Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The first "Final Girl"

Film Scholar Carol Clover first coined the term "final girl" while writing in her seminal work Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film.  The term has come to define the last woman alive to confront the killer or monster in horror films.  While the term primarily refers to heroines in slasher horror films since the late 1970s, I would make the case that the very first "final girl" appeared at least three decades earlier with the character of female news photographer Billie Mason (Louise Currie) in the 1943 Monogram poverty row horror "The Ape Man," starring Bela Lugosi in the title role.  In the movie, Lugosi plays a mad scientist whose experiments have rendered him into a half-human/half-ape creature.  In an attempt to find a cure and return himself to full human form, he commits a series of murders to obtain freshly drawn human spinal fluid.  His activities arouse the attention of newspaper reporter Jeff Carter (Wallace Ford), and his female photographer sidekick Billie Mason (Ms. Currie).

In the finale of "The Ape Man," Lugosi has kidnapped Billie Mason and taken her to his basement laboratory to draw spinal fluid from her.  When she comes to, and realizes the danger she is in, she looks for a way to escape and grabs a nearby circus bullwhip to fend off Lugosi's murderous advances.  You can see a clip from that finale here.  When Lugosi struggles and fights with Billie Mason to get the bullwhip away from her, she stumbles backwards and accidentally releases the angry captive gorilla who causes Lugosi's death.  (We wouldn't see another horror heroine taking proactive measures to defend herself until Gretchen Wells's feisty coed in Herschell Gordon Lewis's "The Gruesome Twosome" nearly a quarter of a century later!)  By taking a more active role than the average 1940s horror heroine, Louise Currie's Billie Mason represented a small, yet significant, advance forward in depicting female assertiveness and determination in horror films.  In the average horror film up to that point, the heroine usually stands by helplessly awaiting rescue, or faints out of fright, until she comes to later after the danger has passed.  In "The Ape Man," the Billie Mason is allowed to take matters into her own hands in order to ensure her survival in the film.  When she holds off Lugosi's Ape Man monster by cracking the bullwhip, Louise Currie foreshadows Jamie Lee Curtis in "Halloween" and all of her other horror vehicles, Amy Steel in "Friday the 13th, Part 2," Sigourney Weaver's Ripley character in the "Alien" films, and Neve Campbell and Courtney Cox in the "Scream" series, making her their spiritual big sister.  Her feisty quality reflected how WWII-era American women found themselves having to resolve issues on their own while men were away fighting the war overseas. Film audiences, by that point, might have been more willing to accept assertive females in horror films as they were witnessing women around them taking on new roles by assuming factory jobs and serving in the military. 

With her character's masculine first name, sophisticated and witty manner (she and Wallace Ford spar delightfully throughout the movie), photographic talent (which reflected a technical and creative thought-process), and deep speaking voice, the underrated Louise Currie set a refreshing contrast to the milquetoast, frail-voiced starlets who usually top-lined poverty row horrors.  Currie was a Max Reinhardt acting-protege who balanced lead roles in Republic serials and Monogram horror films with bit parts in films for major studios, including a notable one as a reporter in the finale of Orson Welles's "Citizen Kane" (1941).  Currie and Lugosi worked together for the first time in the RKO mystery comedy "You'll Find Out" (1940) and re-teamed at Monogram a year after "The Ape Man" in the horror vehicle "Voodoo Man."  In "Voodoo Man," Currie again depicted an unusual quality for 1940s horror heroines as her character reacts to being kidnapped by Lugosi, John Carradine and George Zucco with an atypically calm directness and intelligence that remains fresh and impressive almost 70 years later.  When her character is freed at the end of "Voodoo Man" from a lifetime of being held captive in a catatonic state, Currie reacts to her rescue with an appealingly flippant attitude.  Nothing, not even Ape or Voodoo men, could faze her for long.  She deserved better out of her career, but distinguished herself by bringing a level of class into films and serials that rarely received it.  At the very least, Louise Currie, as Billie Mason in "The Ape Man," deserves greater recognition for her modest, but important, contribution in helping to advance the depiction of women in the history of horror films.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Why all the hate for the Julian Fellowes "Titanic"?

