Monday, December 4, 2017

Good Movie Women, Bad Movie Women, and the Dirty Word That is Forgiveness

Dorothy McGuire and James Dunn as Katie and Johnny Nolan in “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn," 1945.
by Denis Ferrara

“I COULDN’T do no different.  I don’t know how I could.  Neely don’t like school.  If he left he’d never go back.  But you would.  You’d fight to.  Francie!  You should have piano lessons, I’ll try.  Who’ll cry for me when I die?  I never did a wrong thing in my life but it ain’t enough.  Oh, Sissy, I didn’t mean to be hard!  If Johnny was here he could go to your graduation and I could go to Neely’s.  But I can’t tear myself into two pieces, how can I do both?!” 

I hope my film fan readers recognize the above as a section of Dorothy McGuire’s  heartbreaking monologue — as she struggles with labor pains — in the great 1945 Elia Kazan-directed movie, “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” based on the equally famous Betty Smith novel.
JUST about the only thing I’ve liked about working from home, over the past year — after Liz Smith moved from East 38th Street to Park Avenue — is that Turner Classic Movies is always available to me. 

I caught “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” again last week. For the 20th or even 30th time.  I saw it first as a youngster, no older than eleven.  Even then it was Miss McGuire’s performance that held me.  My mother, who was herself a hard-working woman, expressed herself as thinking Maguire’s character unsympathetic. I was shocked.  I found James Dunn, who played her hard-drinking but beloved-by-all hubby unsympathetic! (He took Best Supporting Academy Award for his work as Johnny Dolan).  

I had no patience for Peggy Ann Garner’s moony, resentful  Francie, a performance that won the young actress a special juvenile Oscar.  Wasn’t it plain that Katie Nolan (McGuire) was working herself to death, scrubbing floors, taking on two jobs, because her husband couldn’t keep one? Did no one understand that her “hardness” was the only thing keeping her family from becoming indigent?  Well, Sissy, Katie’s sister (Joan Blondell) seemed to have some understanding, but she was too blonde, too carefree, to adequately grasp her sister’s desperation. (One of Blondell’s many great performances.)
Katie (McGuire) with her sister, Sissy (Joan Blondell).
Johnny (James Dunn) with 13-year-old Francie (Peggy Ann Garner).
So, as an eleven-year-old, watching Dorothy McGuire writhe in pain and regret her “hardness,” I wept.  Indeed, I sobbed uncontrollably. Last week I did it again.  I felt much better, after, and it served, as always, as an all-around emotional release.  This movie also began a lifelong admiration for the work of the luminous Miss McGuire, and the bawdy Blondell.
Now, before you say, “Oh, what a sensitive guy,” (Or, more likely, “Oh, what a wuss!”) there was another — admittedly perverse — side to my film tastes and appreciation.  At just about the same age — eleven — I also caught the vividly Technicolored “The Three Musketeers” with Lana Turner, Gene Kelly and June Allyson.  I was instantly enraptured by Miss Turner as the evil Milady de Winter.  So enraptured, that I became quite undone when Lana was cornered at the end, and led off to her beheading.  What?!   Oh, sure, she did it with high-bosomed, posture perfect style — nobody ever sashayed off to their execution like Lana.  But I was bereft. Why did Lana have to die, I asked my mother?  After all, she begged the three musketeers for her life, she even used the word “implore” and called them “gentlemen.” 

Well, Denis, my mother explained, she did, after all, murder June Allyson.
Lana Turner — too beautiful to die.
I don’t recall my exact response, but it was along the lines of “And that was bad, because ...?”

As far as I was concerned, Lana was just too beautiful to die. And I carried this over to other films, and indeed to some real life situations in the news. Beautiful women, I thought, should get a free pass. Before I knew the song, I was a proponent of Little Richard’s “The Girl Can’t Help It.”  As for beautiful men, I thought of them a lot, but I didn’t think they should get away with murder.

My mother worried a bit.   By the time I was fourteen and had committed to memory most of the dialogue from “All About Eve” she was worried a lot.  But by then, it was — happily — way too late.
ENDTHOUGHT: I am always astonished when I realize how many perfect people there are in the world.  So many, in fact, that how bad things ever happen is mankind’s greatest mystery!

I have been reminded about goodness and perfection over the past few months of reckoning and ruin in the matter of sexual harassment allegations.  It seems like a lot of people are going under, but really when you judge by social media, by the comments section after each and every story — from alleged rape to gross groping — you can plainly see it’s not much of a problem, actually.  Hundreds of thousands, maybe millions chime in hourly, rightfully disgusted, and calling for the utter displacement of these men.  So good are those who wrap themselves in righteousness, that if somebody mentions the word “forgiveness,” they too are cast into the outer darkness. 
Last week Kathie Lee Gifford expressed herself on the matter of her friend Matt Lauer.  She didn’t victim blame.  She didn’t make excuses for the inexcusable.  She simply said she still loved Matt and forgave him.  She didn’t demand that Lauer’s victims forgive, nor did she doubt them.  She spoke of healing, for the victims and for Lauer.  Gifford is a woman of strong religious convictions, and is coming from that place.  “No person is perfect in this world.  Nobody is.  We’ve all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”

We got to pray just to make it today!
Well ... Ms. Gifford, meet the internet! By the truckload perfect people chimed in.  They don’t know Kathie Lee, they don’t know Matt Lauer (or any of the other men who have been accused) and they sure don’t know the glory of the God.  They do know they want to settle in at the Colosseum and enjoy the spectacle. Bread and circuses, baby!

I am not religious by any means.  And although I don’t know a thing about Kathie Lee’s particular religiosity, it wouldn’t surprise me if certain aspects of my life don’t jibe with her views.  But as long as she doesn’t try to harm me, to stop me — and others — from living and loving as I do, I don’t care. (Perhaps she would simply pray for me. That’s fine.  Just don’t try to legislate my life, politically.)

But that a person can be hamstrung and mocked by others because they express a desire to forgive a friend, well — I hope none of them are ever in a position to need forgiveness.  Not that I think any of them will be.  The famous last line from “Some Like it Hot” is Joe E. Brown’s insouciant “Well, nobody’s perfect!”  But that’s not true.  Everybody’s perfect at their keyboard, on their iPad, through the power of their texting fingers, in their own head.
P.S. I realize I didn’t give you any “news” today. But as real news happens with such alarming speed, and is almost always bad, I felt starting the week with some movie nostalgia and opining, would be restful, perhaps. I saw a terrific show, “Bright Colors and Bold Patterns” which I’ll tell about on Wednesday, and for those of you who have been so interested in the star I interviewed years ago who didn’t think Lena Horne was a great singer, well — you’ll know that soon, too. 
Russ Rowland,
Contact Denis here.