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Carla Seaquist

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Memo to Mr. Scorsese: Women Are Heroes, Too

Posted: 04/25/2013 12:27 pm

The filmmaker has a blind spot. Asked recently for his favorite heroic moments in film, director Martin Scorsese offered ten examples-- and not one involved heroic action taken by a woman. Not one. Heroes, according to the director, are cast only with males. Really?

But then, this blind spot is not new. The knock on Scorsese has always been that women characters in his films don't figure significantly or centrally, and certainly not heroically, to judge by Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull. In his film The Aviator, about the eccentric Howard Hughes, Katharine Hepburn pushed her way to the fore, but then, Kate was that way. For that matter, it's odd that Scorsese should be asked about heroes, when the male characters he created in the above films have gone a long way in establishing today's dominant character -- the anti-hero -- a man without redeeming qualities. (Yes, Travis "You-talkin'-to-me?" Bickle of Taxi Driver, I'm talking to you.)

Yet Scorsese is also famous for his omnivorous consumption and total recall of just about every film ever made, whether in Hollywood or abroad, so his oversight of women in the heroic mode is all the more striking.

Of course, everything depends on how you define heroism. Conventional definitions focus on physical action, combat, derring-do. All of us have been inculcated since childhood with the heroes of mythology and history; for Americans today, World War II and the Wild West serve as crucibles of heroism. Accordingly, Scorsese's picks tend toward war films and Westerns -- The Best Years of Our Lives, The Bridges of Toko-Ri, Saving Private Ryan, The Searchers, Rio Bravo. But, as these are realms where women have not figured historically, no wonder Scorsese scants women.

But why confine ourselves to convention and limit heroism to the physical? In the realm of the personal or the community or of work, taking action that requires conquering one's fear, the fear Emily Dickinson described as "zero at the bone," and doing battle with a formidable opponent, even if not a Nazi, qualifies as some kind of heroism, a moral heroism. Scorsese recognizes as much in citing Bicycle Thieves, in which a little boy sticks with his father in the father's desperate search to recover his sole means of employment, as well as his choice of Diary of a Country Priest, about a sickly priest tending a spiritually sick flock and losing his life in the process.

But enough critique. Scorsese's complete shut-out of women in the hero category inspires me to come up with a counter-list. My ten heroines, from the popular canon, achieve their objective by hewing to character, by verbal dexterity, and by using their heads. While not all the choices below are my favorite films, they are selected for that central performance. Also, while I am a feminist and could be expected to favor today's films for their broader spectrum of women's roles, I prefer films of an earlier era, when humanity was defined upward, toward classic heroism, and not downward as today into pathology, quirks, or as with the protagonist in Erin Brockovich, cleavage. Film is representation; as a woman I prefer to see myself represented with some class and dignity.

Anna Magnani in Open City
Having said war is not woman's natural realm, my first three choices are set in wartime, though the women are not combatants. The fiery Magnani, however, slugs a German soldier in her final scene, in this neo-realist study of Rome under Nazi occupation. Magnani plays the widow Pina, who is to marry a member of the underground. In helping him, she risks her own life, her small son's, and her unborn child. One of cinema's indelible moments is Magnani running toward the camera to her death. (Scorsese apparently forgot he once called this scene "the most precious in film history.") Equally memorable is the tragic heroism of the priest who abets the underground. In aligning with the underground, director Roberto Rossellini attacks his own government which with Japan was part of the Nazi axis. In this compromised context, Magnani's heroic ferocity is tonic.

Greer Garson in Mrs. Miniver
Garson plays grace under pressure, in this case the bombing of England by the Germans in World War II. Exhibiting the British stiff upper lip, especially needed in 1942 when victory was nowhere in sight, in their shelter with bombs exploding above, Garson as Kay Miniver knits, converses about everyday things with husband Walter Pidgeon, and calms her frightened children. Then, famously, when a German flier bails out and lands in her garden, she manages to relieve him of his revolver and call the police. Her husband, back from participating in the evacuation at Dunkirk, learns of her heroism only in an off-hand way. But all this aplomb costs her: In the sequel, The Miniver Story, which charts her forthcoming death, she attributes her illness to the fact that war requires superhuman strength to endure, strength she didn't have. Her heroism killed her.