I was riveted this weekend with the 4-part miniseries "Titanic" that aired on ABC.  I approached it with skepticism due to lukewarm reviews and news that ratings for the miniseries in the UK (where most of it had already aired in the past few weeks) had declined continuously after the first episode.  I thought I was only going to be mildly interested, but within minutes I was sucked into the drama!  I have been surprised at the chilly-to-downright-hostile reaction this miniseries has received from the public.  It's an intelligently written and acted drama that ranks well with the classic network-TV miniseries of the 1970s and 1980s, truly a lost art form.  I enjoyed how Fellowes plays with our expectations of retelling the story by laying out familiar elements, and then turns everything upside down by taking us down a completely different path!  In what could be considered the disaster-version of the underrated TV drama "Boomtown," each episode of "Titanic" takes us back to the beginning of the story before the ship even sets sail, and focuses on an entirely new set of characters, who we had only glimpsed earlier, and tells the story from their perspective.  Scenes we had witnessed earlier are replayed, but from a different perspective with a new nuance and meaning to be discerned from it.  The net effect allows us to realize that none of the characters in the background are just "extras," because their stories will come to the forefront later.

The opening segment focuses much of its attention on the Earl and Lady of Manton (Linus Roache and the unsympathetic Geraldine Somerville--a chilly actress who exudes as much sex appeal as you would expect from someone with that name) and their annoying daughter, Lady Georgiana (Perdita Weeks).  I started off thinking that Lady Georgiana would end up being the centerpiece of the whole miniseries, as her character was vaguely reminiscent of Kate Winslet's Rose in the famous James Cameron telling of this story.  But, by the second episode, the story of the Manton's retreated into the background and we found ourselves enmeshed in the other, more interesting passengers aboard the ship.  I was much more taken with the unrealized love between the Manton's servants Barnes (Lee Ross) and Mabel Watson (Lyndsey Marshal).  The subplot where Barnes attempts to redeem himself after he has ruined Mabel's copy of "Aesop's Fables" (after he snatched it from her teasingly) takes on surprising levels of depth and feeling later on.  I have never seen Ross or Marshal before, but they commanded the screen with great confidence and feeling and I look forward to following their careers in the future.

But best of all is Jenna-Louise Coleman's radiant performance as second-class stewardess Annie Desmond.  In later episodes, Annie's character comes into greater prominence and eclipse's Lady Georgiana to become the miniseries's actual romantic heroine.  Unlike Lady Georgiana's fake progressive activism (we first encounter her in jail after she has been arrested for protesting for suffrage rights in the UK), Coleman's Annie Desmond truly represents the future of English womanhood.  With her cockney accent, warmth, intelligence, heart, courage, and can-do attitude, she represents the sort of young woman who will likely rise to the occasion and volunteer for leadership roles as the 20th Century progresses and her nation faces two impending world wars in the decades to come.  Her intelligence, wit, and sensitivity is reminiscent of the servant maids played by Kelly Macdonald and Emily Watson in the Fellowes-scripted "Gosford Park" (2001), not coincidentally my favorite characters from that film.  Coleman is a real find--when she appeared on-screen I said to myself "Ah, a star is born!"--and I rooted for her character to survive.

Coleman isn't alone in the miniseries--Fellowes allows many of his female characters moments to shine.  He doesn't just put all his eggs in one basket the way James Cameron did with Kate Winslet in his Titanic movie.  Silent film star Dorothy Gibson (Sophie Winkleman) and Benjamin Guggenheim's French mistress Madame Aubart (Josephine de la Baume) are depicted as feisty women who had the courage to thumb their noses at the British class system on board that seeks to put them in their place.  Aubart even gets my favorite line in the whole miniseries.  After she has been insulted by the shallow Lady Manton (the one irredeemable woman in the story), Aubart dismisses the slight by wryly commenting, "No one is more morally indignant than a beauty on the wrong side of 40."  I particularly liked the sequence, after the ship has gone down, where Molly Brown and other women aboard the lifeboat stage a mini-mutiny by disobeying the the cowardly seaman who refuses to go back to look for survivors.  Fellowes at least plays fair with Molly Brown, who lives up to her feisty reputation in this version of the story, not the toothless counterpart that Cameron depicted in his film who lets herself gets shouted down by others on the lifeboat when she insists on going back for survivors.  Fellowes generally shares the courage equally among his women, rather than limiting it to just one woman as in the Cameron version.  That in itself gives this version of the "Titanic" tragedy enough of an edge to distinguish itself from the many interpretations of this story.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

