Been thinking about adding this for a while, but a couple of weeks passed without an opportunity to do so. In any event, I hope to turn this into a weekly feature; not sure if I’ll stick to a particular day (probably not) or wander around the week.
The idea is to pair two movies, each (in my opinion) very worth seeing on its own, and that you wouldn’t necessarily think make a good double-feature, but that I think have interesting things to say to one another.
On the surface, these two movies have nothing in common except an eastern Pennsylvania setting (and the Main Line has precious little in common with King of Prussia). One is a classic comedy from Hollywood’s golden age, the other is a modern dark drama. The sexual mores of the two times could not be more different, Katherine Hepburn’s character being scandalized at the notion that she might have strayed with Jimmy Stewart (though of course her feelings are actually a bit more complicated than that), while Michelle Williams comes to Ryan Gosling already pregnant by another man. “The Philadelphia Story” is shot in lush black-and-white, and filled with witty characters tossing off quotable lines; “Blue Valentine” uses color – harshly blue-tinted video alternating with butter-yellow film stock – as an important means of conveying mood in a story about two characters who can barely communicate. And, of course, one is about the upper reaches of the upper crust, while the other is about a very ordinary working-class couple.
But: for all their differences of class and character, both Ryan Gosling and Cary Grant have something essential in common. They are both playing relatively aimless men who drink too much and have too little ambition, and whose wives come to hold them in contempt, and finally leave them, because of that. “Blue Valentine” tells the story of how the boy won, and then lost, the girl, while “The Philadelphia Story” opens on the losing and, after a gap of time, tells the story of how he wins her back.
Both should also be tough films for feminists to like – and, for that very reason, are important films for them to grapple with. “The Philadelphia Story” is quite cruel to Katherine Hepburn – the various men in the story basically blame her for all of their failings, because she is too harsh and judgmental, and so far as I can tell the movie sides with the men. The worst exchange is with her father, who blames her for his recent affair:
Mr. Lord: What most wives fail to realize is that their husband’s philandering has nothing whatever to do with them.
Tracy: Oh? Then, what has it to do with?
Mr. Lord: A reluctance to grow old, I think. I suppose the best mainstay a man can have as he gets along in years is a daughter – the right kind of daughter.
Tracy: How sweet!
Mr. Lord: No, no. I’m talking seriously about something I’ve thought over thoroughly. I’ve had to. I think a devoted young girl gives a man the illusion that youth is still his.
Tracy: Very important, I suppose.
Mr. Lord: Oh, very, very. Because without her, he might be inclined to go out in search of his youth. And that’s just as important to him as it is to any woman. But with a girl of his own full of warmth for him, full of foolish, unquestioning, uncritical affection -
Tracy: None of which I’ve got -
Mr. Lord: None. You have a good mind, a pretty face, a disciplined body that does what you tell it to. You have everything it takes to make a lovely woman except the one essential – an understanding heart. And without that, you might just as well be made of bronze.
Tracy (deeply hurt): That’s an awful thing to say to anyone.
Mr. Lord: Yes, it is indeed.
I’m not sure, in the real world, that a daughter’s relationship with her father could survive such an exchange. I’m not sure it should. But while that makes Mr. Lord unconscionably cruel, it doesn’t make him wrong. But his are not insights that are at all congenial from a feminist perspective.
While from one perspective, “Blue Valentine” is clearly about class, and from another perspective (warning: click that link at your own risk; it is . . . not polite) it’s about the eternal and unpleasant verities of the battle of the sexes. Various reviewers have tried to make the Michelle Williams character into a heroine – she’s blossoming while her husband is stagnating, she’s got the strength to get out of a marriage that isn’t working, etc., etc. – but their efforts were never terribly convincing, because the bottom line is the Ryan Gosling character is a nice guy. He took her as she was, even though she was carrying another man’s child. Her loathing and contempt for him is just plain ugly – and entirely disproportionate to his misdemeanors, whatever they are. If there’s a truth here – and there is – it’s an ugly one for a woman to confront.
(Apropos of cruel fathers, it’s worth comparing the fathers of the Hepburn and Williams characters in the two movies. Their cruelties are of different kinds, but there is a common cruelty there – and I don’t think that’s unrelated to the intolerance of weakness both women display toward the men in their lives.)
But what about their men, Gosling and Grant? Here there’s an enormous asymmetry – in “Blue Valentine” we wind up sharing Williams’s feelings of contempt towards Gosling, and we feel dirty because of it, while in “The Philadelphia Story” we are firmly in Grant’s camp, even if we are a bit uncomfortable at the emotional wringer Hepburn is put through. But the Grant we see briefly in the opening scene is not the Grant we see for the rest of the movie. He has undergone a change – a change of character that begins, but doesn’t end, with the mastering of his “terrible thirst.” I wrote an extensive piece on “Blue Valentine” when I first saw it, most of which was a dissection of the Gosling character, showing the ways in which he is, while kind, basically immature, a boy-man looking to be mothered. I have a feeling that, when he married Tracy Lord, C. K. Dexter Haven, for all his class, had some similarities of character to Ryan Gosling’s Dean. Between losing her and winning her back, though, he did some growing up.
I that a class-bound achievement? I don’t think so. I don’t think emotional adulthood is a luxury good – not yet, anyway.
Which raises the question: what would it take for Ryan Gosling to become Cary Grant?