Irene Dunne in The White Cliffs of Dover
Dunne plays a proud American Yankee who dedicates herself to England's cause, only to sacrifice everything dear to her -- her English husband to World War I and their son to World War II. Devastated by the loss of her husband, whose death occurred just as the armistice was signed, and initially unresponsive to her baby son, she ultimately takes herself in hand to cultivate in him his father's character. It's this character, movingly enacted by a young Roddy McDowell, who persuades his mother they should not flee to America when the winds of war stir again, but stay in England and serve. Dunne serves, too, as a nurse on the home front. In a final twist of history, it's she who attends her dying son (now older, played by Peter Lawford) after he's brought from the battlefield in France. All this death might be unbearable, but Dunne shows, heroically, how it is borne: with profound love.

Katharine Hepburn in Alice Adams
In this film Hepburn is not playing her usual pushing self, but the self-conscious daughter of a shiftless father, a failed inventor. Bright and socially ambitious, Alice feigns a savoir faire to compensate for her family's low status that's agonizing to watch, especially at a high-society dance where her wilted violets belie the panic behind her brave smile. Somehow Arthur Russell, a swell with a heart (Fred MacMurray), sees possibilities in her. As they see more of each other, Alice reveals the tragic sense of life she's gained as the object of town gossip (here), but she also keeps up the act, culminating in a dinner for Arthur, complete with hired maid, that fails horrendously. Conveniently for the story, just then her father's old employer comes by to accuse Adams of stealing his glue formula. Also conveniently, Arthur is out on the front porch where he overhears Alice heroically sticking up for her father, who she insists just wants to provide a better life for his family. It's heroism prosaic in scope and it thrills.

Bette Davis in Now, Voyager
Also prosaic in scope is the heroism of Davis's Charlotte Vale, unwanted daughter of a prominent Boston family. Desperate to escape her mocking household, Charlotte begins a journey of recovery, first with the aid of a psychiatrist (Claude Rains) and, in South America, a "clever doctor" who transforms her from ugly ducking to lovely swan. Still she feels "immune to happiness," until she meets Paul Henreid's Jerry, an architect who however has an unloving invalid wife he can't leave. What's heroic about the mature Charlotte, played by Davis so subtly, is that she doesn't use her new strength to punish her punishing mother or beguile men, but channels it in positive ways: She befriends Jerry's unhappy young daughter, in whom she sees her former self, and engineers a kind of happiness, apart but together, with Jerry --"Don't let's ask for the moon, we have the stars." The voyager comes not only full circle, recovering her self, but sails to a higher level: relating to other selves and the world.

Ingrid Bergman in Spellbound
In Casablanca, Bogart had to do the thinking for both he and Bergman. Here, Bergman does the job: thinking for herself and her new love, Gregory Peck, who's taken over as head of the psychiatric institute where she's a psychoanalyst but who's soon revealed to be an imposter, suffering from amnesia. Bergman must solve his amnesia problem and prove Peck didn't kill the new head, and do it all while they're on the lam, dodging the police in a world which Alfred Hitchcock can make so menacing. When she deduces who the real killer is, she confronts him, then, heroically, walks away from him to call the police while he's pointing the gun, the murder weapon, at her back. The psychiatric overlay of the film may be hokum, especially a dream sequence designed by Salvador Dali. But it's refreshing to see a woman take charge rather than take her place behind the man. And thinking was never so suspenseful. (Full film here.)