My Ode to Miss Ellie

Thirty-four years ago this week, on April 2, 1978, "Dallas" premiered on CBS.  It told the story of the wealthy Ewing family, led by patriarchal oil baron Jock Ewing (Jim Davis), and his sons Bobby (Patrick Duffy) and JR (Larry Hagman), and of the Ewing’s on-going feud with the poor Barnes clan, led by drunken Digger Barnes (David Wayne and, later, Keenan Wynn) and how that feud escalates to epic proportions when Bobby marries Digger’s beautiful daughter Pamela (Victoria Principal).  The public and the media nowadays narrowly view "Dallas" as a show about 1980s opulence and excess and know it only for its memorable “Who Shot JR?” cliffhanger at the end of its second season in March 1980. 

But its true fans know that it is much more than that.  They stayed with the show even after its eighth season (1985-86) turned out to be a dream; recognize that Morgan Brittany (and not Morgan Fairchild) was the Morgan who had a regular role on the series as Pamela’s scheming half-sister Katherine Wentworth; and remember that actors other than Ted Shackelford, Mary Crosby, and Priscilla Presley originated the roles of Gary, Kristin, and Jenna.  They also know that, at its heart, "Dallas" was really a family drama about a clan whose existence and way of life was dictated by a larger-than-life father, who set stringent standards for his sons to become competitive, ruthless oilmen with guts that results in decades of turmoil and misery as his children (and their wives and extended relatives) almost destroy one another in an attempt to live up to those expectations.  The psychological and emotional pathos of how the Ewing's unhappiness stems from their inability to recognize the impossibility of completely reaching that goal gives “Dallas” a subtext that belies ordinary expectations and interpretations of the series.  Even the Barnes clan is not immune from this: Digger’s desperate son Cliff Barnes (Ken Kercheval) spends the entire series in an increasingly futile effort to compete with, and defeat, the Ewings--JR in particular--in order to redeem his father's name.  Sue Ellen (Linda Gray) also acknowledges at one point that her mother groomed her and her sister Kristin to believe their only purpose in life was to marry rich husbands someday, which ultimately proved to be the root of her unhappiness.  In short, "Dallas" is about parents who expect too much from their children, and the devastating effects on them. 

It is for these reasons that “Dallas” still has enough resonance in 2012 that TNT will debut a revival series, bringing the saga of the Ewings up to current times, later this summer.  Whether the new series lives up to expectations set by the original, not unlike the standards Jock set for his family, remains to be seen.  Nevertheless, as long as the new series recognizes the theme of people attempting to define what it truly means to be an Ewing, it may have a fighting chance to make an impression of its own.  There is a reason why “Dallas” (despite its ups and downs through the years) remains part of the popular consciousness, while its competitor prime time soaps of the 1980s (such as “Dynasty,” “Knots Landing,” “Falcon Crest,” and “Flamingo Road”) have not been revived.

