From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies, by Molly Haskell.
This book gets its own entry, in first person, and its own set of personal digressions.
The digressions begin with Mrs G., my favorite high-school teacher. She taught Psychology, a class available only to seniors and full of jocks convinced it was an easy way to boost your GPA. In truth Mrs. G. was not a hard grader; nose-to-the-grindstone was not her style and not what she was after. The discussions and the mental workout were the point of her class.
The big spring feature of Psychology was a senior project. You had half a class to present it and were supposed to spend most of a six-week unit working on it. One conservative, deeply religious girl did prison reform, I remember--asking the class to reconsider whether a purely punitive attitude towards corrections was good for the prisoners or good for society, talking about the effects of putting a low-level offender in with hardened cons. She had started her research with a "lock 'em up" attitude. That was Mrs. G.'s class for you, turning expectations on their head.
The project was loosely defined, and I found out just how loose when I got permission for my class project, an in-depth feminist analysis of movies focused on Molly Haskell's From Reverence to Rape. Psychology, you ask? Maybe not. More just Mrs. G.
I had discovered this book in the town library, and I probably took it off the shelf because the title struck me as promisingly salacious. I was only 18. But what I got between those baby-pink covers (the wit of that choice only struck me later) was a brain-rearranging look at the movies I had spent my childhood and adolescence watching while other kids were developing, well, a social life. Here was a fiercely intellectual critic who not only liked all the movies that I liked, but liked them for the same reasons. As much as I had been devouring Kael in the New Yorker, I couldn't say the same for her.
Haskell saw what I saw in the women's pictures:
...There is a third category, one to which the better women's films aspire: It is the fiction of the 'ordinary woman who becomes extraordinary,' the woman who begins as a victim of discriminatory circumstances and rises, through pain, obsession, or defiance, to become mistress of her fate. Between the suds of soap opera we watch her scale the heights of Stendhalian romance. [Haskell had me running to the Reader's Encyclopedia a great deal, too. -C.] Her ascent is given stature and conviction not through a discreet contempt for the female sensibility, but through an all-out belief in it, through the faith, expressed in directorial sympathy and style, that the swirling river of a woman's emotions is as important as anything on earth.
She understood why I disliked violence against women in modern films, why I rolled my eyes over women characters in action movies:
With the substitution of violence and sexuality (a poor second) for romance, there was less need for exciting and interesting women: any bouncing nymphet whose curves looked good in catsup would do.
She knew why I loved Bette Davis...
As Rosa Moline [in Beyond the Forest], Davis creates her own norms, and is driven by motives not likely to appeal to the average audience. She is ready and eager to give up husband, position, security, children (most easily, children), even lover; for what? Not for anything so noble as 'independence' in terms of a job, profession, or higher calling, but to be rich and fancy in Chicago! And here is Davis, not beautiful, not sexy, not even young, convincing us that she is all these things--by the vividness of her own self-image, by the vision of herself she projects so fiercely that we have no choice but to accept it...She says it for all smart dames when David Brian tells her he no longer loves her, that he's found the 'pure' woman of his dreams. 'She's a book with none of the pages cut,' he says. 'Yeah,' Davis replies, 'and nothing on them!'
and Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday...
Russell does not become an imitation male; she remains true to the two sides--feminine and professional--of her nature, and as such promises to exert a healthy influence on the hard-boiled, all-male world of criminal reporting. It is as a newspaper reporter, rather than as wife and mother, that she discovers her true 'womanliness,' which is to say, simply, herself.
and Stage Door...
[Andrea] Leeds is the actress of phenomenal talent, Hepburn the brash and thoughtless upstart, but neither, contrary to the usual convention, is pictured as neurotic simply because of her determination. Nor do the life choices of the others--marriage, an affair, return home, den mother--appear as compromises but rather logical steps in each girl's evolution.
and Haskell also understood why I could look past certain aspects of the old movies and still love them.
The fact that I consider myself a film critic first and a feminist second means that I feel an obligation to the wholeness and complexity of film history. It means that art will always take precedence over sociology, the unique over the general.
Andrew Sarris is a very great critic, but my heart belongs to Molly.
So for half an hour I talked about this book, and the movies, in Mrs. G.'s class, and I can still remember the expressions on the faces of my fellow students when I began with a discussion of the virgin/whore dichotomy. I was loud, confident and well-prepared so I don't think they were bored. They just had no idea what the hell I was talking about. One football player (actually a nice guy) explained patiently to me that it was unreasonable to expect, for example, Indiana Jones to untie Karen Allen in Raiders of the Lost Ark because she was going to get hurt. I don't remember what he said when I responded that Allen had taken quite good care of herself to that point, and that in the old movies, women got hurt all the time--but in different ways.
Another football player (not such a nice guy) announced during discussion time, with a pointed look at me, that the only women espousing this kind of stuff were ugly ones who couldn't get a date. And my favorite part of the whole presentation was the look on his face when I held up the book to reveal the back-jacket photo of glowing, blonde, gorgeous Molly. Take that, Greg. Bet you're paunchy now. Haskell is still gorgeous.
Anyway, my stubborn decision to go with this subject matter goes some way toward explaining why I did not date in Alabama, but instead had to wait to land in New York, where some men looked at a fair-skinned feminist with a copy of the New Yorker under her arm and, when she brightly announced that Double Indemnity was at Theatre 80 St. Marks, said "Cool. What time?"
But Mrs. G. (who gave me an A, by the way) saw different things in me. The last day of school, just for fun, she went around the class giving predictions of where we would be in five years. She looked at me and said, to the sound of suppressed giggles, "C. will be in New York City living with a rock musician." And you know what? She was right.
Here's to Molly Haskell, Mrs. G., and all the other women, and men, who see things that others don't.