifying his own epiphany. Then he tells Ilsa she should disappear from Casablanca for a while, and that he can arrange passage to the free French garrison in Brazzaville--for two.
“Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful platonic friendship,” Ilsa says as they walk off on the airstrip, the gray mist evoking the heartaches of a hero.
The Apartment (1960). With Billy Wilder’s crackling wit, the jazzy soundtrack, the noir-ish black-and-white, all juxtaposed against the timeless themes of exploitative organizational alpha men and the hollow tinsel cheer that Christmas inflicts upon the lonely, The Apartment still resonates. But enough with the all the wounded-bird roles Shirley MacLaine played in the late 1950s and early 1960s, with that little-girl glossy-lip tremble and that habit of loving men who didn’t think she was good enough to marry. (“Could I?” she exclaims with pathetic hope and excitement in the 1958 movie Some Came Running when Frank Sinatra does her the honor of asking her to clean up his house.)
In The Apartment she’s an elevator operator named Fran Kubelik at a mega-sized insurance company, in love with married executive Jeff Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray). Sadly, even today there are women like Miss Kubelik, as everyone calls her in the formal corporate world of the era. But she’s also a victim of the old-school man’s-eye view that women see other women as rivals and only a man can save a sorry little masochist.
The retell: Miss Kubelik has just started working at Consolidated Life, and she falls for Mr. Sheldrake’s come-on once, then another time, then again, because she’s lonely and feeling like a nobody. But as an elevator operator, she gets to know everyone. A few months into the job she starts talking to Miss Olson, Mr. Sheldrake’s secretary, who tells her, “Mr. Sheldrake used to tell his wife he was entertaining the branch manager from Seattle, then go out with me. Just before me there was Miss Rossi in auditing, and after me there was Miss Karch in disability, and right before you was, Miss, oh what’s her name, on the 26th floor...” Miss Olson speaks with concern, not malice. In the employee cafeteria, a dozen ex-Sheldrake mistresses take a coffee break together and laugh about how someone should spill the beans to the lying lecher’s wife.
Miss Kubelik turns down his next invitation, and the next and the next, but he doesn’t make it easy for her. He dangles promises of an opening in the secretarial pool against veiled threats of a bad performance review.
In the meantime, Miss Kubelik agrees to go out with that mensch CC Baxter, the newly-promoted second administrative assistant all the executives seem to know and call “Buddy Boy.” Mr. Sheldrake happens to get on the elevator alone that very afternoon, asks her out, and when she says “I’m busy” he prods her. Reluctantly she tells him she doesn’t want to see him anymore because she knows she’s one of many-- and lets it slip that Miss Olson got them all together, and they call themselves the X Sheldrake Club.
That evening, she and Mr. Baxter spend hours in a restaurant, just talking. They confess their mutual plunges into depression, and how each has notched up one suicide attempt. They talk about things they like; turns out they share a fondness for gin rummy. It’s getting late, and Mr. Baxter finally confesses that he can’t invite her to his apartment for a card game. In fact he can’t go home yet. They’re hitting it off so well that Mr. Baxter finds himself confessing more; a clique of executives, including Sheldrake, have a key to Baxter’s apartment on West 61st Street and take turns entertaining their paramours there, and that’s how he got promoted. In fact, Sheldrake is there tonight with some new fling.
She winces. Maybe out of her newly acquired wisdom, maybe because she is dangerously attracted to Mr. Sheldrake, maybe because she cares about Mr. Baxter, maybe all three, she lights into the affable CC Baxter and tells him the executives are stringing him along, and he’s a fool to trust Sheldrake or to imagine this is the way to get ahead. They argue, and go their separate ways, both fuming, with the background music suggesting a lot of long lonely nights ahead. The next day, Mr. Sheldrake fires Miss Olson for speaking out, so she takes the leap--she calls Mrs. Sheldrake, who throws her husband out.
A few days after Christmas, Miss Kubelik, doing her best to affect a pixie glimmer (matching her haircut) instead of that masochistic pout, finds Mr. Sheldrake cornering her again. This time he claims his marriage is truly over and won’t she please see him on New Year’s Eve. She lets herself imagine an easier life, as the new wife of the boss, and finally agrees.
So, it’s New Year’s Eve. They’re at a restaurant where everyone is wearing party hats and champagne is flowing. Mr. Sheldrake has gotten up to make a phone call, and as in the original movie, he comes back and tells her he’s rented a car and they’re driving to Atlantic City for the night, since the Manhattan hotels are all booked on New Year’s Eve.
She’s pensive, as if she’s beginning to wonder what she ever saw in this egotistic personnel director. He assumes she just doesn’t like Atlantic City. “I didn’t plan it this way. Actually, it’s all Baxter’s fault,” he says.
“He wouldn’t give me the key to the apartment. He just walked out on me, threw that big fat job in my face.”
She says, “I guess that’s the way it crumbles, cookie wise,” as in the original. Then, instead of bemoaning “I’d spell it out for you, only I can’t spell,” and childishly fingering her pearls, she gets a sudden rapturous look of resolution, and says, “I’m sorry but I have to go see a mensch.” As in the original, frantic music plays as she runs to Baxter’s apartment. She hears a pop that she fears is Mr. Baxter blowing his brains out, but it turns out he’s just opened a bottle of bubbly. The movie ends with champagne, a deck of cards, Baxter saying “I absolutely adore you,” and she replies, “shut up and deal.”
Young Frankenstein (1974). No one ever accused director Mel Brooks of being a feminist, but he’s allowed a little slippage in return for a million laughs and for having been married to the incandescent Anne Bancroft. Except really Mel, and Gene Wilder, who wrote the script, there are no excuses for that scene in which the monster carries off Frederick Frankenstein’s fiancée Elizabeth (Madeleine Kahn) and rapes her--causing her to sing “Oh, sweet mystery of life at last I found you...” and then declare, “I think I love him!” Enormous schwanzstücker or not, it’s rape.
The retell: Poor monster. From the start Elizabeth catches him gazing at her like a longing puppy. Sure, he has a mating instinct and no social graces, but something has taken hold in his abnormal brain--an adolescent shyness. He grunts one of the handful of words he’s learned, “friend,” but he knows it isn’t enough to express what he’s feeling. So then Dr. Frankenstein transmits his brain power to the monster’s --and suddenly the creation can speak with erudition. We see him approach Elizabeth with a bouquet of roses. She sneezes and the petals fly all over. “I’m allergic to roses!” she says with annoyance.
“Shall I compare thee to a summer's day? Thou art more lovely and more temperate,” the monster recites.
“I prefer Christopher Marlowe,” she says.
They can’t agree on anything and the sparks fly, right up to their wedding night. Because what women do find sexy is equitable banter -- no put-downs, no mansplaining, just verbal fireworks. Like Myrna Loy and William Powell in The Thin Man series, or Hepburn and Tracy, or Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant in His Girl Friday. Though while we’re at it let’s re-do that awful title.
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