I say estimable because I have long admired Ms. Steinem. I first became aware of her, not from her article about being an under-cover Playboy bunny, and my respect for her predates the publication of MS Magazine’s inaugural issue. It was her 1968 interview with Pat Nixon.
In 1968, newly transplanted from Denver Colorado to New York City, I became (and still am) a regular reader of New York magazine. Shortly before that year’s presidential election, the magazine published Ms. Steinem’s interview with the notoriously press-wary, Mrs. Nixon. After Mrs. Nixon responded to one of Steinem’s questions by saying that the woman she admired most was former first lady, Mamie Eisenhower, Steinem reports:
I wasn’t overjoyed with so many bland answers. Mrs. Eisenhower was the last straw.
I was in college during the Eisenhower years. I told her, and I didn’t think Mrs. Eisenhower had any special influence on youth. “You didn’t?” Long pause. “Well, I do,” she said finally. “Young people looked up to her because she was so brave all the time her husband was away at war.” Longer pause. We eyed each other warily as I searched around for some fresh subject.
Then the dam broke. Not out of control but low-voiced and resentful, like a long accusation, the words flowed out.
“I never had time to think about things like that—who I wanted to be, or who I admired, or to have ideas. I never had time to dream about being anyone else. I had to work. My parents died when I was a teenager, and I had to work my way through college. I drove people all the way cross-country so I could get to New York and take training as an X-ray technician so I could work my way through college. I worked in a bank while Dick was in the service. Oh, I could have sat for those months doing nothing like everybody else, but I worked in the bank and talked with people and learned about all their funny little customs. Now, I have friends in all the countries of the world. I haven’t just sat back and thought of myself or my ideas or what I wanted to do. Oh no, I’ve stayed interested in people. I’ve kept working. Right here in the plane I keep this case with me, and the minute I sit down, I write my thank you notes. Nobody gets by without a personal note. I don’t have time to worry about who I admire or who I identify with. I’ve never had it easy. I’m not like all you . . . all those people who had it easy.”
Mrs. Nixon’s comment, “I’m not like all you . . . all those people who had it easy,” made national news and made me a Steinem fan. I began to follow her writing and whether I disagreed with her or didn’t entirely get what she was getting at, I respect her intelligence and admired her wit. She is reliably provocative and challenging and never dreary.
So now, nearly fifty years after the Mrs. Nixon interview, Ms. Steinem is writing about “chick flicks.”
According to Ms. Steinem, “A chick flick is one that has more dialogue than car chases, more relationships than special effects, and whose suspense comes more from how people live than from how they get killed.”
Long before the term “chick flicks” was coined, there was a genre called “women’s pictures”; and I grew up on them. My mother and her sisters were avid moviegoers and I went with them every time I could. When I say “women’s pictures,” I’m not talking about the three-hanky melodramas with Bette Davis and Joan Crawford (both of them could be relied upon, more often than not, to chew up and swallow, not only the scenery, but their so-called leading men); I never cared much for them. I’m talking about the comedies with strong working class heroines like Jean Arthur, Rosalind Russell and Ginger Rogers (sans Fred Astaire) who went toe-to-toe with their equally strong male co-stars. I mean the films of Katharine Hepburn, Barbara Stanwyck, Loretta Young and Claudette Colbert who were equally adept with comedy and drama. And I mean the movies made during and after WWII that made stars of Ingrid Bergman, Dorothy Maguire, Lauren Bacall, Deborah Kerr, and Teresa Wright.
Among the things that made these actresses and their films so memorable is that they had worthy male co-stars like Cary Grant, James Stewart, Gary Cooper, Humphrey Bogart and John Wayne. In her article, Steinem takes an obligatory cheap shot at Wayne, but he held his own with the strongest leading ladies of the day. After the war, a new and more complex leading man appeared—Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, William Holden and Robert Mitchum. These were men not boys—more about that later.
