Saturday, August 17, 2013

In a Lonely Place: Male Melodrama in Vincente Minnelli's 'Some Came Running'

The Hollywood melodrama reached its zenith in the 1950s: the same decade that enshrined the 20th century bourgeois values that continue to haunt us – upward mobility, materialism, repression, conformism, the nuclear family – also produced movies deeply critical of those values from auteurs like Nicholas Ray, Douglas Sirk, and Vincente Minnelli. After over a decade of blockbusters catering to fantasy fans it's safe to say that fantasy is no longer an underdog genre, and it should therefore cause no butthurt if I remark that it might be interesting for a movie to take a long hard look at contemporary life and values now and then. At least Hunger Games had the virtue of allegorically reflecting something about Occupy-era boomer-Millennial relations.

Any movie that's not a comedy is a melodrama in the broad sense, but there's also the melodrama, a genre characterized by over-the-top acting, lurid subjects, and a focus on family and/or marital relationships. The melodrama is usually associated with women because of that relationships-focus and all of the emotion and stuff, and until recently I thought that melodramas with male protagonists were largely covered by film noir (usually centred on a sexually and existentially anxious doomed protagonist) and movies about dangerously angry and alienated men (starting in the 50s with Nicholas Ray and continuing in very different ways in the films of Cassavetes, Scorsese, Coppola, and Anderson). Sometimes there was overlap between the types, as in Ray's In a Lonely Place or (arguably) Taxi Driver. Sometimes a melodrama that still fits comfortably within the realm of the “woman's picture” (focus on a single romantic plot) might have a male protagonist, like Sirk's There's Always Tomorrow or Dieterle's Love Letters. The woman's picture/noir hybrid, meanwhile, produced movies that anticipated 1950s melodrama in their critique of American bourgeois values and the nuclear family, like Michael Curtiz's Mildred Pierce (1945) and Max Ophuls's The Reckless Moment (1949).

But there was a time when bestselling novels written by men, featuring male protagonists, attempted to deal with problems of class and sex in American society. (Not only men, and not only male protagonists, but that's what I'm talking about here.) For better or worse, this kind of novel was shrugged aside by academics because it didn't fit with the narrative whereby the serious novel can never recover from Modernism: The Recognitions is an acceptable sprawling novel of American life, Peyton Place is not. I wrote about a movie based on one such bestseller, Kings Row (1942), in my last post, and now I've seen another, Vincente Minnelli's Some Came Running (1958). It seems like a novelty today to see a film that is neither a romance aimed at a female audience nor a romantic comedy, in which the whole concern of the male protagonist is to be loved by a woman rather than to bond with or prove himself among other men, and in which this is not an indication that the man is a stalker.

Thanks to feminism we have a heightened awareness of the cultural tropes that demonize female sexuality, and from Shakespeare to Thomas Hardy to Preston Sturges there have always been male authors interested in protesting against the sexual double standard. Some Came Running, however, shows how similar tropes can be used to demonize male sexuality. Frank Sinatra's Dave Hirsh, an Army veteran and unsuccessful novelist, returns to his hometown, where he meets Gwen, a creative writing and literary criticism teacher who's a fan of his work, through his semi-estranged older brother, who became a successful businessman through his wife's wealth. Dave falls in love with Gwen, who's conflicted about her feelings for him. Dave's a drinker and a gambler who sometimes takes up with “tramps,” and as such the educated, upper-middle-class Gwen feels that he's not good enough for her. More particularly, she's concerned that because he's been with “whores,” his desire for her means that he thinks she's a “whore” – and any desire she shows for him would confirm it. She rejects him out of affronted pride and jealousy, in the same way that, Freud speculated, “Dora” neurotically rejected her employer's advances even though she had feelings for him because she learned that he'd made the same advances to a lower-status woman a few days earlier. For the movies, this is pretty advanced sexual psychology, even if a female viewer may feel that there's a simpler explanation when a woman acts like Gwen, and it's called "she's just not that into you." 

In any case, Gwen's cuturally-conditioned conflict isn't presented especially sympathetically, and she would come across even more as a typical 50s movie melodrama portrait of a “frigid” woman (see also the “nymphomaniac,” as in Sirk's Written on the Wind) and neurotic female intellectual/career woman if it weren't that Hirsh jerks around and leads on Shirley MacLaine's Ginnie in much the same way. He can't love Ginnie, who loves him with even less pride than he loves Gwen, because she's a tramp and because she lacks education: Gwen can't understand his sexual life and Ginnie can't understand his intellectual life. In other words, Hirsh is as divided, conflicted, and neurotic as Gwen, a point driven home when we glimpse Gwen discussing the phenomenon of great male writers' debauched sex lives with her class. The movie is troubled by Hirsh's unconventional sex life – as pathologized as the sexuality of the “frigid” woman or “nymphomaniac” – and asks for understanding of it.

A couple of interrelated subplots flesh out this portrait of middlebrow American sexual hypocrisy. Dave's unhappily married brother seeks consolation in the arms of his much younger secretary; when his daughter discovers this she goes wild and takes off to a nearby big city with a man who's picked her up, where she runs into her uncle, who makes him scram and puts her on a bus back home with admonitions about not turning into a “tramp.” Later we learn that she's decided to break way from home in a healthier way, by getting a job with a publisher in New York. When we first met her she told her uncle that she admired the male freedom that allowed him to see all different sides of life, but if her desire to emulate Dave and its proto-feminist implications are explored in the novel, they're not in the movie. We only know that a middle-class young woman can't emulate male freedom without becoming categorized as a “tramp” – although we also know that Dave, to a lesser extent, is also considered damaged goods, although being the victim of such attitudes doesn't make him any less disposed to exhibit them towards women.

The movie cuts the Gordian knot of sexual hypocrisy using the melodrama trope of the good-hearted whore and her refreshing honesty. Throughout the 60s MacLaine just kept playing sexually aberrant women. What was it about the fey, offbeat personality and the androgynous haircut that screamed “prostitute” and “fallen woman”? It all started here, anyway, with her grating/endearing, abject and masochistic performance as Ginnie, which won her an Oscar. Having a gamine actress play a virgin/whore character is a familiar European gambit (see Bresson's Ladies of the Bois de Bologne and Fellini's Nights of Cabiria); the actress's ethereal quality makes the virgin archetype stand out in relief against the soiled and vulgar reality. Two years later MacLaine would play a similar role (for which she got an Oscar nomination) in Wilder's The Apartment, in which Jack Lemmon's junior businessman must face up to the fact that as a 99%er, he's a prostitute in relation to the big boys just as much as MacLaine's suicidal abandoned mistress is, and must choose between joining their ranks by exploiting women or choosing “feminine” values by rejecting power. Which come to think of it is also the theme of Some Like It Hot, in which Lemmon more literally embodied the feminine.

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