Teresa Wright in Shadow of a Doubt
Another Hitchcock thriller with a heroine in charge. Uncle Charlie, a murderer played by a chilling Joseph Cotten, has come to hide out with his unsuspecting sister, whose daughter, Little Charlie (Wright) has been named for him. At first Little Charlie is delighted to meet her dashing uncle, even smitten with him. When two detectives who are tailing him inform her that her uncle may be the "Merry Widow" killer who's all over the news, she resists. But, the shadow of a doubt planted (here and here), she soon concludes her uncle is the killer -- which of course makes her Uncle Charlie's next target. With no help from her feckless family, Wright must foil her own murder all the way to the end. Not a conventional Hollywood beauty, Wright seems nearer to us, an Everywoman whose heroic decency and intelligence compels. (Full film here.)

Deborah Kerr in The Night of the Iguana
In this film of the lurid Tennessee Williams play of an alcoholic priest with too many women on his back, including Ava Gardner, owner of the run-down Mexican hotel where the action is set, Deborah Kerr's spinster Hannah Jelkes stands out in high contrast. She and her grandfather, "the world's oldest living poet," scraping together the most fragile of existences -- they go among crowds offering his poems and her sketches -- have washed up at this hotel, completely broke. Soon the whiskey priest, played by an especially vituperative Richard Burton, zeroes in on the spinster and they do battle, he being particularly interested in her sexual history. But Hannah has the last word, a high note, when Grandfather finally completes his masterwork and she takes down every stirring word, after which he dies. Kerr makes the defense of art amidst a jeering gallery a heroic thing.

Lillian Gish in The Night of the Hunter
Lillian Gish vs. Robert Mitchum -- what inspired casting in this tale of good and evil, with the silent-film star pitted against the scariest of villains. Mitchum, a mad preacher, is in maniacal pursuit of his cellmate's cash, whose location the cellmate took to his execution. After marrying the cellmate's widow, then murdering her, Mitchum threatens the children John and Pearl, who run off, the cash stuffed in Pearl's doll. Fortunately, after a frightening odyssey, they fetch up at Miss Cooper's, a widow who takes in children, having lost the love of her own son: "I'm a strong tree with branches for many birds. I'm good for something in this old world, and don't I know it, too." When Mitchum shows up, Gish is ready -- with a rifle (here and here) -- a seeming confirmation that an armed good guy is the best counter to an armed bad guy. Especially after Newtown, as we grapple with how better to protect our children --"a plague time for little ones," as Miss Cooper put it -- Gish, a slip of a woman but a stalwart guardian, symbolizes Civilization holding out, heroically. (Full film here.)

Meryl Streep in Silkwood
When a worker goes up against the company, the odds against success multiply, given the company's greater resources, which makes the heroism of the whistle-blower special. Based on a true story about a worker in the nuclear industry, this film tracks Karen Silkwood's growing suspicion that the plant where she assembles plutonium fuel rods is cutting corners on safety. She becomes active in her union, lobbying for greater safeguards, even going to Washington. When the nightmare scenario happens, contaminating the workers including Silkwood, the company blames her. Desperate, Silkwood undertakes her own investigation and, in highly unauthorized file searches, finds proof the company has altered records. But on her way to meet a reporter to blow the whistle, she's forced off the road and killed in a one-car accident. Streep's performance underscores the whistle-blower's drive and isolation.

This concludes my list of ten. For good measure, I'll mention The Passionate Friends, an early David Lean film in which a woman (Ann Todd) forsakes true love with a biology professor (Trevor Howard) for a banker's wealth and status (Claude Rains again), yet never forgets the professor. When she and the professor are caught in a compromising situation and the banker files for divorce, and while turned out by the banker and living in a hotel, this once-cosseted woman tells a lie to the professor that enables him to go back to his wife and keep his marriage and university career intact. I cite this example in hopes of encouraging heroic sacrifice among the 1 percent.

Readers will have their own choices and criteria for film heroines. Roll tape.

Carla Seaquist is author of a book of commentary, "Manufacturing Hope: Post-9/11 Notes on Politics, Culture, Torture, and the American Character." Also a playwright, she is author of the recently-published volume, "Two Plays of Life and Death," which includes "Who Cares?: The Washington-Sarajevo Talks" and "Kate and Kafka," and is at work on a play titled "Prodigal."

 
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