What feminists like Ms. Steinem may not understand, but theatre historians do, is that the de rigueur marriages that end the Roman comedies of Plautus, the Elizabethan comedies of Shakespeare, of Italian Commedia dell’arte, of 17th century French comic genius Moliere, and of the English Restoration are not about the subjugation of women, but rather the triumph of youth and love over patriarchs, misanthropes, curmudgeons and fools.
In these plays marriage symbolizes the hope and promise of new life. It would be hard to imagine Hermia and Helena of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Portia of The Merchant of Venice, Rosalind of As You Like It, Beatrice of Much Ado about Nothing or Viola of Twelfth Night being in any way tamed or subjugated by their husbands. The tragedy at the heart of Romeo and Juliet was their defeat at the hands of two vengeful patriarchies.
This brings me to this cover of Life magazine. I own and treasure a copy of this issue. It holds a place of honor on an end table in my living room. Examine it carefully.
The issue is dated July 11, 1969, less than a year after Ms. Steinem’s interview with Pat Nixon. Her husband has been the president for a little less than six months. Robert F. Kennedy had been assassinated barely 13 months earlier; Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated two months before that. It would be six more years before the Vietnam War officially ended. The My Lai massacre had taken place a month before Dr. King’s death but would not become public knowledge until 3 months after the publication of this issue of Life. Less than a year had passed since the outburst of rioting at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. The opening day of the Trial of the Chicago Eight, indicted for inciting the riots, was still two months away. Astronaut Neil Armstrong would land on the moon barely a week after publication of this issue.
Now let’s look at the two figures on the cover: a miniature black and white silhouette of Dustin Hoffman assuming the stooped posture of Ratso Rizzo in Midnight Cowboy which had just premiered to excellent notices and would go on to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, the only X-rated film ever to do so; directly beneath Hoffman is a full color, larger-than-life drawing of John Wayne promoting his new film True Grit. Both Hoffman and Wayne got Oscar nominations for Best Actor and Wayne took home the statue. Hoffman would later win two Best Actor awards, the first for Kramer vs. Kramer and the second for Rain Man.
Finally, let’s look at the top right corner of the magazine cover: Dusty and the Duke, a Choice of Heroes. Hoffman had shot to stardom a year and a half before with the release of The Graduate in December of 1967; Midnight Cowboy was his follow up.
There is a dialogue sequence in The Graduate that became a cri de coeur of a younger generation splitting them off from and making them all but incomprehensible to their parents’ and grandparents’ generations, those who had lived through the Great Depression and World War II: “Plastics!” The word became code for the younger generation’s assessment of the world of their elders.
The characters played by John Wayne and his contemporaries, embodied the values and ideals of the Greatest Generation. They represented a heroic masculine ideal portrayed in the films of Frank Capra, John Ford, Howard Hawks and John Huston. They were what were called “men’s men.” The leading women in their films were the men’s equals (and sometimes their superior), as strong-willed, resourceful and courageous as the men. None of these women would have ever have been labeled a “damsel,” let alone, “a damsel in distress”. These women were full partners or nothing.
John Wayne’s image on the cover of Life magazine symbolized all that; the image also symbolized the country’s division over the Vietnam War.
And so, at the perfect moment, Dustin Hoffman appeared on the horizon, heralding a new generation of stars that would include Al Pacino, Robert de Niro, Richard Dreyfuss, Woody Allen, Elliot Gould, Donald Southerland, Jack Nicholson, George Segal and Warren Beatty—rebellious, neurotic, irresponsible, wounded, anarchic, mostly urban boy-men. And as such they perfectly captured the zeitgeist. Actors had morphed from the strong silent type who could rub two sticks together in the wilderness to self-doubting, self-analyzing non-stop talkers. (BTW: De Niro and Pacino in their most recent movies, Comedian and Danny Collins play, most entertainingly, septuagenarian boy-men.)