What also truly sets "Dallas" apart from other shows in its genre was Barbara Bel Geddes's beautifully subtle and touching performance as Ewing family matriarch Miss Ellie.  Miss Ellie defied typical feminist expectations of powerful women because she was a socialite and homemaker who didn't wield her influence and authority with an attache case.  She contradicted other television images of women set in the 1970s (when the series premiered) in that she did not pursue a professional career.  And, yet, few characters on "Dallas" projected such authority and strength as Miss Ellie.  As Julie Grey (Tina Louise) tells Miss Ellie in a 1979 episode, "You're Ellie Ewing.  You don't need a man to give you power."  Ironically, "Dallas" creator David Jacobs has said that he intended Miss Ellie to be more of a powerful, professional Southern woman, describing his original intention that she be an Ann Richards-type character.  He felt Miss Ellie, as played by Bel Geddes, turned out boring in his opinion.  Jacobs proves, with his short-sighted assessment, that series creators are sometimes the last people to fully understand what made their brainchild work.  (This statement on the interpretation of Miss Ellie is not surprising considering that Jacobs, IMHO, has always appeared in interviews to be disappointed that "Dallas," a show that he had less influence on after its first season, was always more successful, and continues to have more of a widespread cultural impact, than his other successful series "Knots Landing," which he had greater influence on and has said felt reflected his values better than "Dallas."  I liked "Knots Landing" very much, but I find it ludicrous for Jacobs and its cast to practice reverse-snobbery and allege it was inordinately superior to "Dallas" simply because it was about middle-class suburbanites and, purportedly, more "realistic" than "Dallas."  They conveniently ignore how "Knots Landing" stopped being about middle-class suburbia when it went upscale after Season 4, heartlessly dismissed original cast members such as Kenny & Ginger and Richard who didn't fit into this new upscale image, and also had its share of ridiculous melodramatic storylines.)  Had Miss Ellie turned out to be the Richards-prototype that Jacobs had envisioned, the audience would have dubbed "Dallas" a modern-day imitation of "The Big Valley" and immediately compared her to Barbara Stanwyck's Victoria Barkley character.  It would not have stood out as something unique and different as to inspire a new TV genre in the 1980s.

Miss Ellie reflects Camille Paglia's view that women who maintain a strong influence over their family are the ultimate leaders of the world.  She was one of the few characters whose words could single handedly put JR, Bobby and Jock in their place, and whose courage, humility, and integrity was boundless.  Her heart and ability to continue to love her children, even as she disapproved of their actions, made her instantly recognizable to all of us who have disappointed our own mothers at one point or another in our lives.  But she wasn't perfect.  She was occasionally blinded by her own hurt and rage.  There was the storyline where Miss Ellie opposed Jock and Ray Krebbs's (Steve Kanaly) involvement in the Takapa resort real estate project ostensibly on environmental grounds.  It later turned out that her opposition to Takapa was more rooted in her resentment of Jock welcoming ranch foreman Ray into the family, once it became apparent that Ray was his illegitimate son, at the expense of her own son Gary, who never wanted to move back to Southfork from his Knots Landing cul-de-sac due to his bad memories growing up there.  Her inability to forgive Jock, and accept the fact that Gary did not want to come home for reasons other than Ray's presence in the family, almost leads to the dissolution of their marriage.  She ultimately comes to the realization that, despite her deep love for her favorite son Gary, she was never an effective parent in addressing the demons that had haunted him from childhood on.  She must, once and for all, relinquish the hope that Gary will someday return to Southfork permanently.  One year later, after Jock has died, Miss Ellie ostracizes her best friend Donna Krebbs (Susan Howard), Ray's wife, after Donna uncovers unflattering facts about Jock while researching a book.  She shuns Donna and refuses to acknowledge the truth of Donna's discovery, all in effort to keep Jock's memory alive and deny that he had truly died in a plane crash in South America.  Just as Miss Ellie could be a formidable ally, she could also prove to be a devastating adversary when crossed. 