Simultaneously, a new generation of intense, passionate and uncompromising, female characters, deeply influenced by the feminist movement, was emerging, as was a new breed of actress to play them: Meryl Streep, Jane Fonda, Barbra Streisand, Diane Keaton, Susan Sarandon, Faye Dunaway, Jill Clayburgh, Mia Farrow, Julie Christie and Lee Remick, to name more than a few.
It wasn’t so much that “Men Are from Mars; Women are from Venus,” but that increasingly Men, as portrayed in the movies of the time, were from Neverland.
The hottest young directors of the era focused on adolescent fantasy (Spielberg and Lucas) or gangster movies (Coppola, de Palma, and Scorsese.) The worlds of their imagination were (and still are) largely womanless.
Now let’s fast forward to this year’s Oscar nominees and winners for Best Actor and Actress.
Oscar winner Casey Affleck plays, albeit brilliantly, yet another irreparably wounded boy-man. Denzel Washington plays a man so wounded, so angered and embittered by a racist society that refuses to see him as a man (“Boy” was not an uncommon way of addressing African American men in that era), that he cannot love or accept the love of his wife and son. Boy-man, Vigo Mortensen, can’t cope with society and for all intents and purposes lives in a tree where his absent wife talks to him, briefly, in his dreams. Ryan Gosling is the dreamer who may regret not growing up, but all the same doesn’t. Finally we have Andrew Garfield, the only character of the four who comes to the screen without bearing psychic wounds, the only one who isn’t fretting over or regretting his life choices. The boy at the beginning of the film has become a man by the end of it. And guess what? Had the story been made into a film right after WWII, it would no doubt have starred Henry Fonda, James Stewart or Gary Cooper. (Although Garfield gives a wonderful performance, I’m not a fan of Hacksaw Ridge. Director Mel Gibson has never come across a gaping wound or severed limb that he could resist pausing to photograph in an almost pornographic way.)
Now let’s look at the Oscar nominated women, but before we do, I have to say that, in my opinion, the two best performances by actresses this year were non-nominees Amy Adams in Arrival and Annette Bening in 20th Century Woman. Of the nominees, I would have cast a vote for Ruth Nyegga in Loving; her performance is a masterpiece of understatement as woman who refuses to be, or allow the man she loves to be, a victim. Emma Stone is fine in La La Land and, sooner or later, she would have inevitably won an Oscar. My disappointment is that the characters Stone usually plays are stronger and way too resourceful not to be able to figure out how to have love and a career (so 1970’s); Isabelle Huppert is an incredible actress, but the Elle is just a contemporary, much more graphic, Davis/Crawford revenge melodrama; admitted personal bias—I do not get and have never gotten Natalie Portman; Meryl Streep is, as expected, wonderful in Florence Foster Jenkins and the two men who support her eccentric life are loving and gallant.
Midway into her article, Steinem cleverly declares that the opposite of a “chick flick” is a “dick flick.” It’s very funny, very feminist; I smiled.
(After its publication on February 3, the Times discovered and announced that a substantial part of an essay by Ms. Steinem that appeared on the Women’s Media Center website in 2007 and was republished by other outlets.)
The problem, with the article, apart from Ms. Steinem’s urge, almost as irresistible to her as Mel Gibson’s urge to film blood, is to keep beating the same dead horse. It’s not that the points in her article are not well taken, but that anyone claiming to be a culturally literate woman or man already knows them.
And her article doesn’t address what is today the larger and more troubling issue: the scarcity of adult films about adult characters and adult actors who can play them; movies that not only entertain but mirror our lives and challenge and inspire us to be better people in these perilous times.
The best films of the 1930’s, 1940’s and even the 1950’s did that. They still do. *I’m at work on a filmography of those decades; they are archetypal treasure troves—most of them play with some regularity on TCM. I recommend them.
“No art passes our conscience in the way film does, and goes directly to our feelings, deep down into the dark rooms of our souls.” – Ingmar Bergman