Nevertheless, the moments I remember most about Miss Ellie are the heartfelt moments where she openly expresses love and caring for her own children.  In the 1979 episode "Return Engagement," the segment that spins off into "Knots Landing," Miss Ellie offers to buy the re-marrying Gary and Val a new house in California so they can start their lives over again.  Both Gary and Val try to talk Miss Ellie out of such an extravagant gift, citing all the things she has done for them, including raising their daughter Lucy (Charlene Tilton) after JR had run Gary and Val off of Southfork 20 years earlier.  The humility of Miss Ellie's speech still awes me to this day--she acknowledges her own complicity in how Gary and Val were mistreated due to her silence and inaction at the time.  She rhetorically asks them "Do you think my giving you a house makes things right?  I don't.  So if you're going to refuse the gift, refuse it because the gift is too small.  Otherwise take it, please take it."  I also recall the lovely scene in 1988 when Cliff Barnes calls a truce to the Barnes/Ewing feud by finally acknowledging that Jock never cheated his daddy Digger out of his fortune.  It was appropriate that Miss Ellie, and not JR or Bobby, proved to be the peacemaker who brought an end to the family squabbling. 

Barbara Bel Geddes might seem an unlikely choice to play the genteel Miss Ellie.  Born in New York, the daughter of theatrical and industrial designer Norman Bel Geddes, she was a sophisticated, urban Yankee who was as far from being Southern as you can imagine.  And, yet, there has always been a truthful, direct earthiness to Bel Geddes that made her believable as a Texas rancher's daughter with a great love of the land.  Her deep voice gave her gravitas and presence as she faced off against Jock, JR and Bobby on the series.  In one episode, when Miss Ellie overhears Jock condescendingly describe what he considers a woman's "proper" place in society, she responds "You believe that the woman's place is two steps behind the man...except when walking through a minefield!"  Nobody could've delivered that line better.  Briefly, in the 1984-85 season, Bel Geddes took a sabbatical and was replaced by Donna Reed, who turned out to be woefully inadequate for the role.  Reed, with her frail voice, awkward vocal cadences, and extravagant wardrobe, stripped away the subtleties of what made Miss Ellie a compelling character and made her a conventional soap opera matriarch.  Reed attempted to turn Miss Ellie into the Ann Richards-prototype envisioned by the series's creator, and proved how that interpretation for the role was completely wrong for the series.  Thankfully, Bel Geddes returned to the series the following season, and not a moment too soon, as "Dallas" was then fully entrenched in the dreaded "dream season" and needed as much grounding and gravitas as it could get. 

In later seasons, Miss Ellie was married to the dignified and kind Clayton Farlow (Howard Keel), a man whose warmth, patience and understanding rivaled the enormity of Jock Ewing's ego.  We finally saw her in a marriage where she wasn't expected to live up to expectations of being either Miss Ellie Ewing or Miss Ellie Southworth (her maiden name), and could simply be "Ellie," as Clayton often referred to her.  Bel Geddes and Keel had great chemistry together, probably even more natural chemistry than she had with Jim Davis, and the two of them even had a fun storyline in the 1989-90 season, when Miss Ellie became a Jessica Fletcher-type sleuth and solved several mysteries with Clayton as her trusty companion.  This might have been during the waning years of the series, but I liked this storyline because it allowed us to see a different side of Miss Ellie.  After that, Bel Geddes decided to call it a day, retired from acting for good, and did not return for the final season of "Dallas."  The last time we see Miss Ellie, she is getting into a limousine for an extended cruise around the world and this allowed the character to go out on top.  After the years of turmoil Miss Ellie had endured, she had more than earned the vacation.

Nevertheless, Miss Ellie, the reluctant Ewing who originally married Jock during the Great Depression to save her family's ranch, ultimately proved that she understood what it meant to be an Ewing even better than Jock or her sons.  In the 1981 episode, "Waterloo at Southfork," Miss Ellie calls the entire oil cartel, including Cliff Barnes, to the carpet at Ewing Oil offices late at night after learning how they have charged an outrageous amount of interest on loans they have made to JR, who has hocked Ewing Oil assets as part of an effort to regain custody of his son John Ross.  She castigates them for taking advantage of JR's situation by betraying the friendship and trust that their family, especially Jock, has bestowed upon them through the years before announcing that she has intervened in the situation, and that Ewing Oil is now prepared to repay the loans with interest.  Before she does that, however, she issues a stern warning to the cartel that sums up the Ewings better than anybody else could: "We may be wrong, and we may be right, but we're Ewings and we stick together.  That makes us unbeatable!"